Compelling Kennings – The must use old tongue for Fiction, Role-Play Games and Insults!

Have you used any of these recently?

Fender-bender, book-worm, rug-rat, pencil-pusher…

You’re using kennings, albeit modern ones.

To some readers a kenning will be a familiar concept. Here in the UK we use them daily, although most of us won’t realise that we’re using them. They have a definite taste of the old world and find their use mostly in poetry for effect, or the sort of language your grandma might use.

What is a kenning?

Wiki defines them as:

“… compound expression in Old English and Old Norse poetry with a metaphorical meaning.”

Not too helpful, thanks Wiki! A better definition by Dictionary.com:

“A conventional phrase used for or in addition to the usual name of a person or thing, especially in Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse, as ‘a wave traveller’ for ‘a boat.’”

So, we’re using two or more words to describe something, usually a noun. It seems an odd thing to do, but when you think about it, before radio and visual recordings we only had books (which most people couldn’t read) or we had spoken stories. Kennings, as far as I can tell, are stylistic choices much like a film director uses special effects to grab our attention. Kennings make you think pretty.

If you’ve ever used the phrase ‘as the crow flies’ you are describing a distance measured only in a straight line – it could be a mile directly, or it could be several miles if you follow roads and pathways. See? It sounds better, no? Apparently, we use kennings daily.

The term Ken is still used in certain parts of the British Isles, mainly in the northern regions, such as Scotland where its term is used to describe an understanding or mental perception. It’s use in English is less common, but in archaic dialects it means to acknowledge or confess.

brown book page

The best source of kennings?

Beowulf is a prime example of a collection of expressive kennings. It can be quite hard to follow without context, meaning kennings need to be backed up with a story. Here we have feed the eagle, which in old Norse terms equates to kill you enemies – the understanding would be that birds of prey are not shy of feeding on carrion, those fallen in battle. The whale road simply meaning the sea is a nice mental picture that pops into our mind even though we know what the sea looks like. To the ancient Norse or Saxons, the relevance was much stronger on account of their reliance on sea travel and whaling.

What can we use them for?

I’m suggesting you have a look at kennings when you write. If you’re writing something unusual, or in a fantasy genre, kennings can add a bit of vocal flavour, form part of a riddle or puzzle. The same can apply to role-playing games.

Kennings arise from the poetry of the old world, dialects and stories from skalds (Norse story tellers) and become commonplace between people who are isolated from the rest of the world (a bit like Iceland or Greenland). It adds a lot of immersion if people in your setting or game session refer to simple things with their own words. This works for titles, places of taboo, legendary figures or important tools to a culture.

It also means you don’t have to create languages up!

Things I will be using Kennings for in the future:

  • Names of magical items
  • Titles and names of great beasts or creatures, like Dragons!
  • Fancy slurs for rough and ready fictional characters
  • ‘Old-tongue’ for archaic dialects (see what I did there?)

Here’s a few more examples of modern terms we use today, which you may not understand if you’re in a different dialect bubble to mine – you can see how kennings influence our daily lives still:

  • Hot-potato – when there’s something no one wants to go near or touch!
  • First-Lady – the president of the US’s wife or the president of the US if she was a lady?
  • Tramp-stamp – tattoo, usually on the lower back of a woman.
  • Granny-chaser – I won’t explain this one.

So, as you can tell, they are not always glorious or quaint metaphors, some being quite distasteful! But the use of kennings has not gone away in thousands of years. What started as an oral story telling tradition has thankfully found its way onto paper and into books and is now digital too. Kennings have survived where cultures and societies didn’t.

photo of sea near cave
Iceland – no wonder they needed creative kenning

It seems the Kennings are still a huge part of our language and will probably remain to be so until we stop language altogether.

Have a go yourself, see what you can come up with!

J.D Ferris, CC

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