While I’m not much of a poet, I do enjoy reading poetry. As I’ve studied it both as a student and as a teacher, I’ve noticed that some elements seem to cross cultures and remain important to our poetry today: rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, personification…

Some, however, don’t make the cut. Kennings are one of those things.

Kennings were common in Old English and Anglo-Saxon poetry. In fact, Beowulf is filled with them, which is the reason that my seventh graders are exposed to them. (No, that doesn’t mean that I have seventh graders reading Beowulf. They just have some brief exposure to real Old English and epic poetry through Beowulf since it ties into one of the books that we read.)

While they certainly are fun to play with, they aren’t the easiest concept to explain. Basically, they’re compound words used to make a metaphorical description of an object or person. For instance, a ship could be a “sea-rider.” While “ship” does the same job, using “sea-rider” instead draws more emphasis to the movement of the ship over the waves.

Though plenty of metaphorical language is still used now to convey the same sort of ideas, kennings certainly have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps with the release of JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, kennings might have a chance to make a resurgence. Or maybe they’ll just stay a great topic for when people reach K in the A-Z Challenge and don’t know what else to write.


6 responses to “Kennings

  • homedreamer07

    Fascinating, I’ve never heard of them before. You academic!;) What book related to Beowulf are you students reading?

    • SB (Bryna) Roberts

      The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. It takes place in Britain after the Romans abandoned it and while the Saxons are invading. Since we’re studying poetry around the same time, it seems natural to teach the sort of poetry that they had during that time (Beowulf). Besides, I love writing the first few lines in Old English on the board and watching them try to guess the language as they come in the room. : ) And I love giving them a nerdy, very brief introduction to the history of the English language. (That’s still one of my favorite classes from college.)

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    One example of a kenning (from “ken,” meaning “know” — right?) is from comic books, if I’m understanding the concept.

    Batman is sometimes called “The Dark Knight.” Well, that’s not his name — he’s Batman. But “Batman” doesn’t really tell you much about him — but “The Dark Knight” covers his chivalry, his defense of his city and its citizens, and the fact that he’s not coming from a place of sunshine and lollipops.

    • SB (Bryna) Roberts

      Wow, that’s basically a kenning. Who knew that DC Comics was keeping the tradition alive with Batman and Superman (the Man of Steel). : ) And thanks for pointing that out! I’ll definitely use that in class next year!

  • C.B. Wentworth

    Very cool – I’ve never heard of a Kenning. Thanks for the lesson! :-)

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