The corresponding Modern English verb to ken survives only in northern British dialects including Scots, although a noun derivative exists in the standard language in the set expression beyond one’s ken “beyond the scope of one’s knowledge”. Old Norse kenna (Modern Icelandic kenna, Swedish känna, Danish kende, Norwegian Bokmål and Nynorsk kjenne) is cognate with Old English cennan, Old Frisian kenna, kanna, Old Saxon (ant)kennian (Middle Dutch and Dutch kennen), Old High German (ir-, in-, pi-) chennan (Middle High German and German kennen), Gothic kannjan < Proto-Germanic *kannjanan, originally causative of *kunnanan “to know (how to)”, whence Modern English can “am, is, are able” (from the same Proto-Indo European root as Modern English know).
Thus the base-words in these examples are fákr and marr “steed”, the determinants báru “wave’s” and gjálfr “sea”. The unstated noun the kenning refers to is called its referent, in this case: skip “ship”.
In Old Norse poetry, either component of a kenning (base-word or determinant or both) could consist of an ordinary noun or else a heiti “poetic synonym”. In the above examples, fákr and marr are distinctively poetic lexemes; the normal word for “horse” in Old Norse prose is hestr.
Frequently, where the determinant is itself a kenning, the base-word of the kenning that makes up the determinant is attached uninflected to the front of the base-word of the whole kenning to form a compound word: mög-fellandi mellu “son-slayer of giantess” = “slayer of sons of giantess” = “slayer of giants” = “the god Thor” (Steinunn Refsdóttir: Lausavísa 2).
If the figure comprises more than three elements, it is said to be rekit “extended”. Kennings of up to seven elements are recorded in skaldic verse. Snorri himself characterises six-element kennings as an acceptable license but cautions against more extreme constructions: Níunda er þat at reka til hinnar fimtu kenningar, er ór ættum er ef lengra er rekit; en þótt þat finnisk í fornskálda verka, þá látum vér þat nú ónýtt. “The ninth [license] is extending a kenning to the fifth determinant, but it is out of proportion if it is extended further. Even if it can be found in the works of ancient poets, we no longer tolerate it.”
Another factor aiding comprehension is that Old Norse kennings tend to be highly conventional. Most refer to the same small set of topics, and do so using a relatively small set of traditional metaphors. Thus a leader or important man will be characterised as generous, according to one common convention, and called an enemy of gold, attacker of treasure, destroyer of arm-rings, etc. and a friend of his people. Nevertheless there are many instances of ambiguity in the corpus, some of which may be intentional, and some evidence that, rather than merely accepting it from expediency, skalds actually favoured contorted word order for its own sake.
Snorri’s own usage, however, seems to fit the looser sense: “Snorri uses the term "kenning" to refer to a structural device, whereby a person of object is indicated by a periphrastic description containing two or more terms (which can be a noun with one or more dependent genitives or a compound noun or a combination of these two structures)” (Faulkes (1998 a), p. xxxiv). The term is certainly applied to non-metaphorical phrases in Skáldskaparmál: En sú kenning er áðr var ritat, at kalla Krist konung manna, þá kenning má eiga hverr konungr. “And that kenning which was written before, calling Christ the king of men, any king can have that kenning. Likewise in Háttatal: Þat er kenning at kalla fleinbrak orrostu [...] “It is a kenning to call battle ‘spear-crash’ [...]”.
Snorri’s expression kend heiti "qualified terms" appears to be synonymous with kenningar, although Brodeur applies this more specifically to those periphrastic epithets which don’t come under his strict definition of kenning.
Sverdlov approaches the question from a morphological standpoint. Noting that the modifying component in Germanic compound words can take the form of a genitive or a bare root, he points to behavioural similarities between genitive determinants and the modifying element in regular Old Norse compound words, such as the fact that neither can be modified by a free-standing (declined) adjective. According to this view, all kennings are formally compounds, notwithstanding widespread tmesis.
Snorri draws the line at mixed metaphor, which he terms nykrat “made monstrous” (Snorri Sturluson: Háttatal 6), and his nephew called the practice löstr “a fault” (Óláfr hvítaskáld: Third Grammatical Treatise 80). In spite of this, it seems that “many poets did not object to and some must have preferred baroque juxtapositions of unlike kennings and neutral or incongruous verbs in their verses” (Foote & Wilson (1970), p. 332). E.g. heyr jarl Kvasis dreyra “listen, earl, to Kvasir’s blood (=poetry)” (Einarr skálaglamm: Vellekla 1).
Sometimes there is a kind of redundancy whereby the referent of the whole kenning, or a kenning for it, is embedded: barmi dólg-svölu “brother of hostility-swallow” = “brother of raven” = “raven” (Oddr breiðfirðingr: Illugadrápa 1); blik-meiðendr bauga láðs “gleam-harmers of the land of rings” = “harmers of gleam of arm” = “harmers of ring” = “leaders, nobles, men of social standing (conceived of as generously destroying gold, i.e. giving it away freely)” (Anon.: Líknarbraut 42).
While some Old Norse kennings are relatively transparent, many depend on a knowledge of specific myths or legends. Thus the sky might be called naturalistically él-ker “squall-vat” (Markús Skeggjason: Eiríksdrápa 3) or described in mythical terms as Ymis haus “Ymir’s skull” (Arnórr jarlaskáld: Magnúsdrápa 19), referring to the idea that the sky was made out of the skull of the primeval giant Ymir. Still others name mythical entities according to certain conventions without reference to a specific story: rimmu Yggr “Odin of battle” = “warrior” (Arnórr jarlaskáld: Magnúsdrápa 5).
Poets in medieval Iceland even treated Christian themes using the traditional repertoire of kennings complete with allusions to heathen myths and aristocratic epithets for saints: Þrúðr falda “goddess of headdresses” = “Saint Catherine” (Kálfr Hallsson: Kátrínardrápa 4).
(Eyvindr skáldaspillir: Lausavísa 8).
"Ullr of war-leek! We carried the seed of Fýrisvellir on the mountains of hawks during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden the flour of Fróði's hapless slaves in the flesh of the mother of the enemy of the giantess."
This might be paraphrased: "O warrior, we carried gold on our arms during all of Hakon's life; now the enemy of the people has hidden gold in the earth."
ímun-laukr "war-leek" = "sword".
Ullr is the name of a god, Ullr. Ullr [...] ímunlauks "god of sword" = "warrior", perhaps addressing King Harald. This kenning follows a convention whereby the name of any god is combined with some male attribute (e.g. war or weaponry) to produce a kenning for "man".
HAUKA FJÖLL "mountains of hawks" are "arms", a reference to the sport of falconry. This follows a convention in which arms are called the land (or any sort of surface) of the hawk.
Fýrisvalla fræ "seed of Fýrisvellir" = "gold". This is an allusion to a legend retold in Skáldskaparmál and Hrólf Kraki's saga in which King Hrolf and his men scattered gold on the plains (vellir) of the river Fýri south of Gamla Uppsala to delay their pusuers.
Fróða fáglýjaðra þýja meldr "flour of Fróði's hapless slaves" alludes to the Grottasöng legend and is another kenning for "gold".
Old English kennings are all of the simple type, possessing just two elements, e.g. for “sea”: seġl-rād “sail-road” (Beowulf 1429 b), swan-rād “swan-road” (Beowulf 200 a), bæð-weġ “bath-way” (Andreas 513 a), hron-rād “whale-road” (Beowulf 10), hwæl-weġ “whale-way” (The Seafarer 63 a). Most Old English examples take the form of compound words in which the first element is uninflected: "heofon-candel" “sky-candle” = “the sun” (Exodus 115 b). Kennings consisting of a genitive phrase occur too, but rarely: heofones ġim “sky’s jewel” = “the sun” (The Phoenix 183).
Old English poets often place a series of synonyms in apposition, and these may include kennings (loosely or strictly defined) as well as the literal referent: Hrōðgar maþelode, helm Scyldinga [...] “Hrothgar, helm (=protector, lord) of the Scyldings, said [...]” (Beowulf 456).
ON OUTDOORS; SLOWED UP, BUT STILL SHOOTING; A stroke last winter has complicated the hunting life of Hutchinson's Dale Kenning, but the call of Saturday's pheasant opener was impossible to resist. "It's just fun to be out here," he said.(SPORTS)
Oct 14, 2009; Byline: DOUG SMITH; STAFF WRITER HUTCHINSON - Dale kenning ambled slowly in the lush prairie grass, cradling a 12-gauge...