What is Kenning?

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What is Kenning?
Kenning is a synonym or an alternative word group that is used to replace a single word. It usually involves a group of two hyphenated words that is used in a sentence instead of the basic one word noun or object. By using hyphenated words, more emphasis is given to the particular word.

The use of kennings in literature has strong roots in Old Norse poetry. Later on, kennings can also be found in Anglo-Saxon writings and Icelandic types of poetry. Kennings found in Old Norse writings usually involves a noun modifying another noun. The phrases involved in this type of writing are called genitive phrases. Most kennings have two parts namely the base-word and the determinant. The base-word is the actual word or noun being modified by another word or noun, which is the determinant. In a two-word compound, the determinant word may be placed either before or after the base-word. It may even be placed separate from the base word with some words in between called intervening words. Using the example “wave’s steed” or “sea-steed”, wave and sea are the determinants while steed represents the base word. Both ‘wave’s steed’ and “sea-steed” are kennings that mean “ship”.

In complex types of kennings, it may involve more than two words because either the base-word or the determinant is a kenning in itself. In the basic phrase “feeder of raven” for example, this may be alternatively written in kenning form using the phrase “feeder of war-gull”. Using this example a “war-gull” refers to a “raven” which also means “warrior”.

Although kennings may be used to put more emphasis on basic words, its overuse will only create confusion for the reader of a particular poem or any other reading material. Though the original intention was to stimulate the imagination by using kennings in phrases, confusion may set in first and readers may get distracted and not get the actual idea of the phrase or poem in general. This is why experienced writers limit the use of kenning on words that really need more emphasis to provide readers with a more understandable and satisfying piece of literature.

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