On Kennings

July 4, 2012 Comments Off on On Kennings

I’ve recently been thinking of splitting infinitives on purpose in order to spite the establishment. It put me in mind of an annoying list an English teacher handed out once, with each item demonstrating the mistake or construction it was proscribing. (The famous example being, “It behooves us to avoid archaisms,” which still makes me mad, because (a) no, and (b) “behoove” is a perfectly good word.) Split infinitives aren’t actually on the list, but I was thinking about it anyway, and thought it might have said something like, “You should try to never split infinitives.” But that’s interesting, because it’s possible to create subtle differences in meaning with nothing more than deciding whether or not to split the infinitive. It’s because of the way I read. But I’ll get to that in a second. First we have to talk about kennings.

I took Old English for two semesters (the second semester consisting entirely of reading Beowulf), and I came to adore the language. It’s like if you took all the stuff that’s awesome about German and (the German side of) English and boiled it for hours with onions and bay leaves until you were left with a thick, incredibly rich and delicious version that takes up much less space but has ten times the flavor. Except obviously it’s the other way around: English started rich and delicious and became gradually diluted over time, notably with French. But that is neither here nor there. The important thing was that I became acquainted with kennings. This is the rather Germanic practice of making a word by melding two unrelated words, such as hron-rād (lit. “whale-road”) for sea or weorðmyndum (lit. “worth of mind”) for honor. It is unspeakably cool and adds immensely to the text.

Last summer I took an ASL class, which is also full of kennings, although usually much less poetic. There is only one sign for “don’t-know,” for example. And this is what made me finally realize that I read in kennings—because really, “don’t-know” is one concept…or at least it’s possible to see it that way. So when an infinitive is split, rather than considering it split, I consider it to be an entirely new infinitive. It might be the best thing about being a fast reader. When you gulp down the text instead of chewing it carefully, it tastes different.

For example, consider “I try to not be so annoying” vs. “I try not to be so annoying.” There is a difference so subtle I can’t even articulate it…or rather, I won’t. If I achieve precision in describing the difference I won’t be able to see it anymore. For a long time I assumed that this meant I was making up differences where there weren’t any, but I eventually reached the conclusion that it’s kind of Heisenbergian. There are some things in this world you can’t know everything about. So maybe the difference between me and someone who can’t see the difference between the above sentences is that one of us intuits the meaning and concentrates on the flavor, while the other concentrates on the meaning and trusts that he will absorb the flavor with it. Obviously I’m biased in favor of the former, but that’s because I’m more interested in the particle’s velocity than its position. It’s all in what you want to get out of it.

Yum, kennings. Yum, infinitives. Tasty tasty grammar.


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