Poetic Diction - Germanic Languages

Germanic Languages

Germanic languages developed their own form of poetic diction. In Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, poetry often involved exceptionally compressed metaphors called "kennings", such as whale-road for "the sea", or sword-weather for "battle". Also, poetry often contained riddles (e.g. the Gnomic Verses in Anglo-Saxon). Therefore, the order of words for poetry as well as the choice of words reflected a greater tendency to combine words to form metaphor.

In Iceland, Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda, a.k.a. the Younger Edda around 1200 A.D., partially to explain the older Edda and poetic diction. Half of the Prose Edda, the Skáldskaparmál ("language of poetry creation" or "creative language of poets"), is a manual of traditional Icelandic poetic diction, containing a list of kennings. The list is systematized so as to function as a practical thesaurus for the use of poets wishing to write in the genuine old manner, and structured as an FAQ. Snorri gives traditional examples and also opens the way for creating correct new kennings:

"How should man be periphrased? By his works, by that which he gives or receives or does; he may also be periphrased in terms of his property, those things which he possesses, and, if he be liberal, of his liberality; likewise in terms of the families from which he descended, as well as of those which have sprung from him. How is one to periphrase him in terms of these things? Thus, by calling him accomplisher or performer of his goings or his conduct, of his battles or sea-voyages or huntings or weapons or ships.... Woman should be periphrased with reference to all female garments, gold and jewels, ale or wine or any other drink, or to that which she dispenses or gives; likewise with reference to ale-vessels, and to all those things which it becomes her to perform or to give. It is correct to periphrase her thus: by calling her giver or user of that of which she partakes. But the words for 'giver' and 'user' are also names of trees; therefore woman is called in metaphorical speech by all feminine tree-names."2

In Britain the distinctively Germanic spirit of Anglo Saxon prosody placed particular emphasis on elaborate, decorative and controlled use of strongly ornate language, such as in consistent and sustained alliteration, as exemplified by the anonymous Pearl Poet of North-West England. In Scotland this spirit continued through to the renaissance so that in Middle Scots diction the 15th and 16th century Makars achieved a rich and varied blend of characteristically Germanic Anglic features with newer Latinate and aureate language and principles.

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