Anglo-Saxon Slang

The epic poem Beowulf is arguably one of the most important works of English Literature. Written in Old English by an unknown author, the original manuscript is approximately over 1.000 years old. The language of Beowulf is not comparable to any other text, and I began searching for reasons why the language appeared to be so different yet so beautiful and unique.In the earliest historical form of the English language, the so-called kennings can be found. My favourite example is the word “hronrad”. “Hron” is translated as “whale”, whereas “rad” means “road” or “path”. Now you combine the words, and get “hronrad”, which means “whale-road”. You might ask yourself: what the hell is a “whale-road”? Let’s think about it. The Anglo-Saxons back then did not assume that the sea belongs to them, but to the whales. Instead of calling the big blue watery thing between lands “the sea”, they called it the road of the whales. Another example is the word “banhus”, which can be translated to “bone-house” and is their way of referring to the human body.

beowulf-1
The original manuscript

Kennings are figurative expressions made out of two nouns, building one word, which makes them so special and poetic. They are small puzzles waiting to be solved. As I read about them, I made associations with modern-day neologisms and slang. Just as the Anglo-Saxons were looking for ways to express themselves, we are doing just the same. What about terms like “Trendetarian”, describing a person who cuts a certain food out of their diet because of a trend or “Brangelina”, which refers to (the now broken-up) couple Angelina Jolie and Bratt Pitt? Thanks to the Urban Dictionary, we have all the help we need to understand the word formations that happen every day. One might argue that modern-day neologisms are not as poetic as kennings, but who knows? Maybe in 1.000 years people will analyse the language of the 21st century and find it beautifully unique. Maybe it is the passage of time that makes language appear to be more poetic. In the end, it is up to you if you prefer “whale-road” over “Brangelina”.

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