April 22, 2004

Kennings handled

If you want to read Eddaic and Skaldic poetry, and it's not obvious to you that "hunger-diminisher of din-seagulls of animal-gleam of Heiti" is a fancy way to say "warrior", you'll want to check out this Lexicon of Kennings and Similar Poetic Circumlocutions. For an example of a more complex and discursive analysis, see the essay "When is a fish a bridge? An investigation of Grímnismál 21" on the same site.

I learned about all this from an entry in Ray Girvan's Apothecary's Drawer weblog, which also includes references to several other traditions in which reference is mediated by complex allusions: Maori proverbs, and the Tamarian language of Darmok from Star Trek.

Perhaps the biggest single source of kennings in contemporary American culture is The Simpsons. Consider for example the post on Long Story Short Pier entitled "We are all Frank Grimes now". The meaning of the allusion to "Frank Grimes" is clarified for outsiders by a link to Simpsons episode 4F19.

One of the comments on the LSSP post states: "Release the robotic hounds that shoot bees from their mouths!". Unlike the main post, the comment provides no exegetical link, but we can begin to understand it by consulting this page entirely devoted to cataloguing animal-attack references from the Simpsons, which in turn brings us to Simpsons episode 1F16, in which we find this passage:

Homer: Bart, you're coming home.
Bart: I want to stay here with Mr. Burns.
Burns: I suggest you leave immediately.
Homer: Or what?  You'll release the dogs, or the bees, or the dogs with
       bees in their mouths and when they bark they shoot bees at you?
       Well, go ahead -- do your worst!
        [Burns slams the door and locks it]
        [disbelieving] He locked the door!  I'll show him -- [rings the
         doorbell and runs away]

I'm still not sure what it all means -- fish, bridge, dogs, bees, doorbell, whatever -- but Simpsons 1F16, like Grímnismál 21, clearly requires attentive navigation of a dense semiotic network.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 22, 2004 08:12 AM