Semiotics and the Art of Kennings: From Saussure to Poststructuralism


Kennings, with their poetic and condensed metaphors, have long been recognized in literature and linguistics as a unique form of signification. But when analyzed through the lens of semiotics, particularly the theories postulated by Ferdinand de Saussure, they take on deeper layers of meaning. Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, offers a framework to understand the unique interplay of signifiers in kennings, leading us to broader poststructuralist discourses championed by figures like Jacques Derrida.

Semiotics and Cultural Significance:

In the cultural milieu, kennings can be seen as a precursor to many modern forms of artistic and symbolic representation. They are indicative of a society’s attempt to encapsulate vast landscapes of meaning within concise symbolic packages. This compression of meaning isn’t just linguistic but is a window into the collective consciousness of a culture. By analyzing kennings, we can glean insights into the values, fears, aspirations, and worldview of societies that employed them. Their metaphoric richness stands testament to the human need to understand and categorize the world, not just in simple terms but in layered, nuanced ways that resonate with shared experiences.

Kennings, as seen in phrases like “whale’s road” for “sea,” showcase a dance between signifiers to birth new conceptual meanings. Saussure’s differentiation between the “signifier” (word form) and the “signified” (conceptual content) provides a lens to deconstruct this. Each component of a kenning is a signifier, and their union challenges our traditional understanding of signification.

This layered, metaphorical usage in kennings echoes sentiments in poststructuralist thought. Derrida, for instance, challenged the rigid associations between signifiers and the signified, positing that meaning is not fixed but constantly “deferred.”

The Continuum from Kennings to Modern Poetry:

Drawing a line from ancient kennings to contemporary poetic expressions, one can see a shared DNA of symbolic representation. Modern poets, much like the skalds and poets of old, employ condensed metaphors, albeit in evolved forms. The brevity of kennings, their ability to convey multifaceted meanings in a few words, finds echoes in forms like haikus or even modern micro-poetry. Such brevity is more than an artistic choice; it’s a reflection of the human desire to find depth in succinctness, to encapsulate vast emotions or observations in bite-sized yet profound packages.

Book Recommendations:

  1. “Course in General Linguistics” by Ferdinand de Saussure – This foundational work in semiotics offers a comprehensive understanding of Saussure’s distinction between the signifier and signified.
  2. “Of Grammatology” by Jacques Derrida – A cornerstone of poststructuralist thought, this book delves into the nature of language, signification, and deconstruction.
  3. “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson – Though not directly about kennings, this work investigates the pervasive role of metaphor in thought and language, offering insights that complement our understanding of kennings.