Figures of seeing

Beowulf.firstpageReading ancient literature is difficult not just because of archaic words, but also ambiguous figures of speech that attempted to help the reader see the image and not just hear the words. Translate an early English text, such as Beowulf into completely modern words and students would still stumble over kennings (old idioms), such as whale road, sail road and swan road. All of these descriptive phrases are used in place of the word sea, as is the Latin word mere. Huge whales and sailing ships travel the ocean, but I’ve never seen  swans there (I suppose they may be found in estuaries that border the sea). Writers realize it sounds boring to use the same word over and over again. Sometimes they are too eager to to use alternatives.

When I read in Beowulf of a person described as a breaker of rings, I could see somebody hacking gold rings apart. Could it be a thief preparing his latest heist to  be melted? Actually it is leader, a minor king or chieftain, who may have gotten his gold by trading openly, as opposed to the stealth of a thief. The leader is a giver of rings as well as a breaker of rings. I suppose a more successful chieftain could give his loyal followers entire rings rather than breaking them into parts in order to have enough to reward them all.

But can you imagine the difficulties that that someone from that period would have reading our common writing, even if it was translated into old English, (and it did not discuss any technology that didn’t exist at their time). Are our highways, freeways, and interstates any less confusing than whale roads, sail roads and swan roads? These are distinct types of roads that conjure up distinct images for us, but in reality they overlap. 

Recently I was reading an email from my daughter in response to one I sent about how to cut mats with multiple openings to display pictures of a recent art fair. I concluded by saying the pictures had to be the “same direction.” She responded by saying there was no mixing of portraits and landscapes. That threw me for a second because I knew some of the pictures were of people, and others of the trees in park in which the art fair took place. Then, I realized she was referring to the orientation of the pictures. Rectangular pictures have been aligned either horizontally or vertically for eons. But now we have a new kenning, a new way of describing orientation based on how it is described in the print options.

Figures of speech fill our conversation and our writing with words pertinent to our time and our location. It is hard to see those common phrases as not necessarily being ordinary. Seeing outside of our own existence is struggle. Learning to understand figures of speech from another time and place is one of the steps to really understanding diversity.

 

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