Kenning the Germanic origin of the word cunning

“I kenning through Astronomy Divine
The World’s bright Battlement, wherein I spy
A Golden Path my Pencil cannot line,
From that bright Throne unto my Threshold lie.” (Edward Taylor)

This is the beginning of the poem known as “Meditation 8” from the work of the colonial American and Puritan poet/pastor Edward Taylor (1642-1729). A full reading of the poem may be found here.

I was first introduced to this poem in an Early American Literature class I took in college on works spanning from the early 1600s to about 1800, mostly focusing on Puritan Literature of the time. This included such works as Mary Rowlandson’s account of her abduction by the Native Americans among others. Though I remember very little of our discussion on the poem above by Edward Taylor, I do remember one thing quite clearly. The professor teaching the class was rather fond of the archaic English in the poem and noted to the whole class that, having knowledge of German himself, the word “kenning” derived from the German word kennen, meaning “to know”.

When it comes to etymology, my favorite dictionary of all time is the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED).

Online Etymology Dictionary

It has an entry for a related word, “ken”, in English (on one of several meanings for that word), even though I didn’t know about this word until rather recently.

ken (v.) “to know,” Scottish dialect, from Old English cennan “make known, declare, acknowledge” (in late Old English also “to know”), originally “make to know,” causative of cunnan “to become acquainted with, to know” (see can (v.)). Cognate with German kennen, Danish kjende, Swedish känna. Related: Kenned; kenning.

The OED has an entry for ‘kenning’ which it links to as well. Merriam-Webster has this entry for “ken” in its noun form:

: the range of vision
: sightview <’tis double death to drown in ken of shore — Shakespeare>
: the range of perception, understanding, or knowledge <abstract words that are beyond the ken of young children — Lois M. Rettie>

The opening lines of the poem mean then that Taylor knows through divine knowledge (I imagine “astronomy” here means sky watching and looking for heavenly signs) of a golden path that lies between some threshold and the bright throne (of God). Fortunately I stored this little nugget of knowledge away in my memory for the origin of this English word “kenning”.
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Checking & Savings at the Word Bank: Der Wortschatz

When we first begin to learn a language we first know very little about the meaning of the words and syntax, much less how to complete a whole sentence intelligibly. We are first normally given short sentences between 1-5 words to learn, possibly single word greetings and salutations for starters. To gain any breadth to our vocabulary we then have to accrue knowledge of certain groups of words and make mental associations with and between word groups to start building up our arsenal of words. A conventional designation for these word groupings, or a name for one construct through which we can learn them, is what is called a “word bank”.

As I began learning German, which I have formally been studying under a tutor and native speaker for 8 months now, I frequently encountered one word as a heading above all the terms in each chapter: Wortschatz. I learned that this was a compound word consisting of Wort (word) + Schatz (treasure) which when combined makes a word with the sense of “word treasury”. I immediately found the analogy to finance interesting, which I had actually never paid much attention to in the English designation “word bank“. Bank? Treasure/Treasury?

So… it would seem from this metaphorical designation that the words we learn are a means of building up our personal “language wealth”, and they can be seen as treasure which we can store as if in a bank. Is this a useful way to look at it? Well, to further this analogy I wonder if we could additionally state that the proficiency that we gain with a language over time can be seen as the “interest received” on our investment and savings (so to speak). The longer you go at it and the more you add to it the more you get in return. If you don’t put much in, you won’t get much back. Simple banking concepts.

Here is a portion of one such Wortschatz that my German book uses:

der Brief – the letter
das Papier – paper; Papiere means documents, papers
der Lehnstuhl – easy chair, recliner
der Schreibtisch – desk
die Landkarte – map
das Bücherregal – bookcase

This word bank is associating different words with items that you may see in an office, or das Büro. These are indeed convenient tools to build our language wealth, especially if we can make mental associations of groups of words by category (like the items in an office).

As I went along with German I found myself needing a significant reference resource to provide me with lots of word banks like this and in logical groupings. There really should be resources which provide such study materials  for every language, and I hope there are. Luckily for those English speakers who are wanting to learn German there is one book in particular which I consider excellent for this task:

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