Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Do ye ken it?"

"Do ye ken it?"
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a comment to my post on "Strange, overlapping loops," one of my regular readers, JK, noted the continued use of the word "ken" in the Arkansas Ozarks up until the time of my own childhood there:
In the hills the lexicon still contained a few words not much heard today. You'uns, we'uns. But one perhaps most revealing in this context was "ken."

My grandfather occasionally used it when he was giving me a life lesson. One of my most memorable times with him occurred when he took me fishing on Southfork [River]. I don't recall the exact lesson that day but I asked him just what ken meant.

"It's a bit like understand, but there's more to it" he said. He slapped his head and said "you know it here." He placed his hands on his chest and said, "you know and feel it here." He made an arm's wide gesture and said, "and you can use it to feel the world around you."

If memory serves, and perhaps your English commentor [Eshuneutics] might give a more accurate lesson, my memory seems to tell me that "ken" was of Scots origin.
Now, I have to own up to never hearing this word myself when I was a kid. It must have passed out of people's active vocabularies, but I've no doubt that the old folks would have known it. I wish that I could ask Grandma Shell (born 1877) or Grandpa Perryman (born 1895) -- or even better, my Grandma Hodges (born 1895) or 'Grandpa' Archie (born 1899), who lived on an isolated farm southwest of Viola, Arkansas at the end of 6 miles of dirt road and who still spoke like oldtimers. 'Grandpa' Archie was still living in the mid-1990s -- long enough for Sun-Ae to meet him -- and could have told me if I'd known to ask about the word "ken." But, of course, asking about this word never occurred to me because I didn't know that "ken" had lasted until my own Ozark childhood.

JK's anecdotal remembrance of his grandfather's explanation of what "ken" meant is striking for me because of what it suggests about people's nonacademic understanding of their own language. Let me get at my meaning this way. If I -- in my academic way -- wanted to know what "ken" meant, I'd check a dictionary. Let's try the online free dictionary as a first approximation:
noun: 1. Perception; understanding: complex issues well beyond our ken. 2. a. Range of vision. b. View; sight.

verb: kenned or kent (kĕnt), ken·ning, kens Scots

transitive verb: 1. To know (a person or thing). 2. To recognize.

intransitive verb: To have knowledge or an understanding.
We can immediately see that JK's grandfather's use of "ken" fits within this range of meaning. Two things, however, strike me as missing in the dictionary -- the old man's emphasis upon feeling as a way of knowing and his way of uniting the word's three uses rather than dividing them. Recall his own words:
"It's a bit like understand, but there's more to it" he said. He slapped his head and said "you know it here." He placed his hands on his chest and said, "you know and feel it here." He made an arm's wide gesture and said, "and you can use it to feel the world around you."
Rather than distinguish meanings, JK's grandfather joined them, emphasizing "there's more to it." I particularly like the way that he joined "ken" in its senses of know (mental), feel (emotional), and perceive (sensational) -- as though all three can operate simultaneously.

And that leads me to rethink my earlier reading of these lines in Milton's Paradise Lost, which describe Satan awakening in Hell after his expulsion from heaven and growing aware of his dismal circumstances:
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [50]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [55]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness'd huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [60]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [65]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd: (PL 1.50-69)
I focus here upon lines 59-60: "At once as far as Angels kenn he views / The dismal Situation waste and wilde." Alastair Fowler notes that "kenn" may have verbal force here (Fowler, ed., John Milton: Paradise Lost, 2nd edition (1998), page 63, note 59).

If I may extrapolate from the old man's explanation of "ken" in the early 1960s back to Milton's use of the word some 300 years earlier in his 1674 edition of Paradise Lost, then I should understand "kenn" to mean more than merely "range of vision" (a meaning that goes back to at least 1205 in its verbal sense, according to my OED, page 671). I should understand "kenn" to mean that Satan not only "sees" but also feels his situation in perceiving it and knowing it. Certainly the emotional force of his dismal situation would be powerfully perceived, known, and felt all at once.

Now, this may seem like a minor point, but it's an important matter for interpretation and translation. If I am working with a Middle English text such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and encounter the word "ken," then I will need to consider that the word may combine its meanings rather than distinguish them, for with such a text, I am forced to translate its archaic and even dialectical English into a more modern, mainstream form, so I need to understand what meaning needs to be preserved in doing that.

I'll have to give this point some more thought and perhaps seek out a few examples, especially since I'm scheduled to present a paper at a Medieval conference on translation this autumn...

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26 Comments:

At 9:14 AM, Blogger D.Daddio Al-Ozarka said...

I don't remember ever having heard this word used in the context you describe, Jeffery.

As for the photos at my place...I tend to post on things when inspired. I've had no motivation from media-sources...and there's always something exciting over the next hill.

You know?

Your post was very interesting. Thanks for the holler!

 
At 9:43 AM, Anonymous kapok said...

I recall a it more about that days events. I've been thinking.

It had something to do with some sign he was trying to point to me that apparently some animal (deer?)
made near a small grove of chinqapin trees. He was telling me that the animal (for some reason I keep coming back to a big cat- but that seems odd, I only recall one confirmed sighting of a cougar down on Ed Wolf's farm) had moved it's young through the area, and made multiple trips.

Grandfather said, asked I guess would be the more appropriate, "do ye ken it". The "ye" wasn't like they pronounced it in church, more like a kinda odd "ya."

It's been too long ago and I have many regrets that I failed to recognize how valuable that old man, and now I know any older person was.

Hubert Jackson built an old swinging bridge across Southfork River that you likely recall seeing(it was just down from the low water bridge). When I heard him tell of this, I asked him to show me how.

I now know a yound kid has to pull a rope in his teeth while swimming to get the process started. Then its web wire and more rope. Lastly wooden slats. The wooden slats were the most "interesting" part.

I didn't hear the word in Salem except when Grandfather and I were fishing that day while he was staying at our home. I heard it a time or two at his funeral down at Staggs Cemetary, in Izard County.

But the word faded quickly from my ear except for one more time when I was travelling with a group of mainly WWII vets two years back. We ride a bus to the VA in Little Rock. I think the guy who used it was picked up near Marshall. I did strike up a conversation with him telling him some of Grandfather.

But neither of us had our hearing aids that day and he mainly spoke of moonshine.

JK

 
At 9:56 AM, Anonymous kapok said...

Now I see why it takes two passes at the word verification thingy. It gives you a chance to correct your spelling. Duh.

JK

 
At 12:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome Daddio. If you happen to run into any really old oldtimers, maybe you could ask them about the word "ken."

I'm glad that you put those Ozark photos up on your blog, especially since Izard County is the source of much of my maternal family.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, thanks for the added details about your grandfather.

I recall the swinging bridge very well, but I remember it being up from that low-water bridge. Anyway, I used to climb up onto that bridge and make it swing even more -- probably a damned foolish thing to have been doing, but I survived (though I'd still yell at my kids for doing it).

Speaking of the "ye" used in church, were the oldtimers at your church able to pray in King James English? Those at mine could. They'd fall automatically into its dialect -- and get it grammatically right (more so that their Modern English)!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:07 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I was under the impression that the modern usage of this word was derived from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

OED has nothing on this as far as I saw

 
At 2:28 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

The first time I remember reading the word "ken" was in Kidnapped, but I read that a looong time ago, and I'm not remembering if the word was used as a verb, as a noun ("beyond my ken") or both. Anyway, I've always thought the word was of Scots origin for that reason.

The combined meanings of ken, as JK's grandfather defined it, remind me a bit of the way the characters in "The Wire" seem to use the phrase "Ya *feel* me?" or "Feel me?"

 
At 2:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Joel, I also thought of "grok" -- as in "to grok something" -- but the meaning of "ken" looks independent to me.

And I'll bet that JK's grandfather had never even heard of Heinlein. In the Ozarks, we'd never even heard of C.S. Lewis!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, I've never seen The Wire (so I suppose that it's beyond my ken), but I'd heard on the grapevine that it's pretty good, so I looked at a couple of videos on You Tube. It does look good ... if brutal.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:24 PM, Anonymous kapok said...

Yes it actually was "up". When I'd see it mostly I was on the way to you know where. And because I'd see it on my way as in "looky down there" I mistyped.

Now you've explained something I'd always considered strange! I'm glad someone pointed your site to me. And the way they sang in that church, I guess I have to ask my Mom some things now.

Actually Heinlein books held me in quite a grip for some time though since its been so long I cannot recall "ken" being used in it. But I can still (in my minds eye) picture what I pictured then when I read "Orphans of the Sky." Thanks Joel, I'll re-read Stranger.

JK

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, glad that I was of some help.

And I meant to type "more so than their Modern English."

By the way, if I recall, Daddio al-Ozarka is from around Melbourne, Arkansas. Maybe you'd like to visit his websites.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:04 AM, Anonymous kapok said...

If I can find them. Right now I'm about to embark on a search thru your archives (see related "e"). Mom told me this morning that none of the sisters were provided a clueing in to "ken" but her brothers were. I don't know that this means anything, her Mom used it once when she and Grandfather had "an issue" once when I was present.

I only went to my Grandparents church 3 maybe 4 times. Mom said that she always just accepted the language and was surprised when she first attended Dad's that "real Bible talk" was in brief, not used. But there's health problems at home and Mom is preoccupied.

JK

 
At 5:36 AM, Anonymous kapok said...

Found "Luke". Will properly cite.

JK

 
At 6:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, you can find some of Daddio al-Ozarka's sites -- photo sites of Ozark stuff, mainly -- by clicking on his photo.

But for his political views, you'd need to Google "Daddio al-Ozarka," which will lead you to his "Dark Side" -- as he calls it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:02 AM, Blogger D.C. Innes said...

Perhaps this helps. In Scotland, or at least in Aberdeen if my Aberdonian grandfather was any indication which he certainly was, the verb "to ken" means simply "to know," as in "Di ye nae ken thon laddie?," or "I dinna ken fit ye mean?" Since learning German 30 years ago, I have assumed it to come from the German verb kennen, "to know." Of course, people from the Ozarks came from Scotland.

 
At 6:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

D.C. Innes, thanks again.

I knew that I would need to look into the Scottish connection, given that the Ozark culture was Scotch-Irish, but I suspect that there's more going on here, for from JK's own telling, the word "ken" as used by his grandfather had a meaning broader than simply "to know."

It is related to the German "kennen," of course (as you note), by virtue of English's Germanic roots, and like that German word, the English "ken" has nuances of meaning that include knowing in a more familiar, even emotional manner.

By the way, I've noted but not yet had time to follow up one dictionary's information that the noun "ken" in the sense of "range of vision" comes from "kenning" -- which I take is not the Old English poetic device of joining two nouns to state something without repeating the same terms over and over.

Anyway, there's always something to go off in quest of...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just watched a critical scene in "The Passenger" over and over and I have finally determined that the individual (an African) says in it: "Ken you Robertson? Ken you Daisy?" At first I thought that he was speaking a different language.

 
At 10:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, that's interesting. I wonder what dialect of English it was intended to be.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ACtually if the movie you saw was depicting a SOUTH african then they probably were speaking another language. Its called Afrikaans and is a bastardized derivative of Dutch.

The dutch word "ken" means also the same as its used in english but is often used in reference to people or places.

"Ken je George?" do you know george?

"ken je die kleine kroeg op de hoek?" Do you know that small pub on the corner?

It wouldnt surprise me if the word actually comes to the english language by way of german -> dutch -> dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (new york) as dutch is also quite similar in many cases to german. A sort of simplified german in my opinion.

 
At 8:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for visiting. You may be correct about the use of "ken" in The Passenger, but its use in English is indigenous, for it goes all the way back to Old English.

Of course, this means that you're also right in suggesting that the word comes from German, for Old English was a Germanic dialect.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my family is Scoth Irish origin, and "ye ken" was always said instead of "do you understand". I remember my great grandfather saying it, grandfather and father until I got mad at him for talking weird. We agreed to replace it with "ya dig" so it would not make me angry. I was a bad tempered redheaded girl. I am not an old oldtimer either, I am 31 years old. I live in the Appalachian Mountains.

 
At 5:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, you're twenty years younger than I am, and I'm tickled to hear from you. It fascinates me that you've heard this expression even though I haven't. The closest that I've heard is "If I'd knowed ye was goin' to do that . . ."

Thanks for visiting and adding your experience.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I've seen "ye ken" often in Scottish literature. Used in lieu of "you know" or "you understand?"...I don't recall an old German equivalent, but I do know that the French use the word "connais" (understand/know). Perhaps that is the origin?

Angela

 
At 10:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Angela, thanks for visiting. The word "ken" is certainly also of Scottish usage -- as you note -- and since the Ozarks are largely Scotch-Irish in culture, then that's the most likely origin.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Jim Coleman said...

As to the Germanic relation - kenne (to know) pretty close, is it not? Some of the only German I remember ("ich kenne dich nicht") "I do not know". Also, Stephen King used it as part of the country dialect of some characters in the Dark Tower Series. "Do ya ken?"

 
At 2:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, the English and German are very close, from the same root.

I've not read much of King's work, so thanks for that.

Jeffery Hodges

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