"Do ye ken it?"
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."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.
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.
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.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:
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.
"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 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).
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 
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, 
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 
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)
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...