Episode 109: The Romantic Warriors

In the late 1200s, romantic literature started to be composed in English for the first time.  The oldest surviving English romance is a poem called King Horn. In this episode, we explore the poem and examine the linguistic developments revealed by the language of the poem. Then we take a look at the oldest surviving secular love song in the English language.  These developments took place during the early reign of Edward I, so we also examine the English king known as “Longshanks” and his beloved wife Eleanor.


33 thoughts on “Episode 109: The Romantic Warriors

  1. Great episode (as usual)!

    Kevin noted that English verbs do not have a future inflection. I think this is a fascinating point that I wanted to comment further on.

    While I have no clue what this looks like in Slavic languages or Greek or Hindi languages, Latinate languages (like English) also do not have, properly speaking, future inflections if you look closely.

    To be sure, they *are* endings and perhaps it is technically proper to call them inflections– this I do not know as I am not a linguist, but as I show below, they are not inflections as we tend to think of inflections, but rather compound words– a compound that goes back to Latin itself (because of this, my guess is that this is also true in Romanian, but others more knowledgeable than I can confirm or deny this).

    So, Romance languages take the infinitive of the main verb and follow it with the conjugated form of a verb meaning “to have” (the conjugated in the present tense).

    This is actually very easy to demonstrate (and even hear) in present-day Latin languages such as Spanish and French

    Using Spanish to exemplify this

    Haber – to have (now only used in the auxiliary sense, though comes from the main latin word for “to have” in the more common sense as well)
    Conjugations of haber:
    he (I have)
    has (you have)
    ha (he/she has)
    hemos (we have)
    habéis* (you have)
    has (they have)

    Future tense:
    infinitive + haber
    (note that the h- simply drops, though in the 2nd pl person hab- drops)
    Comeré – I will eat (literally: Eat I have)
    Comerás – you will eat (lit. Eat you have)
    Comerá – he/she will…
    Comeremos – we…
    Compréis- you pl….
    Comerán – they…

    In French the same thing plays out with their form of to have, “avoir”, as well as in Portuguese.

    This is not a correction of what Kevin said about other IE languages having a future inflection. Rather, I offer this because I think it is fascinating that at least two different IE language branches essentially treat the future very differently differently from the present and past tenses within their own languages, not with the mere phonemic inflections that seem otherwise arbitrary in meaning but using other, independent words (will/shall or habere) to express this concept of something happening in the future.

    And I am curious to know if this distinction is also so for the other IE families– ie how do they deal with the future tense… or do they even have one? (I believe other Germanic languages such as German don’t even bother with it?)

    Thanks for your great work, Kevin!


    • I’m learning Welsh which has an inflected future tense. Here is an example of how it works using the forms from South Wales. Bear in mind that Welsh is a VSO language so the verb proceeds the subject.

      Dysgu – to learn

      Dysga i – I’ll learn
      Dysgi di – you’ll learn
      Dysgiff e – he’ll learn
      Dysgiff hi – she’ll learn
      Dysgwn ni – we’ll learn
      Dysgwch chi – you’ll learn
      Dysgan nhw – they’ll learn

    • Josh,

      This is a very good point. And the meaning of habere + infinitive was also one of obligation in the Late Vulgar Latin, as in “I have to do [something],” hence “I shall do [something].” So it is similar to the shall + infinitive construction in English.

      Modern Greek is similar to the will + infinitive construction in English. Although Ancient Greek had an inflected future, the modern version uses the particle “tha”–which is a contraction of “thelo na” (“I want to,” i.e., “I will”)–plus the inflected verb in present tense (Modern Greek no longer has the infinitive forms).

    • Strictly speaking, French does have an inflected future tense (eg je donnerai = I shall give). We still learnt it in French lessons at school in the 60s and 70s, but it was dying out then, and I think now French speakers normally use the periphrastic construction.

      • Not all the time we don’t! It highly depends on when the future event is supposed to happen. We do say “Je vais le faire” (“I’m going to do it” i.e. straight away, in a moment) but “Je le ferai” (“I’ll do it” i.e. tomorrow, next week, one day…).

  2. I wonder if Leonard Cohen got some inspiration for “Bird on a wire” from the title of the song. Just a musing.

  3. Hi Kevin. Another brilliant episode! I was interested to hear you say that in British English “bird” was a Northern spelling while “brid” was Southern because now it’s the other way round: “bird” is used for the feathered variety in the South and for a girl, particularly in 1960s London, while “brid” is used in the North meaning both a flying reptile and a girl or often, affectionately, for a baby as in the Sam Laycock poem “Th’art reet welcome little bonny brid but tha shouldn’t ha’ coom just when tha did…”

    Can’t wait for Episode 110!

    • That’s interesting. I don’t know the specific history for the modern use of “brid” in the north, but northern English dialects tend to preserve the older form of many words. Since “brid” was once the more common form in Old English, I suspect that the older form has survived in the north (even though “bird” was also once common in the north).

      • There is another connection between ‘Bríd’ and women. Brigid is/was a Celtic goddess of the Earth and Growth. In Ireland, her feast-day is February 1 (Lá Fhéile Bríde). The modern names Bríd (in Ireland), Brigit and so on come from her.
        She is a goddess and a Christian saint very much associated with women and this connection cannot have been lost on the people in 1300.

  4. My post is (too) wordy above, but I have a quick question for anyone here who might know other IE languages that are not Germanic or Latin:

    Do they have a future tense and, if so, are they inflected or are they compounds like English and Latin Languages. In other words, how is it generally formed?

    • Many believe that there was no future tense in Proto-Indo-European, and that those languages that do have such inflection gained it independently, like Greek and Sanskrit.

  5. I am not sure that hen is used as an insult. It can be a pet name for a wife. I use it (and she doesn’t seem to mind), and I’ve a feeling that it is more common in the North (and Scotland?)

    • As a slang tern for a woman, I always think of the word “hen” in the expression “an old hen” meaning a difficult old woman, but I think you’re right that it is sometimes used in a broader sense than that. Maybe the different uses are somewhat regional.

      By the way, the Oxford English Dictionary contains the following definition for “hen” when used as a slang term for a woman: “fig. Of persons: (a) used for wife, woman, female (humorous or low colloq.); (b) a hen-hearted person of either sex.”

      • I was surprised that you make no reference to the Hen party. From our TV it seems common in England and we have similar customs Downunder. While the bride is celebrating with her female friends at the hen party the groom is usually celebrating with his mates at the stag do. Incidentally my grandmother was a Bridget and she named a daughter Maud Brid. If you meet an Irish woman called Brid do not forget to pronounce the missing g Likewise Brideen is pronounced with that implied g

        • I am familiar with “stag” and “stag party,” but I didn’t think about “hen party.” I am vaguely familiar with the term “hen party,” but I wonder if the expression is more common in the UK and Australia? Maybe it’s common in the US too, but just outside of my normal frame of reference. 😉

          • As an Australian, we would use the terms “hens’ party/night” and “stag night/do” for the last parties as unmarried people that brides and grooms have before they marry. My understanding from TV shows and discussions with USA natives is that the USA equivalents are, respectively, “bachelorette party” and “bachelor party”.

            Interestingly, I was out with my aunt and uncle (in their late 60s and 70s) a few weeks ago when my uncle affectionately referred to my aunt as “you old duck”. Later, at a different location at the event, a man stopped me to say that he’d overheard our conversation and remarked that he hadn’t heard the “old duck” term in years! I got the impression that he was cheered and amused to have heard it.

        • In Canada, a mixed pre wedding party is called a “stag and doe”, but a party with women only is sometimes called a “hen party”.

    • Hi, I knew that people from Newcastle call women hen in a friendly way. I came across it as I was working in a coffeehouse by a customer and I was shocked, but they explained it was just a pet name.

  6. Great stuff; keep it coming. I was slightly disappointed, though, that you didn’t mention the story about the Welsh, after having been conquered by Edward I, worrying that they would have an English prince imposed upon them, whereupon Edward told them they would get a ruler born in Wales who did not speak a single word of English… then produced his infant son, who had been born during the war in Wales.

    • I came across that story in my research and originally intended to use it. It is a good story about the perception of English in Wales. The problem is that it is just a legend. The story was first recorded two centuries later, and Edward’s son (the future Edward II) was indeed born in Wales, but he was not the heir at the time. His older brother Alfonso was the heir. The younger Edward wasn’t declared the heir until Alfonso died several years later, and he was actually designated as the heir in Lincoln – not Wales. Since it was apparently just a story made up a couple of centuries later, I decided to leave it out of the episode.

        • The child was named Alfonso because his mother Eleanor was from Spain. Had he not died before his father, England would have had a King Alfonso in the early 1300s.

        • Regarding “remarked that he hadn’t heard the “old duck” term in years!” I spent some time with my parents in the late 70s, East Midlands area of the UK.
          “Hey up, me duck!” was a common enough greeting.
          Don’t hear it much in Bonavista, though, since Newfoundland was basically settled by fishing/coastal Europeans.

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  8. In addition to using “going to” for future action, in parts of the US South they also say “fixing to”. Pronounced more like “fixin’ to”. I remember when I was younger a group of people from Chicago visited our office in Louisiana and they were all perplexed by the phrase.

  9. I grew up just two miles from one of the three surviving Eleanor Crosses, the one at Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire. It was a familiar sight when I was a kid, and it also meant that I’ve always known more about the story than I might have done.

    Incidentally, the final cross was Charing Cross in London, but that was pulled down during the Civil War period, and the current cross was a Victorian replacement. There’s a myth that the name derived from “chere reine” (dear queen”, but actually the area was referred to as Charing in the Domesday Book.

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