Episode 131: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most popular English poems of the Middle Ages. In this episode, we explore the language and story of the poem. We also examine how the poem reflects certain changes that were taking place within the English language in the late 1300s.

12 thoughts on “Episode 131: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  1. Great episode, and I sure wish my English professors had even one half of your storytelling skills.

    (This poem was part of the curriculum, but I will admit to having completely forgotten it.)

    • Thanks! I’m glad I was able to release this episode around the holidays since the poem was set at Christmastime. I will confess that the story is a bit more compelling when it’s reduced down to a few minutes. That allowed me to focus on the action – especially the parts at the beginning and end of the poem. I think the middle part of the poem (at the castle) is a little slow. It takes up about half of the poem, so I was able to summarize and skip through some of those passages.

  2. Hi Kevin. As always, I was very excited to see a new episode had been released, and I was certainly not disappointed. I did have a bone to nitpick however: There’s a lot of talk these days about pronouns, especially among the “layperson” in regards to gender expression, and subsequently a lot of misunderstanding about what a pronoun actually is. I’d like to point out that ‘thou’ (subject) and ‘thee’ (object) were once the singular equivalents of the plural forms ‘ye’ (subject) and ‘you’ (object) respectively. Words like ‘thy’ and ‘your’ are not pronouns, but rather, determiners, which are a special class of adjectives or noun modifiers, if you will. You can tell the difference because ‘thy’ and ‘your’ need to proceed a noun, while ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ do not necessarily have to. On a related note, ‘thine’ and ‘yours’ are indeed possessive pronouns because they stand on their own and replace the entire noun phrase in question. And on another related note, words like ‘mam’, ‘sir’, ‘your honor’, etc. are also not pronouns of course, but honorifics. I’m sure these are all points you know yourself, but I think it might be beneficial to impart the distinction onto your non-linguistically-inclined listeners. Especially nowadays that people are discussing this topic more and more. Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • Good points. Admittedly, I was a little loose with the terminology, but I tend to lean toward simplicity when describing those types of topics.

    • That’s probably the origin of the term when it’s used in animal behavior to describe competitive mating displays in animals, where the males gather in an arena, the lek, to show off to visiting females. It’s probably best known in birds such as grouse, although other animals such as insects and mammals also have lekking species.

      • Yes, the verb ‘to lek’ is definitely from the same root, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is specifically a 19th century loanword from Swedish. So English borrowed the word from the Scandinavian languages twice. The first time survives in the regional word ‘lake’ used in northern England, and the second time survives as the verb ‘to lek’ which you mentioned.

  3. Regarding the idea that the Green Knight didn’t recognise King Arthur as his superior because of his use of “thou”, etc. Arthur starts off with “thee” when he says “Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye”. This could be because supernatural beings were addressed informally e.g. “hallowed be thy name”. And maybe that’s why the knight uses the informal in return. It’s hard for us to know at this distance the subtleties of usage.

    Even in modern European languages, the usage is quite nuanced.

    Peripheral but interesting fact: in French “tu” (informal) was disappearing from usage before the Revolution. Its generalised use was mandated by the revolutionary government on the 10 Brumaire, Year II (1793). I believe because its usage was associated with the upper classes.

  4. Your podcast is utterly remarkable and brilliant and I totally love it but I am actually cringing as a Welsh person where you explain how the English pronounced a Welsh name (Gawain). I don’t understand why that’s more important than the fact that the Welsh (as usual) have got airbrushed out of our own history.

    Sorry because I think you’re amazing. Not sorry because try being Welsh and listening to that.

    • To be clear, what irritated me was that you talked about the old English pronunciation of a name that is Welsh and didn’t consider (a) how the Welsh pronounce it and (b) how rubbish the English are at pronouncing Welsh words and (c) how they deliberately mispronounce Welsh words to disrespect the Welsh.

    • In discussing the Middle English pronunciation of “Gawain,” I focused on the English pronunciation because the text in question was composed in English by an English poet presumably for an English audience. Also this is a podcast about the history of the English language, so I am mainly interested in how the name was pronounced in English. I realize that the name originated in Wales, but when English borrowed a name (or other word), it didn’t necessarily retain the original pronunciation. For example, English borrowed lots of French names like John, Henry, Richard and William, but obviously the English pronunciation was quite different from the French pronunciation. The pronunciations were probably closer in the Middle Ages, but I wouldn’t assume that they were the same.

      Also, I don’t have any resources that indicate the Welch pronunciation of the name in the 1300s. Heck, I don’t even have a definitive English resource on the issue, and I have LOTS of resources on the English language. If you happen to know how the name “Gawain” was pronounced in Welsh in the 1300s, please feel free to send it to me. I would be interested to know.

      Lastly, I have actually received feedback over the years from Welsh listeners about the pronunciation of “Gawain.” Based on the comments I have received, it is my understanding that the modern pronunciation is essentially the same as the modern pronunciation which I discussed in the episode. That’s why I didn’t make specific reference to the modern Welsh pronunciation. Obviously, I don’t speak Welsh, so I was basing that on the feedback from actual Welch speakers. But again, my focus is more on the pronunciation within English, and that may or may not reflect the pronunciation in the original source language.

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