I was translating a text, but then the author quoted an old poem by an author named John Ball.

I have seen it written in two different forms:

  • "Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your frend from your foo"

  • "Be ware ere ye be woo; Know your friend from your foe."

Know, I think I would be right in saying that the second verse means "Know your friend from your foe", as in the second spelling, and that "be war" or "be ware" means "beware".

How would "or ye be wo"/"ere ye be woo" be written in modern English? I don't know if the fact that I'm not a native speaker makes it harder, but I can't quite understand what that's supposed to mean. Is woo "wooed"? "Beware when you're wooed"? or what?

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    Ere means before and wo is likely woe, so given the context,ere ye wo likely means before you come to sorrow. – Dan Bron Nov 16 '14 at 0:31
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    So the poem would be: "Beware before you come to sorrow; know your friend from your foe", as in "beware before you como to sorrow, know how to distinguish friend and foe"? Thank you. – BeGuestOrYeBeWo Nov 16 '14 at 0:47

This is "old" in the sense that it was transcribed before English spelling was totally standardized.

The two written versions on offer:

  • Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your frend from your foo

  • Be ware ere ye be woo; Know your friend from your foe

can be subsumed into a modern English translation as

  • Beware or you'll be woe; know your friend from your foe.

You'll be woe is no longer an idiom (though You be( )ware still is), but
it clearly means the same thing as Woe betide you -- i.e, "Bad luck; sorry about that."

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    I was about to comment that knoweth was probably a later hypercorrection, since the infinitive doesn't usually have -eth, but it appears the original spelling was actually “Be war or ye be wo; knoweth your freend fro your foo” back in 1381 when it was written. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 16 '14 at 2:33
  • If Middle English followed similar conjugation patterns to German, then the -eth ending in knoweth would be the regular second-person plural verb ending, as well as the third-person singular ending. Compare the final -t ending in modern German, cognate with and serving the same function as the ME -eth ending: er geht ("he goes"), Ihr geht ("y'all go"). – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 16 '14 at 6:56

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