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Regional voices: Non-standard grammar

How do you use the verb 'to be' when referring to the past? Listen to examples of speakers across England demonstrating local vernacular forms and explore the background to this grammatical diversity.

Standard versus non-standard

Verb tense formation is a good area for dialect study as there is a great deal of variation in usage across the country. A number of present-day English dialects have non-standard simple past tense forms such as come, done, knowed and seen or seed, where Standard English prefers came, did, knew and saw. Some dialects also have past participle constructions such as I've went, I've gave, I've ran and I've telled (often pronounced with a <t> sound as the final consonant), where Standard English requires I've gone, I've given, I've run and I've told. But the verb 'to be' shows the greatest variation.

Two verbs become one

Forms of our modern English verb 'to be' derive from two Old English sources – beon and wesan. Rather like most modern European languages, each had different forms according to person. Thus we had, for example, the first person singular alternatives eom (equivalent to modern English am) and beo, and the second person singular alternatives eart (equivalent to Early Modern English art, present-day English are) and beest. Beo and beest are no longer recognisable in Standard English, but we can still observe the links with modern German – ich bin ('I am') and du bist ('you are'). We used to hear dialect forms such as thou art in parts of the north of England and thee beest in parts of the West Country. Even contemporary dialects show how the different forms have been given different uses in different parts of the country – I be is still occasionally heard in the West Country and you am is often used in the Black Country. Our present-day simple past tense forms was and were derive from the verb wesan and the links to contemporary German ich war (I was) and ich bin gewesen (I've been) are pretty clear. Interestingly, we have taken our past participle, been, and indeed our infinitive, be, from the other root, beon.

North versus south

Most English verbs have a simple past tense that is unmarked for person, such as played, went, saw, did. The verb 'to be' on the other hand has two simple past forms in Standard English – I, he, she, it was and you, we, they were. Apart from the special case of you, the distinction is, therefore, between singular was and plural were. In some dialects in northern England and the Midlands, many speakers mark the past tense of to be by saying I were, you were, he, she and it were, we were and they were, whereas speakers of other dialects differentiate by using I was and he, she and it was. This is particularly true of large numbers of speakers in Yorkshire, but it extends into neighbouring areas, such as parts of Lancashire, Cumbria, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Elsewhere, particularly perhaps in the south of England, speakers mark the past tense of to be by saying I was, you was, he, she and it was, we was and they was. These non-standard patterns are in fact more regular and indeed mirror the model for every other verb in English – consider I played, you played, I went, you went and so on.

Click on a location on the map to hear how the past tense of TO BE varies across England in present-day British dialects.

Positive versus negative

To complicate matters, there is considerable evidence that some speakers in the northern 'were' areas reverse the Standard English pattern and thus form the past tense along the following lines: I were, you was, he, she and it were, we was and they was. Recent research also suggests that in many parts of the UK, speakers might occasionally differentiate between positive was and negative were, rather than on the grounds of singular versus plural. Thus an individual speaker might be heard saying I was sure, but I weren't sure. This rather complex picture shows how even in 21st century Britain, the mix and jumble of available forms of the verb 'to be' has yet to produce a stable pattern.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

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