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Summary Details

Query:   English Dialect Alternation: Was/Were
Author:  Mark Jones
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Language Documentation

Summary:   Regarding query http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-2728.html

Dear all,

I recently posted a query about variationist literature on 'was/were' usage in the non-rhotic accents of northern England. My concern was that forms taken to be 'were' could actually be 'was', as suggested to me by a number of points:

1) My own interpretation growing up bi-dialectally;
2) Vowel quality (open back rounded CLOTH vowel, cardinal vowel 13);
3) Written data from native speakers using 'wa' for 'were';
4) Negative forms lacking fricatives, e.g. 'wan't' for 'wasn't';

The possibility of intrusive [r] complicates matters, though even here a tag form like 'worrit' for 'was/were it' has the open back round cardinal 13 vowel.

I asked whether those familiar with the literature could tell me if the problem of interpretation had been thoroughly investigated. I had two responses only, which could suggest that the problem of interpretation has not been thoroughly investigated in the relevant literature. Any further insights, please let me know.

Neil Tipper, another former Sheffield resident, disagreed with my intuitive interpretation of dialect forms as being 'was' instead of 'were' (though my interpretation was supported by some spontaneous native speaker written forms). Neil pointed out that there may be considerable variation with accents south of Sheffield having more definite CLOTH vowel forms at the surface.

Kirk Hazen of West Virginia University referred me to similar patterns in North Carolina English which he has investigated instrumentally. The past tense forms were lacking in rhoticity (low F3), suggesting a 'was' interpretation. See Hazen, Kirk. The birth of a variant: Evidence for a tripartite negative past be paradigm. 1998. Language Variation and Change 10:221-244. Of course, Yorkshire varieties of English are by and large non-rhotic, so my original post referred to variation in vowel quality only.

Further to Neils' point, the Survey of English Dialects (SED) records many cardinal 13 CLOTH vowels in words from the midlands and north of England which have the NURSE long mid vowel in standard varieties, e.g. words like 'turnip'. Coincidentally this indicates that a lexically anomalous word like 'chonnocks' for 'turnips', recorded in the SED in Staffordshire, may actually be derived from 'turnips' by error or mini-sound change.

The occurrence of CLOTH vowels for standard NURSE forms complicates the origins of 'was/were' variation further, as the forms with the CLOTH vowel (which I take to be possibly 'wa(s)') could be 'were' form which have undergone this change.

In any event, it appears that the literature has not given sufficient attention to the problems of determining which form is in fact observed in these patterns of variation, and whether or not the variation is therefore phonological or morphosyntactic.

Thanks to Neil and Kirk for their help.

Mark J. Jones
Department of Linguistics
University of Cambridge

LL Issue: 15.3282
Date Posted: 22-Nov-2004
Original Query: Read original query


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