TOWIE

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For anyone reading this who is not familiar with British TV, the heading is the acronym for the programme “The Only Way Is Essex”, a reality show featuring natives of that county. I have to admit that this is not a programme I have ever watched, but its title is relevant here.
Earlier this year I attended the giving of an academic paper on the subject of Essex speech, given by a PhD student who, I think, comes from Essex. I was rather taken aback to hear the speaker use ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’, and ‘was’ as the past tense of ‘be’ in all persons, singular and plural. Then this week, the subject of Desert Island Discson BBC Radio 4 was the crime novelist Martina Cole, who, although she comes of Irish parentage, was brought up in Essex. She too used ‘done’ as the past tense of ‘do’.
I am quite willing to believe that more English speakers, and more English dialects, use these forms than do the usual standard English ‘did’ for the past tense of ‘do’ and ‘were’ as the 2nd person and the 1st and 3rd persons plural of the past tense of ‘be’ (has anyone ever calculated the respective figures?), but, particularly in the case of the student giving an academic paper, I would have expected a bidialectal ability to suit the tone of the setting. I assume that Martina Cole has an editor who would change these forms, so we cannot know whether she writes in Essex dialect or standard English.
Maybe ‘the only way is Essex’, and within a few years these forms will be taught to learners of English as correct, and to forget what is given in older grammars.
And yes, I am aware that in the early 18th century, “you was” is to be found quite regularly in the writings of such literary luminaries as Daniel Defoe and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu indicating that at that time, this had to be considered part of standard English.

6 Comments

  1. I grew up across the Thames in Kent in the 1930s. I’m familiar with all these forms from my own youthful speech but had them bashed out of me before I got to reading papers to audiences. Our teachers told us we were bilingual (I believe diglossic is the term), they amused themselves by standing in the doorway listening to us switching in mid-sentence as we entered school.

  2. Sorry that I’m a bit late to comment. I have a few points.

    I often visited my grandma and uncle in West Horndon, just south of where TOWIE is filmed. I came across the forms that you mention regularly. In my native Yorkshire, it is “were” rather than “was” that gets overused compared to Standard English. In Essex (and, I think, also in Cockney), it is “was” that gets overused. I don’t think that the TOWIE forms will become standard: I’ve not heard of “you was” expanding into any of the “she were” areas.

    I would like to read this paper. I don’t think that there has ever been much research on south Essex (Brentwood, Basildon, Grays, Tilbury and the bits that London annexed in 1965). The SED covered North Essex very thoroughly (even discovering that Mersea Island was still rhotic!) but didn’t cover south Essex well enough.

  3. It’s never too late, Ed!

  4. I wonder if the author could have written such a good PhD without being a native speaker. Many of the famous studies of a dialect were done by natives:

    Wright with Windhill
    Knowles with Liverpool
    Shorrocks with Bolton
    Trudgill with Norwich

    Can you really understand a dialect properly from a few months of research, or does it need years?

  5. Ed –
    Many grammars of Standard English over the years have been written by Scandinavians and even the monumental Grammar of Contemporary English included the Swede Jan Svartvik among its authors (together with Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum and Geoffrey Leech), but there is probably something in what you say. However, for many years the standard work on Cockney phonology was that written by Eva Sivertsen, who was my Head of Department in Trondheim when I was a lecturer there in the 1970s. Members of the Department at University College who were around at the same time as her remembered her cycling off into the East End every morning to do her research, as if this was a foolhardy thing to do in the early 1950s. In fact it would have taken a very brave person to have attempted what we would now call inappropriate behaviour towards her!
    I don’t think the paper I heard on Essex speech has yet resulted in a finished dissertation/thesis, so I can’t comment on its worth, and obviously I’m not going to identify the speaker, meaning that we are unlikely to be able to test this idea.

  6. I see. I must read it when it comes out.

    Yes, Sivertsen’s work on Cockney did cross my mind. I’ve never read it. It gets referenced a lot but actual copies seem rare. After posting, I remembered Hans Tidholm’s book on Egton and Wolfgang Viereck’s work on Gateshead.

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