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American Speech 76.1 (2001) 42-61
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COME/CAME Variation in English Dialects
University of York
One of the most familiar nonstandard features of English dialects is the alternation between come and came in past-reference contexts, as illustrated in the examples from (1) to (8) in York English (Tagliamonte 1998a). This feature is so common that Chambers (1995, 240-41) classifies it as "ubiquitous" and "mainstream."
1. a. Yeah, well when war COME out they pulled me in. b. When I CAME home that day, it was a different world. [male, age 91, educated to age 14; YRK/?]1 2. a. Anyway eventually she COME back and it all got sorted out. b. But he never did stay out one night, he always CAME home. [female, age 81, educated to age 16; YRK/b] 3. a. And I was coming along Skeldergate Bridge, and on the bike, and a car COME straight in front of me. b. When we first CAME into this house, this used be gardens. [female, age 72, educated to age 14; YRK/g] 4. a. Hercules COME over and drop a load. b. It was really a little tiny lad CAME in on the train at Strensall. [male, age 37, educated beyond 16; YRK≠) 5. a. Then when it COME to harvest time I was working nights ont'corn-drier. b. And when he CAME back, he saw hole in t'hedge. [male, age 59, educated to age 14; YRK/m] 6. a. And Laura COME in at five-pound odd and she was only really diddy. b. I CAME in on the Friday and they let me out. [female, age 38, educated to age 15; YRK/J] 7. a. She was like, taking the piss out of them, but she COME back. b. But she went last year and then left after a term and CAME back. [female, age 20, educated beyond 16; YRK/d] 8. a. And they were supposed to be there a day before they COME home. b. She's been at university like for three years and she CAME back and tossed it off for a year or two. [male, age 20, educated to 16; YRK/-]
The verb come is one of the most frequent verbs in the English language. As illustrated in figure 1, large scale quantitative studies of North [End Page 42] American dialects find that come consistently makes up 10-20% of the total number of all strong verbs used in past-reference contexts (Poplack and Tagliamonte forthcoming).
Moreover, come consistently exhibits extremely high levels of nonstandard usage compared to other verbs. This is illustrated in figure 2, where the proportion of past-reference come exceeds nonstandard usage of all other strong verbs combined in each of the communities. 2 Why is the verb come so much more nonstandard than other English verbs?
In this paper I systematically examine the behavior of come in a large and sociolinguistically stratified sample of spoken data from northern England. In so doing, I draw comparisons with other dialects of English that show similar variability as well as with earlier stages of the English language. The variety of English spoken in York exhibits the same nonstandard variability between come and came as that reported in North American dialects, across all age groups and even in the speech of the same individual in the same conversation, as illustrated in (1)-(8).
Corroborating earlier reports, this study demonstrates that the external factors of sex, education, and age are major contributors to this variability. However, the effect of education is statistically significant in the younger generations only, suggesting that the sociolinguistic conditioning on come/came variation is likely a product of the last century. Moreover, although [End Page 43] external factors are heavily implicated in this variation, older and younger speakers, as well as male and female speakers, can be shown to follow quite different grammatical patterns in their use of come and came. These patterns suggest that come/came variation has undergone a certain amount of change over the past 100 years. Interestingly...