Wednesday, June 17, 2009

FT on Alan Sugar's 'you was' — more good language journalism!?!

The Financial Times yesterday ran a piece by Michael Skapinker called
You say 'you was' and I say 'you were'
It's about Alan Sugar, appointed to be "enterprise champion" by Gordon Brown, and known to many Americans I think as the host of the British version of "The Apprentice". Sugar apparently uttered this sentence on the show:
It seems you was a prophet …
Now this guy is not merely a Brit, but a guy called "Sir" and now "Lord". Skapinker lays out the long and glorious history of second person plural was around the world, and draws heavily on a paper that just appeared:
Jenny Cheshire and Sue Fox. "Was/were variation: A perspective from London." Language Variation and Change, 21:1-38.
Skapinker goes on to give the basic sociolinguistic story of the article:

"You was" appears, too, in the south-west of England, East Anglia and in Sir Alan's native east London. The academics' study of east London threw up interesting patterns.

They looked at an outer London suburb and an inner city district. The outer London suburb was 95 per cent white. The inner London area was 44 per cent white. Children at the local schools spoke 26 languages.

In the inner London area, most of the elderly residents said "you was". The elderly outer London speakers, many with roots in the inner city, said "you were". Among the young, it was the other way around. Adolescents in outer London were more likely to say "you was" than those in the inner city.

And here is the twist. The inner city youth most likely to opt for "you were" were young Bangladeshis. Why? The Queen Mary researchers thought it might be because many arrived at school unable to speak English. They also went to schools that were almost entirely Bangladeshi, where their Anglophone teachers taught them "you were" rather than "you was".

Good, you may think. At least this generation of immigrants' children is learning to speak correctly. But there is no single standard of correct grammar. "You were" would be as much of a howler in some (non-Bangladeshi) parts of east London as "you was" would be in this newspaper.

Kudos, Michael Skapinker.

H.T. to S.M.

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