Skip to main content Accessibility help

Reversing the trajectory of language change: Subject–verb agreement with be in New Zealand English

  • Jennifer Hay (a1) and Daniel Schreier (a2)


This article examines the historical evolution of subject–verb concord in New Zealand English. We investigate the usage of the singular form of be with plural NP subjects (existentials and nonexistentials) over the past 150 years. The results demonstrate that the New Zealand English subject–verb concord system has undergone considerable reorganization during this time. Singular concord in nonexistentials occurred in early New Zealand English, but is now largely absent. In existentials, it steadily declined during the late 19th century, and then reversed this trajectory to become a well established feature of modern New Zealand English. Singular concord in New Zealand English existentials is now conditioned by a range of social and linguistic factors, and largely resembles other varieties in this respect.We are indebted to the ONZE team, particularly Elizabeth Gordon, Margaret Maclagan, and everyone involved in the collection and transcription of the corpora over the years. Thanks also to the students of Ling 203 2002 for their preliminary analysis of the data and lively discussion. Helpful feedback on this paper has been provided by David Britain, Elizabeth Gordon, Margaret Maclagan, Andrea Sudbury, Peter Trudgill, Heidi Quinn, the audience at the New Zealand Linguistic Society conference, and three anonymous referees. The authors are listed in alphabetical order.



Hide All


Bailey, C. J. (1973). Variation and linguistic theory. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Bailey, G., Wikle, T., Tillery, J., & Sand, L. (1991). The apparent time construct. Language Variation and Change 3:241264.
Britain, D. (2002). Diffusion, levelling, simplification and reallocation in past tense BE in the English Fens. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6(1):1643.
Britain, D., & Sudbury, A. (2002). There's sheep and there's penguins: Convergence, ‘drift’ and ‘slant’ in New Zealand and Falkland Island English. In M. C. Jones & E. Esch (eds.), Language change: The interplay of internal, external and extra-linguistic factors. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 211240.
Chambers, J. (1995). Sociolinguistic theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Cheshire, J. (1982). Variation in an English dialect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cheshire, J. (1999). Spoken standard English. In A. R. Bex & R. J. Watts (eds.), Standard English: The current debates. London: Routledge. 129148.
Cheshire, J., Edwards, V., & Whittle, P. (1989). Urban British dialect grammar: The question of dialect levelling. English World Wide 10(2):185225.
Cheshire, J., Edwards, V., & Whittle, P. (1993). Non-standard English and dialect levelling. In J. Milroy & L. Milroy (eds.), Real English: The grammar of English dialects in the British Isles. New York: Longman. 5395.
Christian, D., Wolfram, W., & Dube, N. (1988). Variation and change in geographically isolated communities: Appalachian English and Ozark English. Publication of the American Dialect Society, PADS 74. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Denison, D. (1998). Syntax. In S. Romaine (ed.), The Cambridge history of the English language. Volume 4: 17761997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eisikovits, E. (1991). Variation in subject-verb agreement in Inner Sydney English. In J. Cheshire (ed.), English around the world. Sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 235255.
Feagin, C. (1979). Variation and change in Alabama English. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Forsstrœm, G. (1948). The verb ‘to be’ in Middle English: A survey of the forms. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup.
Gordon, E., Campbell, L., Hay, J., Maclagan, M., Sudbury, A., & Trudgill, P. (2004). New Zealand English: Its origins and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hazen, K. (1994). Subject-verb concord in vernacular varieties of English. MA thesis, North Carolina State University. Raleigh, NC.
Hazen, K. (2000a). Identity and ethnicity in the rural South: A sociolinguistic view through past and present be. Publication of the American Dialect Society, PADS 83. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hazen, K. (2000b). Subject-verb concord in a post-insular dialect: The gradual persistence of dialect patterning. Journal of English Linguistics 28(2):127144.
Hickey, R. (2003). How do dialects get the features they have? On the process of new dialect formation. In Hickey, R. (ed.), Motives for sound change. New York: Cambridge University Press. 213239.
Hundt, M. (1998). New Zealand English Grammar—Fact or Fiction? Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Jespersen, O. (1961). A Modern English Grammar. Part IV: Syntax. London: Allen and Unwin.
Kroch, A. S. (1989). Reflexes of grammar in patterns of language change. Language Variation and Change 1:199244.
Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Labov, W., Cohen, Philip, Robins, Clarence, & Lewis, John. (1968). A study of the non-standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City (Vol. 1). U.S. Office of Education Cooperative Research Project No. 3288.
Lewis, Gillian. (1996). The origins of New Zealand English: A report on work in progress. New Zealand English Journal 10:2530.
Maclagan, M., Gordon, E., & Lewis, G. (1999). Women and sound change: Conservative and innovative behavior by the same speakers. Language Variation and Change 11:1941.
Mallinson, C., & Wolfram, W. (2002). Dialect accommodation in a bi-ethnic mountain enclave community: More evidence on the development of African American Vernacular English. Language in Society 31:743775.
Meechan, M., & Foley, M. (1994). On resolving disagreement: Linguistic theory and variation – there's bridges. Language Variation and Change 6(1):6385.
Montgomery, M. (1994). The evolution of verb concord in Scots. In A. Fenton & D. A. MacDonald (eds.), Studies in Scots and Gaelic: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the Languages of Scotland. Edinburgh: Canongate Academic. 8195.
Murray, J. (1873). The dialect of the southern counties of Scotland: Its pronunciation, grammar and historical relations. London: Philological Society.
Ojanen, A.-L. (1982). A syntax of the Cambridgeshire dialect. Licentiate thesis, University of Helsinki.
Orton, H., Sanderson, S., & Widdowson, J. (1978). The linguistic atlas of England. London: Croom Helm.
Quirk, R., & Wrenn, C. L. (1960). An Old English grammar. London: Methuen.
Sapir, Edward. (1921). Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Schilling-Estes, N., & Wolfram, W. (1994). Convergent explanation and alternative regularization patterns: Were/weren't leveling in a vernacular English variety. Language Variation and Change 6(3):273302.
Schreier, D. (2002a). Past be in Tristan da Cunha: The rise and fall of categoricality in language change. American Speech 77(1):7099.
Schreier, D. (2002b). Sociohistorical and contemporary aspects of present be regularization in Tristan da Cunha English. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society, San Francisco, CA.
Schreier, D. (2003). Isolation and language change: Sociohistorical and contemporary evidence from Tristan da Cunha English. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Schulenburg, A. (forthcoming). English in St Helena and Ascension. In L. Todd (ed.), Varieties of World English. London: Cassell.
Siegel, J. (1987). Language contact in a plantation environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, J., & Tagliamonte, S. (1998). We Was all Thegither, I Think We Were all Thegither. Was Regularization in Buckie English. World Englishes 17(2):105126.
Sudbury, A., & Hay, J. (2002). The fall and rise of /r/: Rhoticity and /r/-sandhi in Early New Zealand English. In Selected Papers from NWAV 30, UPenn Working Papers in Linguistics 8(3):281295.
Tagliamonte, S. (1998). Was/were variation across the generations: View from the city of York. Language Variation and Change 10(2):153191.
Tagliamonte, S., & Smith, J. (1998). Analogical levelling in Samaná English: The case of was and were. Journal of English Linguistics 27(1):826.
Tagliamonte, S., & Smith, J. (2000). Old was, new ecology: Viewing English through the sociolinguistic filter. In S. Poplack (ed.), The English history of African American English. Oxford: Blackwell. 141171.
Traugott, E. (1972). A history of English syntax. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Trudgill, P. (1986). Dialects in contact. Oxford: Blackwell.
Trudgill, P. (1998). The chaos before the order: New Zealand English and the second stage of new-dialect formation. In E. H. Jahr (ed.), Language change: Advances in historical sociolinguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 111.
Trudgill, P., Gordon, E., & Lewis, G. (1998). New-dialect formation and Southern Hemisphere English: The New Zealand short front vowels. Journal of Sociolignuistics 2:3552.
Trudgill, P., Gordon, E., Lewis, G., & Maclagan, M. (2000). The role of drift in the formation of native-speaker Southern Hemisphere Englishes: Some New Zealand evidence. Diachronica 17:111138.
Visser, F. (1963–1973). An historical syntax of the English language (3 vols.). Leiden: Brill.
Wakelin, Martyn F. (1977). English dialects: An introduction. London: Athlone.
Wakelin, Martyn F. (1986). The Southwest of England (Varieties of English around the world, Vol. 5). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Weinreich, U., Labov, W., & Herzog, M. I. (1968). Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In W. P. Lehmann (ed.), Directions for historical linguistics: A symposium. Austin: University of Texas Press. 95195.
Wilson, S. (1997). St Helenian English. Unpublished manuscript.
Wolfram, W., & Christian, D. (1976). Appalachian speech. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Wolfram, W., Hazen, K., & Schilling-Estes, N. (1999). Dialect change and maintenance on the Outer Banks. Publication of the American Dialect Society 80. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Wolfram, W., & Thomas, E. (2002). The development of African American English. Oxford and Malden, MA: Basil Blackwell.
Woods, N. (1997). The formation and development of New Zealand English: Interaction of gender-related variation and linguistic change. Journal of Sociolinguistics 1:95125.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed