As a pronunciation coach, I’m often approached by native speakers who are convinced that they need to ‘lose’ their regional accent because it’s holding them back either socially or vocationally. This presents me with a bit of quandary and shines a light on our sclerotic class system, as well as the great and evermore cavernous north-south divide. Not only, it is claimed, do the brightest and best migrate south-eastwards in the direction of better education and/or job opportunities often never to return, but also that in doing so they will lose all vestiges of their original accent. Whether this happens unconsciously or as the result of a strategic decision to camouflage their background, there seems to be an unshakable belief in the power of RP to facilitate better career outcomes and a more successful life all round.
Grammar and dialect
But until recently, I’d never given much thought to the role of grammar in dialect. That was until I started to notice in, it has to be said, a rather ‘judgy’ and elitist way, that some professional people that I knew locally, in the Midlands where I live, were conjugating the verb ‘to be’ ‘wrongly’. When I hear the verb ‘to be’ unmarked for person (I was, you was, he was, we was, they was), like most south easterners, I suppose, I classify it as ‘bad grammar’. But it turns out that hereabouts it’s a fundamental part of the dialect and cannot be easily dismissed a merely lazy conjugation.
The question is though, what should we do about it? Simon Jenkins tackled this issue head on recently1 and is pretty categoric in his response, “I cannot see virtue in refusing to teach children standard English as ‘correct’ just to protect supposed regional sensitivities”. For him, the gods of grammar should be obeyed for the sake of clarity and precision. Whatever you think, it’s a fascinating subject and I strongly recommend anyone who’s interested to visit the British Library’s wonderful grammatical variation interactive map2, where you can listen to endless examples of how our formation of the past tense of ‘to be’ varies across England.