Northern English Subject Agreement Rule

Paul J Hopper ph1u+ at ANDREW.CMU.EDU
Fri Aug 7 20:49:16 UTC 1998

On Bernard's Yorkshire English data:

I did wonder about the particular way of looking at the data, the
special "logic" Bernard suggests. Wouldn't it be possible to say instead
that the third singular suffix -s has become a present tense marker and
has spread to all forms except the combination they+VERB? Then the
notion of agreement wouldn't come into the problem at all, except that
this -s is historically an agreement marker. (This change is
typologically well known, of course, and is sometimes called "Watkins'
Law" - the third person singular forms the basis of the new verb
paradigm. I've often wondered if Calvert Watkins really was the first
linguist to suggest it.)

Given that the dialect is restricted to oral registers, it wouldn't be
surprising if a certain amount of fusion had taken place between verbs
and one of the pronouns, in this case "they". It seems quite plausible
that the relatively limited number of frozen they+VERB forms would have
resisted the encroachment of -s. (Presumably speakers of Y.E. do not
have a completely open class of verbs, that is, they don't say, _in the
dialect_, things like "They enumerate the set and horizontalizes the

So perhaps what we should be looking for in the way of parallels is not
so much a synchronic agreement pattern as cases in which one part of a
paradigm has been unaffected by a general change. Surely there are
plenty of examples of this.

Paul Hopper

Excerpts from mail: 31-Jul-98 Northern English Subject Ag.. by Bernard
Comrie at EVA.MPG.D
> A colleague from the University of Leeds School of English, Juhani Klemola,
> has drawn my attention to some interesting syntactic data from certain
> Northern English dialects, and I wonder if the combined wisdom of readers
> of the ALT discussion list could draw to my attention any close parallels
> from other languages.
> In the relevant dialects of English, third person plural subjects require
> the third person singular form of the verb unless immediately preceded by
> the third person plural subject pronoun, thus giving rise to the following
> paradigm:
>         1.      They run.
>         2.      Horses runs.
>         3.      they that runs [relative clause]
>         4.      They peel them and boils them.
> The construction has been compared with phenomena in Celtic, and even a
> Celtic substrate suggested, but the Celtic phenomena seem to me to be at
> least somewhat different (e.g. literary Welsh has the plural verb form not
> only with an adjacent third person plural subject pronoun, but also in the
> absence of a subject pronoun).
> Please let me know in particular if you aware of any closer parallels to
> the Northern Subject Rule from other languages. The system seems to have an
> elegant internal logic--adjacent subject pronoun and verb agreement are in
> complementary distribution.

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