I come, I seen, I chased him up the street

And here is Amos van Baalen’s first blogpost. And if you are a native speaker of Australian or British English, do take the time to contribute to his research by filling in the survey below. It won’t take a lot of time, and Amos needs the data for his final paper.

Recently, I came across a video of an Australian explaining how he chased down a drunk driver who drove his car into a shop. Aside from the fact that the man who was interviewed had a strong local accent, there was something else that immediately caught my attention: his use of come and seen as past tense verb forms (in the first fifteen seconds of the video).

This usage came as somewhat of a surprise to me: being half Australian, and having lived in The Netherlands my whole life, I have obviously not had a great deal of exposure to spoken Australian English. However, I have never heard any of my Australian relatives use these particular simple past forms. So in the context of the MA course ‘Non-standard English’ at Leiden University (for which I am writing this blog post), I thought it would be interesting to find out whether simple past come and seen are considered usage problems in Australian English.

For this purpose, I consulted The Cambridge guide to Australian English usage (Peters 2007). It turns out that Peters (2007) does not refer to these non-standard forms: in her entry titled “irregular verbs” (pp. 427-430), she merely mentions the standard forms of both verbs and she does not discuss them under the last subheading of the entry, “Unstable irregular verbs” (nor are they discussed separately, as in the case of the verb drink, for example). It would seem, therefore, that past tense come and seen are not felt to be usage problems in Australian English. This is not to say that these forms have not been documented for this variety of English. For example, one study by Eisikovits (1987) has shown that past tense come and seen occur very frequently in the speech of Inner-Sydney teenagers.

I also thought it would be interesting to see what British and American usage guides had to say on these usages. For this purpose, I consulted the HUGE database, in which I looked for entries that deal with have went (since this problem also subsumes the opposite usage, i.e. using the standard past participle in the simple past) and I did a full-text search for come.

The results returned two relevant entries, both of which were from American usage guides (note: I was unable to access one of the usage guides in the original results, so there may be a third relevant entry). I then repeated the search for seen. This time there were five relevant entries (one per usage guide) and all five usage guides again dealt with American English.

The two queries yielded two entries that mentioned both simple past come and seen and one of these entries actually provided some interesting historical sociolinguistic information on these usages. This entry can be found in A grammatical corrector; or, Vocabulary of the common errors of speech, written by Seth T. Hurd and published in 1847. In the entry that deals with simple past come, seen and similar usages (e.g. simple past done, but also opposite usages, such as saw for seen), Hurd (1847) mentions that they occur “in several of the Middle, and to some extent in the Southern States”, and that these particular verb forms “are as common, not only with the illiterate, but with many of the educated in those regions, as are the most familiar terms in the language” (p. 65).

It would seem, then, that the usage of come and seen in the simple past has traditionally been an American usage problem, since there were no relevant results from British usage guides. Once again, it should be noted that these forms do occur in British English. In fact, past tense come and seen have been described for varieties as diverse as Scottish English, Irish English, Tyneside English and South-eastern English (see the relevant chapters in Real English (1993), eds. Milroy and Milroy).

Nevertheless, I am still left wondering about the usage and acceptability of these forms in Australian and British English. If you are a speaker of either of these varieties, I would like to ask you to fill in my survey. Thank you very much in advance for taking part!

References

Eisikovits, Edina. 1987. “Variation in the lexical verb in Inner-Sydney English”. Australian Journal of Linguistics 7: pp. 1-24.

Hurd, Seth T. 1847. A grammatical corrector; or, Vocabulary of the common errors of speech. Philadelphia: E.H. Butler & Co.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy (eds.). 1993. Real English: The grammar of English dialects in the British Isles. London/New York: Longman.

Peters, Pam. 2007. The Cambridge guide to Australian English usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

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One Response to I come, I seen, I chased him up the street

  1. adrianstenton says:

    Interesting! Bryan Garner (2016), which is too recent to be included in HUGE, has this for “come”: ‘Nonstandard past forms typify DIALECT. For a good discussion, see Sali Tagliamonte, ‘Come/Came Variation in English Dialects,’ 76 Am. Speech 42, 42-43 (2001).” Garner has a similar entry for “seen” under “see”, with no reference, but he does comment: “Usually these errors occur only in reported speech”. I make no comment on how easily Garner slips from “dialect” to “error”!
    Bryan A. Garner (2016), “Garner’s Modern English Usage”. Oxford University Press.

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