Why “bad” English isn’t

Transatlantic twins

How widespread are expressions like “This needs washed”? The Grammatical Diversity Project database has them centered on Pennsylvania, but also spreading over nearby states to the west and southwest. There are even a couple of far-flung examples sourced to Idaho and Florida. But farthest of all is Scotland, where researchers have recorded, for instance, “We would like picked up at Fort William Train Station” and “Would you like fed?”

The reason isn’t hard to guess. Pennsylvania was a center of Protestant Scots and Scotch-Irish immigration during the 1700s. As several linguists have noted, Pennsylvania’s “needs washed” is probably a direct descendant of the same kind of syntax in Scotland.

A different case is “negative concord,” recorded all over the United States in some African American English and other dialects, as in “I don’t see him no more” and “Don’t nothing come to a sleeper but a dream.” In these sentences, the negatives reinforce each other instead of canceling each other out. And consider this expression from fourteenth-century England: “There nas [was not] no man nowhere so virtuous.” It’s by Chaucer, and is just one example of many from his era and earlier. But there is no direct relation. Negative concord, as wrong as it sounds to those who grew up without it, is common among the world’s languages.

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