September 06, 2005

There's studies

A few days ago, I offered some evidence from web-corpus sociolinguistics that "there's" + <plural noun phrase> has become part of standard English. A couple of years ago, Jen Hay and Dani Schreier studied this phenomenon in the speech of New Zealanders, and concluded (as Jen wrote in email) that

It's so frequent in the contemporary speakers in our spoken corpus, that you might almost argue that "there are" is "non-standard" in speech.   It's not just "there's", though ... "there was + plural" is slightly more frequent than "there were" as well.

Jen added that

... you're certainly right about the untrustworthiness of people's judgements.   Most New Zealanders vehemently deny that they would use these forms.

Their work was published as Jennifer Hay and Daniel Schreier, "Reversing the trajectory of language change: Subject-verb agree with be in New Zealand English". Language Variation and Change, 16 (2004) 209-235. A link to the journal issue -- for those with subscriptions -- is here, and an open-access preprint is here.

Their abstract:

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.

Ben Zimmer pointed out by email that George W. Bush is one of those who uses "there was" + <plural noun phrase> , as in these examples:

1st Debate <>:

But there was fortunately others beside himself who believed that we ought to take action.

2nd Debate <>:

We all thought there was weapons there, Robin. My opponent thought there was weapons there.

Listen, there is 30 nations involved in Iraq, some 40 nations involved in Afghanistan.

I wasn't happy when we found out there wasn't weapons, and we've got an intelligence group together to figure out why.

Ben observes that W sometimes uses the singular present-tense copula in non-existential cases:
"What is your ambitions?"
"What is life choices about?"

I haven't checked the audio to see whether "is" was contracted or not in those examples. It's possible that the transcripts got it wrong -- remember that this all started because CNN un-contracted "there's" to "there is" in a quote from New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin -- but in this case, contraction wouldn't reduce the vernacular character of the quotes, and seems inappropriate on other grounds.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 6, 2005 07:49 AM