Thursday, January 07, 2016

Was & Weren't

On Ocracoke you might here someone say, "Oh, they was on the island for his birthday; except Jimmy, of course, he weren't here."

Walt Wolfram & Natalie Schilling-Estes address this usage in their book, Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks. As they point out, "a widespread tendency among English speakers is the attempt to regularize the verb to be by taking one form and using it for all subjects. In a number of American dialects, we hear you was, we was, and they was along with I was and she was."

British speakers, on the other hand, may use were, rather than was, for all subjects.

More common in British dialects, as Wolfram and Shilling-Estes point out, is the use of was for all positive statements and were for all negative statements. "Interestingly," they write, "Ocracoke English...[is] among the few in American English that use [that] agreement pattern...."

Here is the Ocracoke English conjugation of the verb to be in the past tense (affirmative and negative):


I was
you was
s/he was

we was
you (you all) was
they was


I weren't
you weren't
s/he weren't

we weren't
you (you all) weren't
they weren't

So..."They was here," but "He weren't here." One more clue to the British origin of Ocracoke Island's earliest European settlers.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of Capt. Horatio Williams and his schooner, the Paragon. You can read the story here:


  1. Al scarborough8:06 AM

    I weren't able to follow this.

  2. Fascinating. I love this kind of stuff!

  3. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Bear
    Fuzzy Wuzzy Had no hare

    Fuzzy Wuzzy wuz'ent fuzzy was he?

    "On Ocracoke you might here someone say" the above.....

  4. Anonymous4:29 PM

    sounds like the kind of stuff you hear from a recent public school graduate. Think about it.

  5. Anonymous4:51 PM

    I just read, in the Island Free Press, about the duck problem that has invaded Ocracoke. In that same website was a story about the feral cat problem on the outer banks. Round up the cats and release them on Ocracoke. When the duck problem is solved round up the cats again and do with them what was planned originally. Problem solved.