The Northern Subject Rule and its 'northernness' - A geolinguistic perspective

Ramisch, Heinrich

University of Bamberg, Germany


The Northern Subject Rule and its 'northernness'

A geolinguistic perspective

Regional varieties of English are characteristically marked by different types of verbal concord. A particularly interesting pattern is the so-called Northern Subject Rule, which has been discussed in a number of fields, namely in historical linguistics, English dialectology, contact linguistics and language typology. The rule states that the Standard English contrast between the verbal –s ending in the 3rd person singular and zero endings for all other persons only holds true if the adjacent subject is a simple personal pronoun: he/she/it works vs. I/you/we/they work. With all other subjects an –s ending may occur in Northern varieties of English: the men works hard. The –s ending may even appear if the pronoun does not directly precede or follow the verb: They really works hard. This pattern of variation has existed in Northern English at least since Middle English times (Mustanoja 1960: 481-482). The Northern Subject Rule implies an intricate system of concord that does not exclusively rely on features of person and number, but also on morphological characteristics and syntactic position of the subject. There has been some discussion among linguists about the origin of the rule. Klemola (2000) suggests that it is based on a substrate influence from Brythonic, whereas Pietsch (2005) in a detailed study argues in favour of language-internal developments and draws attention to the range of variability connected with the pattern.

After a critical assessment of these approaches, the paper will examine old and new geolinguistic data (that is dialectological data in its widest sense) from Northern English varieties. Therefore, it will be the aim of the paper to contribute to a broader empirical basis for the analysis of the Northern Subject Rule. It will also be attempted to combine the regional and the historical perspectives by systematically analysing the information included in Wright (1898-1905), which covers the regional variation in English in the period between 1650 and 1900. Here again, it will become evident that geolinguistic data frequently provide interesting insights into the history of a language and can advance our knowledge of (socio-)linguistic change.


Klemola, Juhani. 2000. "The origins of the Northern Subject Rule: a case of early contact?" in: Hildegard Tristram, ed. Celtic Englishes II. Heidelberg: Winter. 329-346.

Mustanoja, Tauno. 1960. A Middle English Syntax. Part I: Parts of Speech. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.

Pietsch, Lukas. 2005. Variable Grammars: Verbal Agreement in Northern Dialects of English. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Wright, Joseph. 1898-1905. The English Dialect Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Session: Paper session
Variation 6 (Syntactic)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 15