6. Nouns

6.1 Plural Formation

The plurals of most nouns in Cambridgeshire dialect are the same as those in StE. However, a few nouns have a plural form different from that in StE. These different forms can be grouped into four categories: (a) ‘old’ plurals, (b) ‘double’ plurals, (c) collective plurals and (d) plurals that are identical with the singular form.

In the material for the present study, the plural of the noun house is frequently houses. However, the plural can also be formed with -en, as illustrated by examples 6.1 (a-b).

6.1 (a) Agin (for StE against) the Barrington Hill, and one at Harston. One at Harston. Straight there’s two- there’s a school and there’s two housen this side on it. (Harston MP)
  (b) Ain’t no streetlight about here. Only what people got on their own housen. (Th)at’s all. (West Wickham CC)

These informants adhere to the old form housen, which occurs in various writings from about 1550 (OED house, sb. 1) and which was recorded by EDD (Wright 1923, Vol. 3: 248) as current in English dialects in all regions except north of Yorkshire. Wright’s examples include: I niver knew housen had names (A.B.K. Wright’s Fortune. 1885: 32) from Norfolk and Them housen, Sir, is harnted (Downe Ballads 1895: 17) from Essex. In Norfolk this plural is “Still often used by quite old people (F.M)”, and in Suffolk it is “Yet used freq. (C.G.B.)”. In his discussion of the use of the plural housen in Huntingdonshire, East Anglia and Cambridgeshire, Wright also refers to Ellis (1889). Earlier evidence is also given by Forby, who describes “the East Anglian Dialect of the English Language” during the period 1780-1820. Forby (1970: 130) claims that “we retain the Anglo-Saxon plural termination in n or en, in such words as housen, closen, cheesen”. Forby, however, claims that “this ancient formation is not so current and familiar in our dialect as it is in some others, and in old English”. According to Wakelin (1979: 20-21), the plural form housen has survived especially among older people and in two areas in particular: one comprising Essex and East Anglia, and the other in the west stretching from Herefordshire and Worcestershire through Gloucestershire to Oxfordshire and Berkshire, with occasional outliers. In Cambridgeshire, this plural form was probably in more general use before the 1970s (when the material for the present study was recorded) and ‘among older people’, as claimed by Wakelin, and as attested in an interview conducted for the present study: MH: Mm = but you use = they- your father always said housen – SS: Housen, they always did (Willingham) and by the SED responses (V.1.1) from the 1950s. The form housen for Cambridgeshire is also noted by Porter (1969: 400) in her list of Cambridgeshire words. Further evidence for this usage in East Anglia comes from the Suffolk dialect of the 20th century, in which, according to Claxton (1968: 8), “‘houses’ are usually called ‘houzen’”. [1]

Double plurals occur regularly in two names of meals, elevenses (also exists in StE) and fourses, as illustrated by examples 6.2 (a-b).

6.2 (a) we used to stop at (e)leven and call it (e)levenses (Bartlow CP)
  (b) Then they used to have … pint dockey time, pint dinnertime, and pint then = fourses, four o’clock time (Harlton MP)

These double plurals were also attested in the Suffolk dialect of the 20th century (Claxton 1968: 8).

Collective nouns, i.e., nouns denoting a group of persons or things felt to be a unit, are usually treated in the same way as the corresponding nouns in present-day StE. However, the nouns folk and horse call for special attention. Let us consider first examples 6.3 (a-b).

6.3 (a) There were folk used t(o) come around (Rampton HP)
  (b) They were all old folks (Willingham ET)

According to Mustanoja (1960: 62), “the tendency to look upon collective nouns like folk as plurals can be traced back to OE”. The plural form folks has been used in the same sense as the form folk (‘men’, ‘people indefinitely’) since the 14th century, and since the 17th century it has been the ordinary form, the form folk being archaic or dialectal. The noun folk is now considered colloquial; in more formal use it is superseded by people (OED folk. 3). (Cf., however, present-day expressions such as folklore, folk art and folk song.)

The plural forms of the noun horse are horses and horse. The latter is illustrated by examples 6.4 (a-c).

6.4 (a)
Int.: How many horses to pull a plough?
GW: How many horse pull a plough? (Burwell)
  (b) A man drove ’em with a plough cord, and that had sticks and that’d steer them horse, them horse go straight (Bartlow CP)
Int.: You said there were two horses pulling?
CC: Two horse pulling (West Wickham)

The old plural form horse has survived in Cambridgeshire dialect speech. Informants frequently use this plural even in cases where the questions are asked with the StE plural horses, as illustrated by examples 6.4 (a) and (c). According to Wright (EDD horse), the form horse was used for the plural horses in dialect speech during the period 1700-1900. Wright further refers to usage in Scotland, where “three or four horse is an expression, as common in the mouth of a farmer or a ploughman, as three or four squadrons of horse is in that of a general officer” (Monthly Mag. 1800 I. 238). The plural form horse was in general use until the 17th century, although the plural form horses appeared as early as Layamon (circa 1205), and its use increased from then on, until in the 17th century it became the usual plural in the literary language; however, the form horse still sometimes appears as the collective plural (cf. the retention of horse in military language in phrases like a troop of horse) and the form horses as the individual plural (OED horse sb. I.1.b).

Many nouns of measurement and quantity have plural forms identical with the singular after a numeral. One group of these ‘zero’ plurals consists of nouns denoting units of measure or weight for certain substances and objects. Illustrative examples are given in 6.5 (a-f).

6.5 (a) A bushel were four = ah, that were four bushel in a sack. And a = sack of wheat, that used to ha’ had four bushel. Eighteen stone, eighteen stone four, you see, it used to be. Four pound (weight) for a sack (Harlton MP)
  (b) Now they come today now they take about twenty ton at a time. Loose on a trolley, on a lorry. (West Wickham CC)
  (c) I dug = ten hundredweight of ’tatoes up (Waterbeach BB)
  (d) You’d got to do your three load. That was your day’s work (Fulbourn CM)
  (e) We went on thrannelling they call it, and we got- we got a- I believe it was twelve dozen la- larks. That might be more than (th)at, but we got several dozen. (Waterbeach BB)
  (f) I’m got three pair of lace-up shoes (Willingham ES)

Dozen, stone and hundredweight have ‘zero’ plurals in StE as well. The ‘zero’ plural also occurs after quantifiers other than numerals, as in example 6.5 (e). For more examples, see the discussion below. For a discussion of expressions such as twelve dozen larks, see ‘partitive’ expressions in 6.5.

Another group consists of nouns denoting length, distance and units of areas. These nouns are illustrated by examples 6.6 (a-c).

6.6 (a) They (i.e. willow trees) were good for cricket bats. Grow to thirty, forty foot high (Willingham ES)
  (b) She reckon her round was about seven mile a day, on a pushbike and that (Bartlow CP)
  (c) then you got = [LAUGHING] then you got fourteen acre with sixteen in, eleven acre with nine in. You weight that up [LAUGHING]. That's the truth (Willingham SS) [2]

One more group consists of nouns denoting monetary units. This group is illustrated by examples 6.7 (a-e).

6.7 (a) If I got- If I’d got forty or fifty pound a week when I was at work, I should be a millionaire now (Fulbourn CM)
  (b) ten shilling (ET Willingham)
  (c) See, and then you’d get a hundredweight of middlings for two bob (Bassingbourn BR)
  (d) [Electricity] I had to put on meself. Cost me = nearly twenty quid (West Wickham CC)
  (e) She left all them seventeen tanner a piece (Willingham SS)

The nouns bob (‘shilling’), quid (‘pound’) and tanner (‘sixpence’), which are usually considered slang words, regularly have the plural forms identical with the singular.

Nouns denoting length of time (e.g. day, week, month) are usually attested in their present-day StE plural forms. However, the noun year frequently occurs in the ‘zero’ form, as in examples 6.8 (a-b).

6.8 (a) I had four five year with ’em (Newton JF)
  (b) There were = three on us in two year and five months (Willingham ES)

The use of ‘zero’ plurals discussed above is a continuation of older usage (OE, ME and early ModE). According to Mustanoja (1960: 57-58), in ME many nouns denoting measurement or quantity were survivals of OE unchanged plurals (instances where the plural form is identical with the singular), like year and month, of OE plurals ending in -u, -e, and -an, like hundred, lode, and tonne, or of OE genitive plurals, like mile; some were also survivals of foreign plurals. Mustanoja further notes that “the unchanged plural after an expression of number or quantity is in fact a linguistic phenomenon of universal occurrence”. Mustanoja gives examples such as zwei Glas Bier in German and viisi poikaa (‘five boys’; poikaa, a singular noun in the partitive case) in Finnish.

In dialects, ‘zero’ plurals are common. Hughes & Trudgill (1979: 19) observe that “after numerals, many nouns of measurement are not marked for plurality, in many non-standard dialects”. They illustrate the usage with the examples a hundred pound, thirteen mile and five foot. In his list of ‘zero’ plurals used in East Anglian popular speech between 1880 and 1920, Forby (1970: 127-130) includes old expressions of measure such as coom, foot, load, mile and pound, and weight such as hundred weight, stone and ton, and the expression of time year. In his EDD (1898-1905), Wright observes that the form year is used for the plural years, pound for the plural pounds, with the note ‘in general colloquial use’, and mile for the plural miles. Wright gives the following list of counties with the plural mile: Yorkshire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Somerset. In the Suffolk dialect of the 20th century, Claxton (1968: 8) found that “ the use of a noun in the singular form is frequently substituted for the plural form, particularly in the case of nouns expressing weight, length, breadth, time, etc.” The usage is exemplified by four load o’ hay, ten mile away, four shilling a (sic) ounce, two ton o’ coal, five year old and three stone o’ flour. [3]

In addition, the plural suffix -s/-es is occasionally not expressed with nouns, miscellaneous in character, when these nouns are preceded by a quantifier other than a numeral (a few, many, several), as in examples 6.9 (a-c).

6.9 (a) Next morning * come. Threshed out wheat with a few load oats underneath it. (Rampton TR)
  (b) There een’t many feast about, is there? (Newton JF)
  (c) I went t(o) the doctor’s = several time (Willingham ES)

This usage corroborates Mustanoja’s statement (1960: 58): “If the idea of plurality is obvious from the attributive adjective, no plural ending is needed to indicate the number of the governing noun”. Compare the ‘zero’ plural load in example 6.9 (a) with the ‘zero’ plural load after a numeral in example 6.5 (d). The ‘zero’ plural time also occurs after a numeral, as in They sold ’em about four time (Willingham SS). Instances with many, such as 6.9 (b), can also be interpreted as the construction many a feast with non-expression of the article a. Cf. I’m crumped wurzel seed out many a time (Rampton HP).

6.2 The Associative Plural

Associative plural constructions consist of a singular noun (typically with human reference, often a person’s name or a kin term) followed by and they/and (all) them. The meaning of the construction is ‘X and other people associated with X’. The usage is illustrated by examples 6.10 (a-c).

6.10 (a) Alf and they lived [on] the other side [of] the road (Willingham ES)
  (b) They got dad and all them there dancing and singing (Willingham ET)
  (c) Chivers and they bought a lot (Rampton HP)

In example 6.10 (c), Chivers refers to the owners of farms and a jam and marmalade company in Cambridgeshire.

6.3 The Singular and Plural in Expressions of Time

The names of the days of the week are used in either the singular or the plural when speaking of what generally happens on a particular day in many consecutive weeks. Illustrative examples are given in 6.11 (a-c).

6.11 (a) They use(d to) go twice Sundays (Willingham ES)
  (b) I used t(o) go with them a Saturdays (Swaffham Prior EW)
SS: Whether they were religious or not, I don’t know, but they’d never go a Sunday
MH: No
SS: Never done nothing on a Sunday
MH: No
SS: So they’d wait in pub while (for StE till) twelve (Willingham)

The plural is more common than the singular, although both forms occur frequently in the speech of all informants. The context of example 6.11 (c) shows that on a Sunday indicates repeated occurrence. Such cases should be differentiated from cases in which the indefinite article is used in the sense of ‘one, a certain’, as in I got wounded up there ... That was on a Saturday (Fulbourn CM).

In cases like example 6.11 (a), the name of the day of the week is not preceded by any preposition. This is particularly common with plurals. When the preposition is expressed, it usually has the form [ə] (spelled a in this study). For a discussion of a used as a preposition, see 10.2.1.

Words for times of day are used in similar constructions to indicate repeated occurrence. Both the singular and the plural of the nouns morning, afternoon, and night are common in the speech of all informants, whereas the noun evening occurs only in the singular, and even then it is extremely rare compared to the noun night. The use of these nouns is illustrated by examples 6.12 (a-d).

6.12 (a) He used t(o) go early in the mornings (Fulbourn CM)
  (b) Then th’ afternoon they used to groom and clean them (Bartlow CP)
  (c) They used t(o) come here afternoons and catch them (Newton JF)
  (d) We used t(o) go there at nights (Willingham ES)

As with the names of the days of the week, instances without a preposition are more common than instances with a preposition in the plural, whereas in the singular the preposition is usually expressed. When the preposition is expressed, it is in with the nouns morning(s) and afternoon(s), and at with the noun night(s). In older English, the expressions on/of mornings, in/at morning, at afternoon(s), on night(s), and in nights were also used (OED morning sb. 3; afternoon sb. 1; night sb. III. 8, 9).

The name of a day of the week can also be followed by the name of a time of day, as illustrated by examples 6.13 (a-c).

6.13 (a) [They] didn’t know nothing else only going there Sunday nights (Willingham ET)
  (b) I used to go round a Saturday mornings (Waterbeach BB)
  (c) [I used to go] only when my mother had a penny to give me a Monday morning (Willingham ES)

The forms mornings and nights are considered to be plurals in Present-Day English. However, these forms are relics of the OE and ME adverbial genitives. By analogy with mornings and nights, the forms afternoons, Sundays, Mondays, etc. were also used in older English (Mustanoja 1960: 88-89; OED afternoon sb. 1).

The forms winters and summers, originally (in OE and ME) adverbial genitives of time and used in present-day American English (Mustanoja 1960: 88), are not attested in the sense of ‘in (the) winter(s)’ and ‘in (the) summer(s)’. Instead, informants use the expressions in the winter, in the summer, or more commonly in the wintertime, in the summertime, and less frequently wintertimes, summertimes. The use of the latter two expressions is illustrated by the examples They used t(o) light them wintertimes and They went to meadow summertimes (Bartlow CP).

6.4 The Genitive Case

The form of the inflected genitive in the Cambridgeshire dialect corresponds to that in present-day StE. The genitive case is marked by the suffix -s in the singular, and formed without the plural s in plural nouns. The genitive of folks is an exception to this rule. This plural noun forms the genitive by adding ’s, as shown in the example I can’t think o’ folks’s names (Over EF). The genitive folks’s is common in dialects (Wright 1923: 73).

The inflected genitive is used with (a) proper names denoting persons, e.g. Mr Brown’s farm (b) names of relations and other nouns denoting persons, e.g. father’s beer, this farmer’s wife, (c) names of animals, e.g. the horse’s top lip (i.e., upper lip) and that wa one of horses’ tongues (i.e. the tongue of one of the horses), and (d) temporal nouns, e.g. in a (sic) hour’s time. Since there is no distinction in pronunciation between the singular inflected genitive and the inflected genitive with plural nouns ending in s, the decision whether a noun is in the singular or plural has to be drawn from the context.

In addition to the inflected genitive (the -s genitive), geni­tival relations are commonly expressed by means of a peri­phrastic construction with the preposition of (usually in the form o’ [ə]), as in the examples on the border of three counties and the name of the field.

The double genitive, i.e. the genitive consisting of the combined inflected and periphrastic genitives, is rare. This is not surprising, since these constructions are infrequent in the spoken language due to the fact that it is often not possible to detect whether the form is singular or plural (e.g. That’s no fault of the doctor’s, ... of the doctors’). Hence, the use of the double genitive with nouns is largely confined to proper names, as in the instance Father were real pal of old Mr. Stamford’s (Rampton TR).

The endingless genitive of the type my father brother, which occurred in dialects such as those of the northern Midlands in the 1950s (SED IX.8.6/7) (Wakelin 1972a: 111), is not attested in the material for the present study.

In the elliptic genitive construction, the headword is not expressed, but is usually implicit in the context or explicitly expressed at some point in the passage. The elliptic genitive is illustrated by examples 6.14 (a-b).

6.14 (a) He were my great-uncle ... so he were your mother’s (Willingham ES)
  (b) Where they sold it = Wilson’s, Smith’s [mill] = anywhere (Bassingbourn BR)

The headword can be any noun, but the ellipsis is especially common when the headword is the name of a building or premises.

6.5 Partitive Expressions

A partitive expression usually consists of a ‘partitive’ word + the preposition of + a mass noun/a countable noun. A ‘partitive’ word (noun, pronoun, numeral) expresses a quantity taken from a whole. A ‘partitive’ word may express a precise quantity (e.g., a pound, one), but it may also express a quantity whose limits are not strictly specified (e.g., a bit, plenty, some). This usage can be illustrated with examples such as a bit o’ bren (i.e. bread) and cheese (Harlton MP), a [penəð] o’ milk and a [eipəð] o’ milk (i.e. a pennyworth/a halfpenny worth of milk, the amount of milk which could be bought for a penny/ halfpenny) (Bassingbourn BR).

In the interviews for the present study, partitive expressions may also lack the preposition of. In this construction, a ‘partitive’ word is followed by a noun in apposition. This construction is especially frequent with the ‘partitive’ plenty, although occasionally plenty may also be followed by the preposition of. The construction without the preposition is especially common with countable nouns, while with mass nouns the preposition is often expressed. Thus, there are expressions such as plenty pigs (West Wickham CC), plenty fowls, plenty eggs (Bartlow CP), plenty straw (Fulbourn CM) and plenty of meat (Waterbeach BB). In StE, plenty is usually followed by of. However, it is also used without the preposition, especially in Scottish and American English (Jespersen 1940: 334).

There are also a few other expressions in which the preposition is not attested, such as a bit toast (Rampton HP), a bottle lime juice (Willingham ES), a basket apples (Bassingbourn BR), and one team horses (Rampton TR). [4]


[1] There are also a few instances with the plural housen, such as All public housen they was always full o’ = people (Lavenham JM) and Course in them days all the housen had to grow ol’ gardens (Saxmundham W) in the Suffolk sub-corpus of the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects, collected in the 1970s. The Suffolk data were transcribed by Kirsti Peitsara, University of Helsinki.

[2] Edwards & Weltens (1985: 115) found no reports of inch as an unmarked plural form and conclude that Hughes & Trudgill (1979: 19) “might be right” when they claim that “three inch does not seem to occur”. However, the unchanged plural inch is attested in the Suffolk sub-corpus of the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects, as illustrated by the example They used to scratch their soil of about three or four inch deep (Pettaugh C). Shorrocks (1980: 531; 1999: 61) gives the examples six inch o’ dirt and eighteen inch for the dialect of Farnworth and district. However, Shorrocks further notes that eighteen inches also occurs and that “we are dealing with an optional rule in the case of this word, rather than with an obligatory rule”.

[3] Edwards & Weltens (1985: 114) state that “In British dialects it is almost a universal rule that after numerals, nouns of measurement and quantity retain their singular form, e.g. twenty year, two dozen, twenty pound, three acre, six pint.” Examples of unchanged plurals with nouns of measurement and quantity after numerals abound in literature. For instance, Cheshire (1982: 79-80) found that nouns of measurement are not marked for plurality in the recordings of Reading adolescents, illustrating the usage with the examples From the road, it’s about a thousand foot up (Derek), It’s not far away, really, it’s only thirteen mile (Julie), It’s gonna cost us 37 pound for a few days (Lynne). In his Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area, Shorrocks (1999: 61-62) observes that “after a cardinal number determiner, many nouns of weight and measure, and some of quantity, may or must take a zero-plural, as ‘six inch (inches) of dirt’.” Shorrocks further notes that this pattern is common and lists the weights and measures which have been recorded in the dialect he investigated as follows: bob (shilling), dozen, foot, gallon, gross (+ of), hundredweight, inch, mile, month, pound (weight and monetary unit), quid (pound, monetary unit), score, shilling, stone, ton, week, yard and year. Shorrocks also notes that the same rule applies to pair, load and bundle. A further detail two pounds of flour comes from Survey of British Dialect Grammar, based on a questionnaire sent to schools around Britain, by Cheshire et al (1989: 197). They further refer to Coupland (1988) and Hughes & Trudgill (1979) who agree that the absence of plural marking on nouns of measurement is very widespread. Further evidence is drawn from Scottish English by Miller (1993: 109), who claims that “in phrases containing a numeral followed by a measure noun such as mile, foot, etc., the latter is regularly singular”.

[4] In Scottish English, “in phrases containing the measure nouns bit and drop followed by another noun, there is regularly no preposition between the two nouns: a bit paper, a drop water” (Miller 1993: 109). In Scots bit is used for bit of (‘a bit bread’); cf. German ein Stück Brod (OED bit sb. 2).