8. Adjectives

8.1 Comparison: Equality and Inequality

As in present-day StE, equality is expressed by as ... as and inequality by so/as ... as preceded by a negative. Illustrations include:

8.1 (a) That's the bloody truth, true as I'm here (Willingham AA)
  (b) I’ve see the snow as deep as what this is (West Wickham CC)
  (c) Only it een't (for StE isn’t) so tall as that (Willingham SS)
  (d) We don’t have as cold as it did, definitely, and yet so hot summers (Waterbeach BB)

As can be seen, the first as is not always included, and redundant what is sometimes added (cf. 7.5.6). As is also used as the first item in cases in which a negative precedes, although some grammarians recommend so as the first item. Thus, Cambridgeshire dialect speakers follow the principle that as … as expresses equality and not as/not so … as denies the existence of equality (cf., e.g., Curme 1968:184). [1]

8.2 Multiple Comparison

The comparative and superlative are formed either by means of the suffixes -er and -est (inflectional comparison) or by means of more and most (periphrastic comparison). In choosing between inflectional and periphrastic comparison, Cambridgeshire informants usually observe the rules observed in StE, as in They were more religious that time o’ day (i.e. StE in those days) than they are today (Willingham ES) and She were me oldest sister (Rampton TR). (In StE, elder and eldest are often used in the attributive position, particularly when referring to the order of birth of members of a family. In the material for the present study, both older/oldest and elder/eldest occur in this context.) However, the comparative of the adjective spruce is constructed with more: to look a bit more spruce (i.e., smart) like (Rampton HP), contrary to inflectional comparison evidenced in earlier English: Making themselves as spruce as bridegrooms (1876) and the neatest and sprucest leather (1609) (OED, a. and adv. spruce). For the use of like, see 9.3.2. As in StE, the comparative and superlative of certain adjectives are irregular (e.g. better, best). [2]

According to Hughes & Trudgill (1979: 18), many non-standard dialects permit both the addition of more/most and the addition of -er/-est simultaneously: She’s more rougher than he is. [3] As can be seen, their example illustrates multiple (or double) comparative, which is also the construction attested in the interviews carried out for the present study, as shown in examples 8.2 (a-c).

8.2 (a) You get more colder there 'n what we do about here (Waterbeach BB)
  (b) But they are more stricter in towns 'n they are here (West Wickham CC)
  (c) They were more happier then than they are today (Fulbourn CM)

Double superlative is not attested in the present material. In dialects documented by Wright (EDD more, most) at the turn of the 20th century, both double comparatives and superlatives were recorded with examples such as more longer, more upstandinger and the most wretchedest, with the explanation that more and most are used redundantly to form comparatives and superlatives. Dialects have thus sustained the old constructions, which were common in the earlier periods of the language. Double comparatives and superlatives (more properer, most handsomest) were perfectly acceptable in ME and in the early Modern period, “though they came under corrective treatment” in the 18th century (Strang 1970: 138). In the 15th and 16th centuries, multiple comparison occurred mostly with adjectives of one or two syllables (Mustanoja 1960: 281). The works of earlier English writers abound with examples of -er/-est used in conjunction with more/most, as in This was the most unkindest cut of all (Shakespeare Julius Caesar).

8.3 Proportional Comparative and Comparative of Gradation

As in StE, the adverb the (a survival of the OE instrumental case of the demonstrative pronoun (Mustanoja 1960: 282) (although we no longer feel its original force; Curme 1968: 144) is used with the comparative to indicate or imply that the degree of comparison is dependent upon the context, [4] as in The more you put water on, the brighter the lid (Waterbeach BB). To indicate that a quality increases at a fairly even rate, the comparative is repeated and the two identical forms are connected by and, or the comparative is preceded by ever, as in and that gradually keep getting better and better (West Wickham CC) and and I used to set so = he could watch me ever more (Willingham ES).

8.4 Absolute Superlative

In StE, the absolute superlative, which indicates a very high degree of a quality without any definite comparison with other persons or things, is often expressed using most before an adjective, e.g. Everybody has been most kind. In the material for the present study, constructions of the absolute superlative with most were not attested. To express a high degree of quality, the speakers use intensifying adverbs followed by the positive which, according to Curme (1968: 223), is also the most common way to express the absolute superlative in StE (e.g. very cold weather, an exceedingly intricate problem, etc.). For a discussion of intensifying adverbs, see 9.3.2.

8.5 Two Adjectives with a Similar Meaning Linked Together

In many dialects two adjectives of kindred meaning are combined to express intensity, as ancient old, great big (Wright EDG 1905: §395). This construction, recorded by Wright at the turn of the 20th century, still occurs in the interviews carried out for the present study in the 1970s, as illustrated by examples 8.3 (a-d).

8.3 (a) [That was] a lovely pretty bird (Willingham SS)
  (b) [I have] a nice comfortable little room (Rampton TR)
  (c) I fell in a little- little tiny- little ditch (Waterbeach BB)
BB: er they used to lay the = milk in pans
Int.: Mm
BB: er = in a- in great big pans (Waterbeach)

8.6 Functions of Adjectives

As in StE, adjectives are used attributively and predicatively, as shown in the examples:

8.4 (a) He were a decent bo' (an East Anglian noun meaning ’neighbour’, ’fellow’) (Willingham SS)
Int.: What did they look like? These wooden ploughs?
AS: Well, they got a wooden breast and the- and the beam- the beam was wood. (Harston)
  (c) This country is dear (’expensive’) (Bartlow CP)
  (d) “If he’d been three parts of drunk like he wa sometimes,” he said, “he would-a-shot you.” (Willingham ES)

The attributive adjective drunk meaning ’drunken’, as in example 8.4 (d), is also the SED response (to question VI.13.11) for Lancashire. [5] Both wooden and wood are used as adjectives, the latter form being used predicatively. In example 8.4 (b), the form wooden may mimic the interviewer’s use of this form.

Contrary to the frequent attributive and predicative uses, adjectives are rarely used as nouns. Instead of such common expressions as the rich, the poor, etc., Cambridgeshire informants use an adjective followed by a noun or the ’propword’ one, as in Mostly with poor people, they used to have that Sundays (Waterbeach BB) and Young ones don’t know today = that’s the truth = they don’t know what hardships are (Fulbourn CM).


[1] In more recent grammars, the use of not as ... as is considered equally acceptable, or, as Quirk et al. (1985: 458) write: “Comparison to the same degree is expressed by as (or sometimes so) ... as.” (emphasis added)

[2] In Cambridgeshire, dialect speakers do not thus follow the system of adding -er/-est to all adjectives, which according to Edwards & Weltens (1985: 117), is a practice “in virtually all British dialects” (e.g. beautifuller, beautifullest).

[3] Additional observations come from Edwards & Weltens (1985: 117), who in their survey of Research on non-standard dialects note that the simultaneous application of both the periphrastic comparison and the addition of -er/-est occurs throughout Britain, e.g. more stricter/most strictest.

Similarly Trudgill (1990: 81): “Most Nonstandard Dialects continue to employ forms such as He’s more rougher than what you are and That’s the most stupidest thing I’ve heard.” This common double comparison pattern is reported for Tyneside English and exemplified with She’s got the most loveliest clothes (McDonald 1980: 22) and I think alcohol is much more safer, kind of relaxing if took in small quantities (McDonald 1985) (Beal 1993: 209). It is also “a widespread feature of south-eastern speech: I couldn’t have asked for a more nicer friend and That was the most horriblest experience of my life” (Edwards 1993a: 231-232).

[4] Quirk et al. (1985: 1111) talk about clauses of proportion. These express a proportionality or equivalence of tendency or degree between two situations. They are introduced by the fronted correlative the ... the followed by the compartive forms.

[5] Cf. the Cambridgeshire example If he’d been three parts of drunk... with (Quirk et al.’s 1985: 737) example He came in drunk, in which the adjective phrase assumes an adverbial function in the clause structure (‘He was drunk when he came in’).