Amelia by Henry Fielding - title page

Earlier this year I was reading Henry Fielding’s 1751 novel Amelia. A matter of linguistic interest that struck me was the frequent use of the phrase you was, nowadays stigmatised as pretty firmly non-standard English, and certainly not something you particularly expect to find used by posh characters in a classic novel. But there it was, repeatedly, for example:

  • “Indeed, Will, you was a charming fellow in those days.”
  • “I ask your pardon, madam,” said the doctor; “I forgot you was a scholar.”
  • “If you was a reasonable woman,” cries James, “perhaps I should not desire it.”

You might wonder if you was was just something everybody used in the past, and the modern you were is a more recent innovation. But in fact you were is definitely the older term. The paradigm of to be in the past tense in English in about the sixteenth century was something like the following:

I was we were
thou wast ye were, you were
he/she/it was they were

were is used with the plural forms and was(t) with the singulars. But also about this time a change was underway in the second person which saw the old present singular thou replaced with the plural you, giving us the modern paradigm as follows:

I was we were
you were you were
he/she/it was they were

So what’s going on in Amelia? Here, we see almost exclusive use of you was: 33 instances, against only 1 of you were. (All of these are singular or ambiguous as to number; that is to say, there are no clear instances of plural you with a past tense of be.

This looks like a case of a historical process called analogy. By this point, you has taken over as pretty much the sole second-person pronoun, replacing thou in the singular. (There are no instances of thou wast, and across the whole text the older forms thouthee and ye are very much less frequent than you, which makes up about 98% of uses of second-person pronouns.) But this creates a disuninformity in the paradigm, one which is still present in standard English today: were is no longer an exclusively singular form. Some speakers in Fielding’s time clearly decided to get around this by extending was to (singular) you:

I was we were
you was you were
he/she/it was they were

This paradigm makes was the sole form in the singular, and reinstates were as the only form in the plural. (Of course we can’t tell on the basis of the Amelia data alone if you were was retained in the plural, as we don’t definitively have any relevant uses of plural you, but there is evidence from other texts from the same time that this was the case.) 

But what’s also interesting is that this change didn’t persist. At some point the trend toward you was was reversed, and standard English went back to you were. This illustrates that changes in language don’t proceed inexorably toward some end goal: they can be, and sometimes are, halted midway. It has been suggested that, in this particular case, the change may have been reversed through the influence of an important 1769 grammar by Robert Lowth, which condemned the use of you was. In general, perhaps, prescriptive attitudes don’t have that much of an influence in terms of preventing changes in the long-term, but maybe in this rare instance we should give prescriptivists reason to take heart—perhaps their efforts aren’t utterly futile after all!