Regions of America have their own grammar, just like they have their own vocabulary.
Ohioans, for instance, call the wheeled conveyances used in grocery stores “shopping carts,” rather than shopping wagons, carriages, buggies, or any of the other terms used around the country. And if that shopping cart gets dirty, in Ohio, it doesn’t need to be washed; it needs washed.
Sometimes, grammatical variations are obvious to the ear: the “habitual be” of African American Vernacular English–as in “we be showing off” or “who be eating cookies?”–stands out to American English speakers, even if they don’t know its proper use. But sometimes these grammatical variations sneak by.
“New words are being created all the time, and they’re easy to spread,” says Jim Wood, a visiting lecturer at Yale University. “Syntactic constructions, a lot of them are more under the radar, and when you ask about the variation, people often aren’t aware there’s anything surprising about it at all.”
Compared to vocabulary and accents, the regional variations of English grammar in America have not been studied much. So when Wood and his colleagues at the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project started documenting variations, they quickly found unusual constructions—including one that’s not only unique to the American South but that has no parallel in any language they’ve looked at so far.
This discovery began with a blog titled “Here’s you a blog,” which Larry Horn, one of the project’s founders, had come across. This blogger had first come across this grammatical quirk–”here’s you a…”–while traveling in Kentucky: a post office clerk had handed over a stamp featuring a dog, and said, “Here’s you a dog.” The phrase delighted the blogger, and she started using it to label pictures of dogs, until she realized she could apply it to other nouns–like her blog.
When Wood first read that sentence, “it was a sharply ungrammatical sentence to me,” he says. He wanted to find out where it was used and in what forms. By running surveys through Mechanical Turk, the Amazon service which connects workers with paid tasks, Wood and his colleagues determined it was mostly used in the South. When they looked for variations, though, they found an entirely unknown type of sentence.
The linguists wanted to know if “here’s me a…” could be turned into a question—”where’s me a..?” One of their first steps: just Google that phrase. Immediately, they started finding examples. They’re all over the internet, mostly on social media and in the comments sections of websites:
When linguists think they’ve found something new, they look for the same construction elsewhere. “The way we tread new ground is asking people: can you say this in your language?” says Wood. Languages are generally similar enough that there are analogues. For “here’s you a…” that was true: there are examples in French, Latin, Russian and Hebrew. But the “where’s” version had no parallels.
“People would wrinkle their nose and say, ‘You can’t say that,’” Wood says.
When Wood and his colleagues investigated the construction, they found that it, too, is used mostly in the American South, stretching west through Texas. In other words, it seems like the South has invented a way of speaking that, as far as anyone knows, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world right now–and may never have.
“One day we might find a language that has it,” says Wood. “But its absence so far is pretty remarkable.”