Wednesday, 16 May 2012

They call it

I noticed a thing the other day. It's a thing I've noticed about the Northeast (English) dialect before (specifically, I've noticed it in the Ashington dialect), but then I heard someone from Sheffield do it too, so maybe it's more widespread in the north.

What I noticed was that where I would say
It's called...
some people would say
They call it...

The exact context was that on Pointless, a contestant was trying to think of Adam Sandler films. He was trying to think of 50 First Dates, though he thought it was called 42 Dates, and he said
There's one, they call it 42 Dates.
This is not a part of my dialect at all, despite having lived in the north east most of my life, and it's sufficiently salient for me to be blogging about, but it's not unusual. I've also heard people introducing a character to the discourse who needs to be contextualised like this:
Margaret's son, I think they call him Michael, works in Asda now. 
For me, they call him has to have a sort of habitual meaning (the action happens habitually, on many separate occasions). To get the stative interpretation (he is in a state of being called Michael) I need to say He is called, where the verb is passive and the subject the person in question. But for these speakers, they call him, with an active verb with generic subject they, can have the stative reading.

Interestingly, it is always they as the subject, never people or any other subject meaning 'everyone in general'. This suggests that it's a fixed expression, they call NP (or perhaps it has to be a pronoun, though I think not), with they an impersonal pronoun like one.


  1. Never occurred to me that 'they call it' was a northeast expression. Rather like 'going messages' (i.e. errands to the shops), a phrase that is apparently Scots but which I recall from childhood.

  2. It may be Scots but there are lots of Scotticisms in the northeast. Words like bairn, and much of the pronunciation (things like polis for police) partly because some of it came over with the Vikings and partly because we're quite close by.

    Lots of people don't know that certain things are local to their area, and it's particularly the case with syntax (as opposed to vocab and accent, which are more noticeable) because syntax is much more 'low-level' and subconscious than the words you use. To the point that people simply don't believe you when you tell them that they use a certain expression. But then there's a lot people don't believe when you tell them about language. I once had a long conversation with a security guard who refused to believe he actually said 'im Preston' rather than 'in Preston' (because we all do - it's almost impossible not to).