See. Saw. Have seen. (Simple, no?)

I’ve watched a lot of “man on the street” interviews and commentary on the news lately — people lining up for opening of the new Rivers casino; people commenting on health care or Cash for Clunkers or some other political topic; people lamenting road construction; people describing the horrible scene of the shooting at the L.A. Fitness gym the other night — in the shopping center right next to where I used to work.

What stands out to me, an unfortunate common thread among all of these unrelated topics and seemingly random mix of speakers, is how a lot of these people speak. I can’t count the number of “I seen him…” or “He told me he seen…” or “We don’t go there no mores” I’ve heard. And I just don’t get it.

I’d wager that every or nearly every one of the people speaking had a high school diploma. How does one get through 12 years of schooling and still say “I seen…”? What parent doesn’t gently correct their toddler’s first “Me do it” or “I drawed it” or, yes, “I seen…” from Day 1 — sowing the seeds early on of how to speak the language? How can someone grow up, go to school, get a job, raise a family, and still routinely say things like, “I seen him take the car” or “We should have went years ago”?

My parents did not go to college. My dad actually had to drop out of high school a few months before graduating in order to get a job to help support the family (in 1939 or so). My brothers and sisters and I grew up in a working class suburb with working class friends. And we all knew better than to speak like that (English being our native language and all).

And I’m not talking about regional dialects like the Pittsburghese I’m so fond of — I”m OK with “redd up” or “yinz” or “worshing the car” or “needs fixed.”  But “I seen him worsh his car every Sunday” just makes me cringe. I’ve been cringing a lot lately.

I don’t mean to come off sounding all high and mighty and “grammar police” — and yes, I’m a writer, so such things are important to me. But I genuinely don’t understand. Teachers presumably spoke to you correctly for 12 years. Newspapers, magazines, and books are written using correct grammar (for the most part). TV shows are spoken using correct grammar (unless slang or incorrect speech is part of the character). How is the right way of speaking not absorbed as a matter of course? How does it just not sound right to say things like “I seen…” How has no one ever corrected these patterns over the years? How did it happen that so many people never learned the word “saw”? Who decided to substitute “seen” in the first place?

I just don’t get it. Are there any linguists out there who can enlighten me?

I personally believe we developed language
because of our deep inner need to complain.
~ Jane Wagner

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9 Comments

  1. Rege said,

    Friday, August 7, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    I seen your point.

  2. RL said,

    Friday, August 7, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Having lived in areas of this city where that particular use of “seen” is prominent, I chalk it up to people learning at an early age that they sound a bit cooler, a little more edgy-street-talkish, with usage like that. And whether their parents attempt to correct it or not, it becomes a subtle cue about how they want to be perceived. And then of course that use is passed down to those who never make that gangster-speak connection but hear it all the time–so they use it too. I think issues like this signal a culture of preferred ignorance–along the lines of thinking too much school/education isn’t a hip thing, and should be avoided at all costs. May I join you at the high and mighty club?

  3. WritingbyEar said,

    Friday, August 7, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    Interesting take on this, RL. Never thought of it as the verbal equivalent of wearing giant jeans halfway down your hips or a sideways ballcap…

  4. pawsinsd said,

    Saturday, August 8, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Seen you, and raise you. Aunty up. That’s what I did. Two “aunts” in the English Department of the local high school. I used to correct their multiple choice papers on weekends! It made a difference.

    Bill Cosby got in trouble with the African American community a few years ago with a speech that basically said, and I paraphrase an entire speech in one idea: if you talk like a “hood,” you’ll be treated like one. Basically stop the ghetto slang and join the real world (no, not the “white” world but a world in which educated people speak as such.

    Thanks for the reminder, I’ll try to remember when just a little bit of TX drawl (lived there 6 years, multicultural upbringing around the USA and lost an upstate NY accent) creeps in to the conversation. And all y’all please listen to this cowgirl! Thanks, dee@cookingwithdee.net

  5. WritingbyEar said,

    Sunday, August 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Oh I love regional accents (like my own Pittsburghese) but yes, you can honor your roots without sounding illiterate. We are how we speak!

  6. WARREN said,

    Monday, August 10, 2009 at 6:29 am

    As a watcher of fine courtroom dramas such as Judge Judy, I hear a lot of speech mangling.
    One of my and her “favorites” is:
    “I borrowed him the money.”
    Judy cringes every time she hears it.

  7. WritingbyEar said,

    Monday, August 10, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Hard to imagine you’d have to hear that more than once in your life…again, how does that even sound right to someone?

  8. Rege said,

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 10:28 am

    That was not me in comment 1. My guess would be Warren, I could’nt believe it when I seen my name there.

  9. WritingbyEar said,

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Well there it is — I seen it with my own eyes.


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