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DaSwede | 21:06 Sat 08th Jul 2006 | Phrases & Sayings
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Good evening, Britain. (And the rest of the world that's peeping in.) This one is impossible to google for, so bear with me - I need it for something I'm writing.

In my text there's a character that 'talks funny' in all sorts of ways, and I find that as I try to listen to his voice in my head, as it were, he uses turns of phrase that obviously come naturally to him, but to me seem only vaguely familiar... The one I'm wondering about is this:

"I had a friend what played the piano."

Have I dreamed it up that the word 'what' can be used like this, or is it correct? I do remember hearing it used this way in a sketch on tv, but the character in that sketch was a precocious child who may well have been using sentences without grasping them fully - much like yours truly.

General thanks in advance, personal thanks later this week!


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that sentence does make sence, but grammatically people could say "who" or "that" as opposed to "what". different regional variations have a part to play as well.

try here for further assistance

hope it helps
If your character is meant to be regional, then "what" in this context is fine.

A Queen's English (or RP as we call it) educated person wouldn't say it as it's grammatically incorrect, but it can be heard often in the way you want to use it, especially in people with strong regional dialects.

Hope this helps!

Using 'what' in that way would be something only a child or an uneducated adult might do, just as such people make other grammatical/lexical errors. A typical example might be "He's the man what done it!" instead of "He's the man who did it!" There, we see an error in choice of pronoun and a use of the past participle where the past tense was required.
It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to write such things if you are trying to portray a child or an uneducated adult!
the artful dodger comes to mind
Why does the adult have to be uneducated exactly? I live in Somerset where it is common to hear people ask "wheres it to?" instead of "where is it?" it doesn't make them stupid.

As some of the others have already mentioned regional dialects have a part to play in whether this sentence is correct or not.
i disagree with your statement quizmonster, suggesting only a child or uneducated adult would use "what". surely regional variations on grammar play a part in word choice. for example, in yorkshire, some people say "were" as opposed to "was" eg "it were obvious that quizmonster provided the last answer before me".
but in taking too long to write my answer "it were stuffed up"
I think the general thinking is that anyone 'educated' would say it 'properly'. I haven't heard any dialect that uses it 'improperly', and when I read it, I thought of that character in 'Porridge' who can't read and is always a step behind the others. He once came out with "I know knowledge, me."
Using "what" for "who" or "that" is not an American regionalism, but I've encountered it in movies and books set in England. I'm sure if I had total recall I could come up with a lyric from Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady. It always seems to be some sort of uneducated bumpkin -- or
Sherlock Holmes in disguise as a hansom cab driver. (I don't know whether educated folks might use it in colloquial speech.)
Coobeastie, there's all the difference in the world between being 'uneducated' and 'stupid'. I most assuredly did not imply that they were synonymous!
Mrkester I doubt whether any Somerset - or Yorkshire - graduate, let's say, would use the structure described by DaSwede unless he/she was being deliberately twee. I maintain that that usage is for children and the ill-educated only.
"The play what I wrote" was often used by Ernie Wise in The Morecambe and Wise Show. If you Google for that phrase you will find several references; here is one:

"The Book What I Wrote, Eric, Ernie and Me" is Eddie Braben's autobiography: dle-form/026-9175321-3022060
Sorry, the Amazon link doesn't work.
Question Author
Bejabers, I guess it was an interesting question after all...! Nothing will start a riot like a linguistical opinion - it's the same over here. For obvious reasons (ja ja) I won't enter into your discussion, but you may all rest assured that listening in on your debate is very informative for me.

Several of you have mentioned or implied the police forces, and now that you do, it does remind me of having heard this kind of idiom emerge from underneath a bobby helmet (on television.) The Artful Dodger and the character from Porridge (a book? teve-series? musical?) also confirm the concept for me and make me feel that I'm on the right track. My character knows a lot of knowledge too, and dodgy he is!

The Morecambe and Wise Show was on here a hundred years ago - that may actually be where I first noticed it!!

Thank you all so very much from me and


Question Author
What's with the links... Try again, Sherlock: m-cab.html

Absolutely, Steve! The whole point of the long-running Eric & Ernie play-sketch was that Ernie was clueless as a writer, having no creative ability or even worthwhile control of the English language. Ernie's reference to the plays "what I wrote" were, therefore, specifically to show that the very idea of his writing plays was a joke. Cheers
it is most definitely WRONG to use what in this case, it is a southern english slang terminology

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