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I live in western Pennsylvania, US, and over the years I've heard quite a few natives use "I seen" instead of "I saw" or "I have seen", as in:

I seen that movie.
I seen him leave.

I haven't heard this substitution of past participle for simple past for other verbs that I can recall; it seems to be specific to see in my experience.

This answer here on EL&U suggests that this is a Texan or Southern US construct, and this Quora post also suggests that it is southern US. I didn't find attestations for other locations (including PA) in searching, and did not find any origin claims. It's possible that this usage arose somewhere else and then found its way to the south (and to PA). Or it might be southern in origin and then found its way north.

  1. Where and when did this usage originate?
  2. Does it occur with other verbs too? (I'm wondering if the fact that see has an irregular past-tense form is relevant.)
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    It is not southern or Texan. It is uneducated speech. They do not use the simple past. They take the part participle instead. I seen, I done. I gone. It is also a trait of Black English.
    – Lambie
    Oct 31, 2016 at 21:54
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    @Lambie It's not “uneducated speech”, it's a simple dialectal feature. In some British and Irish dialects, at least, it's not necessarily a case of using the past participle instead of the past, but of optionally eliding the auxiliary in perfect constructions. Oct 31, 2016 at 21:57
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    It is marked as uneducated in the US. That is not a value judgment, it is a fact. Southerners who go to school don't talk that way, for example. Those who don't, do (a general thing). It is not an elision in US speech. Call it a dialect if you like. Fine with me. The origin may very well be Irish, I agree with that.
    – Lambie
    Oct 31, 2016 at 22:58
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    @Lambie Lots of dialect traits are marked as uneducated when their use has absolutely nothing to do with education. Rhoticity is marked as uneducated in England; calling it ‘pop’ instead of ‘soda’ is marked as uneducated in New England; not using the subjunctive in irrealis constructions is marked as uneducated by some. I know highly intelligent university graduates who say “I seen” when they're not consciously speaking or writing ‘standard’ English—education level has very little to do with it. Nov 1, 2016 at 0:27
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Southerner here. I'll back Lambie up on this. Uneducated Southerners use past participle for simple past; educated Southerners rarely do. Not a value judgment--an observation.
    – pyobum
    Nov 1, 2016 at 0:28

4 Answers 4

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The earliest instance of "I seen you" that a Google Books search turns up is from a 1733 edition of a 1620 translation by "Mr. Shelton and Mr. Blunt" of Cervantes's Don Quixote, which they title The History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha. The wording arises in a speech by Dorotea, whom Wikipedia describes as "a modest young woman, whom Ferdinand promises to marry and then leaves." Here is the relevant passage:

I am she, which sometime immured within the Limits of Honesty, did lead a most contented Life, until it opened the Gates of her Recollection and Weariness, though to thine Importunity, and seeming just and amorous Requests, and render'd up the keys of her Liberty, a Grief by thee so ill recompenced, as the finding myself in so remote a Place as this, wherein you have met with me, and I seen you, may clearly testify; ...

Clearly "I seen you" in this instance is a short form of "I have seen you," with the have understood from the earlier wording "you have met with me."

The first Google Books match for "I seen" in the sense of "I saw" is much later. One possible match is from The Life of John Metcalf, Commonly Called Blind Jack of of Knaresborough (1795):

Metcalf took it for granted that his companion had seen one of these [will-o-the-wisps] but for good reasons declined asking him whereabout the light was; and to divert his attention from this object, asked him, "Do you not see two lights; one to the right the other to the left?" "No," replied the gentleman; "I seen but one light, that there on the right."—"Well then, Sir," said Metcalf, "that is Harrogate."

This episode, which the author says took place in 1735, involves the speech not of an illiterate workingman or a criminal, but of an English "gentleman" who happens to be relying (unwittingly) on a blind man to serve as his guide from the city of York to Harrogate—a distance of approximately 22 miles). It is certainly possible that this instance is simply a typographical error (seen for see), since the gentleman being quoted may be looking directly at the light as he speaks. Nevertheless, someone at the printer's shop put the n there, and presumably someone read it and thought it looked okay.

The first unmistakably intentional use of "I seen" in a Google Books search result is from "Tim Bobbin," Plebeian Politics, or The Principles and Practices of Certain Mole-Eyed Maniacs Vulgarly Called Warrites (1801), a dialogue written in Lancashire dialect:

Tum [Grunt]. Zuns, mon! boh I seen th' dey when won wur likker t' ha' bin breant wi' thoose foos for seyink hawve oz mitch oz so; heaw did e kum off wi' em?

From Christian Johnstone, Clan-Albin: A National Tale (1815), the nation being Ireland:

"...But, after all that, I must, in the devil's name, be talking and joking to make 'em laugh, and acting Brian Baru and the like, as I seen in the treater; so I was packed off for my cleverness, and Ellis the Englishman taken, who tells no lies, nor much truth neither, as he seldom says any thing good or bad."

Next comes a double instance in trial testimony in Trial of Frederick Eberle and Others, at a Nisi Prius Court, Held at Philadelphia, July 1816 (1817). The speaker in the recorded testimony is Henry Schrader (identified at the beginning of his testimony as "Has been at the meeting of the German society, does not belong to it"):

Vanderslice was going to take the man who had took the book from Mr. Witman; I heard Geyer call to Vanderslice, "catch that man"—they went all together in a lump; I could not tell who they had or who it was, I seen they had hold of a man by the coat—I did not know anything further—I went over to the school house on Fourth street and stood there a little bit[.]

...After a while, I cannot recollect the time, whether it was before dinner or after, I saw a crowd of people on the pavement near the church; Vanderslice was among them, and I seen Vanderslice had hold of a man there, and some of them wanted him to leave the man go; one of them, Spiess clapped his hand upon his shoulder, and said "Vanderslice, you had better leave that man alone."

So as of 1817, we have definite sightings of the wording "I seen" situated in Lancaster, England, among fictional local rustics; in Ireland as spoken by a fictional Irishman; and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in actual trial testimony given by a German American. All of these instances precede any recorded instance from the U.S. South.

I suspect that the use of "I seen" for "I saw" has been reinvented many times in the history of English, particularly since the question "Have you seen X?" invites the untutored response, "Yes, I seen X"—or for that matter, the correct response, "Yes, I've seen X" voiced in a way that sounds to the untutored listener very much like "Yes, I seen X."


Update (June 20, 2023): A seventeenth-century instance of 'I seen you'

A search of Early English Books Online turned up the following instance of "I seen you" (in the sense of "I saw [that] you") from a pamphlet published in 1681. It appears in a letter, dated October 21, 1681, from John Fitz-Gerrald (described by the hostile author of the pamphlet as "an Irish man and formerly a Romish Priest" who had been imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea, where the letter was written), reprinted in "A Discovery of One Sham More: Design'd Against Three of His Majesties Justices of the Peace for the County of Surrey" (1681):

Mr. Parcurst,

Sir, I was In great hopes of my Libertie, when I seen you had A hand in It, But I begin to despaire of it by reason of your delays, And I am Certaine if you had stured In it, It had been done since you were heare last, but happily you will say you durst not meddle In it But Alas? ...

This instance is notable in using "I seen" not as a short form of "I've seen" but as an alternative form of "I saw." It is also significantly older than any similar use of "I seen" that I have found and is less ambiguous than the instance from 1795 cited in my original answer. It also bears noting that the framing here isn't simply "when I seen you" but "when I seen [that] you had a Hand in it..."

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  • Yes, this feels much more natural, and the speaker probably makes a usage distinction between "I seen" and "I saw". It's unlikely "I saw" has been abandoned.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jun 22, 2023 at 20:15
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The linguist Anatoly Liberman has produced "I been, I seen, I done" a very interesting study on this issue. It appears that the usage was originally an Irish English one which later spread to the United States with immigration:

  • The origin of grammatical phenomena is no easier to trace than the origin of words and idioms. So few things are certain in the history of I been/seen/done that it may be useful to mention them at once. I been and the rest are not imports from Black English (though some people think so) and they are not Americanisms (as most people believe).

.........

  • Been, seen, and done without have turn up in the novels and plays by Kingsley, Dickens, Joyce, Shaw, and others. “…they never got nothing but fourteen shilling, and I seen um both a-hanging in chains by Wisbeach river, with my own eyes” ; “Yer lie, I don’t owe yer nothing; I never seen yer” ; “Though I say it, I’m better than the best collector he ever done business with”.

........

  • Judging by the not too copious data at our disposal, I been/seen/done arose in Irish English and the influx of Irish immigrants can account for their popularity in the United States. ....

  • Perhaps the wide use of the have-less perfect in America had repercussions for British English (as happened to subjunctives like I insist you do it, without should, in Australia and New Zealand).

From: (blog.oup.com)

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  • That doesn't explain it's existence in Black English speech.
    – Lambie
    Oct 31, 2016 at 21:55
  • @Lambie - in the extract he says that it didn't originate from Black English speech.
    – user66974
    Oct 31, 2016 at 22:00
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    @Lambie I'm looking for origin and hoping to understand how it got to PA; I'm not looking for a complete list of dialects that include it. I mean, that could be interesting too if even possible, but it's not what I asked so answers needn't address it. Oct 31, 2016 at 22:04
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    Monica, it is across the US. It is mostly unschooled people. Once people finish high school and follow what they hear, they don't use it; also if they go onto to college. Now, a person can "go back home" and code switch back. It's everywhere this phenomenon. It's not geographically delineated....
    – Lambie
    Oct 31, 2016 at 23:02
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    @Lambie - The trait is common through much of the southern East Coast, the area south of Washington DC and probably centered along a line halfway to the Mississippi. Not surprisingly, since this was once slave territory, many AAV traits originated from this region. I've never really looked into it, but the Irish culture shares many traits (not just linguistic) with this Appalachian region, and it's likely that significant numbers of Irish settled in the area at some time.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 1, 2016 at 1:56
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  • I seen, I been, I done,

cited above in Liberman's title, are simply extreme contractions of

  • I've seen, I've been, I've done,

which are pronounced (when one is speaking very distinctly and carefully)

  • /ayvsin, ayvbɪn, ayvdən/

But when speaking as distinctly as possible, one rarely uses contractions. As pronounced (not spelled -- spelling and punctuation are irrelevant to language change), they all contain a consonant cluster starting with /v/, which is a very rare combination in English. So much so that the /v/ in most contractions with have disappears in normal speech. So it sounds like I seen, because you didn't notice the lip gesture representing /v/. Note that the verbs following I in these examples are all past participles, which signals an auxiliary have in front of them. That signal, plus the lip gesture, are normally all that's necessary to interpret the expression as a subject + perfect verb phrase construction.

The fact that one can write a canonical contraction like I've does not mean that one pronounces it that way (especially since apostrophes are silent). The term for all this is "Fast Speech Rules" /fæspitʃrulz/.

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The OED has a huge introduction to the forms of the verb "to see" in which spellings which where largely phonetic show every conceivable variation and some that are frankly strange, Among them are

θ. 1700s– seen (regional); English regional 1800s zin (south-western), 1800s– sin, 1700s– zeen (west midlands and south-western), 1900s sen (Nottinghamshire).

1707 S. Centlivre Platonick Lady iv. i. 43
If old Roger Dowdy were alive, and zeen me thissen.

1796 Aurora (Philadelphia) 30 Sept. 3/3
So fine a sight (says Yankee to his friend) I swear I never seen—you may depend.

1850 Knickerbocker July 87
We spoke of Major Andre. ‘Oh,’ said the old lady, ‘I seen him more'n fifty times.’

2002 R. Perkins in L. Purcell Black Chicks Talking 270
They were dirt poor but she supported him, she seen that as her role.

The British dialect versions, sin, zeen, and sen are still current.

Older than this, the verb itself was inflected, and the simple past plural was:

γ. early Middle English seþe, [...] Middle English seeyn, [...], Middle English seien, [...] Middle English seyen, Middle English seyn, Middle English seyne, Middle English (south-eastern) 1700s (Irish English (Wexford)) zey.

a1275 in C. Brown Eng. Lyrics 13th Cent. (1932) 39
Ne seien ho neuer none more. [no one saw her again]

c1384 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(2)) (1850) John vi. 19
Thei seen Jhesu walkinge on the see.

The suggestion thus is that "seen" has had regular use as a dialect form and the colonialists brought "I seen" with them and it has stuck.

[As an aside, to see was infrequently used as a weak verb:

η. 1800s– seed (regional and nonstandard); English regional 1800s seid (Devon), 1800s sid (Shropshire), 1800s zead (Somerset), 1800s zeed (south-western), 1800s zid (Somerset).

1992 A. Thorpe Ulverton vi. 116
You should've seed his hands.

and interestingly:

1989 L. A. Pederson et al. Ling. Atlas Gulf States: Techn. Index in Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. (2002) IV. 839/2 See..[past participle] Sawd.]

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