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Ok, this is a somewhat nonstandard English question. In the Southern US, or at least in Central Virginia, there is an idiomatic use of the phrase it is that is equivalent to the expression there is, as in

It is not enough gas in my tank to make the trip.

Not being from the South myself, I'm puzzled by this particular usage. I thought the proper (not to mention, less ambiguous) way to phrase the sentence above was

There is not enough gas in my tank to make the trip.

Compare these two sentences:

Is it anything for dinner?

Is there anything for dinner?

How did this expression originate?

  • 4
    Can you link to some examples of this in use? I've never heard it, and I've been in Atlanta for almost 30 years. – Davo Jan 17 '18 at 15:37
  • @Davo Maybe it's unique to rural Virginia. – Brian J. Fink Jan 17 '18 at 15:40
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    Maybe you misheard it? I've spent time in rural Virginia and Maryland, and I've heard weird things, but never that. – Mike Harris Jan 17 '18 at 16:01
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    @Davo Also, I think this use is limited to speech and doesn't appear in writing. – Brian J. Fink Jan 17 '18 at 16:30
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    This is actually a very old construction: see OED 1, s.v. It, 2.b.: "It was formerly used where there is now substituted. (Cf. Ger. es ist, es sind.) – StoneyB Jan 17 '18 at 16:32
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The origin is somewhat surprising. It dates back to Old English, according to the OED's entry for it:

As the subject of an existential clause: = there adv. 4d. Now chiefly U.S. regional (south. and south Midland).
In Old English esp. with following that-clause; compare A. 4a(b).

The earliest example they give is this one, from "early Old English" (luckily I was able to find a translation):

Is hit lytel tweo ðæt ðæs wæterscipes welsprynge is on hefonrice; ðæt is Halig Gæst.
Gregory's Pastoral Care by King Alfred

There is little doubt that the well-spring of this wæterscipe is in heaven, that is the Holy Spirit.
A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies

In addition, some examples from Middle English can be found here under 4b.(b).

From circa 1384 (?), written by John Wycliffe, an early translator of the Bible into English and a devout anti-papist reformer:

And ȝif men speken largili, many men ben here more blessid þan þe pope; for hyenes of þis state makiþ not bi himsilf man blessid, for ellis ech pope were blissed, al ȝif he were falsly chosen of fendis; and Scariod shulde be blissed, as he was chosen by Crist himself. And it is no nede to argue here for to disprove þis foli, for it is more fals in himsilf þan ouȝt þat men shulen bringe herof.

These writings appear in The Select English Works of John Wyclif, edited by Thomas Arnold, Volume 3, and published in London in 1871 (pp. 344-345).

[yogh (ȝ) approximates "y" or "ou" (as in ouȝt = ought); thorn (þ) approximates "th"; "hyenes" = highness; "foli" = folly, etc.]

  • So it's an archaic, rather than new, use. That's extremely fascinating! – Brian J. Fink Jan 17 '18 at 16:37
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    Very interesting. It means that this construction moved from England, where at some point it disappeared only to survive in some parts of the U.S. , probably in connection to early settlements. – user067531 Jan 17 '18 at 19:04
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    Is there any evidence that the US usage comes in a direct unbroken line from the OE one, or is it also possible that the OE usage died out, but arose again independently (perhaps influenced by, say, German speakers as rexkogitans suggests in his answer)? – psmears Jan 18 '18 at 10:46
  • @psmears Is there much Germanic influence in Southern colloquialisms? It seems like it would be more likely to end up in places like Minnesota? Or is that more Nordic? – Barmar Jan 22 '18 at 20:20
  • @Barmar: I have no idea :-) – psmears Jan 22 '18 at 22:42
8

Apart from Old English, the return of this style may be influenced by German native speakers who wrongly take German wording into English sentences, as all those sentences, when translated to German, use the word es (English: it); but in German, the usage of es is perfectly fine:

There is not enough gas in my tank to make the trip.

Es ist nicht genug Benzin in meinem Tank, um die Reise zu machen.

and

Is there anything for dinner?

Gibt es etwas zum Abendessen?

  • +1. Can you add a transliteration (word for word) for those of us who do not speak German? Thank you for an informative answer. – Mark Hubbard Jan 24 '18 at 15:32

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