Q: Why have the once ubiquitous terms “thee bist” and “thee bistnt” vanished from Wiltshire, Cornwall, and Dorset in England?
A: The dialectal use of “bist” and “bistnt” for “be” and “be not” hasn’t quite vanished in southwestern England, but it’s not as common as it used to be, probably because of the impact of radio, television, and universal education.
We’ve found quite a few 20th-century examples in newspapers from the West Country (an area roughly consisting of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Bristol). Here are some of the sightings:
“Thee bist a bit vree ’n eazee wi thy remarks bissent?” (Wells Journal, Somerset, June 3, 1976).
“I’m glad thee bist come, he remarked to the first customer to arrive” (Gloucester Citizen, Gloucestershire, July 26 1949).
“Wot’s rekin thee bist up to?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Nov. 29, 1947).
“Thee bist chicken, but thee b’yent d’yud an’ done vor yet a’while, thee zilly old chump” (Gloucester Journal, Jan. 20, 1940).
“Thee bistn’t any bloomin’ ornament vor a zure thing—bist any use?” (Western Gazette, Somerset, Oct. 6, 1933).
“What bist doin’, Targe? said another employee, Bist’nt gwain a do any work to-day?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Aug. 05, 1944).
Interestingly, this dialectal usage has roots in Old English, where the verb “be” was bieon, bian, or bion, and the second person singular (“you are”) could be written in various ways, including ðu arð (thou art) and ðu bist (thou be).
An Old English version of Matthew 6:9 in the Lindisfarne Gospels includes both ðu arð and ðu bist as variants, as well as two variant spellings of “heaven” (heofnum and heofnas):
“Pater noster qui es in caelis: fader urer ðu arð ðu bist in heofnum in heofnas.” The manuscript was written in Latin around 700. A scribe added an interlinear Old English gloss, or translation, in the 900s.
Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example from Cotswold and Vale: or Glimpses of Past and Present in Gloucestershire (1904), by Henry Branch:
“Lookee, thee bist purty, my love; lookee, thee bist purty: thee hast dove’s eyes betwix thy locks; thy locks be like a flock o’ ship fur thickedness.”