Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Welcome to the Y'all House
Linguist Michael Erard, the author of Um. .. Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean who we recently interviewed, graciously sent us this article, which he first wrote and published in the magazine Lingua Franca:
Despite the intent stare and accusatory index finger, when Uncle Sam glowers down from recruitment posters and announces "I Want You for the U.S. Army," it is not absolutely clear what he means. Does he mean you in particular? Or you in general, as in "all of you eligible citizens"?
Uncle Sam's ambiguity is not unique. Ever since "thou," "thee," and "thine" withered away around the sixteenth century, the English language has suffered from the absence of a widely accepted second-person-plural pronoun. In the meantime, local speakers have had to make do. Irish English has produced "yousuns," and the Scottish have come up with "yins." On Fiji, they use "you gang," whereas on Montserrat they prefer "ayu," or "all you." In American English, several options exist: In Northeastern cities, it's "you guys" or "youse guys"; in Pittsburgh, it's "youse"; up and down Appalachia, folks opt for "you uns."
There are other American forms as well, but perhaps none is better known than the Southern "y'all." Indeed, the phrase may be getting more popular than many people realize. If a recent scholarly article is correct, "y'all" is transcending its regional status and possibly emerging as part of the national lexicon.
In an issue of the Journal of English Linguistics a few years ago, the dialectologists Jan Tillery, Tom Wikle, and Guy Bailey support this thesis with data from two national telephone polls taken in 1994 and 1996. Unsurprisingly, the polls established that eight out of ten people living in the South reported using "you-all" or "y'all"; usage of these words correlated highly with other indicators of Southernness, such as having lived in the South at the age of sixteen, having a Southern accent, and considering oneself Southern. The more shocking news was that more than 40 percent of non-Southerners living outside the South -- mainly in the Rocky Mountain states and in states bordering the traditional South -- also reported using "y'all." Though residents of the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and West Coast still resist using the pronoun, Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey conclude that "y'all" is spreading.
If these findings are correct, they suggest that "y'all" has overcome strong negative stereotypes about Southern speech. The Michigan State University linguist Dennis Preston has studied attitudes toward regional dialects, and in the late 1980s he found that the general population of southeastern Michigan considered Southern dialects the least correct form of English. Then again, the phrase's Southern spirit may be a point in its favor. William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina), calls attention to the increasing national popularity of Southern food and musical forms, as well as the visibility of Southern politicians on the national stage. And as the South goes, so goes "y'all": "The spread of 'y'all' is sort of like the spread of kudzu," Ferris says.
Whatever the significance of its affiliation with the South, "y'all" has intrinsic features that make it a good candidate for filling what Tillery, a linguist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, calls "a hole in the pronoun paradigm." Like the established one-word pronouns in English -- "you," "she," "I" -- "y'all" is verbally efficient because it functions as a single word. And unlike "you guys," it is gender neutral. "With 'you guys' there's a lurking potential for sexism," Preston says. "There are a lot of people who find it excessively male." In general, Tillery argues, "'y'all' is a neater, cleaner way of saying things."
But some wonder if "y'all" really is spreading to other parts of the nation. The archives of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), an ongoing survey of American dialects based at the University of Wisconsin, provide no evidence to support Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey's argument. According to George Goebel, an editor at DARE, his organization's own "systematic" questionnaire from the early 1960s "picked up y(ou) all almost exclusively in the South." Since then, DARE has obtained no data "suggesting a significant spread," says Goebel -- though it has acquired no data suggesting the contrary either.
To a skeptic like Michael Montgomery, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, the questionnaires that Tillery and company used may have been flawed, or their sample size may have been too small. Montgomery has used DARE records to research American second-person-plural pronouns and concludes that Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey are wrong: "I don't want to say it's a figment of their imagination, but it's undoubtedly an artifact of their polling methods."
Montgomery's own scholarship is a testament to how much linguistic controversy surrounds the subject of "y'all." He argues that "y'all" is a contraction not of "you all" but of "ye all," a variant from Ulster English pronounced "yuh all." Accordingly, he feels that "you all" and "y'all" are less linked than people commonly suppose. "'You all' is used more widely and isn't as identifiable as a Southernism," he says.
Montgomery also believes there may be an entirely different solution to the missing-pronoun problem. When consulting DARE records, he found no evidence of "you guys" forty years ago, which suggests that it has spread even faster than "y'all." "I don't remember hearing 'you guys' to refer to a married couple twenty-five years ago, but it's universal today," he says. "In various urban contexts in the South, I'd say 'you guys' is replacing 'y'all' and 'you all.'"
Whether or not the rise of "y'all" is a fact, there's another pressing linguistic question: Can "y'all" be used acceptably in the singular, as in "That's a pretty dress y'all have on"? To many Southerners, such a locution is highly unorthodox. In 1962, the Texas linguist E. Bagby Atwood even suggested that the misunderstanding of "y'all" could have serious national consequences. "If anything is likely to lead to another Civil War," he wrote, "it is the Northerners' accusation that Southerners use you-all to refer to only one person." In the face of such contentions, a native Southerner might react as William Ferris, who hails from Mississippi, does: "It's always to my ear jarring. It's always incorrect. When I hear 'y'all' used that way, it indicates someone who is not connected to a knowledge of the culture."
But Tillery, who hails from Alabama, claims that Southerners are increasingly using "y'all" in precisely this way. She points out that native speakers may well have a social reason for altering the acceptable usage of "y'all": If former Southernisms are becoming Americanisms, Southerners may have to seek out new verbal ways of signaling their own distinct Southernness. Using "y'all" in the second-person singular might just do the trick. "If 'y'all' was a marker of Southern identity and somebody else gets access to it, then people will find a way to get their identity back," she explains. "And only a Southerner is privileged enough to use it that way."