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."

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 7th 2007, 4:36 AM
Comment by: Pondswimmer (Ste Foy La Grande France)
Actually my comment is about today's word of the day. Can you explain where the h came from in lachrymose?
Friday December 7th 2007, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Tara K.
I was born in San Francisco, have never come into any particular contact with even transplanted southerners and have used y'all for second person plural since my pre-teen years. I don't recall what originally inspired me, but I rather suspect it was from some book or another. It used to be remarkable to those who heard me use it, and it was years before I heard another person use it when not affecting an accent. Lack of data from DARE notwithstanding, that has changed in the last decade or two, and even those who do not make use of the word themselves are no longer surprised when they hear it used by me or by anyone else.
Friday December 7th 2007, 12:43 PM
Comment by: Carin R.
I've heard that the plural usage of "y'all" is "all y'all," which makes good sense and is fun to say, too!
Friday December 7th 2007, 7:02 PM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
I've used y'all for the past 40 years or so. Although I lived in Virginia and Georgia for several years as a teenager and young adult, I have never considered myself particularly Southern, but simply found the word sensible and useful from the time I first heard it. This is perhaps because I grew up speaking several languages which have a second person plural pronoun, and sorely missed it in English. "You guys" just doesn't cut it, indeed there IS this flavor of masculinity there, and it just sounds coarse and stupid to me, besides. Y'all is much more elegant! I would be very pleased if it gained currency throughout the country.
Saturday December 8th 2007, 12:59 AM
Comment by: gilbert S.
...WHOM we recently interviewed...
Saturday December 8th 2007, 5:05 AM
Comment by: Max C.
All y'all may as well get used to it 'cause it ain't goin' away!
We like y'all just fine. Jus' ask Paula Deen; she'll tell y'all!
Saturday December 8th 2007, 3:40 PM
Comment by: ricardo S.
there is probably an epidemic of role reversal and although it has it's advantages, there is too much going on. how about 'you folk' and so on to delineate second person pronoun?
Sunday December 9th 2007, 5:07 PM
Comment by: Jonathan G.
The reason that "you guys" is spreading faster than "y'all" is that, outside of the south, people fear emulating the perceived ignorance that appears to pervade "southern-speak". Y'all is definitely more efficient - So alla y'all can get over it and start using it.
Saturday December 15th 2007, 9:35 AM
Comment by: WordyGerty's girl
With family in both Atlanta, Houston and Waco I have become accustomed to "y'all" and "all y'all" over the years, preferred it to "you guys" which I stumble-mumble to replace with my female friend with "you gals." Like it better than my native Chicagoese , "youse guys" (or am I just watching too many Sopranos re-reruns?). I've received local (da Mitt-Michigan)stamped autumn cards with the expression, "Happy Fall, y'all." I thinks it's here to say/stay. A propos of Bagby Atwood's 45-yr. OLD prediction of Civil War breaking out over the usage, I hear it all over Texas, the Midwest AND more important to them, sometimes from the bi-coastal speakers. (Many of whom hail from these areas though now prefer to caption us 'flyover country' kudzu and its northern equivalent, bittersweet, their roots can be traced back between the coasts.) No signs of Civil War yet.
Thursday December 27th 2007, 5:06 PM
Comment by: frank N.
In my formative years in Jersey City NJ, I became used to the idea of saying "yiz" to indicate second person plural, i.e.- Where are yiz goin'.
This may be derived from the Brooklyn "youse". The singular form in J.C. was not "you", but "ya" (pronounced "yuh").

After trying successfully to eliminate "yiz" from my vocabulary, I find that it is an extremely useful form; it rolls more trippingly on the tongue than y'all, and clearly differentiates the sing. from the plur.

Too bad I've gotten out of the habit of using it.
Tuesday May 20th 2008, 3:45 PM
Comment by: Esther N.
May I point out that "ye/you" was plural originally, and when "thou/thee" got lost, "you" got pressed into double service, becoming singular as well as plural?
Alas, I suppose it's too late to return to thou/thee for the second person singular so that ye/you is purely plural. What do you say, Shakespeare fans and Anglicans/Episcopalians (I'm writing from Canada)?
I agree that "you guys" is inelegant, especially when it's used by a server in a restaurant addressing a party of people who would think of themselves as "ladies" and not "guys."
Tuesday July 8th 2008, 5:15 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
I just sent out a party invite using the phrase y'all and I've never lived in the South (born in Canada, live on West Coast of States). It IS the missing phrase and is spreading beyond the South. It's fun, it's descriptive, it's gender-neutral; just start saying it!

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Our interview with Michael about his book on verbal blunders.
A linguist's look at linguistic error.
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