I moved to New York City for the first time in November 1984. It took no time at all before I was questioned about my frequent use of the word “y’all.”
Using this word made me a hillbilly, a rube, a dummy among my new work colleagues and the few friends I was making. Most of these folks chose instead to use the phrase “you guys” or “youse guys.”
One night, frustrated with my inability to explain my use of the word, I thought back to my early English classes where I learned about pronouns. In our common tongue, there are subject pronouns (used when we speak about ourselves) and object pronouns (used when we are speaking about others). All these pronouns have first-person and second-person versions.
Let’s look first at the first-person pronouns. When I speak of myself as the subject of a sentence — you know, the word before the verb — I use the pronoun “I.” When I speak of myself as the object of the sentence (after the verb), I use the pronoun “me.”
Simple enough, right?
Now let’s look at the second-person versions of those pronouns, the ones I use when I talk about you. When I speak of you as the subject of a sentence, I use the pronoun “you.” And when I speak about you and others, the English books say I am also supposed to use the pronoun “you.”
Say what? Could a language as rich as English fail to manage original words for second-person singular and second-person plural pronouns?
When I realized this, I had ammunition for my fight. Ever after, when my use of the word “y’all” made me the brunt of a joke, I had my answer ready. “Don’t you realize that the English language uses the same *%)# word for its first- and second-person plural pronouns? That makes no sense. We need a second-person plural pronoun that’s different from the first-person. And y’all is the perfect word. It is the missing and much needed second-person plural pronoun that our language needs. And by the way, it also has what I call the ‘plural emphatic’ version — all y’all. As in, *(%# all y’all!”
This argument has been the rock I’ve stood on ever since.
I’m sure I was not the originator of this argument, but I love to see it echoed in the writing of others. In 2019, NPR ran an interview with Catherine Davies, a professor emerita of linguistics at the University of Alabama.
In late 2018, Davies had published a book of essays called “Speaking of Alabama: The History, Diversity, Function, and Change of Language.” In that book, there was an essay titled “A Southern Improvement to the Pronoun System.”
“Well, I would say that Southern English is doing a great job,” she told Scott Simon, the host of “Weekend Edition.”
The two discussed how English evolved into the you/you problem. Davies said that earlier forms of our language had pronouns for both the singular second person (thou or thee) and the plural second person (ye or you). Of course, we all know those archaic words eventually disappeared. And Davies, a New Yorker by birth, made the argument that “y’all” is the ideal solution.
“It seems very useful,” Davies told Simon.
In early 2016, Vann R. Newkirk II, a senior editor of The Atlantic, published an essay called “America Needs ‘Y’all.’”
“‘Y’all,’ that strange regional and ethnic conjunction, offers a simplicity to speech that can’t be found elsewhere,” Newkirk wrote. “It is a magnificently elegant linguistic creation.”
Newkirk’s essay explores the historical factors that led the English language into the you/you problem, and the ways we have improvised solutions for the problem.
That last sentence is my favorite. Y’all is our precious gem.
What do you like about the word y'all? Leave a comment below!
Yes, y’all are so right! It’s not gender specific, like “you guys.” Truly the best choice for our modern era.
Y’all seems much more inclusive and intimate than “you guys” or especially “youse”, almost like building a bridge instead of a wall, but I’m Southern so agree it is a gem.
When I started teaching English in 1974 (yikes!) I had so much fun with pronouns. I used a chart and made a little test sentence to determine person. ___ own(s) that book; give it to ___ because it is ___. ___ bought it ___. So we’d go through a fill in each blank. I’d say you are talking about yourself, so I, me, mine, and myself. Then for a group, we, us, ours, ourselves. When we came to second person plural, the class would giggle and say y’all. Then I would explain how Southerners were just creating a second person pronoun in informal standard. The allowed me to explain levels of usage, and regional vernacular. I finished by teaching them the Handy Dandy Yankee Put Down, stressing it was only to be used defensively. When mocked for saying “y’all, they were to say very rapidly. Y’all simply demonstrates the Southerners instinctive need to differentiate between the singular and plural second person pronoun as does most other Indo-European languages. What do you use?” Then they to just stare at the attacker and wait. They loved it. We would practice saying it, and I would give extra credit if they could write it out at the end of a test. While it was humorous, it really cemented their understanding of pronoun person and case. When I retired in 2007, my daughter collected letters from former students. And a surprising number mentioned this, and told a story of actually using it. Oh, and one other thing. I made sure that they spelled y’all correctly and explained why. I’m appalled how often I see it misspelled, even in the South. It is indeed a gem, and I’m very proud of my part in teaching my students to love and defend its use.