We All Need “Y’all”
“Y’all” is one of the most useful words in the English language. It’s a shame it’s not acceptable in the most formal settings, because “y’all” fulfills a role that no other word can quite handle. English lacks a second person plural pronoun, and “y’all” does the job like no other.
Second person pronouns are often unstable compared to other pronouns. With first person pronouns like “I” or “we”, you’re talking about yourself or the group you’re a part of. And with third person pronouns like “he”, “she” or “they” you are talking about other people who are not part of the conversation. But with second person pronouns, you’re addressing a person or group directly. This means you have to follow the right protocol, depending on whether you’re addressing someone above you in the social hierarchy, or someone below you. This is known as the T-V Distinction, and it’s common to many different languages.
In many languages, like French and German, the plural “you” also doubles as the formal “you”. For example, if you’re talking to a friend or a subordinate, you would use the informal “tu”, but if you’re talking to someone with more social standing than you, you use “vous”. For a group of people, you use “vous” regardless of the context. English was once like this. Originally, “thou” was for one person and “ye” or “you” was for a group. Gradually “you” became used in more formal settings, and “thou” became an relic, used mostly in archaic verse. “You” started to function as the universal second person pronoun, regardless of the situation.
No Plural “You”
With “thou” relegated to the Bible and Shakespeare, English was left without a plural “you”. The problem was, a plural “you” was useful. So people started innovating. New plural forms popped up, like “youse”, “youse guys”, “you guys”, “you lot”, “you-uns”, “yinz” and “y’all”. Each of these is associated with a different part of the English speaking world, but while they might have some cultural significance, some of these are better than others. Though I grew up thinking of it as a low-class slang word, I now believe that “y’all” is the best of the plural “you” options.
North vs. South
I have no emotional attachment to “y’all”. I grew up in the North, and I (erroneously) felt it was a word only for hick Southerners. But “y’all” makes the most sense of any of second person pronouns. First of all, it’s not gender-biased like “you guys” or “youse guys”. It doesn’t rely on a slangy suffix like “you-uns” or “yinz”, and it’s one syllable, unlike “you lot” or “you guys”. But best of all is how it has its own formal and informal forms.
Formal vs. Informal
As a contraction, “y’all” breaks down easily into “you all”. This means that “y’all” comes paired with a more formal pronoun, “you all”. Like “going to” and “gonna”, there are two forms, one used mostly in writing and enunciated speech, and the other in everyday writing. By using “you all” as a formal second personal plural pronoun and “y’all” as an informal version, we can ease our way into using the word, without really having to invent some new form of speech that no one would use.
Warming Up to “Y’all”
“Y’all” has grown on me in the eight years I’ve lived in Texas, though it’s a hard word to incorporate into my Midwestern way of talking. For now, I still use the word deliberately, when I’m trying to sound folksy or just trying to avoid the inferior “you guys” that I grew up saying. But despite my difficulties with the word, I hope that we can eventually elevate this humble pronoun into the pantheon of proper English grammar.
Do y’all use “y’all”? Let me know in the comment section.
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[…] address this further in a previous blog post, but a few centuries ago, “you” replaced “thou” in all but archaic and […]