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Ben Yagoda on Y'ALL

Highlights from Issue 31: Ode to the South

Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY

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Monday, August 06, 2007

By Ben Yagoda

The following piece is from Issue 31: Ode to the South. This issue is available for purchase on this site

Yagoda on Y’all

Consider y’all. Seemingly an innocuous, even potentially charming, Southern solution to the English language’s lack of a distinct word to indicate the second-person plural (it sure beats such alternatives as youse, yiz, yins, you lot, you guys and the Sopranos-esque youse guys), it has generated a remarkable amount of heat.

Almost all of the controversy has centered around a single point: whether or not y’all is ever knowingly employed by natives to indicate second-person singular. In other words, would any self-respecting Southerner ever say to a friend, referring to the friend and the friend alone, “How y’all doing?”? A 2006 article in the scholarly journal American Speech tallies 30 previous investigations of the issue, dating back to 1928. That was when Estelle Rees Morrison, a Northerner, wrote a note in American Speech contending that singular y’all was quite common in the South, representing a polite or formal form of address, comparable to the French vous. Morrison’s essay was not viewed kindly below the Mason-Dixon line, and a consensus grew that the singular form was an invention of Hollywood screenwriters and other Yankees who were too lazy to investigate how Southerners really talk.

Eventually this became, as H.L. Mencken put it in his classic book The American Language, “a cardinal article of faith in the South, and questioning it is almost as serious a faux pas as hinting that General Lee was an octoroon.” (Interestingly, white Southerners had originally picked you all up from African slaves, and apparently initially in a singular context. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from an 1824 book: “Children learn from the slaves some odd phrases;..as..will you all do this? for, will one of you do this?” Neither you all nor y’all was widely used by whites until the mid-19th century, at the earliest.)

Mencken’s phrase “article of faith” is apposite. Morrison and those who followed her into this breach have been short on hard evidence: the one camp shouting, in so many words, “I’ve heard it used as a singular!”; the other, “I’ve never heard it used as a singular!” The first group has a bit of a rhetorical advantage, since, as is well known, it is very hard to prove a negative. So the plural-only crowd has devoted much of its effort to debunking the examples provided by the singular group, typically claiming that a reported “How y’all doing?” referred not to the addressee alone but to his whole family or some such.

An especially ingenious scholar, Gina Richardson, writing in American Speech in 1984, said that some of her informants intentionally deployed the singular y’all when they felt it was important to sound “Southern” and/or unthreatening: one used it to a bellicose New York bus driver, another when telling a roommate that she didn’t think her fad diet was a good idea. Richardson feels there is an explanation for every seemingly singular use. For example, she observed a friend, John, greeting her father with “Hi, y’all.” When she later asked John about it, he cited the movie Harvey, where the main character, Elwood P. Dowd, is always accompanied by an invisible rabbit: “Since your father’s name is Elwood, I like to tease him about being Elwood P. Dowd; so that ‘hello’ was for both Elwood and the invisible rabbit.”

That’s all well and good, but in the most rigorous study to date (published in American Speech in 1998), Jan Tillery and Guy Bailey conducted detailed interviews with more than 700 randomly selected Oklahomans. They found that about 30 percent reported having used y’all as a singular. A less extensive survey of adults throughout the South yielded roughly the same percentage. The authors also report recorded uses, as in a bit of patter between Bob Willis and vocalist Tommy Duncan from a 1930s disc:

Bob: You got your dictionary with you?
Tommy: What yall want with a dictionary?

They also cite a field interview with a white Texas female who remarked, “An’ so, the boys told him, ‘Lee, when y’all getting married?” Tillery and Bailey end up supporting what they call “the one position linguists have not taken.” And that is “that Southerners vary in their norms for y’all, with some of them using the form only as a plural and others using it also as a singular.”

With that point seemingly settled, a new point of contention has bubbled up: spelling. The traditional rendition is y’all, which makes sense if you see the word as a contraction of you all, but this has recently been challenged by ya’ll, for which a Google search yields 2.3 million hits, compared to 4.9 million y’alls. A perusal of blogs and bulletin boards suggests that this may be the field on which Southern pride takes its next stand. One participant in an online discussion of the issue notes that the many dictionaries listing the spelling as y’all are published in the North. She goes on:

“I humbly yield for your consideration that the rules of grammar do apply to contrived words of diction, such as ‘ya’ll.’ Colloquially speaking, ‘ya’ is what we may say in conversation to represent ‘you.’ ‘Ya’ll’ is a contraction of the two words, ‘ya’ and ‘all.’ The formal standard rule, where the apostrophe represents dropped letters or words, will apply.

“Don’t let those Yankees influence your proper Southern orthography and lingo.”

Clearly, much contention lies ahead. In the meantime, as one Southern sailboat said to the other, “Bye, yawl.”


Ben Yagoda is the author of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse (Broadway)

 

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