HOW TO TALK SOUTHERN.

Roy Blount Jr. has a combined review (in last Sunday’s NY Times Sunday Book Review) of The Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English (University of Tennessee Press, 2004), edited by Joseph S. Hall and Michael B. Montgomery, and Suddenly Southern: A Yankee’s Guide to Living in Dixie (Fireside, 2004), by Maureen Duffin-Ward; he praises the former and eviscerates the latter, all the while tossing in handfuls of succulent dialectal expressions taken from the dictionary:

Under ”splunge,” for instance, we read: ”She would fill the kittel to the crack with muddy water and splunge chips and leaves down deep into it with her hands and watch it close till she said it was done enough to eat.”… Under ”wonderly” we read: ”I have been thinking what a wonderly sight it will be to sit by the fire and look at the snow through all them new glass winders!”

He expends a good deal of energy on Duffin-Ward’s annoying contention that y’all is singular:

Recently I became aware of an airy new Southern lifestyle publication — Y’all: The Magazine of Southern People — out of Oxford, Miss., that might better be entitled Y’all: The Magazine That Doesn’t Know What Its Own Name Means. In its premiere issue, Y’all declared that: ” ‘Y’all’ is singular. ‘All y’all’ is plural.” That bit of blatant misinformation also appears in the ”Dixie Dictionary” portion of ”Suddenly Southern.”
I don’t know whether Y’all picked this up from Duffin-Ward or vice versa. She is not the first non-Southerner to insist that Southerners may call a single person ”y’all,” but to my knowledge she is the first to declare categorically, in the face of everyday evidence and all philological authority, that it is always a single person we so address. But she isn’t one to brook elucidation. With regard to the singularity of ”y’all,” she writes: ”Southerners will beg to differ here. They insist that even though they use it to address one person, it implies plurality.”
Something — either second-person-plural envy or hyperjocularity — has affected Duffin-Ward’s ear. People in the South do indeed sometimes seem to be addressing a single person as ”y’all.” For instance, a restaurant patron might ask a waiter, ”What y’all got for dessert tonight?” In that case ”y’all” refers collectively to the folks who run the restaurant. No doubt the implication of plurality is hard for someone who didn’t grow up with it to discern. It may even be that Duffin-Ward has heard a native speaker, in real life, violate deep-structure idiom by calling a single person ”y’all.” That would be arguable grounds for saying that ”y’all” is singular on occasion. But how can she have missed daily instances of people unmistakably addressing two or more people as ”y’all”? When a parent calls out to three kids, ”Y’all get in here out of the rain,” does she think only one child is being summoned? (”All y’all” is of course an extended plural: ”Y’all listen up! I mean all y’all.” Often it is pronounced ”Aw yaw.”)

(I’ve italicized the magazine’s name for clarity.) The Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English sounds wonderful, and I expect I’ll enjoy flipping through a copy in a library someday, but at $75 it’s a tad rich for my own bookshelves.
(Thanks to Elias for kindly letting me use his computer during my Berkshires visit!)

Comments

  1. Um, I’ve heard and used “y’all” myself for the singular, without anyone batting an eye, and I’ve seen it done otherwise. I think that in the usage I’ve seen it implies a small group, which may be a group of one (one of those weird numberings, kinda like the empty set contains one subset — itself!).

  2. I love the spelling rendition for all y’ll but know of it more in an Ebonics content. And it’s called an extended plural. More to love!!

  3. Have lived in Memphis, New Orleans, Western Kentucky, and coastal Georgia. Have visited and listened to Southerners from all over, and often heard y’all used to address the plural. Maybe a few times for the singular, though I wish that I had documented it now.
    It’s too bad her publishers let that one slip. I wonder if they even discussed it during the proofing and editing.

  4. I’m going out on a limb here, but the example of the singular y’all strikes me as a sort of formal second person, comparable to the use of the singular “vous” in French. But I suppose that if this was indeed an example of English “vouvoyer” we would have heard about it by now…

  5. Michael Farris says:

    Color me sceptical, but whenever I use y’all in conversation with a single person it’s as a representative of a group of people, the exact nature of that group would best be figured out from context. just as the Hungarian associative(?)plural -ék depends on context to figure out if it’s referring to family, co-workers, friends etc.
    I use y’all in addressing my students (as a group) here in Poland, but they never notice it, even after it’s pointed out. But then doing even a simple dictation exercise I’m inevitably stunned/dismayed at the results …

  6. I’m sure the Polish students of English above think they’re hearing you all instead of the specific yáll and for that reasaon don’t catch it on the dictations. BTW, I’m the only one in my school who does dictations. Little kids do so much writing with so-called inventive spelling that dictations model common words in everyday sentences spelled correctly.
    And as for yáll as ever a singular subject pronoun, I vaguely remember hearing it (not necessarily by a Southerner but definitely by an Ebonics speaker.) It did seem to evoke that quality expressed by the poster above, a sort of formality.

  7. Michael Farris says:

    “I’m sure the Polish students of English above think they’re hearing you all instead of the specific yáll and for that reasaon don’t catch it on the dictations.”
    No, they hear it as ‘you’ (maybe in an unstressed pronunciation like “ya”). In terms of dictation I wasn’t even thinking of that, but stuff that’s distressing in its own way, maybe I’ll do some this week and post some examples of creative hearing. In a nutshell, as a group, they don’t hear articles or lots of prepositions and find it hard to distinguish words like bet, bed, bad, bat (among others).

  8. When I taught ESL to adults, they had the hardest time hearing and pronouncing the following words: cheap, sheep, sheet, shit, cheat and a few others. And of course they always confused kitchen and chicken. we had a lot of ESL only laughs.

  9. Speaking as a professional linguist and native user of “y’all”, I think a lot of this discussion is really misguided. The question is one of characterizing the distinction between the formal semantic representation of the lexical item, and the pragmatic implicatures that it can invoke — i.e., distinguishing formal meaning from usage. Both are rule-governed. One cannot blithely say “y’all aren’t listening to me” or some such equivalent statement when the context rules out a generic people-in-general or plural interpretation. This leads to what linguists call an infelicitous reading. To draw a numerical analogy, we might say that the number three is lower bounded by semantic meaning (“at least three”) and upper bounded by pragmatic implicature (“at most three”). Thus, if I say I have three books on my bookshelf, I am not saying something false if I actually have four books on my bookshelf — I am only being misleading. Likewise, “y’all” when used in the presence of a single person automatically invokes some larger set of people of which the addressee is a member. I cannot say to a waiter “What kind of drinks do y’all have?” if I specifically am referring to the set of drinks the waiter is offering aside from those the restaurant offers. This is the kind of problem that non-Southerners rarely recognize, because they don’t understand the pragmatic side of the pronoun’s usage, and thus come to the (false) conclusion that the pronoun has singular semantics. There is more than one dimension to meaning!

  10. Y’all has been the subject of several discussions in the last couple of years and there is a variation that I have never seen discussed.
    Upon departing a woman’s company she may say “Y’all come back, you hear.” and then touch her finders to the forearm, push gently, and repeat “You hear?” This might be a different subject except for the fact that “Y’all” used this way is often definitely singular, as at the end of a first date.

  11. “Upon departing a woman’s company she may say ‘Y’all come back, you hear.’ and then touch her finders to the forearm, push gently, and repeat ‘You hear?’ This might be a different subject except for the fact that ‘Y’all’ used this way is often definitely singular, as at the end of a first date.”
    Except that “y’all” isn’t being used at all — the fact that “y’all” is semantically plural in meaning does not imply that the “you” in “you hear” is semantically singular. I find it somewhat hard to interpret your example, because it’s not very clear; you seem to be confusing two different words.

  12. Michael,
    Were your Polish students hearing a Polish barred L on the end of y’all?
    My ex-linguist, expat-Southern sense of y’all’s semantics accords with Thomas Wier’s account: It usually indicates ‘you and your’n', ‘you and your kin’, ‘you and your kind’. (No proper Southerner lacks kinfolk, even if they’ve all been individually or collectively disowned more than once.)
    On another question of flexible numerical reference, it didn’t take me more than once to learn when first pumping gas at my uncle’s filling station that “a coupla dollars worth” meant exactly 2 and no more. If the customers had meant 2 or 3, they would have said “a couple o’ three”! That was back when 2 dollars bought about 6 gallons.

  13. Michael Farris says:

    Joel: For all my students (for everyone in Poland under the age of 50 actually) ł is [w], the pronunciation of ł as any kind of lateral is gone with the wind (it might have some currency outside of Poland).

  14. Likewise, “y’all” when used in the presence of a single person automatically invokes some larger set of people of which the addressee is a member.
    I agree with this wholeheartedly, as do the best linguists I know.
    This is the kind of problem that non-Southerners rarely recognize, because they don’t understand the pragmatic side of the pronoun’s usage, and thus come to the (false) conclusion that the pronoun has singular semantics.
    This I disagree with. I think this mostly an expert/non-expert division of interpretation, not a north/south division of interpretation. In fact, I might even say the Southerners I know who are nonexperts are far more adamant it is singular than the northerners–because the Southerners want to have a single, great, triumphant, perverse shibboleth by which to distinguish themselves.

  15. PS: I have the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English and it is indeed worthy of the highest praise.

  16. I somehow thought you might.

  17. I can’t help but hear y’all discussions in the light of recent discussions of the use of “all” for saying, doing, etc.
    Q. How are y’all doing?
    A. Fine.
    Q. What are you all doing?
    A. I’m all painting the house and shit.

  18. John D. Miller says:

    Please: if anyone browsing this site could post a message or better yet email me (wumply@metrocast.net) with the meaning of the words “jularker”, “malanager” and “beshat”, I would be one happy camper.
    “Jularker” was in the book Where the Lilies Bloom and the phrase was “Devola’s jularker”; the other two were in the book Cold Mountain…”the horses were foul spine-sprung things, malandered about the necks, beshat greenly across the hindquarters.”
    wumply

  19. Beshat is a past form of beshit, a transitive formed from the verb shit with the prefix seen in, eg, bespatter; the hindquarters, in other words, are covered or flecked with greenish dung. Malander (stress on the first syllable) is a form of the word the OED lists as mallender: ‘a kind of chronic dermatitis of horses, characterized by the presence of sores located behind the knee’; the entry includes an adjective (labeled “rare”) mallendered ‘suffering from mallenders.’
    I’m afraid I can’t help with jularker, but perhaps one of the LH Irregulars can.

  20. John D. Miller says:

    On occasion in the book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, I come across the phrase (spoken) “They God.” On one occasion at least it was spoken by a teenager who had just shot the hero of the book. This instance came from the top of p. 353.
    What does “They God” mean?
    And I’m still dying to know the meaning of the word “jularker” which I ran across in “Where the Lilies Bloom”. (I forget the author but the book was about living in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains.) The exact phrase was “Devola’s jularker.”
    If I draw a blank on these two questions, could someone give me references, online or off, where I might look for the meaning?
    John

  21. You could post a query or two at Wordorigins, whose members love to investigate this sort of thing; you’ll have to sign up with EZBoard, but it’s a simple procedure, and I suspect you’re the kind of person who will get a lot of enjoyment out of it.
    I loved Cold Mountain, by the way — right up until the ending, which I hated.

  22. John D. Miller says:

    Hi language hat
    Appreciate your response and I’ll give WordOrigins a whirl for sure….would be interested in your expanded reactions to Cold Mountain.
    I saw the movie before I read the book and didn’t get a sense of where Inman and Ada were coming from, which may have been my own fault. So I got the book and all made sense…and now I’ve ordered the movie again from Netflix.
    I guess I’m glad I live today and not as Ada and Inman, especially Inman, lived.
    My strongest impression of the book was that only Ruby of alll the characters (I suppose I’d have to exclude Teague–at least he drove after killing) had any feeling they could impose themselves on their world, you know, do something with their life, go after a goal. Ada and Inman just seemed to accept what was. Passive. I could relate to their reflection on life though. Or am I biased?
    As I say it must have been a hard existence…their diet sure left a lot to be desired. How accurate a depiction was the novel of life in those mounetains for real people like those characters of the book at the time of the Civil War in your opinion?
    John

  23. John D. Miller says:

    Language hat: Thought on rereading your letter above.
    The ending was confusing to me. I gathered that Inman was killed when the boyl fired the pistol at him and Inman lay on the ground. But I never found where it said he died then. Did he, do you think? I kinda’ assumed he did since from his being shot to the end of the book, he didn’t appear to be around. I think that I counted 7 people at the last scene, (Ada, Ruby and her hsuband, their 3 boys, that’s 5…and a girl…makes 7. Had Inman been there, that wouldl make 8. ???
    I felt sorry for Ada, assuming he died. What did you not like about the ending? But I wasn’t terribly disappointed.
    John

  24. Yeah, I assumed he died, and I felt like the author had set me up, having me go through all that anguish so Inman could get back together with his wife, then killing him off for a cheap thrill. I’m sure the author would disagree with me, but that’s how I felt.
    And I certainly agree with you about the hard existence.

  25. Well, I see you took my advice, and it certainly panned out! Score one for Wordorigins.

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