Is “Y’all” in Trouble?

Allan Metcalf reports for Lingua Franca on a distressing new development:

For some time, “y’all” has been assaulted by “you guys” aiming to replace it as the go-to second-person-plural pronoun in the South. […] In the Dictionary of American Regional English, the usage note for “you guys” says “orig. chiefly North; now widespread; esp freq. among younger speakers.” It backs this up with two citations that indicate the invasion has been on its way at least since the recent turn of the century:

2000 American Speech 75.417: Meanwhile, just as y’all seems to be spreading outside the South, you-guys is moving into the South, especially among younger speakers. […]

Now, I am not in any sense a Southerner, though my father’s side of the family is from the Ozarks and I have some remnants of that accent (UM-brella, IN-surance); I don’t use “y’all” in my normal speech. But I think it’s a wonderful bit of English, and I am appalled at the thought that it could get replaced by the nondescript “you guys.” So y’all get out there and preserve your linguistic heritage!

Comments

  1. As a UK English speaker, I enthusiastically adopted “y’all” (even if not y’all) when I moved to the States. I’d be sorry to see it go, it’s very convenient and “you guys” is an extra syllable and also vaguely peevy.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    That “go-to” really chaps my ass, y’all hear ?

  3. Oh dear. Now we will have even more idiots claiming that y’all is singular.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    Headline trouble ! Use and mention fox punters.

  5. I did not grow up using y’all, but after only a few years living in South Carolina, it had become part of my normal speech. You guys is equally unremarkable, but it does not seem to mean precisely the same thing as y’all. While y’all really functions a fused grammatical unit, representing the second person plural, you guys is still a compositional object. It can be modified by inserting another word in the middle, such as: “You Charleston guys ride with Scott, and the rest of us will go in the van.” The native southern (near) equivalent would be all o’ y’all.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    “Y’all Charleston guys ride with Scott” wouldn’t surprise me. But maybe that is not common.

  7. And in Australia, you don’t hear “youse” as much as you used to either.

  8. Well, I’m a young person from the South (southern Louisiana specifically) and I can’t remember ever saying “you guys” instead of “y’all.” Plus, what if there’s a woman in the group? “You guys” would just sound weird.

  9. I don’t personally use y’all regularly, except when I need to distinguish singular and plural. But I do hear it fairly regularly.

    And just yesterday, driving down the road in Houston, I saw a license plate that read H3YY4LL.

  10. Same experience as some of the prior commenters: I definitely didn’t have it growing up, but when I moved to the USA I recognized it as so useful that I’ve started using it myself.

  11. Bill W. says:

    A friend who is originally from Tennessee insists that “y’all” is singular or at least unmarked as to number (then why not just “you”?); the marked plural is “all y’all”. But I do hear plural “y’all” regularly in my Northern Virginia/DC environment.

    “You guys”, I think, is more educated or semi-educated urban. I seem to recall hearing it since the 80s or 90s, applied to groups of women (which used to surprise me, especially when used in this context by women), as well as to mixed groups and groups of men.

    I think I use “you folks” for the informal marked plural. But maybe sometime “y’all” or “you all”.

    In the army I actually heard “youse mens” more than once. Sergeant-speak.

    “So y’all get out there and preserve your linguistic heritage!”

    Good luck defying the juggernaut of linguistic change.

  12. Good luck defying the juggernaut of linguistic change.

    I know, I know. But King Canute is my role model. (I know, I know, he didn’t really mean it.)

  13. My impression from Hawaii is that you folks is the more polite equivalent of the ubiquitous you guys, which latter is used for male or female peers (or subordinates, as by teachers to students collectively). I don’t remember ever hearing you gals in Hawaii.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Plus, what if there’s a woman in the group? “You guys” would just sound weird.

    That’s what I thought when I first encountered it in the wild exactly 10 years ago (possibly to the day) and a rather young woman used it to adress groups not composed of people you’d call guys to their faces, like women and well-established male professors. The complete lack of surprise or hostility in the addressees’ reactions implies they were all familiar with it.

    The latest time I’ve encountered it was a few weeks ago in a parody of Sex and the City (so, evidently from the 1990s), where the protagonists, all women, address each other that way. I take it that’s a noticeable but realistic feature of the original?

    In between, several people have confirmed they treat you_guys, initial stress, as an unanalyzable pronoun.

    See also: the change of dude from a form of address to an interjection.

  15. A friend who is originally from Tennessee insists that “y’all” is singular or at least unmarked as to number (then why not just “you”?)

    It can be singular when the addressee represents a group: “Do y’all have any eggs?” can be addressed to a singular store clerk, because the true referent is the whole group of those responsible for the store.

    But otherwise: no, no, never, and anyone who says he does is full of bull puckey.

  16. Michael Eochaidh says:

    Yinz think y’all is going away?

  17. Southwest Ireland’s /jiː/ makes the conveniently intuitive possessive /jir/ by analogy with “you” ~ “your”. The problem is with spelling: “ye”, despite its antiquity, may be misinterpreted as a spelling pronunciation of /jə/ ; while the possessive vacillates between “yere” and “yeer”.

  18. “You guys” is interesting in that it’s gender neutral. For example, according to the Washington Post review of her recent concert, Taylor Swift addresses her audience (overwhelmingly girls and young women) as “you guys.”

  19. Trond Engen says:

    Bill W.: A friend who is originally from Tennessee insists that “y’all” is singular or at least unmarked as to number (then why not just “you”?); the marked plural is “all y’all”. But I do hear plural “y’all” regularly in my Northern Virginia/DC environment.

    Maybe the distinction people are trying to explain between y’all and all y’all is that of [pausing to coin terminology] individual/distributional versus absolutive plural. “Are y’all having a good time?” can be answered affirmatively by every single person in the audience having a good time. “Are all y’all having a good time?” asks if everyone is having fun — and even suggests that people should look around and take care of those who aren’t.

  20. I can attest to the infectiousness. I’m not a y’all-er, but I did pick up the similar usage “wh_ all” from a friend.

    “Who all is there with you?” (the rough Russian equivalent is кто да кто?)

    “What all are you doing?” = “What presumably multiple things are you planning to do [e.g. on your trip]?”

    I’m not sure whether this is a dialectal feature and if so, what dialect. The friend is from Colorado and has the pin/pen merger but apparently as a personal idiosyncrasy.

  21. “I don’t know what all” appears in the classic Andy Griffith monolog “What It Was Was Football”, so it may be Southern, but your examples seem like pretty standard American to me (I did grow up in Virginia, though).

  22. Marja Erwin says:

    Since I’ve always known “guys” as an inclusive noun, saying inclusive use sounds weird sounds weird to me.

  23. I certainly used who all and what all before I picked up y’all.

    On the other hand, while you guys sounds fine to me regardless of the sex of the referent, that has not always been universal in American English. An acquaintance once told me that the (Georgia-born) woman he was dating snapped at him for referring to her and another woman as you guys; that would have been around 1960.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not sure whether this is a dialectal feature and if so, what dialect.

    German.

    “What all are you doing?”

    Was macht ihr denn alles? “Please give me a complete list of what you’ll be doing. Also, vaguely dubitative particle.”

    “Who all is there with you?”

    .de: Wer ist denn alles da (bei euch)? (“who” is neuter just like “what”)
    .at: Wer ist denn aller dort (bei euch)? (“who” is masculine, no matter if you’re asking about women)

  25. @David Marjanović:

    > In between, several people have confirmed they treat you_guys, initial stress, as an unanalyzable pronoun.

    “You guys” has initial stress by default, but it can have final stress in certain emotional contexts; for example, I remember once encountering “Aww, you guys!” in a context where a woman was expressing affection or appreciation for a group of (female) friends.

    Also, I think it’s at least somewhat analyzable, in that insofar as it has a possessive form, it’s “your guys'” (also with initial stress). Though since that makes no logical sense, maybe it actually supports your point . . .

    Incidentally, I think that syntax-wise, “you guys” has somewhat restricted usage compared to “y’all”; if I’m not mistaken, something like “What did y’all tell her that y’all were going to do after y’all got back?” is perfectly fine, whereas something like “What did you guys tell her that you guys were going to do after you guys got back?” sounds bizarre (with the idiomatic equivalent being “What did you guys tell her that you were going to do after you got back?”).

    (Disclaimer: the above should only be taken as describing the dialects I’m used to. I’ve lived basically my whole life in “you guys” country, but it’s possible that there are parts of that region where usage is different than what I grew up with.)

  26. Marja Erwin – is guy (singular) inclusive?
    “The guy at the store told me she’d check on the order for me.” Is that possible for you?

  27. Marja Erwin says:

    Yes.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    syntax-wise, “you guys” has somewhat restricted usage compared to “y’all”

    I think you’re right.

    Yes.

    I really didn’t expect that.

  29. Me neither. And I wouldn’t think it odd for someone to address a group consisting only of women as “you guys”, or describe them as “these guys” even if there were as few as two of them. But referring to a single woman as “this guy” – no.

  30. Rodger C says:

    Growing up in WV on the border with OH, I’d definitely have said, “What did y’all tell her that you were going to do after you got back?”

  31. I would adopt y’all if I didn’t already have ye, youse, and yez/yiz available (in Irish English). I have tried out y’all on occasion but I’ve always felt like an impostor saying it. It would be a shame were it to fade from future generations’ use.

  32. @Rodger C: Good to know, thanks! That’s actually what I say myself, but I thought my usage was being influenced by having grown up with “you guys” rather than “y’all”. Guess not. 🙂

  33. “You guys” is unfortunately the only available form in England, at least in the standard dialect. The Scots and Irish have better options. And recently I’ve noticed some people using “y’all”, but always (so far) semi-ironically.

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