Last week a friend sent me a little something that Garrison Keillor wrote after spending three days in Carrollton, Georgia, my wife’s hometown. (Keillor’s flight from Atlanta to New York had been cancelled due to the recent blizzard in the Northeast, and he chose to wait things out in a small town rather than Atlanta.) I was gratified though not surprised to see that he was very complimentary of Carrollton; I could have told him that Lake Wobegon isn’t the only town where all the children are above average.
I don’t mention Garrison Keillor’s piece merely to brag on my wife’s hometown, however. I mention it because the following passage caught the attention of this amateur linguist:
“When I pay the bill, they say, ‘Preciate y’all.’ You don’t hear that up north. I holed up here to avoid getting stuck in the Atlanta airport during the blizzard in New York and Carrollton turns out to be a hotbed of amiability, where if you make eye contact people say, “Good morning” and maybe ‘How you all doing?’ though there’s only one of me but all of me is doing just fine, thank you very much, and this easily leads into small talk.”
I often hear about Southerners’ charming tendency to address a single person using the plural y’all or you all. Maybe this is something that actually happens. But I have lived in the American South my entire life, and to my knowledge I have never witnessed this phenomenon first-hand.
Why, then, do non-Southerners so often give reports of hearing Southerners use the singular y’all? I have a few theories:
It’s possible that Southerners put on a bit of a show for non-Southerners in the y’all department. It’s not hard to imagine Garrison Keillor’s server offering that “Preciate y’all” as a way of being just a tad more charming as the bill was being paid. It’s not unheard of, after all, for servers to turn on a little extra charm while the patron is trying to calculate the tip.
It is also possible that non-native speakers of y’all can miss some subtleties of usage. To wit: Just an hour ago, a plumber came by my house to look at a leaky faucet. He realized that he was going to have to order a part and couldn’t finish the job. As he was getting ready to leave I asked, “So when will y’all come back to finish?” I immediately felt self-conscious; the plumber had literally interrupted me while I was writing this letter about the fact that Southerners don’t really use y’all as a singular, but here I was asking this one person when y’all would be back. I could just picture Garrison Keillor scribbling notes about the charming scene. But my y’all didn’t really refer to the plumber. I was talking about everybody at the plumbing company. I was really asking, “When will one of y’all come back to finish?”
It is possible that I’m just wrong. At least one actual linguist would say so. Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, writes:
There are still some southerners who insist that singular y’all is an error introduced by carpetbaggers. Even when confronted with proof, they refuse to acknowledge that any real southerner would ever use singular y’all. They explain that the user is really a Yankee. Or that yes, the good ole clerk at the Gas-N-Go was clearly addressing one person—you can see it on the CCTV tapes—but by saying “y’all come back” they meant you (the person addressed) and all your friends and relatives—it was an implied plural.
Maybe so. One point of clarification: it never occurred to me that carpetbaggers might have introduced the singular y’all. I assumed (with very little evidence, I will admit) that writers of subpar television shows were to blame.
Supposedly, the phrase all y’all has come in as a way of communicating that you’re really using y’all as a plural this time. That’s not something I’ve noticed in my fifty-something years of observing the way people speak English in the South, but I suppose it’s possible. Still, I’d feel better if Dennis Baron were making these pronouncements from, say, the University of Georgia instead of the University of Illinois.
I am a heavy user of y’all. I realize that it is technically non-standard English, but I find it useful enough to be worth the tradeoff. We need a way to distinguish between second-person singular and second-person plural; besides modern English, I don’t know of any language whose pronoun system doesn’t have a separate word for you (singular) and you (plural). (If you know of other languages that use the same pronoun for second-person singular and second-person plural, please send me an email.)
In American English, at least, a lot of people who don’t rely on y’all rely instead on you guys to signify second-person plural. You guys has gotten in trouble recently for being insufficiently gender-neutral. So there’s one more reason to join us y’all-speakers. I realize that y’all has traditionally been a regionalism, but I think I speak for my fellow Southerners when I say come one, come all. I don’t know how the rest of you get along without it.
Also, I salute those of you who have your own regional solutions to the second-person plural problem. Pittsburghers, if you want to keep saying yinz, I get it. Consider yourselves exempt from my world-domination campaign on behalf of y’all. (Keep those Pittsburgh potties too. Talk about regional charm!) And youse…am I correct in my understanding that this is a Philly thing? Does anybody else say youse? Do even Philadelphians still say it? If you have insight regarding yinz, youse, or any other regionalized second-person plural pronoun, please send me an email. How do you Brits, Celts, and Commonwealthers communicate that you’re talking to multiple you’s and not just one you?
Finally, you may be wondering why the modern English pronoun system doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural in the second person. I wondered too, and my investigations led me to the aforementioned article in which the University of Illinois’s Dennis Baron hurt my feelings regarding the singular y’all. You can read the article for more details, but the gist is this: Youhas been the second-person plural pronoun since the Anglo-Saxon era. The second-person singular pronouns were thou, thee, and their derivatives. In the Medieval era, the plural you came to be used as a form of respectful address toward a superior—analogous, perhaps, to the royal we, in which a monarch speaks of himself or herself in first-person plural. By the Early Modern era, that respectful use of the plural second-person spread so that people came to address anyone of any rank as you. In short, there used to be a distinction between second-person singular and plural in the English pronoun system, but that distinction collapsed. (If you’re interested, you can read here about how Shakespeare made use of that distinction, which was in transition during the decades in which he lived and wrote.)