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This place matters

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I say y'all. Even in situations in which I know folks will mock me for saying y'all, I say y'all. Sometimes people give me trouble about being a writer/English major who uses the word, as if there were something incorrect about its use. In fact, I argue, it's more correct. Most other languages already have a way to indicate whether the second person pronoun you is singular or plural. In French, tu is singular and vous plural. In Spanish (informal), singular is tรบ  and plural vosotros. In Latin, tu and vos. In that, as in so many things, English is lacking, and some of us aren't afraid to do something about it.
Growing up, nobody in my home ever used the word y'all. I thought, like a lot of Northerners, that it was a word primarily for Southern yokels, like victuals, crawdad, and cement pond. It wasn't until I got down to Ohio University that I found how useful the word y'all is. In Latin class, we translated words like vos as you (plural), and words like amamus as you (plural) love. In Athens, Ohio, in the foothills of Appalachia, vos was y'all and amamus was y'all love. This, I had to admit, was a much more graceful way to put it.

But it wasn't until I lived on the road that I started actually using the word. I'd been in Lexington Virginia all of a week before one of my students raised his hand in class and said "Miss Brigid, you just said y'all." So I had, and I've been doing it ever since. I wasn't out of the South long before I gave up finding decent grits, came to accept the fact that my being a lady didn't require that people open the door for me, and stopped expecting long and friendly conversations with every stranger I ran into on the street. But I never did give up the word y'all. It's just too useful a word. And the fact that so many people up North seem to think themselves too good for the word is just silly. If I walk into a room and want to ask everybody in the room a question, why on earth would I use you singular, causing people to not know whether I was talking to them? Where once I thought that people who used y'all sounded ignorant, I know feel it's a little ignorant not to use it.
Downtown Cleveland
This is not at all related to my post.
Y'all, according to Another History Blog, dates to the mid-1800s in American English, having taken the place left by the by-then arcane thou. Y'all may have much older roots, however, according to According to that blog, linguist Michael Montgomery (probably not the same guy as John Michael Montgomery, the country singer) thinks that y'all has its roots in the Scots-Irish phrase ye aw, which means the same thing. There's some reason to believe that to be the case-- a lot of what we think of as Southern culture comes by way of Ireland... listen to old Irish music and compare it to old Southern music sometime. Banjos, guitars, fiddles, and accordions dominate the sounds of both. This is because the Scots-Irish settled primarily in the Appalachian area during colonial times and became the dominant culture there. That culture spread throughout the Southeast as people began to migrate and spread. According to, the Scots-Irish gave Kentuckians the hankering for the whiskey they've since made their own. The Scots-Irish are are responsible for Southern expressions like fixin' to go because of their use of the word fix as a synonym for do. A-going, according to that blog, comes from the Scots-Irish phrase ag dul.
As for ye aw giving birth to y'all, I'm dubious. Sounds like a case of making a horse into a zebra to me. Sure, the fanciful expression is more interesting, but you can't really ignore the fact that y'all is a contraction for the garden-variety you all. But then, the Irish are pretty much awesome, so we can go with ye aw if y'all are amenable. 


Anonymous said...

I say y'all for the same reason. Also,when I came back Cambridge England the first time, I wanted to bring back thou because it sounded so nifty in Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

"I know feel it's a little ignorant not to use it."

"The Scots-Irish are are responsible for Southern"

Please correct. Thank you.

CNC said...

I remember having this discussion with you a while back, and I thank you for it. Now I can unabashedly say "y'all" without having the English major in me wince.

I mean, it's either that or "youse guys"