How y’all doing?
A greeting as Southern as a bowl of grits, it rolls off the tongue in a single open-mouth utterance. Sweeter than honey and often saturated with hidden meaning, it can open up a dialogue with a roomful of strangers with ease.
Part of that ease hinges on the incredible versatility of the phrase’s most important word. “Y’all,” that strange regional and ethnic conjunction, offers a simplicity to speech that can’t be found elsewhere. It is a magnificently elegant linguistic creation.
There are no distinct second-person plural pronouns in modern standard English. “Ye” once served that purpose; a good look at the King James version of the Bible can give a sense of the usage. “Ye are the light of the world,” Jesus told a crowd in Galilee. But nowadays, “ye” and some other fun Middle English pronouns have fallen by the wayside, except at Medieval Times and in fantasy novels. Even “thou,” the etymological informal brother of “you,” fell off the linguistic map around the 17th century.*
Which—thanks to the abandonment of the formal/informal system of pronouns influenced by French—leaves us with one word: “you,” that pronoun-of-all-trades. “You” is all we English-speakers have to refer to any person or group or large crowd, regardless of status or size.
Which is why we need “y’all.” It doesn’t suffer from having the gender implications or general lameness of “you guys.” It sounds elegant, warm, and inviting. It offers both economy and an end to second-person ambiguity. Teach it in schools across the country. Mouth it to babies. Put it on end-of-grade tests. With respect to “youse,” “yinz,” and “you-uns,” its lesser-known cousins, “y’all” is the most widely practiced of the options and could be the easiest to implement.
The hypothesized origins of “y’all” speak to the necessity of adding a second-person plural. While it could just be a contraction of “you all,” some evidence shows that it could also originate from the Scots-Irish ye aw, a Creolization from African slaves, or a combination of the two. Given that the Appalachian Scots-Irish are also behind “youse,” “yinz,” and “you-uns” and given common African Creolizations such as allyuh, it may just be that these two groups were the most fed up with the erosion of the second-person plural.
But those origins may also have something to do with the stigmatization of “y’all.” Southern accents and Southern words are generally perceived by Yankee ears as making their speakers less intelligent, and that ain’t right. The regional bias also bleeds into a quasi-racial bias against AAVE, even during a time when we have a president who employs a cache of its words, including “y’all,” fairly liberally. This is the struggle I’ve long silently endured as a black Carolinian: code-switching my “y’all” to “you all” in speech and emails, mostly because “you guys” was a step too far in the direction of awful. Have I mentioned that “you guys” is really bad?
So let’s end that stigmatization and give “y’all” its rightful place in language proper. “Y’all hiring?” “Y’all ok?” The possibilities are endless, and a simple substitution could actually solve a real problem in modern English that will only grow as we continue to examine how gender works in language. It could provide a better and gender-neutral word. It could relieve “you” of the impossible task of ostensibly functioning in so many roles, and maybe even along the way ease some of the regional and racial stigmatization of language and slang. It’s worth a shot, y’all.
The South is simply correct here. This is a significant addition to the language. We should all embrace it.