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.
How did this happen? Anyone who’s used English in any capacity knows that “you” is a sorry excuse for a plural pronoun. Imagine the confusion of walking into a crowded room and yelling, “You need to listen up!” Who would everyone assume you were referring to? How could they tell? It’s rare to find a scenario in which a person is clearly addressing a group of people that doesn’t include an implied qualifier (as in, in the context of a speech) or an unnecessarily long explicit qualifier (“you all”) to specify that “you” is doing the duty that it has been assigned as a plural pronoun. This is some terribly inefficient language, and it’s high time for a fix. It’s time for “y’all.”
Other countries might laugh at our difficulty. Spanish speakers in Spain have their vosotros; Spanish speakers elsewhere have ustedes. German has ihr. Swahili uses nyinyi. But modern English requires that “you” be jury-rigged in order to fulfill its true plural purpose.
Americans have created their own ingenious solutions to provide the proper plural context. “You guys” seems to be the most dominant, with “you all,” “youse,” “you-uns,” or even “yinz” popping up in different local contexts. The Brits have “you lot.” Trinidadian Creole uses allyuh, which from its construction seems related to “you all.” And then there’s our precious gem, “y’all,” a staple of both Southern English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which either spun from or spun off Southern English itself.
“You guys” isn’t sufficient as a national solution. Firstly, we live in an era of increased scrutiny and consideration over the gender of pronouns that we use, especially as feminism and trans activism expand and shape languages. “They” is entering the picture as a formal gender-neutral singular and plural pronoun. And although “guys” has lost some of its masculine connotation in the English language by proximity to “you,” it’s still a word that immediately connotes a group of men. As workplace and social situations seek to become increasingly inclusive of women and people who don’t conform to gender binaries, “you guys” feels more and more archaic.
Plus, it’s just a damn clunky way to speak. There’s no flow to it, and the slang nature of “guys” makes it ill-suited for formal speeches or addresses. “I say to you guys today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream,” takes some gravitas away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., no? Even in the realm of slang, “you guys” isn’t really all that cool, conjuring visions of the Fonz in his leather jacket. Or Eric Cartman. The only person to successfully get away with “you guys” and sound cool was Sloth, and very few people will ever be as awesome as Sloth.
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.
* This article originally misstated the early meaning of “thou.” According to Etymology and Syntax of the English Language, “thou” was actually the informal personal pronoun before “you.” We regret the error.