“Y’all” is perhaps the quintessential linguistic identifier of the American South. It is every bit as iconic Southern as biscuits and gravy or fried chicken.
It is a musical, phonic relief from the much harsher Northern linguistic analogs of my youthful environs such as “youse” and its plural “youse guys.” And then there is, of course, the dreaded collective plural of those pronouns, “yiz,” whose verbal employment, with due respect to its New York City and Dublin usage, is not even to be contemplated in literate conversation.
I, a Yankee born and bred, have adopted the idiom “y’all” fully, employing it in my daily verbal and written discourse. I thought I was wielding it properly until I had several conversations with estimable Southerners who attempted, with wry and knowing smiles, to correct my adopted Southern English.
A conversation with a knowledgeable Georgian, in Savannah, edified me as to the collective plural of “y’all.” The man said it was “all y’all.” Hey, what did I know? We are speaking virtual foreign tongues here. But I employed the idiom daily until talking with friends from Baton Rouge, La. They told me that “you all” is the proper spelling of the phrase, not “y’all.”
OK! Then finally, a colleague of mine, from the Gulf Coast Writers Association, who hails from Tennessee, informed me that “you” is the proper usage for the singular form of the pronoun and “y’all” is its plural.
Both asserted their opinions on the matter with a decided ring of linguistic finality. Hmm, are these folks funning a Yankee here, or are there indeed regional differences used in employing this most iconic Southern phrase?
In researching the matter, through sources like Wikipedia, I have discovered that each of those with whom I had spoken is correct. While it is generally accepted that “you” is the second person singular pronoun and “y’all” is the plural of that pronoun in the American South, it is also noted that “y’all” can, in limited circumstances, be employed in the singular. Regional spelling differences account for “y’all” and “you all.” The term is thought to be of Scots-Irish origin and brought to this country by immigrants in the 1700s.
There are times when everyday happenstance reinforces academic research. Recently, my wife and I were walking down 5th Avenue South, in Naples, Fla.
We were passing an Irish pub. An attractive, young hostess was standing outside, near the entrance to the charming restaurant. She smiled at us, and in a lilting brogue right from Eire, asked us, “How are yiz doing today?”
Our ears stinging with the linguistic anomaly, we smiled back at her and said, “Just fine, thank you.”
We had also heard the phrase used similarly when visiting Dublin, Ireland. Sigh, when in Rome, speak as the Romans do.
I think that hereafter, I will simply use the term “y’all” whenever it pleases me, and the natives can think me a linguistic barbarian if they so choose. At least I won’t be asking them: “How are yiz doing?” Or calling anyone “youse guys.”
Such are the cultural trade-offs of newly arrived Yankee transplants, to the civil and charming precincts of the American South. I wouldn’t have it any other way.