Adrian has started hearing it from white folks in Denver, and he’s always taken aback when he learns they aren’t from the South. David used to tease his teenage daughter for saying it, and what do you know? All her white Angeleno friends say it, too. Kristine’s Northern friends are actively trying to say it more but sometimes have trouble with the pronunciation. Somehow, complained a South Carolina college newspaper two years ago, “it’s gone from a redneck pronoun” to a nationwide “form of addressing a group of people.”
Do Yankees say y’all now?
Some do, apparently, though you guys is still far and away the plural-you of choice. Redditors from Northern California, Wyoming, Ohio and central Massachusetts insist y’all is growing in popularity. If you search through tweets geotagged within five miles of Laguna Beach, you’ll find a lot of SoCal youths pulling a Foghorn Leghorn as well:
Same thing if you peep tweets from Madison, Wisconsin:
It would also appear that the socialists are saying y’all now:
You get the idea: Y’all is coming into more common usage among white people outside the South. But why is that? And do they use y’all the same way African Americans and white Southerners do?
Before we tackle those questions, it helps to understand why the word y’all exists in the first place. And really, in order to do that, we first need to talk about the Almighty God’s preferred pronouns: thee and thou.
Standard English used to have two sets of second-person pronouns, one singular and one plural. Ye and you were actually plural pronouns (the equivalent of y’all today), while thou and thee were singular. If you said you, people assumed you meant more than one person.
What happened? Well, people began using ye and you not only as plural pronouns but also as formal singular pronouns. If you were addressing a bishop, a duke or a merchant, you might address them as ye and you, as if they were so important they might as well be more than one person. (Think of the royal we, same basic premise.) The usage of ye and you kept expanding, and folks would toggle between ye/you and thou/thee depending on who they were talking to. Eventually the similar-sounding you and ye merged into one word, and thee and thou died out altogether. This leaves us with the ironic result that, since thou is archaic, people assume it’s super-formal, when it actually used to be the word you’d use when hanging with the buds, and you was the super-formal word.
Once you drove thee and thou to extinction, it left ambiguity in the space that had once been its sole domain — the plural second-person pronoun. It felt awkward to say you when referring to multiple people. So sure enough, new pronouns emerged to fill that role: you guys, you lot, yous or youse, you ones or you’uns or yinz, and of course, you all or y’all.
1631 saw the earliest known appearance of y’all in print, in an epic poem by William Lisle titled The Faire Æthiopian. But for more than the next two centuries it only appeared sporadically, and only in poetry. Maybe it was just a way to make you all scan right.
When did y’all take off in the American South? It’s hard to know for sure. At least some were saying it by the Civil War, but it wasn’t really a Southern Thing yet. Like, probably only a minority of Confederate soldiers said it. A popular Confederate grammar textbook (written by the founder of what became Duke University) chided schoolchildren for saying yous, you unzes and the truly ungodly yon’ones, but not y’all, so the word was apparently not prevalent enough to stoke the ire of pedants.
A New York Times listicle of “Southernisms” published in 1886 and recently uncovered by the historian David Parker is the earliest evidence we have of y’all as a Southern Thing. It’s also the earliest known instance of Yankees bizarrely insisting that Southerners use y’all to refer to one person. (I mean, he even says that y’all refers to the lady AND her husband. Y’all need to give this one up.)
By the early 20th century y’all was the dominant plural-you in the South, and it quickly became a fixture in pop-culture depictions of the region.
But why are Yankees starting to say it now? Well, for one thing, Americans are very geographically mobile, and when people move around they share and acquire new language traits. MEL’s very own Miles Klee picked up y’all from a Virginian babysitter, and this was reinforced later when he made a friend in college who was from New Orleans. But American mobility doesn’t explain why y’all has only started spreading only recently; indeed, Americans move around less today than they did 30 years ago.
Something that has changed recently, though, is the growing awareness of people with trans, intersex or non-binary identities. Many people have told me they’ve adopted y’all as a gender-neutral alternative to you guys.
It’s long been normal for, say, a woman to refer to a group of other women as you guys. Listen to the YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson when her fellow YouTuber friends tease her for still having an iPhone 4:
Many, however, find it uncomfortable to say you guys when referring to non-binary, intersex or trans people, since their gender identities are constantly being scrutinized and rejected — in other words, many of them are often told they really are guys. There’s also the fear that using you guys as a default plural-you reinforces the idea that men are, well, default people, what we used to call mankind. Y’all avoids these problems altogether.
Now, not every Yankee who says y’all is thinking about the gender politics of plural-second-person pronouns. And I’m not sure the gender-neutrality of y’all is sufficient on its own to overcome the longstanding stigma associated with Southern English. Just a few years ago, psychologists Katherine Kinzler and Jasmine DeJesus found that nine- to ten-year-old children in both Illinois and Tennessee thought people with Northern accents sounded “smarter” than people with Southern accents. I doubt that’s all changed overnight. This is why a writer for the student newspaper at Francis Marion University (in Florence, South Carolina) took offense two years ago at the growing popularity of y’all: “the very people who made . . . incorrect assumptions about Southern people are the same ones picking and choosing what parts they find socially acceptable” — and then they “continue to make inbred jokes.”
But are most Yankees even associating y’all with white Southern English when they say it? Or are they adopting the word from black English instead? Those dialects are closely related, of course — until the 20th century at least 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South, and a majority still live there today. Indeed, we can think of black English as the branch of Southern English that made its way into the North, Midwest and West, thanks to the migration of African Americans out of the South. White Southerners migrated as well, but they assimilated fairly quickly; Okies became Californians. Black migrants, however, had a harder time assimilating thanks to segregation and other forms of discrimination, so their speech remained relatively distinct. Southernisms like y’all thereby made their way into most of the nation’s urban areas.
Stephanie McKellop, a historian who grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Philadelphia, believes that when non-Southern whites say y’all, “it’s almost always a borrowing/snatching of Black culture,” which is seen as “cool” or “hip” in a way that white working-class Southern culture isn’t. McKellop compares y’all to expressions like on fleek, this song slaps and snatch her wig, which white people picked up from black Vine and black Twitter.
Social media really has made a difference, and more than anything else probably explains why y’all is becoming popular at this particular moment in time. Platforms like Twitter have a flattening effect: You might follow accounts that come from all sorts of backgrounds and communities, but when you’re scrolling down the bottomless site it’s just one damn tweet after another, and the tweets all seem to belong to everyone equally. As Doreen St. Felix has written, “the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet” make cultural exchange both more rapid and less visible, giving white appropriators of black culture “a convenient amnesia.”
Is this digital blackface, akin to white people’s fondness for black reaction GIFs? It’s on a continuum, for sure. It wouldn’t be the first time white people were influenced by and even adopted the speech of black people. In the 18th century, British tourists in Jamaica noticed that the white planters were adopting their slaves’ mannerisms and speech patterns; while visiting Barbados in the early 1750s, young George Washington derided the island’s white “Ladys” for “affect[ing] the Negro style.” Sometimes this sort of speech-adoption is a way of mocking the less powerful and reifying the power structure; that’s certainly what blackface minstrelsy was about. Other times, though, it’s just a matter of language being fluid and hard to contain.
One piece of evidence for Twitter’s role in all this is that many people will tweet y’all but not actually say it IRL.
The aforementioned Tiffany Ferguson, who grew up in Orange County and now lives on Long Island, told me she sometimes says y’all IRL — she picked it up from a friend who in turn picked it up from a counselor they once had in summer camp. But she mostly says you guys. Here she is saying it again:
However, if all you had to go off of was her Twitter account, you’d think y’all was her default plural-you. Over the past three years, she’s tweeted y’all a total of 92 times, while she’s only tweeted you guys 28 times.
Why the disparity? Well, we typically only change the words we use when a new word becomes more useful in a particular context — when it more clearly conveys the point we’re trying to make. And y’all is especially useful for social media, even more so than in speech. It’s monosyllabic. It gets your attention. Y’ALL. Look at this. Check out my new song y’all. Okay y’all for real tho. Y’all is just a really handy word for 280-character communication.
Because the language we use on social media often leaches into the language we use elsewhere — it didn’t take long for folks to start saying I-R-L IRL — there’s a good chance y’all will keep growing in usage, particularly among teens. It probably won’t replace you guys, but the two plural-yous could coexist and serve slightly different functions. You guys will likely continue to be the default plural-you for white people outside the South, but don’t be surprised if you hear more sentences like, “Y’all guess who just texted me” and “I feel so lazy today y’all.”
In those sentences, y’all serves as a discourse marker, a word that has no syntactic relationship to the rest of the sentence but nevertheless colors its meaning. It’s similar to starting a sentence with hey or you know, or ending a sentence with a dangling so (“She said she wanted to see me again next week, so.”) Because y’all has a folksy, informal feel to it, using it as a discourse marker tells the people you’re talking to that you’re not being that serious, that this is between friends. It’s a way of emphasizing the point you’re making (Y’ALL) while signaling that you know — and that you know your friends know — it’s not really that big of a deal.
What would be really weird, though, is if this bifurcated system — you guys as the default plural-you, y’all as an emphatic discourse marker — influenced how African Americans and white Southerners talked, in a sort of feedback loop. If y’all became more mainstream but only within a certain linguistic context, that might encourage native-y’all-users to similarly limit their usage of y’all and increase their usage of you guys. Or maybe not. Who knows? Stranger things have happened in the English language. In 30 years, y’all might behave less like a pronoun and more like a punctuation mark.