annals of y'all, continuedThere is no question that we northerners hear singular "y'all" often down here in West Texas. A couple of examples will help. First, and this one is common: I'm standing alone at the schoolhouse entrance waiting for my children and a school official says to me, "How are y'all?" The answer is clear: We're fine, because she was clearly referring to me and mine, all of us, even though only I was present. OK, I have no problem with that. Second, I'm in a restaurant with a 7-year-old, and the waitress says, "Do y'all want some coffee," and I say yes, I do in order to emphasize that it's just me that wants the coffee, no thanks for the seven-year-old. I'm ok with this too: I'm still a stranger, she doesn't know if I have family, she'd rather assume lots of possibilities than assume I'm alone in this world. But the second time around, she says "Do y'all want cream with that?" and now, I feel like I've already told her I'm alone, she knows the seven-year-old doesn't want cream, etc.
In the lab yesterday morning I found the quote where there's nothing more likely to start another Civil War than a notherner telling a southerner that they use y'all singular. When I found that I pressed "print" and should have known that 37 pages would print out before it was over. The passage was interesting though, not least for its comments, in which people weighed in on other you plurals (my favorite "you'ns" as well as "youse") and their distributions. But it gave several interesting reasons worth chewing over that we hear so much of this. One is that since "y'all" is a mark of southerness, a northerner is more likely to hear it in any context as if to say, I'm southern, and we're in the south, and this is how we reach out to you. Another is that it's a mark of familiarity; one of its functions is to reach out and be friendly and polite; in that context it could be said that politeness and hospitality are clearly more pressing than details like singular/plural (this alone being a concept somewhat alien to northerners). So, it's not that y'all is singular, it's not, it's more that politeness trumps grammatical accuracy in some or many circumstances.
A fair swath of my class, maybe a third of about thirty people, said they only use "y'all" to mean plural. The article bears out that educated southerners generally say this, believe it, and for all we know follow it (one point made was that they argue passionately about it, generally opposed to the possibility of singular y'all, yet the facts don't bear them out; apparently there are plenty of people using singular y'all, for whatever reason, and these are very likely the same people). I have not heard these particular students use singular y'all, in opposition to their expressly stated rule, though I've challenged them to listen carefully. I have found some who admit to using it freely singular and plural, who interpreted it as singular/polite and used it for everybody, and some who aren't really sure.
Surprisingly, wait staff is a definite subculture for everyone. Waitresses and waiters have their own rules, because they deal with hundreds of people, have to be polite, and don't have time to worry about details of customers' personal lives. They talk about the "rhythm of working" and admit to using "y'all" much the same way as the waitress used it with me.
The author of the article pointed out other more serious problems with finding and tracking singular y'all, though: half the time we (even linguists who care passionately) don't really keep track of what we really say, and, the other half, we are in the role of hearer, or receiver, and don't really know what the speaker meant; presumably, even if we could ask, they might not know whether they were primarily motivated by grammatical accuracy, politeness, intimacy, southern pride, or whatever. I suspect, and this is the bottom line, really, that this is a case of rules that are in opposition: one says y'all is plural, the other says, when in doubt, be polite, and allow for other unseen people in the picture where you might not be familiar with them (the unseen spouse, for example). When asked about the rule (y'all is plural), there's no question: y'all is plural. If asked in another way, the answer might be different.
I have to relate a good story; four rough northern men are in a North Carolina diner. The waitress says to one, "Y'all want cream in your coffee?" to which he says, "how do I know if you mean just me, or all of us, since you said 'y'all'?" To which she replies, "If I'd a meant 'all-of-y'all, I would have said 'all-of-y'all'. Now, do y'all want cream or not?"
Back to our point: if y'all were so clearly plural, what would the point be of even having all-of-y'all?
On the national scene, I'd like to point out that you guys of my home dialect is doomed, a victim of literalism that no longer allows referring to any mixed group of males/females with a male pronoun of any kind. Youse and you'ns are clearly marked as "hick" (or "working-class" which is a kind of bizarre euphemism for "lower class" or as my student called it, "white trash". She was intimating that it wasn't the geographical association of "youse" that bothered her so much though as a waitress herself she didn't really care that much for Jersey manners or food snobbery. She was saying, she wouldn't or couldn't use "youse" because of that class marking alone, but, to her relief, living here offered her the opportunity to use "y'all" which can be done much more freely among all classes and at all levels of society. Sure, we know it's not formal English. But, our phones seem to know we are in Texas, and, if we leave out the apostrophe, my phone at least will supply it, and even put it in the right place.
Liberman, M. (2009). Singular y'all: a "devious Yankee rumor"? Language Log. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2009. Available 10-12.