Wednesday, October 03, 2012

singular y'all

My class and I go back and forth a little about language; they're pretty much all from Texas, although I have one from Australia, and another from Italy, and a third from Albany NY which thank God lends me some credibility about Northernisms like "you guys." I ask them honestly what they mean by certain things and they usually tell me their true feelings.

So I said to them, I'm trying to figure out "y'all," and I really want to know how you feel and how you use it. I had introduced the topic once earlier when I said that when I typed "yall" into my phone my phone actually added the apostrophe as if it was a standard word and everyone should know how to spell it right.

But today I had read something by Mencken, of all people, who said something to the effect that out of 100 times you might hear it to refer to someone who is alone (it's common, for example, for people to say, 'how are y'all?' to people who are alone), it can be interpreted as a polite, you and yours, as in, 'how are you and yours?' (now this interpretation is very much in fitting with our Latin, Spanish/French roots where referring to you in the plural is always more polite than referring to you in the singular). But the 100th time, Mencken says, it's just plain singular, no two ways about it. There's no possible "you and yours" interpretation that could go with it. So I said to my class, what's up with that? Can it really be truly singular? I'm well aware of "all of y'all" which is a definitive plural, emphasizes the inclusiveness of a group. And locals are quick to point out that, although y'all easily moves from singular to plural (same way 'you' does), all-a-y'all is always plural.

No, says one, a student who I trust to think carefully and give a good answer. It's used in the singular, but it's polite, and it refers to the plural; its meaning is plural.

So it occurred to me that one reason to account for the other 1%, is that some people interpret the singular y'all is simply something you use for everyone, as a gesture of politeness; it's marked as polite, but not necessarily marked as plural. So there are a number of people around who go around calling everyone "y'all," not realizing that someone who didn't have a family might actually get offended.

And sure enough one woman said, after class, that she was a waitress, and was in the habit of calling everyone "y'all," when one day someone got offended; that person was overweight, and clearly alone in the world, or at least in the booth. And that customer assumed that "y'all" was a reference to his/her obesity, since there wasn't any other plural around.

Students were interested in what I had to say about "you'ns," "youse" and "you lot," other you plurals that are out there. In fact I have read a bit about them, but when it came to "y'all," I never quite understood the singular/plural controversy. Now, I'm surrounded by it (that, and "yes sir" and "yes ma'am" which I've reinterpreted as "polite"). I always tend toward polite and non-confrontational, as I explained to my students, so it's only a matter of time before I start in with some of this "y'all" and "all-a-y'all" as long as I can feel like I've figured it out well enough. We talked about other language changes: Ms., everyone and "their" book, etc. Some of my serious thinking about language and language change I'll put here as I'm trying to corral my thinking about linguistics in general and put it in one place. But, at the same time, I'm learning another language. Fixin' to learn it, anyway!

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