Singular Y'ALL: some data

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Wed May 23 15:26:49 UTC 2001

There was some discussion here in the past (and in AMERICAN SPEECH) about
whether Y'ALL is coming to be used in the singular in the American South. I
have always maintained that the reported evidence for putative singular Y'ALL
is either an artifact of the research situation (e. g., Guy Bailey's Oklahoma
telephone survey) or a mistaken understanding of the pragmatics of the
reported utterance--for example, when a salesperson bids goodbye to a
solitary customer by saying, "Y'all come back, hear?" (an idiom meaning 'you
and your friends and family come back, please!'). Note that salespersons are
not reported as greeting their solitary customers with *"Can I help y'all?"

Last night I was a part of a conversation that I thought at first was going
to change my view of this issue -- but it ended up merely confirming it.
Fred, a 21-year-old working-class white native of Hillsborough, North
Carolina, was telling a story about how he had successfully rejected an offer
to take drugs. What follows is a paraphrase of his actual utterance, which
was not mechanically recorded. I have, however, been faithful to the
significant details.

FRED: So all the time I was cutting the grass I kept thinking about how great
it would be to get high. And wouldn't you know it, just as I was finishing
the job one of my old running buddies pulled up in his car and immediately
started talking about how HE had a new supply of great drugs and how I should
come off with HIM and get high. I told HIM I wasn't interested, that I was
not going to do any drugs, not today. Well, HE got right ugly, so I said,
"Y'ALL get in Y'ALL'S car and get out of here." And THEY left.

If one is looking for evidence for putative singular Y'ALL, it is hard to
find better data than this. Granted, one must explain away the third-person
plural THEY in the final sentence as an instance of the impersonal singular
THEY (cf. EVERYONE LIKES PIZZA, DON'T THEY?). However, the evidence of the
immediately antecedent singular masculine HE/HIM appears to argue
overwhelming that Y'ALL is here being used as a singular.

But in fact, that is not what Fred meant at all. I asked him, "How many
people were there trying to get you to go off and use?"

"Two," said Fred, "my buddy and his girlfriend. And she got even uglier than
he did."

Fred's usage not only was not an instance of singular Y'ALL, his usage
suggests strongly that, in his mind, Y'ALL cannot ever be singular. He
assumed that his audience would understand from his selection of Y'ALL
(rather than YOU) that there were two or more people in the car that he was
ordering to be removed from his backyard.

More information about the Ads-l mailing list