Singular y'all (and yuz)?I

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Fri Jan 9 16:57:01 UTC 2004

A very interesting anecdote. This sort of thing gets reported from time to time. Those of you who have actually read Guy Bailey's empirical research on the singular y'all in Texas (published in AMERICAN SPEECH in the 1990s) know that he found a large number of folks in a telephone survey who accepted the singular y'all. I was editor off AS at the time, and I published the article even though I personally had some doubts about whether the high percentage of responses was not in great part an artifact of the research question--my hope was that this would spur more of the sort of serious scholarship that Bailey's work represents. I also published an even earlier article by Richardson that used an inductive methodology and that concluded that singular y'all was exeedingly rare--enough to be categorized as a "mistake" in the anecdotes that are occasionally reported (such as the one below). That is to say, the speaker could have misspoken. Or the hearer could have missheard. Or this particular speaker could be idiosyncratic (a grammatical equivalent of GLADLY, THE CROSS-EYED BEAR). Historically, of course, as we all know, the use of the plural YOU in the singular came about for reasons of "politeness," so the same impulse could certainly prompt the occasional speaker to do likewise.

I'm not doubting the veracity of the anecdote--I'm just much more impressed by the relative rarity of actual documented uses of singular y'all among native speakers--and the relative enthusiasm and certainty of so many native speakers who respond to discussions of this sort that they would NEVER use y'all in the singular. I don't see this as prescriptivism, just empirical observation about what people generally do.

It is interesting to me that nobody I know of has ever proposed that other alternative plural 2nd person pronouns are even used in the singular (yunz, yuz, you guys).
In a message dated 1/9/2004 12:12:42 AM Eastern Standard Time, "James C. Stalker" <stalker at MSU.EDU> writes:

>I have been following the yall debate for several years.  First let me
>establish  my origins.  I come from Kentucky, Louisvile, south side, working
>class area.  Unfortunately, when I was growing up in this area, yall was not a
>prime consideration in my life, but a singular yall does not, in my native
>speaker intuition, seem unusual.  However, many years later, c. 1998,in Foley,
>Alabama as I entered the Le Cruset shop in the outlet mall, the young woman,
>to my aged eyes, c.20, the greeter, asked: "Can I he(l)p yall?"  I was to all
>apperances alone, a single male, no apparent relations (grandma, grandpa,
>uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.) hanging around, and given that we did not know
>each other, she had no reason to believe that they would follow me into the
>store.  There was also no apparent spouse.  Geez, she didn't even know if I
>was a visiting yankee or a native. Some years ago, I think it was Rudy Troike
>who suggested that yall could be used as the polite singular.  I think his
>observations are accurate.  I would also point to Montomery's research on
>multiple modals that suggest that they seve a politeness function as well.
>Southener speakrs are noted for politeness.  How do we know they are being
>polite?  Because they say yall (sg) and use multiple modals.  I detect a bit
>of prescriptivism here.  Yall must be plural.  Hey, I've given up on
>fewer/less.  Fewer is no longer in the vocabulary. Can't yall give up on yall
>as a singular?
>Jim Stalker

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