Singular y'all (and yuz)?I

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Fri Jan 9 17:28:20 UTC 2004

Actually I think there is some sense that youse (please spell it
correctly!) can be singular. I don't have empirical evidence for this,
only a memory of it when I was growing up in NYC. It was often youse
guys--which indicated to me at the time that the reinforced plural was
meant to ensure people who might read youse as sg that they too were

But I will ask again, as I asked some time ago, whether the existence
of "all y'all" as a reinforced plural similar to youse guys might
suggest at least a fear that y'all is becoming an unmarked second
person, like you, rather than a marked plural 2nd person? I remarked
then, and will renew that remark now, that the spread of "you guys" as
a marked 2nd person plural nationally (in spoken Engl) suggests we feel
a need to disambiguate unmarked you. If you guys is also spreading in
y'all territory, as a number of researchers have claimed, then that too
could suggest a need to disambiguate the 2nd person.

I don't see anyone disambiguating yins (or you'uns), which is common
enough just south of where I live, and I have no idea if you guys is
intruding on its turf. Anyone know?

This disambiguation pattern fits neatly the historical development of
the second person in English:

initially th- and y- forms mark sg and pl
as y- forms take over, due to politeness, you becomes the unmarked sg
and pl form, and can this be ambiguous
you then gets disambiguated into you/ya'll; you/you'uns; and you/youse

perhaps you guys is just a new marked plural, but what role is it
filling if y'all, yins, and youse already function as effective
plurals? My theory--please someone do research--is that y'all has taken
over, thru politeness constraints, the functions of sg. you as well as
pl y'all, hence the need to move to all y'all or you guys,

Asking people if they ever use y'all as a sg will definitely generate a
reply based on what people think is correct (ie, that y'all must be
plural) and what they think they themselves do (rather than what they
actually do).

I know, I know, I'm just a northerner stuck in a midland space warp in
E. central Illinois, but hey, I could have something here . . .


On Friday, January 9, 2004, at 10:57 AM, RonButters at AOL.COM wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       RonButters at AOL.COM
> Subject:      Singular y'all (and yuz)?I
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> 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 th!
>  is 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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