Singular y'all (and yuz)?I

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Sat Jan 10 16:16:49 UTC 2004

 I certainly agree with Dennis Baron's assertion that asking people directly about the number-meaning of "y'all" can elicit unreliable responses; I also think that empirical subjects can be queried in ways that WILL produce reliable results; though I don't think that Bailey's Texas phone research was a sophisticated enough tool to produce reliable results, though I would have to design and administer a "better" tool to depmonstrate this conclusively, which I never have done. As I've argued for many years (since about NWAVE 1), the only way to get a really good handle on low-frequency phenomena is through asking native speakers what it is they do, or at least cleverly elicit forms from them (as I tried to do with MIGHT COULD, HAVE TO, and other Southernisms).

Concerning the putative spread of "you guys": all the anecdotal evidence that I've seen (admittedly not much) points in the direction of this being a form that is spread by Yankees who move South and infect the Southerners who hang out with them. It becomes a kind of registerial difference. The pattern is still "y'all/you guys" plural, "you" singular. The general robustness of "you guys" throughout the country must certainly indicate a felt need for a singluar/plural distinction in the second-person pronoun, as Dennis indicates. But this "felt need" would argue for the preservation of a "y'all/you" plural/singular distinction, not the blurring of it: if "y'all" and "you" become identical, then there is no way of making the distinction. Baron is right that "all y'all" is occasinally heard, but there is no way of knowing if the redundancy merely signals a desire for emphasis, or if some speakers fear an ambiguity. The only way to begin to study this would be to look at some actual data, which I don't think anyone has done. My instinct tells me that "all y'all" tends to be heard when the speaker is addressing three or more people, and that the seeming redundancy actually is a kind of semantic distinguisher between a plural and a dual: "all y'all" = plural, "y'all" = a kind of pragmatic dual, "you" = singular.
Dennis Baron writes:
  Subj:   Re: Singular y'all (and yuz)?I
  Date:   1/9/2004 12:28:20 PM Eastern Standard Time

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 . . .

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