Singular "yez"?

Wilson Gray wilson.gray at RCN.COM
Mon Dec 13 20:54:52 UTC 2004

On Dec 13, 2004, at 10:08 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Singular "yez"?
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> At 11:35 PM -0500 12/12/04, James C Stalker wrote:
>> Maybe someday some now young and aspiring linguist will get a really
>> big
>> grant to study this issue.  Until that day, I think Wilson is right.

Thank you for the accolade! I said that I wasn't going to bloviate on
this topic any longer. Clearly, I lied. In any case, I'd like to
suggest that maybe the phenomenon is age-graded. By coincidence, my
correspondent at the University of Mississippi and I are of *exactly*
the same age, way closer to 70 than we'd like to be. Perhaps younger
BE/SE speakers do use "y'all" as a singular and we, simply by sheer
accident, haven't heard it because we're not in constant, daily contact
with people young enough to be our granchirrin.

Unfortunately, the stereotype that blacks and other Southerners -
however ill- or well-defined - use "y'all" as a singular is probably at
least as old as my correspondent and I are, if not older. It's not
something that dates from from a mere thirty years ago. Hence, she and
I are unable to give any credence to something that, for us, has no
more status than any other claim of the urban-legend type.

If we could be shown an example of the use in print of "y'all" as a
singular by, say, William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Frank Yerby or
Richard Wright, we'd *possibly* be immediately persuaded of the error
of our ways. Otherwise, all either camp has to offer is basically only
"I personally have *heard* this!" vs. "I personally have *never* heard
this!" As Jim so wisely notes below, "... we hear and interpret what
our prejudices instruct us to hear."


>>   Even for professional linguists, language is perception.  When it
>> comes to yall,
>> we hear and interpret what our prejudices instruct us to hear.
>> Clearly
>> there are those who firmly believe that heaven does not allow yall as
>> a
>> singular, and thosse that believe it does.
>> Jim Stalker
> There is a difference of perception, but there's also an uncertainty
> in definition.  What exactly are we counting as singulars?  A number
> of posters have brought up cases that push the boundaries of singular
> vs. plural.  Take the example I mentioned recently*, which I
> originally posted in Nov. 2002--
> ===========
> I was at the pharmacy counter of my health plan a couple of weeks ago
> (the only person standing there waiting to pick up a prescription)
> and the pharmacist (female, 30-ish, African-American) chastised me
> (pointing to the roped-off area a few yards back), "Y'all have to
> stand back there".  Definitely a second-person singular "y'all",
> although it could be argued that it designated "you and anyone else
> (not now present) in your situation".
> ===========
> Is this reckoned a singular by those who dispute the existence of
> singular "y'all" and thus a counterexample to the claim, or is this
> being taken as an implicit plural?   If the latter, what sort of
> example would falsify the claim that y'all cannot be a singular?
> This is, I assume, an empirical question, and I'm not someone with a
> firm belief (in either heaven or the inherent number-marking of
> "y'all").
> (*Bethany's example from a Knoxville receptionist is similar,
> although I'd think even harder to assimilate to the class of implicit
> plurals.)
> larry

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