Note on 'Singular' Y'ALL

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Fri May 26 21:06:00 UTC 2006

  2001 _Bart Simpson [Comics]_ (No. 5) [unp.] : Well, stranger....Y'all sleep tight, now !

  (For humor purposes only. Void where prohibited.)


RonButters at AOL.COM wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: RonButters at AOL.COM
Subject: Note on 'Singular' Y'ALL

=A0 =20
American Speech 76.3 (2001) 335-336


Data Concerning Putative Singular y'all=20

Ronald R. Butters, Duke University=20

There has been considerable discussion in the past in American Speech about=20
whether the pronoun y'all is coming to be used in the singular in the Americ=
South (e.g., Richardson 1984, who says it is not, and Tillery and Bailey 199=
and Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey 2000, who say it is; cf. Montgomery 1996). It=
has always seemed to me that arguments in support of putative singular y'all=
depend either on (1) data that is an artifact of the research situation or (=
2) a=20
mistaken understanding of the pragmatics of the reported utterance--as, for=20
example, when a salesperson bids goodbye to a solitary customer by saying Y'=
come back, hear? (an idiom meaning 'you and your friends and family come=20
back, please!'). Note that salespersons are not reported as greeting their=20
solitary customers with *Can I help y'all?

In May 2001, I was partner to a conversation that I thought at first was=20
going to change my view of this issue; however, it ended up merely confirmin=
g it.=20
Fred, a 21-year-old working-class white native of Hillsborough, North=20
Carolina, was telling a story about how he had successfully rejected a frien=
d's offer=20
to supply him with some unspecified illicit drugs. What follows is a=20
paraphrase of Fred's actual utterance. The conversation was not mechanically=
However, I made notes about the conversation only a few minutes after it too=
place, and I am certain that I have been faithful to the significant details=

Fred: So all the time I was cutting the lawn I kept thinking about how great=
it would be to get high. And wouldn't you know it, just as I was finishing t=
job one of my old running buddies pulled up in his car and immediately=20
started talking about how he had a new supply of great drugs and how I shoul=
d come=20
off with him and get high. I told him I wasn't interested, that I was not go=
to do any drugs, not today. Well, he got right ugly, so I said, "Y'ALL get i=
Y'ALL'S car and get out of here." And they left.=20

If one is looking for evidence for putative singular y'all, it would=20
seemingly be hard to find better data than this. The evidence of the immedia=
antecedent singular phrase one of my old running buddies and the singular pr=
his, he, and him appears to argue overwhelmingly that Fred's y'all is a=20
singular pronoun. Though it is a bit of a stretch, one could even attempt to=
the third-person plural they in the final sentence as an instance of the=20
impersonal singular they (cf. Everyone likes pizza, don't they?) in agreemen=
t with=20
the grammatical plurality of y'all, as [End Page 335] distinct from its=20
semantic singularity. (See Butters and Aycock 1987 for parallel instances of=
verbs used with singular y'all in Hollywood pseudo-Southern dialect in the=20

But in fact, that is not what Fred meant at all. I asked him, "How many=20
people were there trying to get you to go off and use?"=20

Fred looked puzzled. "Two," he said, "my buddy and his girlfriend. And she=20
got even uglier than he did."=20

Fred's usage not only was NOT an instance of singular y'all, his usage=20
suggests strongly that, in his mind, y'all cannot ever be singular: he assum=
ed that=20
his audience would understand from his selection of y'all (rather than you)=20
that there were two or more people in the car that he was ordering to be rem=
from his backyard. My follow-up question, from his point of view, appears to=
have been redundant.=20


Butters, Ronald R., and Stuart Campbell Aycock. 1987. "More on Singular y'al=
." American Speech 62: 191-92.=20

Montgomery, Michael B. 1996. "The Future of Southern American English." SECO=
Review 20: 1-24.=20

Richardson, Gina. 1984. "Can y'all Function as a Singular Pronoun in Souther=
Dialect?" American Speech 59: 51-59.=20

Tillery, Jan, and Guy Bailey. 1998. "Yall in Oklahoma." American Speech 73:=20

Tillery, Jan, Tom Wikle, and Guy Bailey. 2000. "The Nationalization of a=20
Southernism." Journal of English Linguistics 28: 280-94.=20

In a message dated 5/25/06 10:32:59 PM, laurence.horn at YALE.EDU writes:

> >Couldn't youse be plural in the sense, "You folks who run the church"?
> >
> Right, I was thinking it's a lot like some of those "singular"
> instances of "y'all" that turn out on closer inspection to be 'you
> and the horse you rode in on', or more generally 'you and your
> bunch'.=A0 Could the red-headed warrior have declared to the priest,
> "Father, I hope you don't tink I'm a poiv, but I love youse" ?

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