The Rise Of Y’all And The Quest For A Second-Person Plural Pronoun

While traditionally associated with southern American dialects, “y’all” isn’t confined to a singular geographic region.
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The Rise Of Y’all And The Quest For A Second-Person Plural Pronoun

Have y’all heard? “Y’all” is in the mainstream now. While historically associated with the southern United States, “y’all” is becoming a popular choice for people who want to address multiple people. The rise of y’all fills a lexical hole in English that’s been around for a long time: the lack of a second-person plural pronoun.

Whether you’ve embraced “y’all” or prefer a different way of referring to a group of people, it’s worth knowing about the history of the second-person plural in English. This may sound boring, but it combines Old English, regional dialects, African American Vernacular English and gendered language all into a single story. So yes, y’all really has it all.

Oh, and a brief note before we begin: some people fiercely advocate for the spelling to be “ya’ll,” but we’ll be sticking with “y’all” as a contraction of “you” and “all.” This is the more popular spelling, but there are plenty of instances of “ya’ll” out there and we don’t want to turn this into a moral argument, so spell it however you want.

The Original Second-Person Plural In Old English

Right now, if you look at a diagram of the pronouns in Standard American English (in the nominative case), you would see this:

Singular Plural
First I we
Second you you(?)
Third he/she/they they

Compared to other languages, using the same pronoun for both second-person singular and plural is a tad odd. French has the second-person singular tu and plural vous, German has du and ihr and Spanish has and vosotros (though some dialects of Spanish don’t use vosotros, so English isn’t that weird). The reason for this deviation from other languages is that, at one point, English did have a separate second-person plural pronoun.

If you looked at an Old English list of pronouns, you’d see that there was, in fact, a singular second-person pronoun thou and a plural ge (pronounced ye). For a decent part of the history of English, thou and ge were different entities. As English evolved over time, the ye took precedence over second-person, whether the addressee was one person or many. This process began when ye started to be used for people of a higher social standing (like the vs. usted distinction in Spanish). Because of this, thou became reserved for those of a lower social standing. Also, another pronunciation of ye started becoming more popular: you.

Thou and ye may be gone from most varieties of English, but they’re not forgotten. Certain parts of northern England, Scotland and Newfoundland still use these terms to this day.

Second-Person Plurals In Dialects Of English

Pronouns are a closed class of words. That means it is very, very rare for new pronouns to arise (compare that to open class words like verbs and nouns — new ones are added to our lexicon all the time). Creating a new second-person plural pronoun that everyone would use, then, is difficult. What’s happened instead is that many different pronouns have appeared in various parts of the world.

The two most popular second-person plural pronouns (at least in the United States) are “y’all” and “you guys,” both of which we’ll get to in a moment, but there are plenty more options to choose from. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of words used for this purpose around the world:

  • yinz or you ‘uns — used in the Ozarks, the Appalachians and western Pennsylvania
  • yous or youse — used in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and parts of England, Scotland and Canada
  • you lot — used in the United Kingdom and Australia
  • wunna — used in Barbados
  • yinna — used in the Bahamas
  • unu — used in various parts of the Caribbean

This brings us to “you guys,” the preferred second-person plural of the northern and western United States (as well as the southern tip of Florida). As of right now, “you guys” is a far more popular choice than “y’all,” but it’s facing a reckoning at the moment. There’s disagreement as to whether “you guys” is a gendered term or not. On the one hand, at this point people refer to other people as “guys” no matter the gender. On the other, “guys” explicitly originated as a term referring to men, and so it joins a pattern of terms originally meaning “men” that are now used to refer to all people.

The argument against “you guys” is still mainly made by the minority, and as far as language usage goes it can seem like a minor point. But as people make the argument for a more inclusive term, they turn to one other option: y’all.

The Story Of Y’all

There’s not a huge amount known for certain about the origins of “y’all.” The first use of the word that has been found comes from 1824, and it definitely originated in the South. One theory posits that “y’all” might have derived from ye aw, which is a second-person plural used by the Scots-Irish. The theory holds weight, as many Scots-Irish migrated to the southern United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, “y’all” is synonymous with Southern American English, but it’s slowly creeping northward.

The rise of y’all also is tied to the spread and adoption of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. While the mainstream notion of “y’all” conjures images of cowboys for many Americans, that’s not exactly accurate. Taking a turn into the more shameful parts of American history, “y’all” is tied to the history of slavery. Because “y’all” was used in the southern states in the 19th century, it became part of the lexicon for enslaved Africans. And when Africans and their descendants moved northward, they brought “y’all” with them. Throughout the 20th century, the use of the term went way up.

Rise Of Y'all Graph

This specific data looks at instances of “y’all” written in books, which really understates the prevalence of the word. Despite being around for centuries now, it’s not a “standard” word, and so is more likely to be said than written down. And since 2008, the rise of y’all has continued.

All in all, there are quite a few reasons for the rise of y’all over the past decade. As we mentioned earlier, it’s a gender-neutral option, and thus some linguists are advocating for its adoption by more people. Plus, the mainstream use of AAVE has become more and more common. Though “y’all” is not as obviously tied to AAVE as words like “woke” and “bae,” it’s certainly part of a lexicon used by African Americans that is being absorbed by a larger body of people. Social media is also a major contributor here, breaking down geographic boundaries. All together, this has allowed the word to flourish.

“Y’all” has a long way to go before becoming part of Standard English, or even Standard American English, but it’s not entirely far-fetched that it might. It’s an incredibly versatile term — it can also be used to address a single person, or you can use “all y’all” to widen the scope of who you’re talking to — and it’s more concise than most of the other second-person plural pronouns mentioned before.

If you’ve never used “y’all” before, give it a try. It might sound like you’re doing an imitation of a southerner at first, but after a while it becomes natural. We won’t tell you what to do with your life, but if y’all want to adopt a new way of addressing groups, don’t overlook “y’all.”

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