Monday, December 25, 2006

More than y'all wanted to know about "y'all"

This morning I came across a posting on a site called Redneck's Revenge (don't ask--I have no recollection of how I got there) titled Merry Christmas, Ya'll. It consisted mainly of an illustration, a take-off of Norman Rockwell's famous "Freedom from Want" (click here for Rockwell's original), except the woman is smoking a cigarette, she's serving a bucket of KFC chicken rather than a turkey, and the man behind her is in a t-shirt instead of a suit. Oh, and there are cans of Budweiser on the table.

Now, I'm a sucker for Rockwell parodies, but the posting's title bothered me: Merry Christmas, Ya'll.

You all. Take out the "o" and the "u, put an apostrophe in their place, and then squish everything together: y'all. Not ya'll. Y'all.

Simple, but apparently hard for some people to understand. In 1996, when the Olympic games brought the world to Atlanta, there was a billboard on the interstate just before the South Carolina border: "Ya'll come back to see us." The message showed that we in Georgia can be mighty hospitable--and mighty ignorant of spelling rules.

The publicists on Atlanta's Olympic committee aren't the only ones who misspell the word. A Google search turns up 3,680,000 instances of "y'all" on the web and 2,180,000 of "ya'll," so the misspelling is widespread. Maybe people are thinking of "we'll," the contraction for "we will," which is quite a different thing.

Anyway, seeing that title this morning reminded me of a couple years ago, when I came across "ya'll" in a John Grisham novel. Grisham, who lives near Oxford, Mississippi (home of William Faulkner, another great southern writer), has an ear for dialogue and uses "y'all" well and frequently. But several times in The Brethren, "y'all" had become "ya'll" (a misspelling I attributed to an overzealous but ignorant copyeditor). This got me curious about that fine southern pronoun, and I started reading up on it.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is generally considered the definitive authority to English usage. It cites, for every sense of every word, at least one example taken from the literary record. In fact, the OED tries to offer the earliest use of the word, followed by other examples from later years.

According to the OED, the first appearance of "y'all" was in 1909, much later than I expected. I couldn't believe the word hadn't appeared in print long before that. A quick check of the New York Times, from its first publication in 1851 to the present (not nearly as big a deal as it sounds; the Times was recently digitized, creating a searchable database that allows a researcher to type any word and within seconds have a citation to every mention of that word in the newspaper's history), uncovered "y'all" in 1886, in a rather rude article titled "Odd Southernisms": "'You all,' or, as it should be abbreviated, 'y'all,' is one of the most ridiculous of all the Southernisms I can call to mind." There it was, over twenty years earlier than the OED's first citation.

But I wasn't satisfied. Another new resource, American Periodicals Series, is a searchable database of over a thousand American magazines published between 1740 and 1900. Again, with just a few seconds' work, I came across a citation to the Southern Literary Messenger from 1858. The piece was written by "Mozis Addums," penname of George William Bagby, one of the humorists of the mid-nineteenth century who thought spelling everything phonetically was funny. Mozis described the crowded conditions in the boarding house where he was living: "Packin uv pork in a meet house, which you should be keerful it don't git hot at the bone, and prizin uv tobakker, which y'all's Winstun nose how to do it, givs you a parshil idee, but only parshil."

Well, I'm not exactly sure what it means, either, but there it is, over half a century before the esteemed OED caught it--and not just "y'all" itself, but the possessive, "y'all's," with two glorious apostrophes!

Linguist Michael Montgomery claims that "y'all" goes back to the Scots-Irish phrase "ye aw," and he offers as evidence a letter written in 1737 by an Irish immigrant in New York to a friend back home: "Now I beg of ye aw to come over here." As I understand Montgomery's hypothesis, "ye aw" was Americanized into "y'all," which is indeed a contraction of "you all" but would not have come into being without the influence of the Scots-Irish phrase.

Whatever its origin, the word serves an important function in English. We have separate singular and plural first person pronouns ("I" and "we") and third person pronouns ("he"/"she" and "they"), but there is no distinction in the second person; "you" is both singular and plural. The distinction between the French "tu" (singular) and "vous" (plural) doesn't exist in English. It did until a few centuries ago: "thou" was singular, "you" plural. But by the time the American colonies won their independence, "thou" had practically disappeared and "you" was serving a double function. It's almost as if we're missing a pronoun now, and "y’all" admirably fills the second person plural position.

And through most of the South, it is plural. Unless someone is intentionally misusing it for effect, "y'all" seldom refers to just one person. The problem is, lots of folks have intentionally misused it, from the makers of movies and television shows with exaggerated southern characters (often for purposes of ridicule) to the writers of those ubiquitous little books with titles like "Advice for Yankees Moving South": "Remember, 'y'all' is singular. 'All y'all' is plural. 'All y'all's' is plural possessive."

Here's how Lewis Grizzard handled the situation: "For some unknown reason, Northerners think Southerners use 'y'all' and 'you all' in the singular sense. Northerners will giggle and ask, 'So where are you all from?' I answer by saying, 'I all is from Atlanta.'"

Anyway, I wrote up a brief article about the two examples I had found that pre-dated the OED's earliest citation and got it published in American Speech, probably the biggest journal for American linguistics. (Hey, publish or perish, you know.) Not bad for a few minutes' work.

And now y'all know all you need to know about "y'all."

UPDATE: see Beat at my own game!