Thursday, April 12, 2007

In Southern England, Did They Say "þ'all?"

Christopher Hitchens broke into my mind, ransacked it, then published one of my favorite gripes in his article, "The You Decade." Most of it is not really relevant to medieval stuff, except for this:

I can clearly remember the first time I heard the expression y'all, which was at a Greyhound bus stop in Georgia more than 30 years ago. A young black man, hearing my English accent but mistaking my age, told me with exquisite courtesy and solemnity that he greatly admired "the stand y'all"—he actually spun it out all the way to "you all"—"took in 1940." Stirred as I was then, I was stirred and baffled, later, when others in Dixie used "y'all" to mean just myself and not anything plural. But then I heard someone say "all of y'all," which restored the plural to its throne.

The "y'all" construction has always struck me as fascinating. First, it is interesting because it recognizes a deficiency in Modern English -- the lack of a second person plural. Whether it's "y'all" or "you guys" or "youse guys," we keep trying to dance around the problem of no distinction between singular and plural in the second person.

The other reason it is fascinating is that, historically, "you" is the plural. In Old English, here's how the second person worked:*


Since the þ was pronounced like Modern English "th", this can be represented more recognizably in Early Modern English (like in the King James Bible) like this:

Subject .......................

Looking at this, you can see that "you" actually is the plural. It is the anachronistic "thou" that is the singular. Somehow, then, English lost its singular and started using its plural for both singular and plural. People then started to think about that old plural as actually being singular, and now we feel like we have to create constructions around it to indicate plurality.

This can lead to all sorts of weirdness, such as the "y'all" and "youse guys" constructions. We also end up with real howlers when Modern English users try to use Early Modern English. I've heard more than one error from the pulpit when visiting KJV-only churches, where the preacher got confused about who was being addressed because he doesn't see the switch between "you" and "thou" as significant. More than once I've heard the hymn "As the Deer" sung like this...

As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after Thee. You alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship Thee.

... which would be OK if they just used the Modern English "you," but by throwing in the faux King James-style Early Modern "Thee" they switch back and forth between monotheism and polytheism.

One other little non-medieval tangent before closing. Hitchens describes someone as saying "all of y'all" as the southern plural. No true southerner would ever throw that "of" in there. Heck, I'm not a southerner and even I know that! You can, of course, put "all" before "y'all," but only if you are creating the plural possessive. So, I'll close with the true Deep South Second Person Paradigm:

_______________Singular_______________Plural Subject'all
Possessive...................your........................................all y'all's'all

*OK, now, all you Old English scholars, don't write me nasty notes about this paradigm. Yes, yes, I've ignored some other spellings and conflated accusative and dative -- if you don't like it, make your OWN paradigm for popular audiences!


  1. I've often wondered if (at least in local usage) "y'all" isn't sometimes used as an expanded dual. That is, it's used for groups from two to about seven. At that point "all y'all" appears as a true plural.

  2. I spent 15 years or so in Texas and never heard a singular "y'all". In my experience, it's always plural. Does the singular "y'all" really exist?

    In the Hitchens excerpt, it seems to me the "y'all" is in reference to the British (people), not to Hitchens himself.

  3. The singular form still exists in Georgia...

    Besides--Texas isn't the South. It's...Texas.

  4. There is a singular "y'all" in Georgia?

    I hearby call on all my Alabama brethren to rise up and conquer Georgia, so that we may destroy this abomination, the 2nd person singular "y'all"!

    Even Augustine would agree that it is cause for a Just War.

  5. I left the south in 1986 and my southern accent left me a few years later. Y'all will always be a part of my vocabulary, though. Such a useful word; the yankees will succumb sooner or later.

    I had no idea about it's origins. Very interesting.

  6. I've been greatly horrified when I've heard the singular y'all. Of course, it's normally somebody from New Jersey trying to "get local"...

  7. I landed on your post by chance, but want to add a comment nevertheless. The use of "you" has also puzzled me as a non-English native speaker, and your blog post put the issue in an interesting light.

    As Old English is very close to Old Norse, from which my native tongue, Danish, descends, I'll show the same words in Danish for comparison.

    Form - Singularis - Pluralis:
    Subject - du - I (capital letter)
    Posessive - din - Jeres
    Object - dig - Jer

    Knowing that initial "þ" has been replaced by "d" in Danish, it looks very close to Old English. Even the peculiar shift from "I" to "Jer" ("ge" to "eow") is there.

    So your asessment that "you" is the old plural form seems to be absolutely right.

    Another similar thing about the English language puzzles me too, the use of "you" instead of "one", when adressing anyone. Is this a similar development?

  8. In the Ozarks, we say "you'uns" for the plural "you" and "your'uns's" for the plural possessive "yours."

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  9. Anonymous11:40 AM

    I'm a lifelong resident of Louisiana and have never actually heard anyone use y'all for the singular, though I have occasionally read about such atrocities elsewhere. "All y'all" I use all the time though. My pet peeve is misplacement of the apostrophe--i.e. ya'll, which I see done all the time.

  10. Fascinating. As one of your translpanted Alabama brethren, consider me part of the campaign against that Great Whore, Georgia.

  11. English used to have familiar and formal forms of address, just like German's "du & "Sie". It's considered to be very impolite to be familiar with someone and use "du" without their permission.

    English had "thou" as the familiar form, and "you" as the formal.

    I often berate those who try to speak to me "forsoothly", not only do they get their word endings wrong - I run, thou runnest, he/he runneth, you run - they get familiar with me without my permission!