Singular y'all: a "devious Yankee rumor"?

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From reader EG:

I am writing you because I encountered the perplexing singular y'all while watching trailers for Disney's newest film, The Princess and the Frog. Now, not being a Southerner I can't attest to my own usage of "y'all," but my linguistic intuition is in accord with your Language Log posting "Out of the y'all zone" (9/18/2005), namely that y'all is generally not used to address singular individuals, but plural and occasionally implied plurals. [...] In the cited trailer, Tiana uses singular y'all three times. Addressing the frog with evident dismay, she says "So what now? I reckon y'all want a kiss." at 0:32. And then again, at 2:14, when the frog is dismayed that she will not kiss him after her apparent offer, she retorts "I didn't expect y'all to answer!" In the intervening time, she does refer to him (using apparently less careless or emotionally influenced wording) as standard second person singular "you." Finally, "Y'all don't look that much different… but how'd you get way up there?" 3:13. This last example is perhaps the most perplexing of all, as it contains both forms.

Both the Wikipedia article for the movie and the IMDb page give screenwriting credit to Ron Clements (born in Sioux City, Iowa), John Musker (from Chicago, Illinois), and Rob Edwards (origins unclear). The character of Tiana is acted by Anika Noni Rose, who "was born in Bloomfield, Connecticut to Claudia and John Rose, Jr., a corporate counsel for the city of Hartford".  Thus it's not clear whether anyone associated with writing or acting that scene has native intuitions about the likely distribution of y'all in the speech of a young African-American woman from New Orleans.

So it's a reasonable guess that the sprinkling of y'alls in Tiana's speech is a bit of southern spice added by northern chefs. However, it's worth quoting Jan Tillery and Guy Bailey, "Yall in Oklahoma",  American Speech 73(3) 1998;

In spite of the large body of writing on yall, we know very little about the form. For example, we know almost nothing about its social and spatial distribution (i.e., about precisely who uses the form and exactly where it is used) and very little about its origins or even its precise meaning. This paradox is largely a consequence of the peculiar research strategy that underlies a great deal of the literature on yall. Rather than basing their conclusions on surveys of usage or ethnographic studies or even attestations in literary dialect, most of those who have written on yall rely on what is best termed the personal testimony of true believers. Especially in response to skeptics who cite apparent singular uses of you-all or yall that they may have overheard by chance, true believers simply give their personal testimony that these forms never occur as singulars in the South. They often do so with zeal, as in Axley's assertion that, in a lifetime of observation, he had "never heard any person of any degree of education or station in life use the expression you all as a singular" (1927, 343). Even Atwood (1962), in an otherwise excellent dialect survey, relies on the strategy of personal testimony. Although he surveyed the use of yall as a plural in Texas and Oklahoma, Atwood did not investigate its possible occurrence as a singular; he merely asserted that the form could not be used as a singular, adding that "if anything is likely to lead to another Civil War, it is the Northerner's accusation that Southerners use you all to refer to only one person" (1962, 69). In fact, only one study (Richardson 1984) provides anything like systematic evidence on the possible use of yall as a singular (she argues that the form is used only as a plural and that apparent singular occurrences usually reflect Southerners' exaggeration of their dialect for social effect); few studies provide any data at all on the social and spatial distribution of the form, either singular or plural. A century of fervent scholarship on you-all and yall, then, has produced mostly fervor.

Of course, a lot of linguistics, both prescriptive and descriptive, has been based on the "personal testimony of true believers".  And I'll repeat that several southerners whose intuitions I trust are categorically certain that they could never use y'all with singular reference — and my observations of their usage seem to bear this out. They also assert that the same applies to everyone in their native speech community — but this seems to me to be less trustworthy testimony.

Tillery and Bailey's survey results

… suggest that the debate over yall singular is not just an academic enterprise but one in which the general public participates as well, and they provide some insight into the motives for using yall as a singular. For example, an 83-year-old woman from Bryan County says that when yall is used, "it needs to be at least two" people, while a 51-year-old school teacher from Major County indicates that "in Oklahoma [yall] can be used for anything." A 61-year-old resident of Cherokee County, though, suggests that it is in Tennessee that anything goes: "for me, [yall is for] more than one; in Tennessee it isn't. I was raised in Tennessee." (This respondent, of course, was coded as a user of yall plural only.) A 73-year-old native of Rogers County says that she uses yall (actually you-all) as a singular and indicates when she would do so: "if I'm real friendly with someone and know them real well, I'll say how are you-all?"

And as they point out, individual instances of usage are almost always ambiguous:

[S]tatements about the use of yall as a singular or an associative plural are as much statements about the investigator's interpretation of what speakers meant when they used the form as they are statements about what speakers actually said. An example will illustrate this problem. Several years ago Bailey called the research office at The University of Memphis and asked a grants officer (a native Southerner) if she had a particular form that he needed. The grants officer said "yes," and Bailey indicated that he would be over to pick up the form in a few minutes. The grants officer then said, "I'll put it in a pick-up tray for yall." This token of yall might seem like a straightforward singular use, but it is possible to give the token an associative reading. It may be that the grants officer, knowing that Bailey was a department chair, assumed that even though Bailey said he would pick up the form himself, he would actually send a secretary over to get it. In this case, yall might refer to Bailey and whomever he might send to pick up the form, even though Bailey was the only addressee. Then again, it might not. The problem here is that we are trying to classify the token as a singular or an associative plural based on what we think the grants officer meant when she used it. Situations like these surely account for many of the disagreements about whether apparent singular uses of yall are true singulars or associative plurals. The only way to resolve such disagreements, of course, is to ask users what they mean when they use yall.  Can they use yall for just one person, or does it always have to refer to more than one? This is precisely what our surveys ask.

This ambiguity doesn't seem to apply to Tiana's lines: "I reckon y'all want a kiss"; "I didn't expect y'all to answer!"; "Y'all don't look that much different".  As far as I can see, there's no possibility of implicit plurality there, associative or not.

Of course, the whole question here is whether those lines are a Yankee interpolation. But T & B also list (pp. 272-275) a baker's dozen examples of apparently unequivocal singular yall from recorded sources, starting with this conversation between Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan from a 1937 recording ("Oozlin' Daddy Blues", Vocalion 03693):

Bob: Lord, Lord, Tommy.
Tommy: What's the matter?
Bob: You got your dictionary with you?
Tommy: What yall want with a dictionary?
Bob: I want to look up this new word, this here ((word …))
Tommy: What word's that?
Bob: That word oozlin', boy.

You can listen to the song itself on disc 2 of the Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys boxed set, or buy the individual song as an mp3 for $0.99 here. Here's the cited portion:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Returning to the surveys,

The testimony of many Southern linguists notwithstanding, nearly a third of the Oklahomans surveyed acknowledged using yall as a singular. We might be tempted to dismiss these results as spurious, but the convergence of results from two surveys with different methodologies (one a telephone survey making use of a random sample, the other a field survey relying on a purposive sample) suggest strongly that the results are an accurate depiction of yall in Oklahoma. The data from SFP [myl: Southern Focus Poll, a south-wide survey -- see the paper for details] provides additional confirmation and suggests that in regard to the use of yall, both plural and singular, Oklahoma is much like the South as a whole. [...] Thus given the convergence of results from the two SOD [Survey of Oklahoma Dialects] surveys and SFP, we cannot simply dismiss yall-singular as just a devious Yankee rumor.

There's some indication that singular y'all, though perhaps not a devious Yankee rumor, is an informal usage in a way that plural y'all isn't:

As part of [a Memphis business communication survey], Tillery asked business professionals if they used yall in their oral business communications and if they ever used yall for just one person in those communications. This survey differs from SOD and SFP in that it explores language in a more formal context, so we might expect lower rates of acknowledgment. Even in this formal context, however, some 15% of the respondents (33 of 220) acknowledge using yall for just one person.

Looking over the correlations with demographic variables, they conclude that

[Singular yall] is more likely to be used by better educated Oklahomans than by less educated ones, by urban residents than by rural ones, by middle-aged adults than by older or younger ones, and by men than by women. The data from SFP confirms all of these except for the rurality constraint. …

And they suggest as a hypothesis that

[Singular yall] is used by native Southerners, especially those who live in areas with large numbers of non-Southerners or who are in contact with non-Southerners in their work, as a badge of local identity, that is, as a way of affirming local values in the face of widespread migration into the area by outsiders who (often unwittingly) pose a threat to local values.

New Orleans is not Oklahoma, and Tiana is neither middle-aged nor male.  On the other hand, Naveen (whether as frog or as prince) is certainly an outsider.  And maybe African-American usage of singular yall is more advanced — Tillery and Bailey don't give a statistical evaluation of that factor, though they cite a number of singular yall examples from African-American speakers.

[Update -- I should also have included this second hypothesis from Tillery and Bailey:

Thomas Nunnally (1994) has offered a second hypothesis for the emergence of yall as a singular. He suggests that it may well be expanding to fill the role of a polite singular, just as you did several centuries ago. He points out that many of the citations of yall-singular show the form occurring at the edges of discourse-in greetings, partings, and so forth. The following citation, provided to us by Robin Sabino (1994), certainly fulfills this function. Sabino overheard an African-American waitress in an Opelika, Alabama, restaurant say to a customer eating alone, "How are you-all's grits?"

]

See also Jan Tillery, Tom Wickle, and Guy Bailey, "The Nationalization of a Southernism", Journal of English Linguistics, 2000. And for a contrary opinion on the grammaticality of singular y'all, see Ron Butters, "Data Concerning Putative Singular y'all", American Speech 76(3):335-336 2001.

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103 Comments »

  1. Carl said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:48 am

    I was raised in South Carolina by Yankees, so my intuitions aren’t definitive, but I tend to use y’all for a set of multiple people (standard plural) or for an individual who represents a group (corporate plural). So, to me the sentence, “I’ll put it in a pick-up tray for y’all,” means, “I’m doing this for you (singular) and implicitly for the group which you represent.” That seems like a pretty standard usage to me. For example, at a store, I might ask a lone clerk, “Do y’all have X?” In doing this I have a couple aims:

    1) to be friendlier than a “you”
    2) to address the clerk specifically (singular-esque), since the clerk is the one who will have to help me find the X
    3) but at the same time to address the clerk as a representative of the store as a whole, so that y’all means “all of you who work for this store” (plural-esque)

  2. Phil said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:04 am

    You should also explore the use of "all y'all." Carl does a good job laying out how "y'all" works. I'd say that when I've heard/used all y'all, the individual being addressed is not simply a representative for the group, but a member of the group being represented (so instead of "y'all getting a tray" it's "all yall will be getting a tray."

    Not sure if that makes sense, but all y'all in the comments can probably clarify.

  3. Stephen said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:04 am

    I just want to thank you for pointing me at Oozlin Daddy Blues — for many years I was under the misapprehension that it was Hoozling, and so of course having heard it once I was never able to find it again.

    Somewhat on topic, here in New Zealand we have "youse" which is very informal and low class, but clearly restricted to plural usage. I believe our "youse" exists elsewhere in various UK dialects and one or more of them may well be its source, but I've often wondered whether Maori dual and plural 2nd person pronouns have contributed to its survival.

    My observation of one of my workmates (who is a native Tennesseean) is that if he uses y'all at all, he only uses y'all where a plural meaning is a plausible inference.

    I'm amazed there isn't more study of this.

  4. Emily said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    I'm told that there is a word used in a way similar to "y'all" and it's used in western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, for example). The word is "y'in" or maybe it's "y'un".

    [(myl) As far as I know, it's yinz or yunz, derived from "you-uns": see e.g. here or here.]

  5. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:25 am

    I'm like Carl background-wise. I was raised in the South (Alabama) by non-Southerners.

    I don't use y'all to be friendlier, and I don't switch to plural you in formal contexts. There may be some correlation there.

    I think this demonstrates where a language could potential develop and inclusive and exclusive y'all form, where y'all includes the person(s) being spoken to directly and (if inclusive) who they are associated with.

    In the school I teach at, I frequently get what many might interpret as a singular y'all, but it's not: being the only white teacher in an all-black school, y'all is short for "white folk (maybe or not including me)" and "you" is simply me. This is, of course, what makes studying it so difficult — the Bob and Tommy conversation to me doesn't read weird, but I do imagine a person or persons involved, perhaps the band as the inclusive referent. At the same time, I don't really hear the "ll" part of "y'all" in the recording too well. It sounds more like "ya" to me =\.

    [(myl) If you listen carefully, e.g. with headphones, to just the relevant segment, I think it's pretty clear that it's yall. And T&B give a dozen other documented examples of apparently singular yall -- the more I learn about this, the more it seems to be an odd case of regional prescriptivism. Though as I said, some southerners do seem to walk the yall-is-always-singular walk as well as talking the talk.]

    When I first saw the video clip I figured she meant "y'all" as in the frog+person (two in one) but since she hadn't met him yet, I think, then that throws that idea out the window. Probably just someone trying to over-Southernize her speech. Things always get overdone in movies (would it really have been that hard to find a New Orleans or nearby voice actor for the part?)

    [(myl) The reason they call them "actors", I gather, is that they're supposed to be able to play other roles besides themselves, and do it convincingly...]

  6. Will said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:57 am

    "Youse" is also part of the Pittsburgh dialect, I think. I'm not from Pittsburgh and have never been there, so I'm really not sure about this, but I recall multiple independent friends from Pittsburgh using that as the plural you.

    As for the "y'all" discussion, I'm not a native southerner, but I do live in North Carolina and have for most of my life (and I moved there when I was a child). And I've never once heard y'all used as a singular; when used addressing a single individual it always implied a plural, with the addressed individual being a representative for an assumed organization or group.

    And I honestly don't think much more research here is necessary here. This may seem like I'm taking an un-scientific approach, and I sort of am, but at the same time anyone who insists on researching it should also insist on researching whether "we" is a singular or plural. The plural "y'all" vs singular "you" is really as basic a distinction as the plural "we" vs the singular "I" (or plural "us" vs singular "me").

  7. Carl said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:03 am

    There’s something to Will’s comment about “researching whether ‘we' is a singular or plural” on both sides: it is of course plural, but it is sometimes used to mean “just me, plus the imaginary frog in my pocket” especially in academicese, where “we” will show any number of different results and see any number of conclusions, in spite of there being only one author for a paper. In the same way, the plurality of y’all is as much definitional as empirical.

  8. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:04 am

    One of our happiest memories of a week-long holiday in Apia a couple of years ago was being asked by a lavalava-clad waiter: "Do youse want some buns?" He meant to ask if we (dual) would like to have bread rolls with our soup.

  9. Bryan said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:10 am

    Having spent over 30 years in Texas, I have certainly occasionally run into singular y'alls. I always regarded it into the same category as the more common "He's good people".

  10. Lazar said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    "Thus it's not clear whether anyone associated with writing or acting that scene has native intuitions about the likely distribution of y'all in the speech of a young African-American woman from New Orleans."

    But the important thing is the likely distribution of y'all in the speech of a young African-American woman from New Orleans in the 1920s. Would I be presuming too much to say that this usage is most likely anachronistic?

    [(myl) Yes, I think you would -- Bob Wills was born in 1905 in Kosse TX, and Tommy Duncan was born in 1911 in Whitney TX, both about 250 miles from the Louisiana border. They were white, but as Charles Townsend writes in San Antonio Rose:

    It was significant that Wills learned much of his music and style directly from blacks. [...] He said he never played with many white children, other than his two sisters and younger brother, until he was seven or eight years old. Negroes were his earliest playmates, and his father enjoyed watching him jig dance with black children. [...]
    In the cotton camps, the children often competed in jig-dnacing contests, and both blacks and whites enjoyed listening to the music and watching the dancers.

    I don't know of any evidence that usage of y'all was much different in the 1920s from what it's like now (though as Tillery and Guy observe, not much is known of its history. ]

  11. uberVU - social comments said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 5:36 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Singular y'all again http://goo.gl/fb/9SuM

  12. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 5:41 am

    Bryan: Could "He's good people" be a poor translation of the Spanish "Es buena gente" (gente can translate to either person or people)?

  13. peter said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:01 am

    "Youse" is common in spoken Australian English, usually as plural.

    Many people associate its use with a lack of formal education, a perception which led one writer to propose the following state motto for the State of Queensland:

    "We ain’t as dumb as youse think we am. Is."

  14. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:15 am

    Looks a bit like a generic use of the pronoun, as an alternative to the more formal 'one.' In Dutch, the generic use of second person pronoun to denote first person is fairly common, especially amongst soccer players and darters ("Well, of course you want to play a good game but in the end you are just glad to have won.")

    [(myl) It's pretty hard to see "I reckon y'all want a kiss", "I didn't expect y'all to answer", and "Y'all don't look that much different" -- or for that matter "What yall want with a dictionary?" as a "generic use of the second person pronoun to denote first person".]

  15. John Ptak said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    I've heard a double y'all ("y'all y'all) as a plural form. And don't forget "y'uns" for "you 'uns". (Asheville, NC)

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    Glaswegian has "youse" too.

  17. [ni:v] said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    In the west of Ireland we use "ye" for plural, and in the east of Ireland "yous" is used.

  18. Adrian said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    In my dialect (The Potteries) individuals usually refer to themsleves as "us", not "me", in the objective case, e.g. "Excuse us," "If you ask us."

  19. Adrian said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    Googling "singular us" I found this paper (about Teesside): http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/3581/

  20. Amy Stoller said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    I have read many, many assertions on the web by Southerners that Northerners get it wrong – and that y'all is plural only. I have read a few by Southerners that say, in essence, "not necessarily." I think the first thing one has to deal with is, "What part of the South?" A serious study – or several serious studies – might indeed be useful. To be truly useful, one would need breakdowns by region, urban/rural, era, and by "white"/"black".

    [(myl) The two cited studies (here and here) report on several surveys of that kind, two in Oklahoma and two others throughout the country -- as well as some information from LAGS (the Linguistic Atlas fo the Gulf States) and GRITS (Grammatical Investigation of Texas Speech) -- though there is obviously more to do.]

    Based on my own experiences In Pittsburgh (during a ten-week gig 20 years ago!), and that of friends and family members who have been living there from about 30 years ago to much longer), Pittsburgh second person plural is indeed, as MYL says, yunz, yinz from you-uns. There are some decent resources for non-academics at http://english.cmu.edu/pittsburghspeech/ . (Of course, a lot of the features of Pittsburghese are shared not only with Western Pennsylvania, but with other regions settled by the Scotch-Irish, but not necessarily all the same ones in each of the other regions.)

    I'm a third-generation New Yorker, and based on my life experience of this burg, Noo Yawk second person plural is youse, you guys, and the glorious youse guys (the latter two are not sex-specific, and my guess is that they are of more recent vintage than youse). New York City (as distinct from Noo Yawk) is you guys. So far as I know, youse came to New York via the Irish yez. You still hear yez in Ireland, and in Scotland. I've never read William Labov's complete New York City study. Does he deal with this?

    I now hear "you guys" in popular English television shows. Is this an American import? Is it time for yet another study?

  21. greg said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    I'm from North Carolina and I only realized I used singular y'all a few years ago when I was working at a Starbucks and noticed that I'd ask both groups and individual customers something along the lines of "What can we do for y'all today?" So I likely fell into the usage as part of a rhythm or due to frequency of usage of canned phrases. I don't know if I used it before working at Starbucks and because I've been living up in DC for almost 2 years now, and as I don't address people with questions like that with any sort of regularity, I don't know if I still actively use singular y'all.

    I am interested in the hypothesis that it's an unconscious badge of distinction, though. I'm from Durham, and that area has a very high Yankee influx population (due to the universities and the Research Triangle), so it could have been a result of my wanting to emphasize my nativeness.

  22. amber said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    >>At the same time, I don't really hear the "ll" part of "y'all" in the recording too well. It sounds more like "ya" to me =\.

    You wouldn't always hear it. In many African Americans, for example, (I use this example simply because I'm most familiar with it) the word would be pronounced "yaw" and the "ll" would never be articulated.

    [(myl) Linguists call this "vocalization of /l/", and most English speakers do it in some contexts. The commonest result is for the /l/ to become a labial or labio-velar approximant, i.e. [w] (though sometimes there is further interaction with the previous vowel). For example, in my pronunciation the first syllable of belfry is usually [bɛw]. Fast casual speech before a following initial /w/ is prime l-vocalization territory — lots of Americans, from most parts of the country and many ethnic background, would vocalize /l/ in a sequence like "they all want". I certainly would.

    So l-vocalization in "yall want' is completely expected, for anybody who uses yall in the first place.]

  23. Bill Walderman said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    "Noo Yawk second person plural is youse, you guys, and the glorious youse guys . . . ."

    In the Army it was "youse mens."

  24. Mr Punch said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    I've heard "youse" in Boston, but rarely — I'd say it's generally regarded here as a New York (Noo Yawk, Brooklynese) usage. We have plenty of Irish influence, but relatively few Maoris.

  25. Rick Robinson said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    I have never lived in the South, but my Mississippi grandmother taught me that:

    'Y'all' is a family, nation, race, people, or clan;
    'Y'all' is the entire connection of the individual man;
    In the singular it's never used in this part of the land,
    But we despair of ever making Yankees understand.

    Isn't this good old fashioned prescriptivism? It identifies plural y'all as the correct usage, and singular as a Yankee barbarism, something no good Southerner would be caught dead using.

  26. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    I was raised in Georgia by parents from California and New Jersey, and I don't use y'all. My first instinct was to agree with the historical sources and claim that y'all can't be used in the singular, but discussion both in your post and by commenters about singular y'all indicating friendliness or a close relationship made me realize that, even though I don't actually use y'all, that sounded just right. I would claim that I've never heard singular y'all, but my guess is that actually I have heard it, and in just those situations.

  27. singular y’all : clusterflock said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    [...] sends this (not the quote, but a link to the article): I am writing you because I encountered the perplexing singular y'all while watching trailers for Disney's newest film, The Princess and the Frog. Now, not being a [...]

  28. Ben said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    I've heard 'youse' used by a former professional hockey player who was born in Canada, played in DC and Toronto, and has been in LA for many years. I don't know where he might have picked it up. (Apparently he's now a color commentator for LA Kings games. I don't know if he uses it on air.)

  29. rpsms said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    To throw a wrench into this, I grew up in Rochester NY, and "y'all" was in common usage, but different than the typically southern construction.

    It was used singularly, but more often as a component of phrases like "all y'alls"

  30. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    I wonder if we have here an instance of the second-person plural as a marker of respect. Swedish, for example, uses the old second-person plural I (with its n verb ending attached) Ni, instead of du as a respectful second-person singular. Swedish also used to use the third-person singular han, hon to servants individually.

    Swedes have always had problems with forms of address. On a train I was once asked "Would Mr. fellow-passenger mind if I opened the window?" That was a long time ago, when one could still open windows on a train.

    German also used to use the 2nd-person plural ihr as a step up from du, but I understand that's pretty much gone now.

  31. Doreen said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    FWIW I recall a college friend (from Tennessee, educated family background) telling me (native of Upper Midwest, never been south of the Mason-Dixon line) that "y'all" could definitely be used as a singular, and that "all y'all" was used as a plural where a distinction needed to be made.

  32. Amy Stoller said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    @myl: Thanks for the pointers. I'll check them out.
    [(myl) If you aren't connected with an institution that has a subscription to the relevant journals, let me know.]
    @Bill W: Thanks for "youse mens."

    @Matthew: "Things always get overdone in movies (would it really have been that hard to find a New Orleans or nearby voice actor for the part?)"

    A. They don't always get overdone in movies. Sometimes they get underdone. And sometimes they are done just right. Probably you remember the movies in which things were overdone, because those are the ones that offend your sensibilities the most. Not that I blame, you if that's the case.
    B. Actors are cast to put bottoms in seats. (That's not why they call it the bottom line, but maybe it should be!) It's called show business for a reason.
    C. Authenticity is rare. Plausibility (to most of a worldwide audience) is not as rare, but see B. And that's why (not just you, I do it too) we often complain about stuff in A.

  33. John said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    Dan-

    I was wondering the same thing. German has Sie (formal, semantically 2nd person sing or pl, syntactically 3rd person plural), French has vous (plural or formal), in Portuguese the voce(s) forms are supplanting the older pronouns, and even English you began as a plural form. Spanish vos started life as a plural, migrated to include singular, and then had to be marked in the plural as vosotros.

    Here's a theory, which I wouldn't know how to test, and which someone has probably formulated more concretely: y'all (or you, for instance) began as a plural, but since the associative plural can be used in addressing a single person (for formality, etc), there's an inherent ambiguity. It ultimately (albeit slowly) gets reanalyzed as a pronoun that can be singular or plural.

  34. Amy Stoller said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    @Matthew (again): The difference between New Orleans accents and nearby accents is palpable to those who live either in New Orleans or nearby. So we'd still be hearing complaints from somebody.

    That's "we" as in "those who pay attention to such things." I didn't work on The Princess and the Frog.

  35. Jason F. Siegel said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Should we be relying on the speech of white Southerners to gauge the speech of black Southerners? With segregation being so prevalent in the South of the time, my guess is that white and black usage could have been quite different.

    [(myl) If you're referring to Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan, see this comment and the book it links to -- in the period in question, poor rural whites and blacks apparently often grew up playing together.]

  36. bfwebster said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    I picked up "y'all" during my first sojourn into Texas (living in Houston 1979-81), mostly because of its utility as a second-person plural (something I was familiar with from German, Spanish and even Mandarin). However, in both that and my second stay in Texas (Dallas, 1998-99), it was pretty clear that "y'all" was often used as a second-person singular, usually in an informal or jocular sense. I still use "y'all" to this day, but mostly as a plural.

    On an entirely unrelated note, during our time in Houston, we became good friends with the couple next door, both native Texans. However, it took me 2 to 3 months to realize that their young son's name was "Jeff", not "J. F." (as in his mother calling: "Jay-Eff? Jay-Eff? Where are you?"). Our daughter Bethan — who was just a babe in arms when we moved there and learned to speak while we were in Houston — picked up the same twang and carried it all the way into her teenage years (e.g., making "bread" into a two-syllable word). ..bruce..

  37. John Thayer Jensen said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    Of course the standard English use of 'you' as a singular, French 'vous' as a singulare, etc, show similar development.

    In the Yapese language, which I worked on for 20 years, the dual form of pronouns is often used as a formal address to a single older or honourable person. When I asked my Yapese friend why, he opined that it was addressing the person as though he or she were one's parents – who are due honour.

    jj

  38. mgh said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    I often noticed singular y'all after being transplanted from the northeast to Texas — I often wanted to reply "yes, all of me."

  39. Robert Coren said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    I've heard so many multifarious assertions on the subject that I'll let people use "y'all" any way they like, but could we please impose a severe penalty on people who spell it "ya'll"?

    [(myl) The standard spelling is clearly "y'all", with "yall" running second as an alternate. But I've been surprised to meet several educated southerners, overall much better spellers than I am, who have the strong intuition that it should be "ya'll".]

  40. Mark P said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    As a lifelong (so far) resident of NW Georgia and NE Alabama, I would have said that y'all (or more likely, you all) is exclusively plural, even when it seems to be singular. However, since interpreting the implication of plural use for something that sounds clearly singular is like arguing for the existence of the aether, it's probably more reasonable to simply admit that some southerners use y'all in the singular.

  41. Rick S said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    Although I spent the first 16 years of my life in central New York, I've lived in Richmond, Virginia for 40 years and have considered it my heart-home for most of that time. I hope that exonerates me from the "Yankee barbarian" accusation.

    I caught myself using singular y'all a while back. At the time, it was not consistent with my academic understanding of the word, so I knew I must have picked it up from the sociolect. I feel pretty certain that I use it (i.e. the singular variant) only to promote a sense of familiarity, and I suspect that "all y'all" is used more often to pluralize that connotation, rather than as a redundant general 2p plural.

    Wanting to test that suspicion, I tried to search the COCA for "all y'all" but it refuses to accept y'all, claiming that "in nearly all cases the tagger separates words that have an apostrophe". I tried (note spacing) "all y 'all", "all y' all", and "all y all" too, and got either the same message or 0 hits. I finally tried just "yall" and got only a small number of hits (37!)–oddly, almost all in the Fiction category. I'm sure I must be doing something wrong; the spoken section should surely have tens of thousands, shouldn't it?

    Of course, I frequently use y'all as an associative plural, too, and I think all y'all is often used as a disambiguator for that sense.

  42. Alexander said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    No one's brought up "y'alls"?

    [(myl) There's the possessive form, which is discussed in various of the links -- do you mean something other than that?]

  43. Bill Walderman said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    'I've heard "youse" in Boston, but rarely — I'd say it's generally regarded here as a New York (Noo Yawk, Brooklynese) usage.'

    I've heard "youse" quite frequently as the standard 2d person plural pronoun in Revere and East Boston (but never in western Cambridge).

  44. Alexander said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    I've heard "y'alls" used as the plural counterpart of "y'all" — but now that I think about it, the usage may have been in jest. I'm curious if anyone else has heard it used for the plural.

  45. Bob Ladd said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    I think Carl's immediate reference to using y'all in talking to a single person in a shop is revealing, and I disagree with Mark P. that talking about plural implications of something that is "clearly singular" is like arguing about the existence of aether. Carl's comment recalls an example that I regularly use in first-year linguistics lectures about this kind of pragmatic inference. If you are in a shop and ask the shop assistant for something, and there is no one else in the shop, and the shop assistant replies "Sorry, we don't sell those", there is no question of we being "clearly singular", because the obvious referent of we in this case is the shop assistant and whoever else is involved in running the shop. Most customers will make this inference without even being aware of it. But if you are at a bus stop and there is only one other person there, and you ask the other person what time it is, and the other person says "Sorry, we haven't got a watch", you probably decide that you don't really want to take the bus after all. There is no possible way to resolve we as a plural here, and the most likely inference is that the other person is a bit loony.

    When the interpretation of we is involved, all speakers of English can share these reactions, and appreciate that the pronoun is still in some important sense plural, but only Southerners are likely to have comparable reactions to ostensibly singular uses of y'all. By the same token, only Yankees observing exchanges like Carl's original example miss the analogy to the use of we, and draw the inference that "Southerners say y'all instead of you".

  46. Kimberly said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    Interesting. Having lived in Oklahoma since elementary school, the first time I ever heard someone use y'all in the singular was in a Spongebob Squarepants cartoon a year or two ago when Sandy (a Texan) used it. It startled me and we laughed about Northern writers trying to use Southern words.

    In the singular, it was startling enough for me and theseveral Oklahomans with me (yes, there were several 30-somethings also watching Spongebob with me. What of it?) to notice and laugh immediately at the nonstandard usage.

    Perhaps I don't live amongst the 1/3 of Oklahomans who use it this way?

  47. Aka_Darell said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    In The Getaway, a bank teller says to Steve McQueen, a bank robber scoping the place "Y'all come back." The scene would have been a small town Texas bank. The writers may have been attempting to effect facetiousness.

    This is the way I remember from my youth, "Y'all" concatenated with "come back." being used as a singular. Other uses of Y'all are less vivid in my recollection.

  48. Steven said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    I was born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, and have lived my adult life in Arkansas. I have never interpreted or used "y'all" as anything other than plural, whether corporate or otherwise. However, I can think of instances where I have used it as a catch-all pronoun to be interpreted by the listener in whatever way makes sense to them. For instance, as in the example given by a previous poster, a Starbucks clerk might greet a couple of customers with, "what can I get started for y'all?" Meaning, "if you're together, I'm talking to both of you corporately, and if not, I'm inviting whichever one of you is ready, to step forward and give your order." I would never use "y'all" when there was no possibility of a plural connotation. The only times I have ever heard "y'all" used singularly was when someone was trying to poke fun at the dialect or said it out of ignorance. But, maybe there is a regional component to this as well?

  49. anon said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    Count me among the native Southerners who are shocked and dismayed by the singular "y'all." Most of the references I've heard are ambiguous and I've always interpreted them to be an implied plural (like Bob Ladd's implied plural "we" from a shop assistant). The Willis/Duncan example is interesting; I hadn't seen the like before–yet it goes against my intuition so strongly that I find myself grasping for explanations (is there someone else standing right beside Bob? Is this usage a small regionalism that's now archaic?).

    On a separate note, Carl notes the "academic 'we'" that shows up in some papers. I sometimes use this construction in my academic writings (in theoretical computer science), and I've always construed it as an implied plural of myself and the reader. I'm laying out a proof, and the reader is following along–thus, the two of us are going through the mathematical arguments together. (Although now that I think about it, this interpretation serves me fine since I'm basically doing math, but might not work for writers in other fields where results are more interpretive/controversial. What if "we" claim something that the reader disagrees with?).

  50. Alan said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    My experience matches Doreen's, above — in fact, I was long under the impression that Southron opinion held us Yankees to be hopelessly ignorant for thinking "y'all" could only be used as a plural, when in fact the rules governing its usage were far more subtle and not easily grasped by outsiders.

  51. Mark P said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    @Bill Ladd – Are you saying that there are no singular uses of y'all, or that there are some that sound singular but which are intended by the speaker and probably understood by the listener to imply a plural sense? I would certainly agree with the latter, but not the former.

  52. Katie said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    I am also among those northerners who would claim that they heard singular y'all in the Dallas area. Thinking back, I can't remember enough context to swear it couldn't have been associative, but the time that stands out most, I was definitely the only person being addressed, and it was in a context where I definitely wouldn't have used 'you guys' because I remember trying to suppress my instinct to look around and see who else might be included. ('You guys' sounds perfectly acceptable to me in the shop assistant scenario.)

    As to 'youse'–I've heard it from a friend raised in Colorado, and also from middle aged women on an Ojibwa reservation in northern Minnesota.

  53. Amy Stoller said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    @myl: I can download The Nationalization of a Southernism, but Yall [sic in Oklahoma is on JSTOR. I'm not connected with any institution, though whether I belong in one is arguable.

    All y'all have a happy new year!

  54. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

    Mark Twain is usually credited with "Only kings, editors and people with tapeworms should use the editorial 'we'."

  55. Katie said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    As to 'we', I agree with anon's interpretation of academic 'we' as 'author + reader'–even when it's not obvious that they would agree, I read it as a subtle form of persuasion. But I think it mostly shows up because we've been taught that we can't use 'I' in formal writing.

    Of course, 'we' is also very commonly used as a second person, at least in the US–e.g. 'how are we feeling today?', 'what are we having today?', etc.

  56. John Cowan said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    I think those guys in the Bob Wills recording are deliberately trying to sound stupid.

  57. John Thayer Jensen said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    Here in New Zealand, "you's" is used- stigmatised as low class or as Maori-English – but only, so far as I can tell, as a plural. It just wouldn't seem to make sense to say "you's" to one person. As in some of the "y'all" instances, an implied collective can often be inferred. I am speaking to you and those of your sort who are not present – something of that kind.

  58. Steven said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    Could the difference between what most southerners believe (y'all is always plural) and what non-southerners think they're hearing (sometimes y'all is singular) be due to a difference in usage brought about because of the lack of a distinctive you-plural?

    In other words, if you don't have two forms of 2nd person, then you are free to interpret ambiguous situations either way. Years of interpreting a particular ambiguous case as singular could lead to the assumption that it is always singular, even when it is in fact ambiguous. Then when he hears the same case with an otherwise plural form, he believes that he just heard a plural pronoun used in the singular sense instead of the plural sense which the speaker intended.

    For example, Joe to Karen: "How's your softball team doing? Are you/y'all playing in the tournament next week?" If I were Joe, I would use y'all because I'm asking whether Karen *and her team* are playing in the tournament. The non-y'all user might use "you" and truly intend "you-singular", figuring that the team's involvement is implied. Therefore, when the second person hears y'all in this context, he thinks it's being used in a singular sense because that's what he would normally use.

  59. Therese said,

    December 31, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

    How could anyone mention the most wonderful thing about Louisiana and "y'all" — even in French, we've managed to use it! "vous-autres" is used in Cajun (my Creole-speaking family in a Cajun-majority area has adopted it somewhat, but I don't know whether this is widespread, or something particular to my family as the Creole speakers have a) mostly died off, and b) don't speak Creole save with a few others in the family and friends) as you pl, whereas "vous" is the formal you sing (taking the "tu" conjugation), and "tu" the informal you sing (taking the "tu" conjugation).

    I've never heard a singular "y'all" used by a native English, French, or Spanish speaker in South Louisiana that I recall (a native Vietnamese-speaking friend enjoys abusing it, though I sometimes think that she does it on purpose as she likes making fun of what she calls "Southernisms"), except for when someone misspeaks (meant to say "you will" and it came out wrong, thought that there were more people being spoken of than there were) or when I misunderstood (thought that there were less people being spoken of than there were).

  60. The Singular Y’All is Sick and Wrong, a Depravity, a Perversion of That Which is Right, Proper, and Good « Trey Givens said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    [...] to see a post over at Clusterflock asserting the following: I am writing you because I encountered the perplexing singular y’all while watching trailers for Disney’s newest film, The Princess and the Frog.  […] In the cited [...]

  61. hsknotes said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 12:31 am

    Is there not a single african american reader of language log? Or at least someone who is mildly familiar with the speech of the "urban" youth, whatever ethnic group it may be?

    I wanted to comment on this a while ago, but I was hoping someone would beat me to it. Apparently that was wishful thinking.

    There was some reference to an urban/rural, white/black distinction in the comments and in the post, and I suggest that's an infinitely better starting point than a northern/southern distinction. The star of the disney movie is black, and "southern." I doubt people would bat an eye if she talked with a heavy "southern accent" and lived in nyc. People would just assume it was a black thing.

    I find it interesting that people point to the frequent appearances of the singular y'all in movies to some sort of idiocy on the part of the writers, as opposed to the ubiquity of the usage. At least from my standpoint, the presence of a singular y'all in a disney movie probably points to the ubiquity of the y'all more than anything. I'd go on to say that in many urban and or black or young communities, the singular y'all is ubiquitous to the point of not being notable. That's probably how it makes it into a disney movie. Not because of the jackassery of the writers.

  62. Elizabeth Yeoman said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    It cheered me up no end to see how many people were spending New Year's Eve blogging about language usage. Here in Newfoundland the plural "ye" is very common. In fact, so common that I've started to wonder how standard English manages without a plural form. I have also heard "youse" used as a plural in several regions of Canada (but not Newfoundland) and "vous-autres" in French in New Brunswick. I use it myself – having grown up in New Brunswick – but never thought about it until I read the earlier posting about its use in Cajun French. Now that it's been brought to my attention, I suppose it is to clarify that it is the plural use of vous rather than the formal singular.

  63. Ryan said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    Although a northerner, I went to college for 5 years at a private school in Arkansas, where we had a healthy mix of southerners and carpetbaggers, and the "y'all" topic was always a popular one. Here's a few things I think I gleaned from that time:

    1) Y'ALL is generally used much like the queen uses the 'royal we', as in "We are not amused." It denotes the person you are addressing + their family and/or friends and/or social group.

    2) There is a plural for Y'ALL, particularly in parts of Arkansas. ALL Y'ALL is the plural, meaning everyone in the room + their family and/or friend and/or social group. I can't tell you how many times the guy down the hall said "F*** all y'all!"

    3) The main thing I learned is that Y'ALL is not interchangeable with YOU — it has different connotations. That's why they made up a new word…..

  64. John Walden said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 5:22 am

    My in-laws in South Yorkshire use "tha" (thou) for the familiar singular and "you" for the formal singular and plural. Though "you" for the formal singular often involves code-switching out of dialect into "proper English".

    "Dost tha want owt?" is "Doest thou want anything?"

    It's beguiling to think that y'all came about because of the apparent need to distinguish between singular and plural "you" and then became singular in some more formal/remote situations. It's arriving where we started (and knowing the place for the first time).

    Whatever possessed English to drop thou/you in the first place? All that "Are we close enough to use thou/tu/du?" is a bit silly but knowing if you're talking to me or to us would be useful.

    By the way, when did "guys" start to include "gals" and when I say to myself "Let's see if this works" who is the other person?

  65. J. Goard said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    @John Thayer Jensen

    It just wouldn't seem to make sense to say "you's" to one person. As in some of the "y'all" instances, an implied collective can often be inferred. I am speaking to you and those of your sort who are not present – something of that kind.

    And once you get to that point, it's a teensy weensy step to generalized singular use.

    I'm a Californian for whom "you guys" is practically obligatory in many contexts. Sitting around the office with a few classmates, I can't imagine addressing them collectively with something like "hey, are you going to the talk tomorrow?" Unlike some other dialectal features, "you guys" doesn't seem to have lessened after two and a half years in Korea, and cleverer students notice it quite often.

    The really interesting thing is that, up until a few weeks ago, the only native English speaker among my classmates was a Southerner, and (especially around her) I got somewhat comfortable using "y'all" as a plural in contexts where I natively use "you guys", although I'd have been completely uncomfortable using "you" there.

    Discourse context or accessibility level matters a lot, though. In close succession, a second mention of the plural second person doesn't seem to require "you guys":

    (1) If you guys want to go with me, you can text me tomorrow.
    (2) I'm gonna be giving you guys pop quizzes, so you should make sure to come to class every day.

    My dialectal form doesn't have the issue of extension to the singular, but it does face ridiculous accusations of sexism. Douglas Hofstadter, in the generally excellent "Le Ton Beau de Marot", made a really stupid argument against its use, on the basis of an overheard sentence like (3) (addressed to some girls). Of course, he mistook the actual sexism of that utterance for a fact about the pronoun, which is just as compatible with (4) (addressed to girls).

    (3) What are you guys, a bunch of girls?
    (4) I really like hanging out with you guys, 'cause you're so much smarter than any of the guys in our class.

  66. Peter-Arno Coppen said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    I didn't mean to suggest that 'y'all' was a generic use of a second person singular pronoun denoting a first person singular. My example from Dutch illustrated that generic uses of pronouns possibly refer to other persons. I would simply suggest is that 'y'all' is a generic use of 'you.'

  67. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    Interesting that the Spanish equivalent of vous-autres (vosotros) is disappearing from common use in favor of Ustedes, even for parents addressing children. Mother (presumably) to two lively little boys in a supermarket recently: "If Your Honors don't behave, no ice-cream!" In my granddaughter's high-school Spanish text the verb form is just a foot-note.

    And @ Peter-Arno: In Dutch there's also jullie, which used to be jelie, you people. Dutch personal pronouns with their emphatic and unemphatic forms (jij, je), are worth a posting on their own.

  68. Joanna said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I honestly don't understand why people seem so fascinated by "All y'all". Is there actually any data to suggest that it's anything other than good ol' "y'all", being universally quantified over in the customary manner by "all"? My Central Floridian intuitions say that's all there is to it.

  69. Amy Reynaldo said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    "Youse" also has some Chicago usage. My dad grew up in the then-white ethnic part of the South Side, and he used the word. So did my grandmother, who was Polish-American with bilingual (English/Polish) parents and a childhood on a farm in Northwest Indiana.

  70. marie-lucie said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    The use of nous autres and vous autres is not limited to North American French, but in France it might be just regional and rural (I grew up in Normandy where many people said it, but I seem to remember that they were mostly or only relatively uneducated people). It seems to me that the addition of autres (like otros, otras in Spanish) is not so much a reinforcement of the plural but a form of inclusivity/exclusivity (I or you and the groups we separately belong to). In French these are marked, emphatic pronouns, used outside of the verb phrase, like the singular pronouns moi and toi, which can never be subjects of the verb.

  71. Bob Ladd said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: Actually, the main thing that's unusual about the Dutch emphatic and non-emphatic pronouns is that the difference is regularly represented in spelling (mij/me, jij/je, zij/ze, wij/we, etc.) Several English pronouns also have quite distinct stressed and unstressed forms, but – unlike what happens in Dutch – they're usually only spelled differently when a writer is deliberately attempting to represent casual speech: you/ya, him/'im, her/'er, them/'em.

  72. Matt McIrvin said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    About "The Princess and the Frog", which I haven't seen (though my wife and daughter have, and liked it, so I suspect it's a matter of time): I've heard complaints that, as with many movies set in New Orleans, the unusual New Orleans city accent is nowhere to be heard, with people in the city using generic Southern or Cajun accents instead..

    But I also read someone on the movie's TVTropes page making the interesting claim that singular y'all, as it appears in the movie, actually is a peculiar characteristic of New Orleans dialect, as opposed to Southern or general AAVE.

    So maybe we need some people specifically from New Orleans in this thread…

  73. Matt McIrvin said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    As for "youse", I always thought of it as a New York thing and not part of New England dialects–but there's so much variation; I'm more familiar with Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire accents lately than Revere or East Boston…

  74. tablogloid said,

    January 1, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    "Youse" is quite common in Canada and is usually attributed to white trash lower class types.

  75. Ben said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 2:43 am

    I grew up in the north, lived in the south for several years, and now I live in New York City. And in speech I use these three forms: "you", "you guys", and "y'all". The forms are only partially interchangeable.

    A stand-alone "you" is almost always singular, exceptions being second-uses in a contextual frame where the plural was introduced with a different form (examples of this type were noted above by J. Goard), and for very formal usage where "you guys" and "y'all" would both seem too familiar.

    "You guys" is always plural and usually used to address multiple people and to refer directly to those people being addressed and nobody else. But it can also be used to refer to a plural in an associative sense–though the latter use is less common than the former.

    "Y'all" is also always plural, but it is complementary to the other plural. It can be used to address a single individual or a group of people and almost always connotes an association that is inferable from the context (even if that inferable association is a very general "people like you" or "people you know", etc…).

    The three forms form a scale of formality: "You" (most formal), "You guys", "Y'all" (most familiar). So sometimes "y'all" is used just for the implication of familiarity.

    For the store clerk example, I would generally say "Do y'all sell X?". "You" would be incorrect. "You guys" would work but wouldn't sound as good because "y'all" is more specifically suited for implied associations.

    When emailing my friends to get together for an event, I would say "Do you guys want to go to X?". Like above "You" would be incorrect. "Y'all" could be used here but would have a subtly different meaning, not because of an implied association (which there isn't really one in that context), but because of the formality level (most familiar). For example, if I already knew that all of my friends would want to go and the question was basically rhetorical, more of a way to just let them know the event was happening, then I would more likely to say "Do y'all want to go to X?".

    When one of my friends fails to arrive at X, I might call them and ask "Where are you?" I would never use "Y'all" here.

    A couple weeks ago I might have asked a friend "What are y'all doing for the holidays?"–meaning "What are you and the people you do the holidays with doing for the holidays?"

    Last night at a party I yelled "Happy New Year y'all!". I was referring to all the people in earshot and everyone else at the party even if they were not in earshot. In this case the "y'all" is not strictly necessary to convey that meaning (I could have just yelled "Happy New Year!" to convey the same meaning) but I used "y'all" here, like above, specifically because of its rank as "most familiar" plural, to make the remark more friendly-sounding. "Happy New Year you guys!" would sound wrong because it would be construed as addressing specific individuals at the party. And if that's what I wanted to do I would not have yelled it haphazardly into the airspace.

    I'm not the only one in my social group with this dialectal feature. It seems that most of my friends (most of them are under 30) who lived some time in the south and some time in NYC share this part of the dialect. I think this is in contrast to the general NYC dialect where "y'all" isn't used and "you guys" covers the plural in almost all contexts.

  76. Ben said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 2:45 am

    I just re-read what I wrote and realized I used the phrase "The three forms form a scale of formality". I didn't notice the ridiculous alteration until re-reading it.

  77. Ben said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 2:50 am

    alteration = alliteration

  78. J. Goard said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 4:20 am

    Hehe, neither did I, reading it.

    Very interesting intuitions. I think mine match pretty well although, as I said, I picked up a minor use of y'all via a single close acquaintance in a foreign country. Nevertheless, I do have a pretty strong feeling that I could use y'all with her if I wanted to include her husband, but you guys would be a little infelicitous if one of us hadn't recently mentioned her husband.

    Two similar intuitions equal a fact, right?

  79. Rob Van Dam said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    I wrote a much longer response a day or two ago but my battery died half way thru and i lost the whole thing. Here's the gist.

    I grew up in New Orleans (age 1 to 17). As someone earlier alluded to, the New Orleans accent and urban dialect are quite different from any stereotypical southern accent/dialect. The uninitiated would probably identify a true New Orleans accent as a weak New York accent.

    I can definitely attest to a singular y'all, at a minimum among black women in New Orleans. It's not however a common phenomenon and I think the quote from the movie is abusing it (it felt forced and awkward when I read the transcript). In my anecdotal experience, the singular y'all is basically an extension of the above mentioned "corporate plural" although the referenced group was more likely the family. What I mean is, I've heard y'all used as a singular when it had already been used as a representative plural (or could have been given the speakers) but the current usage clearly left no ambiguity. Basically, if I've referred to you as y'all now or in the past, I'll just keep using it, even when I don't mean it.

    I would also say that it feels natural to hear it used in a type of formal way that serves to keep the other party at a distance. That might fit the movie scenario somewhat, but I didn't immediately get that impression.

  80. Thomas Wier said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    A number of points:

    (1) I'm a native y'all-user, born in Houston, and find y'all with singular reference highly ungrammatical. That said, like others have pointed out it can be used in the corporate sense to one individual representing a larger group. I strongly suspect this covers 95-99% of so-called singular-y'all tokens.

    (2) I am a little skeptical about the methodology behind eliciting judgments from native speakers without backing that up with individualized corpus studies. I think it's a commonplace of fieldwork that some speakers have internalized strong linguistic ideologies, with the result that an elicitation will more likely reveal the ideology than the practice as such. Orthogonal to that, some speakers simply have less metalinguistic awareness than others, and so even if a native Southerner who natively uses y'all says they can use it with singular reference, this may be a reflection that they aren't clearly distinguishing between semantic reference and the pragmatic contexts of the speech act (as in the example in (1) above) — in other words, that they don't even know themselves well.

    (3) A related question is the possessive form, which for me in very colloquial contexts is _y'all's_. A friend of mine grew up with me in Houston, but his parents were not Southerners (one from New Jersey, one from the UK). He would often say y'all'ses (with double marking), despite that being ungrammatical for me and every other native speaker I've heard. I wonder to what extent some of these singular-y'all tokens are actually a result of these in-between people who are native Southerners in Bailey's terms but clearly grew up in a different sociolinguistic context both from their parents and from their peers.

    (4) Finally, to what extent could some of these singular-y'all tokens actually just result from misspeaking?

  81. Bill Woodall said,

    January 2, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    Y'all just don't understand.

    It depends, is the answer… at least from my viewpoint. I'm born and raised in the piedmont area of North Carolina, but have lived in New Jersey for more than 30 years.

    I usually consider y'all to be plural – EXCEPT when necessary to make an emphatic point – thus the usage quoted, "…y'all want a kiss" is perfectly acceptable in context.

    This is probably just about as solvable as whether Grits is singular or plural.

  82. DrZin said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 12:20 am

    In New Orleans, as far as I'd encountered in my 30 years there, "y'all" is always used to indicate you plural. We might say to one person on the phone, "What are y'all doing?" actually, more like "Whatchall doin?* but it is meant to indicate the gang of people at that address or the people somehow within the called person's sphere.

    As an example . . .

    If someone in New Orleans said to me, "y'all have nice eyes," or something, after politely thanking them, my question would be, "So, where are "you" from?"

    Woman: Oh, me and my girlfriends are in from Nashville (or wherever).

    Me: Really? So how "y'all" like the city?

  83. David in San Diego said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    According to Jay Nordlinger at NRO, "y'all" is singular and "all y'all" is plural.

    So there.

  84. stilltheking said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    In regards to the Bob Wills example:

    This was a recording by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It has always been my understanding that Tommy Duncan was responding to Bob Wills AND the Playboys; i.e. that Bob and the rest of the band were asking Tommy to clarify what "oozlin'" means, with Bob speaking on the collective's behalf. Therefore, Tommy's y'all was perfectly acceptable. This is especially likely given that the recordings of Bob Wills at that time were ALWAYS done with the entire band in the room. Sometime, anecdotally speaking,they also had fans and huge blocks of ice in the room in an attempt to ameliorate the sweltering Texas heat.

    As far as the singular use of ya'll, I've lived in the South all my life and the only people I've ever heard use it were Yankees.

    And, finally, Bob Wills is still the king.

  85. Lorem Ipsum said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 2:16 am

    I agree with David in SD. I'm from the North, but was in a diner in Alabama when I lived in the Florida panhandle for a couple of years. A group of 4 men, who were obviously "not from around these parts," were seated at a booth. The waitress asked one of the men, "Do y'all want more coffee?" The man smirked and said, "When you say y'all, do you mean all of us or just me?" The 50ish waitress, in a voice that suggested that she was speaking to an dull child, replied "Honey, if I'd have meant all y'all, I'd have said all y'all. Now, do y'all want more coffee."

  86. Carl in Atlanta said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    I am a reasonably well-educated (law and liberal arts degrees), middle aged native Southerner ( from the Deep South, not Texas, Oklahoma or other parts West, nor from any border State). I don't know how I stumbled upon this thread, but when I realized that its subject is no less than the South's most precious gift to the English language, my attention became riveted and all my cultural defenses went to "Code Red". Having now read this discussion in detail, I am appalled at its very existence.

    To all the Yankees, West Coasters, Mid Westerners, so-called "Southern transplants", and rootless American corporate transferee gypsy-types who have have opined here (not to mention the Australians, New Zealanders, Irishmen, Canadians[!], Dutch, French, etc.): the word "y'all" is the second person plural pronoun invented by Southerners (or evolved in the South) in order to supply the missing (or lost) form in English. Thank God! It elegantly resolves what would otherwise be a recurrent and bothersome ambiguity in English due to the [previous] absence of a pronoun for the second person plural.

    There are no exceptions. Anyone who uses the word "y'all" to mean the second person singular is commiting a laughable faux pas and is properly held up to scorn and ridicule (where gentle correction does not serve).

  87. Joe said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    @Emily

    Yes, there is a plural you that is used in Western Pennsylvania and it is 'yinz' and yes it is a contracted form of 'you ones'. We never use it for a singular you, either.

    Like y'all, it's origins come from the Irish and Scots. Maybe due to large immigrant German population, the idea of a plural you caught on and stuck.

    @Will

    I'm from Pittsburgh. No, we don't say 'youse' around here. Some Pittsburghers are touchy about their dialects and try to hide them, even in Pittsburgh!

  88. PatAZ said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    Well said, Carl in Atlanta. As a born in GA, raised by GA parents true-blue southerner, you hit the nail on the head. I have never used Y'all for singular. And it is practically useless to try to explain this to other than a real southerner.

  89. Will said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    @Joe: Yeah, it's actually "yinz" that I've heard, not "youse". I was confused.

  90. Stephen Shelby said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    I've lived in central Texas all my life and I find singular 'y'all' to be highly ungrammatical. I feel that the vast majority of times I have heard singular 'y'all' is from media portrayals of Southern speech (although I've probably also heard it on rare occasion by Southerners, generally in using 'y'all' as a conspicuous marker of Southern speech).

    I feel similarly about completive 'done,' which is very commonly used in portrayals of Southern speech, and often sounds gratingly misused to my ears, especially when it isn't even in the past tense: "I done gonna russle me up some grub soon." It sounds like somebody trying to write a Southern accent by throwing words together randomly.

  91. Aaron W said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    I had parsed "I reckon y'all want a kiss." as "I reckon you'll want a kiss.", with a a normal singular "you will", but given that she clearly used singular y'all in other contexts, it seems reasonable that she used it here too.

  92. Melanoman said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Alla y'all needa git some more data afore ya go pontificatin.

    Rather than focus on a singular "y'all" theory, I'd be more interested in looking pronominal modes based on other patterns than a nominative-accusative paradigm. Some forms may conflate in one mode but not another.

  93. Melanoman said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    My apologies for misspelling "summore" (as in "summore data") above.

  94. Britton Watkins said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    When it's used to address just one person, it's the "royal y'all". Seriously, though, I'm a native speaker of *y'all*, originally from South Carolina. In my post-Lowcountry, pre-PeeDee dialect (upper-prole register??) "y'all," when used properly, refers to you 2nd PER.-PLURAL. Using it to refer to one person is rather "uneducated" = doesn't help one's register very much. However, it can be used *properly* when addressing an individual to imply "your people," meaning ostensibly "your family (members)" without explicitly mentioning them overtly.

  95. Bob C said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    This is a bit of a tangent, but fans of The Wire, Homicide, and David Simon's other work about crime in Baltimore will have noticed the use of "police" in the singular. It's pronounced with long vowels in both syllables (poh-leece), and a hint of extra emphasis on both of the vowels – unless that's just the non-native Bawlmer actors finding it artificial when they say it.

    Examples: She's (a) good police. He's a murder police. That's the one that shot the police.

  96. And Rosta said,

    January 23, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    Googling for yous|youse|yall * yourself yields plenty of VPs with “yourself” as object and “yous/youse/yall” as subject, e.g. “[wh]y do yall put yourself in the spotlight”, “yous did yourself proud”. My first thought was that that shows that the subject pronouns are singular; but evidently my first thought was wrong, for googling “you guys” * yourself turns up plenty of analogous exx, e.g. “When do you guys weigh yourself”.

  97. Ken Grabach said,

    January 26, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    I come late to this thread, but I must agree with Carl from Atlanta. I have lived at different times in different parts of the South: Arkansas and Mississippi through my early teens (from age infant to 13), Kentucky for a couple of years, and for a few years as an adult in Virginia. I was born of Yankee parents, however. I can only recall hearing 'y'all' being used in the singular form in entertainment media. I cannot recall an instance of someone in my presence using this meaning of 'y'all'.
    I can recall numerous instances of using 'y'all' to refer to the plural. I cannot say I took on Carl's approbation of this contribution to the language, but it IS certainly useful. There are other regional American English formations: yunz (Pittsburgh and W. Pennsylvania), youse or youse guys (parts of the Northeast?), or you guys (northern Midwest). I have my own opinion, colored by life in the South, of which sounds better on the ear, but I will not impose them on y'all.

  98. Mark said,

    January 26, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    Ben said:
    …The three forms form a scale of formality: "You" (most formal), "You guys", "Y'all" (most familiar). So sometimes "y'all" is used just for the implication of familiarity.

    For the store clerk example, I would generally say "Do y'all sell X?".

    When one of my friends fails to arrive at X, I might call them and ask "Where are you?" I would never use "Y'all" here.

    ===

    I'm confused. You use "you" in a phone call to a close friend, and "y'all" to a store clerk. But then you say "you" is formal and "y'all" is "most familiar".

    May I suggest that you use "you" in a close conversation with someone you know well, and you use "y'all" when you are trying to be polite or inclusive of others? This would fit with the French "vous".

    Would you say to a roommate "are y'all going to the kitchen?" or "are you going to the kitchen?"

    Would you say to a stranger "Y'all should walk down to Jones Street and then turn left" or "You should walk down to Jones Street and then turn left"?

  99. Reb said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Just an FYI. My family is from the deep South from the early 1700's to present time, this is the poem I was raised on:

    Come all you from furthern parts
    both city folk and rural
    and listen while I tell you this,
    The word Y'all is plural.

    If I was to say to Hyrum Jones
    for instance, y'all are lazy,
    or would y'all hand me your pocket knife,
    he'd think that I was crazy.

    Don't think I mean to criticize,
    or act as if I knew all,
    but when we'uns speak of one alone,
    we say "you" just like y'all.

    So, according to long time, honest to goodness Southerners the word y'all is plural.

  100. Bone-houses in the Story of English « Sentence first said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    [...] Edit: John E. McIntyre writes: "I knew I’d heard people use y’all as a singular, had even been addressed as such myself. But no, everyone said, y’all is always a plural, and it’s only damnyankees who get it wrong." Lots more on this at Language Log. [...]

  101. Joyce Melton said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    My experience as an Ozark Arkansawyer in Texas; while y'all to an Arkie is second person plural, to a Texan it is also polite second person singular. A map of the different usages of this would be interesting.

    Arkansas also has y'uns as a second person plural, apparently used when distinction is needed on whether or not people who are not present are included. Usage is slippery, the meaning of y'uns can seemingly flip between inclusive and exclusive depending on circumstance and context. Generally, it appears to mean the opposite, inclusively or exclusively, of what y'all would mean if used in the same place.

    There's also we-all, we'uns and they'uns. More research is needed.

  102. Vidor said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

    I guess no one will ever read this. But I am a native of Alabama and South Carolina, and "y'all" is used exclusively in the plural.

  103. Emma said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    Y'all is definitely plural. No one in the south ever uses it as singular unless they're from up north or from somewhere else and doesn't know the dialect. Stephen King uses a singular "y'all," showing how little he really knows about the southern dialect. He may be a good writer, but the singular y'all brings his writing down a level. Y'all is always used to address a group of people, since y'all is a contraction of you and all: you all = y'all

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