Why 'y'all' is the perfect pronoun for all of y'all (and not just Southerners)
For many years now, Georgia has attracted new residents from all over the country. People move here from New England, from the West Coast, from just about everywhere. And sometimes, these newcomers raise their eyebrows at us Southerners when we use the word "y’all."
In this week's commentary, Salvation South Editor Chuck Reece explains why it is actually the perfect pronoun.
Chuck Reece — Salvation South Editor I moved to New York City for the first time in November of 1984. Now, I know that's hard to imagine an accent like this one existing in Manhattan. But I made the move anyway. Sure enough, it took no time at all before I was questioned about my frequent use of the word y'all.
Using this word evidently made me a hillbilly, a rube, a dummy. Now, one night, frustrated with my inability to explain my use of the word, I thought back to my early English classes where I learned about first person and second person pronouns. Let's look first at the first person pronouns.
When I speak of myself as the subject of a sentence, you know the word before the verb, I use the pronoun "I." When I speak of myself as the object of the sentence after the verb, I use the pronoun "me." Simple enough, right? Now let's look at the second person versions of those pronouns: The ones I use when I talk about you. When I speak of you as the subject of sentence, I use the pronoun "you." And when I speak about you and others, the English books say I am also supposed to use the exact same pronoun: "You."
Could a language as rich as English fail to manage a unique word for the second person plural pronoun? Now, when I realized this, I finally had ammunition for my fight.
Ever after, when my use of the word "y'all" made me the brunt of a joke, I had my answer ready. I would say, "Don't you realize that the English language uses the same word for a singular and plural second person pronouns? That makes no sense. We need a second person plural pronoun that's different." And "y'all" is the perfect word. It is the English language's missing — and much needed — second person plural pronoun. It is also perfectly gender neutral, which is definitely an asset. And by the way, it also has what I call the plural, emphatic version: "All y'all."
Now, this argument has been the rock I've stood on ever since.
In early 2016. Vann R. Newkirk II, a senior editor at The Atlantic, published an essay called, “America Needs Y'all.” In that essay, he wrote, and I quote, “Y'all, that strange regional and ethnic conjunction offers a simplicity to speech that can't be found elsewhere. It is a magnificently elegant linguistic creation.”
I agree with Van Newkirk. "Y'all" is indeed a magnificently elegant word, and neither I nor any of y'all should ever be ashamed to use it.
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Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South.