Y’all ever heard of a colloquialism?
According to the folks at Merrimack-Webster, a colloquialism is “…a local or regional dialect expression.”
Another definition is using language that could be considered, “unacceptably informal.”
I have been accused of both. Being unacceptable and informal – sometimes separately, but most often in combination.
Yankees often make fun of Southerners for the way we talk, by trying to imitate us. Truth is, there isn’t much else that’s funnier than someone with a thick Northern accent muddling through saying, “You all,” instead of “y’all.”
And no, you don’t capitalize y’all.
But what the folks up north, and honestly, most of us in the South, would be surprised to learn is that the word that is used most often below the Mason Dixon, didn’t originate in Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, or anywhere else where grits and gravy are the standard fare.
The word “y’all,” can be traced back to the Scots-Irish.
Very few of us are Native American. Virtually all of us are immigrants. My ancestry.com DNA test shows that I’m 69 percent British, but I’m also part Scottish.
So, it makes sense that much of the English language that the Scots-Irish (Scots are the people, Scotch is the drink) brought to the Ozarks and Appalachia in North America was a mix of different words and dialects. Down through the centuries, some of these words would become misheard, and likely morphed into something other than their original form.
Y’all still with me?
Many languages have two different words for the word, “you.” There’s one word if you’re talking to one person, and a different word if you’re talking to more than one person.
English used to have the same thing. Look no further than your King James Bible for an example. “Thou” meant “you,” and “Ye” was used as the plural. But, there were certain Scottish dialects that used “ye all” as the plural.
When these folks left Europe and wound up in the mountainous areas of what is now America, “ye all” was already part of their language. So, it was heard often.
The Scots-Irish were known as hillbillies. But, probably not for any negative reasons that you might think. More on that in a moment.
Time passed and those who heard their new mountain neighbors talking, quite possibly thought they heard “ya’ll” instead of “ye all,” but it’s also just as likely that, over time, the Scots-Irish just shortened it on their own.
And, “y’all” was born.
Any mashups or changes in the language that led us to “y’all,” don’t alter its meaning.
Without exception, “y’all” is always plural.
When someone says, “Hey, y’all,” or “What’s up, y’all.” Or “Are y’all fixin’ to go to the store?” (see complete details on the phrase, ‘fixin’ to’ in a column y’all need to read when I eventually write it), they are referring to more than one person.
If a Southerner is asking an individual a question, such as inquiring about their overall current sense of wellbeing, they ask, “How you?”
“How y’all?” is when you ask two or more folks about their overall current senses of wellbeing.
What’s even more interesting about the slang that the Scots-Irish used (perfected is the term I prefer), is that those who get the credit for “y’all” were connected to royalty.
The Highland Scots were called, “Hill Folks” by their neighbors. And during the wars of the late 1600s they backed Britain’s King William.
Because of this, they were called “Billy Boys,” which later led to them being called, “Hill Billy Boys.” And much like “Ye all” got shortened to “y’all,” “Hill Billy Boys” was eventually shortened to “Hillbillies.” This term followed them to America.
Other places where English is spoken have their own version of “y’all.” Drive past that last BBQ joint just north of St. Louis, and suddenly, “y’all” becomes “you guys,” and that’s even if a girl is present. Go figure.
In New Jersey, “youse guys” is the term, unless they’re juveniles, then they’re “yutes” (see the movie, ‘My Cousin Vinnie’).
In England, “you lot” is the term for y’all (don’t ask me).
Enough of the history lesson. Let’s focus on the proper uses for “y’all.”
As was mentioned, “y’all” is always plural, unless you’re talking about a pretty large group. That’s when “y’all” is replaced by “all y’all.”
If there are two people in front of you, you should ask, “Are y’all going to the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert?”
If there are 317 people in front of you, you should ask, “Are all y’all going to the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert?”
One thing that doesn’t enjoy wide agreement is the possessive of “y’all.”
Now, I know that’s confusing, because “y’all” is plural, but what would plural possessive be?
Should it be “y’alls” or “y’all’s”?
If you have two people in front of you, you should ask, “Are y’all going to get y’alls Lynyrd Skynyrd concert tickets?”
If you have 319 people in front of you, you should ask, “Are all y’all going to get y’all’s Lynyrd Skynyrd concert tickets?”
(Two more people showed up for tickets when they heard that Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing a concert.)
More and more of our northern brethren are moving to the South, so it’s important that we do the right thing and reach out to them and offer to help in any way that we can. One way we can help is to offer to translate for them.
Make sure that they understand y’all, all y’all, and y’alls or y’all’s (your choice on the last two).
And, if they don’t know who Lynyrd Skynyrd is, please put Sweet Home Alabama in the disc changer.
All y’all have a good week. I’m fixin’ to start my next column.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Write-Passage-Southerners-View-Then/dp/1548144983
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com.