Thursday, January 21, 2010

You guys 'n' y'all

One of the more unfortunate shifts in the English language a few centuries back was the fusing of thou and ye into the single, all-encompassing you, a pronoun that now stands for both you-singular and you-plural. (One of the cleverer shifts has been the consequent elimination of you-formal, which is what you formerly was, but that's another story.) I thought Southerners had cornered the market on a solution with the brilliant second-person plural pronoun y'all, but thanks to my new copy of How We Talk: American Regional English Today by Allan Metcalf (2000), I am reminded that I grew up with the Northerner's version of the same: you guys.

You guys, like y'all, isn't something one sees in formal prose. Unlike y'all, it has the disadvantage of being blatantly gendered. Although one might hail a group of both males and females with the phrase hey you guys!, the word guys without a preceding you is distinctly masculine. (Metcalf explains that the word guys originated in reference to effigies of the 17th-century wannabe English Parliament blower-upper, Guy Fawkes. Fawkes' "Gunpowder Plot" was foiled on November 5, 1605, and celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day began in the 18th century. The OED dates the word guy to the early 19th century.)

You guys, because it includes an unadulterated you, is somewhat awkward when it comes to possessive forms. Turn down you guys's car radio sounds strange, even though it's dialectally correct, while Turn down your guys's car radio is just plain wrong, since it suggests that whoever you is controls guys rather than a shared car radio. Change the command to a simple Turn down your car radio and the editor breathes a concise sigh of relief, but the you-plural is lost.

Y'all has the benefit of dropping the -ou while retaining the y-, so the pronoun loses some of its obvious you-ness. One can thus derive possessive forms of y'all with relative ease, as in Turn down y'all's car radio. The especially enthusiastic speaker might emphasize the pluralness of y'all by making it y'alls, thus, Turn down y'alls's car radios. If more than about three folks are making a ruckus, one could say All y'all might should turn down the car radio. It's a bizarre twist, that all y'all, for its existence suggests y'all itself is on the way to becoming singular.

Metcalf mentions a few other you-plural options: yiz (in Philadelphia, where yous is the singular); yinz (in Pittsburgh, derived from you ones); and youse and you-uns, both regional Northern variants. Take y'alls's picks, but I'm sticking with the Southern solution.


Heather said...

Does the book mention "yoons"? I know this to be part of the Virginia country dialect (aka country-talk or plain old /country/). I imagine it derives from "you ones".

mom2homer said...

"Yoons" sure helps make more sense out of "yinz." It isn't in the book. How many syllables does it have? "You-uns" presumably has two, "yinz" one; but Southerners always seem to turn one-syllable words into two-syllable ones (like the color "ray-yed"), so I could imagine "yoons" going either way.