Linguists tracking the sprawl of y'all
Columbia News Service
Feb. 22, 2005

Moises Velasquez-Manoff

NEW YORK - In a June appearance on NBC's Today, singer Marc Anthony made an unusual but, according to some linguists, not-so-surprising word choice.

When co-host Matt Lauer asked Anthony how he'd spend the upcoming weekend, Anthony said, "Y'all know I don't talk about my personal life."

A New York native of Puerto Rican descent using "y'all," a distinctly Southern term?

Linguists Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery would say Anthony is exhibit A in a national trend that is spreading the uses of "y'all" beyond the South. The two, who teach at the University of Texas at San Antonio, wrote an article in 2000 titled "The Nationalization of a Southernism," which appeared in the Journal of English Linguistics.

After conducting a national poll by telephone, the team concluded that the spread was dramatic and recent, most likely in the past 50 years as younger non-Southerners were significantly more likely to use "y'all" than older non-Southerners. Those regions bordering the South and Texas, such as Kansas and New Mexico, were most likely to adopt it, as well as the Rocky Mountain region, which, they argued, had cultural similarities with the South.

As for why non-Southerners might use a markedly Southern term, the authors cite geographic mobility - Northerners moving to the South adopting it and Southerners moving to the North retaining it. But ultimately, the authors argue, it's a matter of addressing a "hole" in the English language.

Ever since English lost the second person singular "thou," it has relied on the pronoun "you" to act as both singular and plural. Since then, English speakers have consistently improvised ways to avoid ambiguity in the second-person plural: in the Northeast, "youse" or "youse guys"; around Pittsburgh, "yunz" or "yinz," a contraction of "you-ones"; in the South, "y'all," a contraction (or "fusion," as Bailey and Tillery call it) of "you-all"; and finally "you guys," if not quite a national standard, the media standard.

But "you guys" feels awkward to certain segments of the population, says Joan Houston Hall, chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English. A term that gained popularity in the 1960s, it still sounds inappropriately familiar to some elderly ears, she says, and some women are uncomfortable with the masculine gender implied by "guys." "Y'all" elegantly resolves all of these concerns.

Others argue that "y'all" is spreading for a much simpler reason: Both culturally and numerically, the South is on the rise.

"The rise of all these Inland Southern cultural manifestations to national prominence is also due in part to the population shift toward the Sunbelt," said John G. Fought, an independent linguist and scholar.

During the 20th century, the major Northern dialect groups lost about 20 percent of their national share, he says, while the Southern and Western dialect groups gained 20 percent. In fact, the South - stretching from Maryland to Texas, as defined by the census - now contains more than a third of the nation's total population. Partly because of the Sunbelt's population explosion, Fought says, Inland Southern has become the dominant dialect of the military services (except perhaps the Navy), and of such cultural manifestations as NASCAR and country music.

But more important, "y'all" is standard in what linguists call African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), the lingua franca of rap and hip-hop. Since 2000, rap/hip-hop has outsold country music to become the nation's second-bestselling genre after rock, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Hip-hop, and by extension AAVE, is likely to be just as responsible for the spread of y'all and other Southernisms as country music, says Aaron Fox, director of Columbia University's Center for Ethnomusicology. Besides, "country music is hardly steeped in Southern dialectal features these days," Fox, author of Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture, wrote in an e-mail message.

Indeed, Cecilia Cutler, a visiting professor of linguistics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has heard "y'all" used frequently by white New York hip-hoppers whom she studied for her doctoral dissertation.

"I myself occasionally use 'y'all' even though I'm not from the South," she said in an e-mail message. "It fills a gap."

But some linguists see other trends at work. In fact, linguist Christopher Montgomery of the University of South Carolina thinks that among college-educated Southerners, "you guys" is gaining currency.

It's "relatively new and sort of voguish and maybe even chummy," he said.

And although Northerners moving to the South readily adopt 'y'all,' says Ron Butters, a linguistics professor at Duke University, he thinks "you guys" still reigns supreme in the North.

"I never had a New York taxi driver say 'y'all' to me," he said.