Yall Make Yourself at Home

Water tower in FlorenceTonight I made a proper southern meal, or as proper as I was going to get without using a piece of pig. I made a pot of pinto beans, and instead of flavoring them with pork fat, I used sprigs of fresh rosemary from the garden. One time I was in a Russian language class when the word сала (sala) was mentioned. Other students apparently thought it was an odd word to have, but I realized it was similar to the southern word “fatback”. This happened in Indiana, where I was in college, and I thought “Down south we can translate that word, but from what I’m hearing, yall can’t.”

The pot of pinto beans I made tonight for dinner was pretty much inconceivable without cornbread, so I made a pretty brown pone in the cast iron skillet. I make cornbread the right way, without sugar. People in the north think cornbread is supposed to be sweet, but I can’t talk about it.

While I was pondering the prospect of the kind of meal I grew up with, I also started thinking about some of the language I grew up with as well. If you happen to be astute with punctuation, which so few people are, you noticed that I spelled the word for “you plural” as yall, without the apostrophe. Since the word is a contraction for the phrase “you all”, and the apostrophe indicates that collapsing of letters and sounds, it is generally correct to use the apostrophe (which also leads to the reprehensible but common misspelling “ya’ll”).

I don’t like the apostrophe. Maybe that’s because I don’t like apostrophes in general, after having spent a stupid amount of effort to get students to use this idiotic mark correctly. The apostrophe was a dumbass invention, and I wish we could get rid of it. In any case, I’ve dropped that flying curl of ink in the middle of the word, because I think the word “yall” deserves to exist on its own, not as a contraction. The fact that the word originated from “you all” is merely etymology, the history of the word.

As I have often told anyone who could not get away fast enough, I spell the word as it is going to be spelled in the future. Someday all English speakers, at least all American English speakers, will use this word as the standard form for “you plural”. In Shakespeare’s time the language still had both singular (thou) and plural (ye) in common use. It seems miraculous to me how two pronouns that everyone must have used every day could disappear, but so they did, and both of them were replaced by “you” (the object form of “ye”, similar to “him” from “he”).

And so we have struggled with this bizarre hole in our language. In various places local practice has created an alternative way of saying “you plural”, but the words have nearly always been seen as substandard. Running up the spine of Appalachia, from Georgia—where my grandfather used to say this—to Pittsburgh, the phrase “you ones” has been contracted to “yuns”. In southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, the word “youse” (probably “you” pluralized with an “s”) is common. Both of these words are heavily marked as uneducated, and anyone who grows up using them will try to stop doing so when they want to sound educated.

Which makes the word “yall” so interesting in the south. Although people in other parts of the country may not know this, in the south the word is not marked as uneducated, and college professors, doctors, and the governor can use the word without a problem. In southern speech, in fact, “yall” is standard English, the normal way of distinguishing between one person and more than one. I’ve occasionally read the ignorant claim that southerners will sometimes say “yall” to mean only one person. Personally, if I were so inept at understanding how people speak, I would not make generalizations about it. No native southerner will ever say “yall” to mean one person. The Economist magazine gets this point right in an editorial on language in this week’s edition.

There are several reasons to believe that “yall” will someday become standard English. For one thing, we need it. English is a rare European language in being unable to make this obvious distinction. As to why the solution might be this word and not another, “yall” is already very much in common use, not only among southerners, but among speakers of general black dialect, not just in the south, but all over the country.

It is also an elegant word, fitting the pattern of many Anglosaxon native English words, to the sound of Consonant-Vowel-Consonant. The fits our language well, and because it makes a plural ending with a consonant, it’s possible to add the “s” for possessive, as in “Is that yalls house on fire?”

It is a word of the future, unless yall got a better idea.

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