City Living

Yo, Peep, Yo! The Birth of a Gender Neutral Pronoun

On today's show, we did a story about a new use of the word yo. Apparently, it's not just a greeting anymore. Some students in Baltimore, Maryland, are using it as a way to refer to a third person, in a gender neutral kind of way.



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Here's how a couple of students at The Baltimore Career Academy use the pronoun:

And there's a back story: The pronoun got attention when, a few years ago, a group of Baltimore teachers in a linguistics class at Johns Hopkins University shared with each other the spontaneous uses of yo they were hearing at their schools. Some examples:

"Yo handin' out papers (She is handing out papers)

"Peep, yo!" (Look at him!)

"You acting like I said what yo said" (You're acting like I said what he/she said)

"Yo been runnin' in the halls" (He/She has been running in the halls)

Elaine Stotko, professor of the linguistics class and Margaret Troyer, Stotko's student and Baltimore teacher, did a study on the use of the pronoun and published their findings in American Speech.

In one phase of the data collection, students were given a set of cartoon drawings with characters "made to look like the African American children at the school." The students were asked to fill in the conversation bubble using slang, which was defined as "informal language, the way you talk to your friends, not the way you talk in school." Below are the four drawings:

From the American Speech article:

"Of the 115 students who participated, 68 students did not use yo at all and 47 used,yo,as an attention-focusing device in one or more of their conversations. Eight out of those 47 students also used yo as a third person pronoun. There were 8 uses of yo in the subject position:

Yo look like a sack a** gump.
Yo is a clown.
Yo sucks at magic tricks.
Yo needs to pull his pants down.
Yo looks like a freak.
Yo is a straight clown.
Yo going to put that chicken in his mouth.
Yo, looka that dude pants. Yo is a clown.

What I want to know is, what the heck is a sack a** gump?



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Pretty sure "gump" means weakling or sissy in Baltimore slang. Basically a not-so-nice way to call somebody's sexual orientation into question. And where did I pick up on this, you ask? The Wire, of course.

Sent by Jesse | 5:46 PM | 1-31-2008

I'll welcome "Yo" with open arms.

I've always been un-nerved when "He" or "Him" was used in situations in which a NEUTER term was needed.

Thank heavens that "Yo" will end the neutering of English-speaking men.

Sent by BillF | 6:33 PM | 1-31-2008

Roughly 6.9% of the sample used "Yo" as a pronoun. Many of those who did had other grammatical problems. Who do we want to lead the way to reform: a small percentage of students with poor language skills?

Sent by Susan Bartolone, Ed.D | 7:18 PM | 1-31-2008

The kids in the study weren't using Standard English, but they solved a problem that standard English still hasn't. It would be ridiculous to reject a useful linguistic development out of hand because it comes from people whose dialect isn't spoken by the anchors on the evening news.

It also doesn't make much sense to refer to their speech as having "grammatical problems" unless their divergence from Standard English grammar prevents them from communicating effectively with the people they talk to. They were asked to fill out the speech bubbles with "informal language," not to fill them out as if they were at a job interview.

A proscriptive approach to language is a losing battle anyway. People are going to talk how they want to talk.

Sent by Maura | 8:33 PM | 1-31-2008

In fact, yo has been used as a gender neutral pronoun since the mid 1990's. On this page (, the rational for the gender neutral use of yo has been described for many years. And on this page (, we laid out the usage rules for yo as a replacement for he, she, his, hers, him, and her.

Daniel Kriegman, Ph.D.

Sent by Daniel Kriegman | 1:05 AM | 2-1-2008

Leave it to my mom, former English teacher and Doctor of Education, to be offended by grammar "variations." Susan (aka, Mom) aren't you at least a little excited by the idea of a new pronoun? Using "yo" seems more economical. You don't even have to use the verb "to be." All you gotta do is say: "Yo handin' out papers..."

Sent by Pauline Bartolone | 8:40 AM | 2-1-2008

"It also doesn't make much sense to refer to their speech as having "grammatical problems" unless their divergence from Standard English grammar prevents them from communicating effectively with the people they talk to."

Honestly, if you listened to this news report and the "real world" usages of "yo", I think just about anybody who isn't initiated would have a hard time understanding any of those kids.

Not to reignite any old controversies, but this really is a dialect, and as such, shouldn't really be applicable to the standard language. If the need for a gender neutral pronoun is so dire that we are told to accept any word that comes the pike, why don't we make one?

Here, I'll go first: Blorp.

Sent by Greg | 8:40 AM | 2-1-2008

Whoops! I forgot to mention this page (, where we provided a the classic examples (in video, audio, and text) of the use of "yo" in the English language.

Sent by Daniel Kriegman | 8:56 AM | 2-1-2008

"Blorp" has a certain ring to it, although it does sound like "blurp" and "burp," which might limit its usage.
What do our fellow English-speakers across the globe think of the need for a third-person singular, gender-neutral pronoun that is grammatically acceptable? Would "yo" be understood in London, Sydney, Banff and Dublin? Would air traffic controllers avoid mid-air collisions with its use?
I am landing on the side of those who believe in stabilizing language for the sake of clarity, but I do realize that spoken language responds to the needs of the speakers, and langauge has cultural markers, as do all the responses to this NPR piece.

Sent by Susan Bartolone, Ed.D | 10:21 AM | 2-1-2008

I'm from Baltimore, in college and hopefully on my way to law school and sometimes I find myself using yo for he or she. It comes in handy. I have to say though, I love this show but I'm not too please with how Baltimore has been portrayed. About a month ago when there was talk about The Wire, someone said (or should I say yo said) something to the extent of "Baltimore works for some people...") Baltimore isn't just full of freak natives and crime... people shouldn't be afraid!

Sent by Lindsay Hanson | 1:45 PM | 2-1-2008

Phrase: "Yo! Peep, yo yo-yo!"

Translation: "Hey! Look at that person use a yo-yo!"

Yo is already such an awesome word, and now it just got so much more awesomer.

I dunno if yo's THE ultimate answer to the problem, but yeah, we need a gender-neutral pronoun.

Sent by Brian | 12:10 AM | 2-2-2008

The Chinese "you" is actually not gender neutral. The characters are written differently, but pronounced the same. So, in speaking, the two you's are indistinguishable (but different); and in writing, they are obviously different.

Sent by K Cheng | 1:00 AM | 2-2-2008

Modern English already has a gender neutral third person singular pronoun -- "they", "them", "their", etc. People use those forms in the singular all the time and are widely understood.

Sent by Jessie | 8:52 PM | 2-26-2008

Using "them", "they", and "their" in the singular is widely understood, but it sounds horrible! Plus, now young people are so used to using these words incorrectly that even when the gender IS known they insist on using the neutral.

Sent by Tim | 10:56 PM | 5-27-2008