Y'all: A 'Southern Improvement' Of Speech, Argues Alabama Linguistics Professor In the book Speaking of Alabama, an essay by linguistics professor Catherine Davies calls "y'all" a speech "improvement" — at least when referring to the plural second person.
NPR logo

Y'all Heard? An Argument For The Great Southern Pronoun

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/701701825/701838260" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Y'all Heard? An Argument For The Great Southern Pronoun

Y'all Heard? An Argument For The Great Southern Pronoun

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/701701825/701838260" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Listen up, y'all. Maybe even those Yankees should start saying y'all. There's a new book, "Speaking Of Alabama: The History, Diversity, Function And Change Of Language" where a chapter by linguistics professor Catherine Davies includes a section called "A Southern Improvement To The Pronoun System." Professor Davies teaches at the University of Alabama. She joins us now from the studios of Alabama Public Radio in Tuscaloosa. Thanks so much for being with us.

CATHERINE DAVIES: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: How y'all doing?

DAVIES: (Laughter) Fine - how are you?

SIMON: So what can y'all do for today's pronouns?

DAVIES: Well, Southern English is doing a great job because in the past, starting with old English, we used to have a single pronoun for you and then one for more-than-one-person you. So thou - that was just for one person when you were speaking to that person. And then we used to have two forms of the pronoun that we used when we addressed more than one person. So it was ye and you. And then over time, we ended up with just one, which was the you, which meant we have this problem. If we're talking to one person, we say you. If we're talking to more than one person, we say you. So along comes Southern English and proposes you all becomes y'all. Now, we have other forms of that like, you's and you guys....

SIMON: Yeah. That's what we say in Chicago. Yeah. OK. Yeah.

DAVIES: ...And you'uns and yinz in Pittsburgh. But Southern English just took you and all and combined it. And we've got y'all. And it seems very useful.

SIMON: So y'all can be a collective pronoun without being gender specific.

DAVIES: Yes, exactly. And sometimes non-Southerners will say, well, you can use y'all when you're addressing one person.

SIMON: I have made that mistake. Yes.

DAVIES: (Laughter) And there's some controversy about that. But I link it to Southern politeness. So, for example, if I go into a diner by myself and sit down and the waitress comes over to me and says, y'all ready to order? - one interpretation of that is that she's assuming that I couldn't possibly be eating alone. And so other people are going to be coming to join me.

SIMON: Aw.

DAVIES: And so she's asking me that. And so the y'all there is in relation to all the other people that are with me who have not yet appeared.

SIMON: You surely must hear from language purists who think that y'all shouldn't use y'all.

DAVIES: Of course. And linguists are always pushing back against that. And one could predict that eventually - because y'all seems to be spreading - that it might become our new plural you.

SIMON: I think ever since the invention of broadcasting, Professor Davies, we've been hearing that this medium on which you and I are conversing is going to end regionalisms in American language because we're all talking like announcers like this.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

SIMON: But that hasn't been my experience.

DAVIES: Yeah.

SIMON: Regionalisms still survive, don't they?

DAVIES: Yeah. So one of the ways that you signal where you're from and your regional identification is through speaking in a certain way. So that's why we linguists would predict that regional dialects will absolutely not die out. They may become easier for people from other parts of the country to understand. They may become focused on particular things like pronouncing I, like ah, like roll tide.

SIMON: Hey. You're good at this (laughter).

DAVIES: Yeah. And y'all - well, I practiced that. You have to move your tongue forward slightly to do that (laughter).

SIMON: Wait - roll tide.

DAVIES: Tide - there you go. There you go (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, mercy. Catherine Davies is a professor of linguistics at the - do we need to say this? - University of Alabama. Thank y'all.

DAVIES: Well, thank you, Scott. It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIEN ROTH'S "BUNKY WITH BRAD PAISLEY")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.