Date: Sun, 23 Jan 1994 00:52:10 -0700
From: Rudy Troike RTROIKE[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]ARIZVMS.BITNET
Subject: Re: y'all singular, not!
Like Don and Natalie, I would never use "y'all" (or the more coastal
Southern "you-all" (stress on you ) for a genuinely singular referent, and
have never known any other native speaker who did either. I think most
Southerners are aware of, and either amused by the ignorance of or resentful
of (as I am, I must admit), the usually exaggerated attempts of Northern
would-be comedians to mimic Southern speech, which almost always include this
usage as a highly salient stereotypic marker. This vaudevillean usage obvious-
ly reflects Northern folklore, and thus has a tangential (tertiary) linguistic
interest. I suppose my reaction is like that of a New Yorker who resents
having elsewhere-ers comically mimic NY speech with "toidy-toid" (although
of course there is more historical validity to the latter than the former).
Now that "you-guys" is sweeping the North and becoming a serious
competitor to "you-all/y'all", which was earlier spreading north (I once
heard a couple from Syracuse, NY using it quite unself-consciously), I do not
doubt that there will be people, especially on the peripheries, who may from
contextual observations similar to those described for "y'all", infer that it
may be used in the singular, and so encrypt it in their internal grammars. One
of my colleagues here, who is from New Jersey, claims to have heard a clear
case of singular "y'all", and on the basis of this justifies the extension
of the usage to all Southern speech, and thus a justification for the use
by Northern comics.
If there is anything we have learned about language acquisition in
the past 40 years, it is that is amazing that we manage to wind up with so
much similarity in our individual internal grammars, given that we derive them
to such an extent from the accidents of observation and interaction. Thus I
am sure that each of us probably has some idiosyncratic usage or meaning still
lurking in our grammars that has by sheer chance never been socialized out.
So it should come as no surprise that among the millions of "y'all" users,
there should be a small and probably randomly-distributed number who got it
mixed up along the way. What would be surprising would be if there weren't.
It is in such things that the germs of language change lie. However, given
the locale of Beth's and Guy's observations, it may be that the distribution
is not entirely random, but may be higher on the peripheries of the y'all area,
where it has spread and been acquired, but with more opportunity for mislearn-
ing of the "correct" meaning/use. This again would not be unexpected. But
while allowing for the probability of such idiosyncratic "error" (deviation
from the community norm), we should not allow the occasional misuse to under-
mine the certainty of our own life-long experience and strong native intuition.
I sense in Don's and Natalie's disclaimers that they are somehow discounting
thscientific value and validity of their own native-speaker intuition, with
a touch of embarrassment that their opinion as trained linguists has perhaps
less validity than the claims of my colleague from New Jersey, or a comedy
sketch on "Saturday Night Live". Is this latent Southern insecurity complex?
I think we have as much scientific right to our linguistic intuitions as
a Navajo or Basque speaker, and to expect linguistic variation, even when it
is deviant from community norms (="wrong"). Let's not go overboard in
attributing greater knowledge of truth to Northern comedians.
Pleasant dreams, y'all (even if individual readers of this perceive
themselves as singletons rather than recognizing themselves as part of a
greater body of recipients, those on ADS-L).