Date: Sun, 23 Jan 1994 00:52:10 -0700


Subject: Re: y'all singular, not!

Howdy, y'all--

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).

--Rudy Troike