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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 416-418

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Changes In Progress

Battle of the Pronouns: Y'all versus you-guys

Natalie Maynor, Mississippi State University


Exactly why English Lost Its distinction between second-person singular and plural during the late Renaissance is debatable. Because the plural forms (ye, you, your) were used as polite singular, it is possible that the singular forms (thou, thee, thyyou in all contexts for both singular and plural.

Standard written English has managed to get along these past several hundred years with the all-purpose you. Second-person contexts, however, are much more likely to arise in conversation, and it is clear that speakers have been trying for a long time to fill the gap left by the merging of the singular and plural pronouns. Instead of replacing the lost singular forms, speakers seem to have accepted singular you and are deriving various plural forms from it, some using rules of English morphology (yous), some periphrastic (you-uns, you-all, you-guys), and one (y'all) that is perhaps a contraction, perhaps a single lexeme (Montgomery 1992; Lipski 1993; Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey forthcoming). An interesting question is whether a consensus will be reached among English speakers during the coming years, either worldwide or with national variation, on which form is the "standard" and, if so, which form or forms will win the plural slots in grammar books and dictionaries.

Of the contenders in American English, two seem to be the front-runners: y'all and you-guys. My research on usage of you-all suggests that it is being replaced by y'all among younger speakers (Maynor 1996), something also found by Jan Tillery, Tom Wikle, and Guy Bailey (forthcoming) in their analysis of data from the 1996 Southern Focus Poll. Although Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey noted more use of you-all than y'all outside the South, they found that age was a key factor, that almost all of the use of you-all was [End Page 416] by older speakers. Suggesting that the use of you-all by older non-Southerners probably indicates its earlier spread to other regions, they point out that in recent years y'all rather than you-all has been spreading.

Meanwhile, just as y'all seems to be spreading outside the South, you-guys is moving into the South, especially among younger speakers. In a survey of university students in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina,1 I found a surprisingly large number of respondents who said that they might use you-guys (Maynor 1999). Although y'all dominated as their second-person plural pronoun of choice, many added that they also used you-guys on occasion. Some of their comments indicated an age consciousness in their choice of form. For example, a nontraditional student in North Carolina, 55 years old, said that though she normally used y'all, she sometimes used you-guys when speaking to her middle-school students. Another North Carolinian, 21 years old, said, "I work at a day care, and I will say 'you-guys' to my kids." In addition to surveying these groups of university students, I surveyed a small group of elderly Mississippians (ages 44-97, median age 67). While 46% of the students surveyed said that they might use you-guys on occasion, none of the elderly group did. Change seems to be afoot. Just as many younger speakers in other parts of the country are using y'all, many younger speakers in the South are using you-guys, at least occasionally.

So what will the new millennium bring? Will one of these two forms move into the textbook paradigm in the United States? If so, which one? In discussing the spread of y'all, Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey (forthcoming) point out that it has the advantage of being a single lexeme rather than a periphrastic form. That is perhaps a significant point in this battle of the pronouns. But y'all also suffers from being associated with Southern dialect, a dialect that has been stigmatized in the media...


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pp. 416-418
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