A brief history of "y'all"

Graphic from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Y’all Means All” social media campaign around same-sex marriage.

Graphic from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Y’all Means All” social media campaign around same-sex marriage.

Folks in Washington, D.C. just don’t get it, y’all.

About a year ago, I moved to the District from Richmond, Va., where I’d lived for several years. Attracted to the hustle and bustle of a slightly larger city as well as the promise of a new job, I eagerly decamped RVA and drove the 90 miles north. It quickly became clear to me that if Richmond was a sort of liminal space of what can comfortably be called “The South,” Washington, D.C. was clearly a land of Northerners.

Sure, Washingtonians are known to pull out their seersucker at least once a summer. They even have a reasonably developed appreciation for Kentucky bourbon. But how was I supposed to know that White Washingtonians have been known to scoff at the “y’all.”

I have a distinct memory of the first time I was confronted as a “y’all-sayer.” I was young at the time—maybe 10—and my parents had just brought me and my brother back to our native Philadelphia for the first time since a recent move to Richmond, Va. He and I thought nothing of employing what was by then natural vocabulary at our family barbecue. It became clear from my grandfather’s frustration with our new “accent” that something had changed in us—or rather, that we’d crossed some sort of line. By invoking that most natural of southern colloquialisms, we’d suddenly forfeited our identity as Irish Catholic Yanks and traded our Philly hoagies for cheesy grits and collards.

Since then, I’ve found myself listening more carefully for how those around me express the idea of “second-person plural.” I’ve heard more than a few permutations of “you all.” I’ve overheard relatives employ the decidedly Philadelphia-New York-New Jersey “youse guys” and Brits deploy the almost adversarial “you lot.” My brother’s even told me that denizens of Pittsburgh (and perhaps some of Appalachia) prefer “yinz.” Confused by this constellation of expressions all conveying the same meaning, I decided to put my amateur research skills to use looking into how the phrase “y’all” had become so firmly embedded within the linguistic firmament of the South.

As you might imagine, the history of “y’all”—like the histories of so many other southern conventions—is somewhat contentious. Going down the rabbit hole of sociolinguistics quickly leads even a native English speaker to marvel at the ways many of our contemporary expressions would have been unintelligible centuries ago.

The general scholarly consensus is that “y’all”’s origin is actually Scottish. While some disagreements exist as to the first recorded use of “y’all”—with scholars dating the term’s first use to either 1909, 1886, or 1851the widely accepted history of the term dates to 18th-century New York.

According to linguist Michael Montgomery, “y’all” can be traced back to the Scots-Irish phrase “ye aw,” itself a derivative of the pre-Anglicized language of the Scots. Montgomery points to as proof of his hypothesis a letter sent home from an Irish immigrant to New York in 1737 in which the writer implored, “Now I beg of ye aw to come over here.” As the argument goes, Scots-Irish immigrants to the South came to employ a version of “y’all” colloquially which was then adopted by their descendants as well as slaves. Now, “y’all” appears as a defining element of both Southern American English and African American “Vernacular” English, to use the terms of linguistics scholars.

In its present and past forms, then, “y’all” survives as a conventionally formed contraction of “you all.” A couple rules apply to its use, though. No one uses “y’all” to address a single person save for those rare occasions in which you speak to one other person using “y’all” but clearly alluding to a much larger group of people with whom that person is somehow affiliated. For example, speaking to a close friend and referring to her family’s vacation habits, one might ask, “Y’all [as members of the family] spend Labor Day at the lake, right?” 

“Y’all” is also almost never spelled “ya’ll”—or at least not on purpose. For one, that’s just not how contractions work; the letter “a” is not part of the word “you” and therefore should not appear before the apostrophe. Also, it just doesn’t look nice.

While this linguistic history of “y’all” is helpful, I found myself racking my brain for other reasons why so many of us seem beholden to this phrase aside from our shared linguistic backstory.

My first and really only response has nothing to do with geography but instead shifting social signifiers. Culturally, “y’all” has come to hold a multitude of meanings, largely dependent on the social space occupied by the speaker. For some, “y’all” is simply the accepted argot of their favorite genre of music, invoked frequently by their favorite artists and therefore comfortable for them. To some academic or politicized types, “y’all” provides a helpful crutch in attempting to address a large group of people without gendering the entire audience (e.g. “Hi, you guys”). In these spaces, “y’all” is at its most intentional, used not because of a sense of heritage but as a convention put in place to create a more inclusive dialogical space.

In the end, I’m not sure I can offer a response to the question I set out to answer. I don’t know why we hold such an attachment to “y’all” as a cultural marker. Maybe it’s because we value our ancestors’ linguistic imagination. Maybe it’s because we Southerners enjoy subverting the grammatical snobbery of élites. Or, maybe it’s because the roundness of the syllable seems comfortable and familiar. What I do know for sure is that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.