Friday, October 13, 2017

`Listen at This!'

As a native Northerner I never heard anyone say y’all except in movies or on The Beverly Hillbillies, where it sounded italicized for ironic emphasis. If it showed up in Welty or Faulkner, I never noticed. I assumed it was a minor piece of Hollywood stereotyping, shorthand for Southern hick. Not so says the British linguist David Crystal, who first encountered the word in Dallas in 1969 while buying a Stetson for his son. In “Tracking a Change: The Case of Y’all” (The Stories of English, 2004) he writes:

“And all kinds of people used it. A professor at the university used it when addressing her class of students, I hope y’all managed to read my paper. A cab driver addressed two of us in the back with a general Where y’all going? Most of the users were African-American; but many were white.”

In Texas, even in Houston (which is hardly representative of the entire state), y’all is ubiquitous and used as frequently by whites and Hispanics as by blacks. A white neighbor in his sixty-five years has virtually erased you (singular and plural) from his working stockpile of second-person pronouns and replaced it with y’all or yalls in the possessive form. His usage is unselfconscious and functional. He’s not broadcasting his Texas-ness or playing to the crowd of naïve Northerners.

Crystal dates the origin of the expression to the early nineteenth century in the American South. It was probably first used by blacks, though he adds, “one strand in the history of y’all probably has an Irish origin [youse].” Little is known with certainty. He confirms the word is “a monosyllabic variant of you all, rhyming with words like call.” Occasionally, especially among blacks, I hear the word stretched and almost turned into two syllables, an effect that reminds me of a singer using melisma. Crystal has drawn up rules of usage based on observation. For instance, y’all is seldom used more than once in a sentence and almost never at the end of a sentence. And he notes that y’all is more strongly stressed than you: “it has a greater impact in a sentence.” My observations suggest the word is often used to suggest friendliness and welcome. You used alone can sound generic or neutral.

I would never use y’all. It wouldn’t sound natural and might sound patronizing. For appropriate use, listen to Louis Armstrong on “Laughin’ Louie,” a gage-fueled Bacchanalia from 1933. In Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009), Terry Teachout transcribes a pertinent portion of the dialogue:

“Y’all won’t let me play some hot riffs for you this evening, and you won’t let me sing for you, but you must listen at this beautiful number, one of them old-time good ones. Listen at this!”      


Edward Bauer said...

As an 11 year old DC native arriving in Louisville in 1970, I was blistered by my new acquaintances for saying “you guys” (among hundreds of other offenses they would continue to punish me for). Over the years “y’all” found its way into my working conversational (not written) vocabulary, to the point where now I use the two terms interchangeably and unconsciously. Of course Louisville is not really the South, and I’ve always maintained that the people there don’t have an accent; they just speak incorrectly. I plead guilty.

terryteachout said...

I say it when I'm where other people do—it comes naturally and automatically. In New York? Hardly ever.

Cal Gough said...

I cannot imagine never using the word "y'all." Born and bred in Arkansas, I doubtless heard that word first in my cradle, and heard or used it myself virtually every day since, a pattern uninterrupted by my family's having moved to Georgia when I was six years old. It's such a useful, friendly word I'd hate to give it up without some really good reason to - and, pushing 70 now, doubt that I ever will. Surely you feel enriched for knowing about "y'all," and hearing it occasionally - even if not in the habit of using it yourself in speaking or writing? (I use it in letters and emails all the time, by the way.)