'Y'all' Isn't Just for Southerners Anymore

By: Carrie Tatro  | 
In Spartanburg, South Carolina, they call this the "y'all wall." Matthew/Flickr

"Y'all" is as ubiquitous in the American South as boiled peanuts, college football and kudzu climbing the hillsides. If it were possible to hold a giant microphone over the entire region right this minute, y'all would probably be drowning out all the other words. It's as Southern as grits, and glides out of your mouth as smooth and sweet as soft butter on a warm biscuit. An impartial little one-syllable word, y'all doesn't lose any sleep over race, class, gender or locale, because y'all is one hundred percent inclusive. Y'all means all, y'all.

So, is it any wonder that y'all is rapidly making the scene as a better way to say "you guys" in all kinds of places and spaces north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as abroad? Could this humble contraction turn out to be the efficient, consistently used, second-person plural pronoun the English lexicon has long been waiting for?


Weirdly, English, unlike other languages, does not have a second-person plural pronoun — a word that's used to address a group of people you're talking to. Back in the day, "ye" sufficed. But seriously y'all: "Come on 'ye' — let's eat before the collards and cornbread get cold?" It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

What English leaves us with then, beyond the anachronistic "ye," is the second-person singular pronoun, "you" — which, mind you, can work in the plural when used in phrases like, "you guys," and "youse," in America, "you lot," for the Brits and "allyuh" in Caribbean Creole.

And then there's the pretty little word we're here to talk about: "y'all."


The Use of the Masculine "You Guys"

"Y'all has a long and very interesting history," says linguist Paul E. Reed, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in the department of communicative disorders at the University of Alabama, in an email.

"Y'all is a contraction of 'you' and 'all' and has served as a marker of second person plural. Most English varieties have some word or phrase to mark this, since the collapse of the singular and plural second persons (the archaic was 'thou' and was singular, 'you' was plural)," Reed continues. "In some parts of the South, we have 'you'uns,' Pittsburgh has their version of this with 'yinz,' other Northeastern cities have 'youse,' and lots of places have 'you guys.'"


For a long time now, "you guys" has been the dominant turn of phrase in most places when addressing two or more people. No shaming here, but "you guys" is forged in the masculine, so when we say "you guys" to a diverse group of 21st century humans, it leaves some women, trans and non-binary people looking over their shoulders wondering if or why you're talking to them.

Thanks to conversations surrounding gender issues in feminism and trans-activism on social media, y'all has pulled itself up by its wee Southern bootstraps and moseyed its way across America and around the globe as far as Australia, where Australian Twitter users are being teased (in a good way) for starting to say y'all. CEOs in the U.S. are following the example of their Gen Z co-workers and beginning to swap "you guys" for "y'all." And LGBTQ+ advocacy groups embrace and model the mantra of "y'all means all," maintaining that "y'all" is preferred because it is inclusive of all gender identities.

A protestor wears a "Y'all Means All" button from the Southern Poverty Law Center during the Interfaith Rally for Muslims and Refugees at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Feb. 4, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images


The History of Y'all

So where did this consciousness-raising, jewel-of-a-word that's easy to use and flat-out fun to say come from? Did it originate in the American South or land there from somewhere else? Turns out the exact origins of y'all are a tad hard to pin down.

"Some of the earliest attestations of y'all come from English poetry in the 18th century and there are some possible attestations in the 17th century. It doesn't appear very common, and it could have reflected certain usages and was available also to fit the poetic meter," Reed explains. "There is about a century of distance between the English attestations and the first American attestations, in the 1820s. In the U.S. it was primarily a Southern U.S. usage. Some have theorized that it had English 'you all' origin, and also was supported by the Scots-Irish term 'ye aw,' which basically means the same thing, 'you all.'"


Y'all Moves Into the Mainstream

Many linguists agree that y'all's current ascent and acceptance is fruit borne of the grassroots dialogue that has taken y'all from the Twittersphere into the mainstream. Linguists also agree that y'all has been around for a long time (and often disparaged, truth be told), making its way to regions beyond the South via old-school country music, country rap, hip hop and R&B, spreading from the ground up for decades.

"The current embracing has emerged from a desire to use non-gendered and inclusive language.... since 'you guys' literally started out to mean only a group of men. Even though many folks don't use it in a gendered way, many people want to use a term that is non-gendered in any way," says Reed.


"Y'all already had fairly wide usage and was there to spread," he says. "Depending on how you define the South, you're talking about tens of millions of users across about roughly 15 states, as well as folks from the South who moved, and the Great Migrations (African Americans and Appalachians) which took Southern language practices to many other places. So, y'all was known. Further, the South and its language practices are often considered friendly and polite. And, you can make slogans like ' Y'all Means All.'"

This friendly reminder to come on back stands outside the State Farmer's Market restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr