In Appreciation of “Y’all”


One of the great things about being a writer–or a student of language–is that we tend to develop an appreciation for how language is used. Take “y’all,” for example.

I wasn’t born in Texas, but, as they say in Texas, “I came here as soon as I could.” When I moved to Texas, I hadn’t ever heard anyone say “y’all,” except in the movies, so when I went to a grocery store for the first time and heard a woman tell her kids, “y’all go get some cereal and meet me over by the eggs” I stared after her. Yes, people really do say “y’all” in Texas (and the rest of the South as well).

And I love it. I don’t actually use the word myself–not having grown up saying “y’all,” I don’t feel I can own the word on my lips. I feel like an imposter, someone play-acting in a cowboy movie–but I love to hear it said upon the lips of my fellow Texans.

Obviously, if you studied a language in high school, you learned that English does not have a plural form of “you.” We have no vous, no voi, no vostros or what have you.  If you want to say a plural “you,” you have to improvise, depending on where you live in an English-speaking country. I grew up saying, “all of you” but it may have been”yous” or “yous guys” or “everyone here,” or “you. Yes you and you too,” or anything along those lines.

“Y’all” is not really a Texan phrase, but a southern one. Texas also doesn’t consider itself part of the “real south” either, but that’s another post.  So, to an extent, “y’all” evokes feelings of southern hospitality, of drinking iced tea down by a lake, while friends and family mill around and children play tag, and in order to call out to everyone for a family picture, you have to say “y’all come on over here! Grandpa is fixin to take a picture!”  In my experience, “y’all” isn’t used when talking to enemies.  “Y’all” is a friendly phrase, for the most part.  It can’t help but be that way.  The way I see it, you would not tell a handful of armed people,  “y’all put down those guns.”  To use the phrase “y’all” is automatically light and friendly.  It is not meant for enemies.

“Y’all” is a contraction of “you all,” but that contraction creates an intimacy.  Whenever anyone says it, it blankets a group with belonging, whoever the group may be. A group of strangers could be standing around waiting for a shop to open, but if someone were to say, “y’all watch out for the heavy door when it opens,” and suddenly there is unity. Y’all is now one. Y’all are going to watch out for each other when that door opens. You are connected.

It can even be expanded out to larger groups.  Y’all is usually reserved for a smaller circle of people–several yous. But what if you have a larger group than that?  Well, then that’s when “all y’all” comes in. For example, pretend that you have a large group of people who need to exit a room. Then you can say, “All y’all go through the exit. Now. All y’all!” Now, everyone in the room is connected with a contraction and everyone can exit the room.

I mention all this because as writers, it is important to analyze the local language around us and appreciate it for what it is.  What local words do you have where you live? What larger messages do you draw from them?

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