Adrian has started hearing it from white folks in Denver, and he’s always taken aback when he learns they aren’t from the South. David used to tease his teenage daughter for saying it, and what do you know? All her white Angeleno friends say it, too. Kristine’s Northern friends are actively trying to say it more but sometimes have trouble with the pronunciation. Somehow, complained a South Carolina college newspaper two years ago, “it’s gone from a redneck pronoun” to a nationwide “form of addressing a group of people.”
Do Yankees say y’all now?
Some do, apparently, though you guys is still far and away the plural-you of choice. Redditors from Northern California, Wyoming, Ohio and central Massachusetts insist y’all is growing in popularity. If you search through tweets geotagged within five miles of Laguna Beach, you’ll find a lot of SoCal youths pulling a Foghorn Leghorn as well. Same thing if you peep tweets from Madison, Wisconsin.
You get the idea: Y’all is coming into more common usage among white people outside the South. But why is that? And do they use y’all the same way African Americans and white Southerners do?
Before we tackle those questions, it helps to understand why the word y’all exists in the first place. And really, in order to do that, we first need to talk about the Almighty God’s preferred pronouns: thee and thou.
Standard English used to have two sets of second-person pronouns, one singular and one plural. Ye and you were actually plural pronouns (the equivalent of y’all today), while thou and thee were singular. If you said you, people assumed you meant more than one person.
What happened? Well, people began using ye and you not only as plural pronouns but also as formal singular pronouns. If you were addressing a bishop, a duke or a merchant, you might address them as ye and you, as if they were so important they might as well be more than one person. (Think of the royal we, same basic premise.) The usage of ye and you kept expanding, and folks would toggle between ye/you and thou/thee depending on who they were talking to. Eventually the similar-sounding you and ye merged into one word, and thee and thou died out altogether. This leaves us with the ironic result that, since thou is archaic, people assume it’s super-formal, when it actually used to be the word you’d use when hanging with the buds, and you was the super-formal word.