The Texas Ya’ll

Mysti pointed me to How to Tell if you’re a Texan, which, in addition to the entertaining list, had an invaluable insight into the proper use of “ya’ll”. This is the best primer I have ever seen on interpreting this subtle idiom.

It’s actually considerably more complicated than that. At the highest register, such as in writing or in formal speeches, neither y’all nor its possessive form y’all’s can be used, and you and your must be used for both singular and plural readings. At the next register down, generally used in everyday speech with business associates or in public places, the distinction between you (sg.) and y’all is maintained, but the possessive must be your in both the singular and the plural. At the lowest level, used among friends and family, y’all and y’all’s are both the rule for plural forms, while you and your are used for the singular. Any of these forms is of course available in any context, but their rhetorical effects may differ. For instance, the use of a more formal you (when meant plurally) will introduce social distance between the speech participants and probably a note of seriousness or sobriety, whereas the use of y’all (or indeed y’all’s) will add a colloquial, more emotionally warm feeling to the discourse. Note too that the set of speech-act participants included in y’all need not always be physically present, and this has become grammaticalized in the circumstance of speaking to a representative of a group (such as a waiter in a restaurant) as long as the person being spoken to is acting in his or her function as a representative of the larger group. Thus, claims of a so-called singular y’all ought to be looked on with caution and skepticism, as they are generally made by speakers for whom y’all is not native and who thus are not aware of this peculiarity of its usage. Also, all of the above applies for purely for y’all as used in subject of the sentence, though there is a discernible tendency for the distinction between you and y’all to be lost when used as direct object or as an object of a preposition; where exactly the distinction is lost varies greatly according to dialect and idiolect.

Now that is a piece of beauty.

One Comment

  1. Tom Wier says:

    Noticed you linked to my page, just thought I’d drop in a say hi… thanks for the compliment about the use of [y’all]. When I’ve met people from other parts of the South who use [y’all], I find their usage is very similar in most respects, so it’s probably not particular to Texas.