While growing up in Altavista, I said y’all like just about everybody in town. But when I left Virginia, my Southern lexicon and dialect drew unwanted attention. It amused some people and intrigued others. In academic circles, some found it worthy of analysis. A linguistics professor in Michigan once put me on the spot by asking me to say pen and pin. “See?” he said to the class. “Before final n people in the South pronounce the vowels e and i the same.”
I’ve worked on the sound of e before n, but it feels like a foreign language to me. I still pronounce the e in the word hen just like the i in win—not like the e in egg. I’ve learned to shorten (a little) the long flat vowel in words like five (f-a-ah-v) and why (w-a-ah). Whether intentional or not, at some point I replaced y’all with you guys.
Y’all goes way back. David B. Parker, a professor of history at Kennesaw State University, says that it appears in poetry in England as early as 1631. (History News Network, July 5, 2015) Y’all, as used in the American South, is most likely the contracted form of English ye all, but some suggest it is a combination of an African-English creole expression and the Scots-Irish ye aw. There was a great deal of interaction between African-Americans and White Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries in the Appalachian region of the South, so it’s logical that there would be similarities in the dialects spoken. Salikoko S. Mufwene, a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, writes in Cambridge Core that “their commonalities can be explained primarily by their common, coextensive histories of over 200 years during which their speakers interacted regularly with one another.” (Sep 22, 2009)
The other day I filled in a questionnaire created by Josh Katz and Wilson Andrews of the New York Times (“How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk,” Dec 21, 2013) that claims to tell me where I’m from based on the way I speak. (Kind of like a dialect DNA test.) The questions were about pronunciation and lexicon. Do I pronounce been with the vowel in sit, see, or set? How do I pronounce the words Mary, merry, and marry? Do I say fireflies or lightning bugs? Then there was the question about the way I’d address a group of 2 or more people. Among the choices were you all, you guys, and y’all. Should I check you all and you guys, the words I’ve been using for most of my adult life? Or should I check y’all? I sort of fibbed and chose y’all. The results of the questionnaire show me as coming from the South, definitely, with the epicenter near Greensboro. (Can’t quite figure that out.)
Whatever the origins of Southern dialect, much of its vocabulary and pronunciation is spoken by both Blacks and Whites—a situation unlike that found in much of the country. I believe that the language we share and the land we love unite us in ways that would surprise non-Southerners.
Now that I’m reembracing y’all, I have the strange feeling that I’m coming out while others—younger people—are shedding their Southern dialect and adopting a sort of homogenized lingo, the result of increasing connections among people all over the world via electronic media.
As language continues to evolve, new options for pronoun and verb use are emerging—they for he or she, as in: “I’ve been texting my friend, but they’re ghosting me.” I’m afraid it’ll still be a while before I can use those forms naturally. Meanwhile, I’ll keep practicing my y’all—
Y’all come back, you hear?
Born and raised in Altavista, Virginia, Lynda Pinto-Torres, née Smith, has returned to the area after a lifetime of traveling, teaching, playing the piano, and writing. She and her husband live in the outskirts of Bedford, Virginia where she continues to work on her first novel, a work of historical fiction.