Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The plural you

There are, believe it or not, languages where pronouns vary only for person but not number, such that I and we are the same word, he, she, and they are the same word, and as such, singular and plural you are the same word. For some reason this tends to be in Indonesia and New Guinea. But for it to be this way only with the second person? Odd, and, again, illogical, inconsistent, unpretty.
John McWhorther, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Back in the 1980s I served on a committee charged with finding an associate pastor for our church. Our choice was a lovely young woman with degrees from Swarthmore and Harvard Divinity School. One thing that puzzled me about Connie was her frequent use of the phrase "you all." She did not speak with a drawl, yet this phrase still made her sound as though she were raised in Georgia, not eastern Pennsylvania.

Connie came to mind after reading John McWhorter's comments quoted above. Was she, like so many other English speakers, simply uncomfortable with using the pronoun you as a plural? The word sounds to our ears like it refers to just one person, not two or more. The plural you is, as McWhorter puts it,illogical, inconsistent and unpretty. So many of us find alternatives.

In the South, you all or y'all is favored. Elsewhere in the country, you guys serves the same purpose, but without the charm. In Florida this winter I heard you guys much more than y'all. This could be because so many people in Florida are transplanted from elsewhere, but it could also mean that you guys is spreading. Even older women, who once hated to be referred to as you guys, now use the term themselves.

You might also hear you lot (common in Britain), you-uns, yinz (Pittsburgh area) or youse or youse guys.

We all tend to repeat the language we hear everyday, but I do hope Connie, who last I heard was serving a church in Virginia, is still saying you all, not you guys.

No comments:

Post a Comment