2021: Creating the Lexicon of Future
I grew up in Texas so y’all is part of my permanent lexicon, though neither of my parents were Southern. As a kid, I remember how weird it was to hear relatives in Michigan and Wisconsin using ‘you guys’ to address all of us even there were no guys present. Now, people far outside of the South are using y’all as their plural pronoun of choice.
Ultimately, the super power of y’all is that it’s inclusive, something we need at this moment in social transformation.
The History of Y’all
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.
Once you drove thee and thou to extinction, it left ambiguity in the space that had once been its sole domain — the plural second-person pronoun. It felt awkward to say you when referring to multiple people. So sure enough, new pronouns emerged to fill that role: you guys, you lot, yous or youse, you ones or you’uns or yinz, and of course, you all or y’all.
1631 saw the earliest known appearance of y’all in print, in an epic poem by William Lisle titled The Faire Æthiopian. But for more than the next two centuries it only appeared sporadically, and only in poetry. Maybe it was just a way to make you all scan right. ~ WHY IS EVERYONE SUDDENLY SAYING ‘Y’ALL’?
By the early 20th century y’all was the dominant plural-you in the South, and it quickly became a fixture in pop-culture depictions of the region.