Erase the stigma, y’all: Seeking equality through the second person plural

By McKenna Middleton | Opinion Editor

Although I’ve lived in Texas for the past three years, I still consider myself to be a true Californian, an Angelino to be precise. I eat In-n-Out, use expressions like “stoked on it” and consider my biggest demon to be rush hour road rage. While I embrace my hometown culture in almost every way, there is one aspect of Texas that I adopted immediately: saying “y’all.”

Like most non-Southerners, I was initially skeptical about wielding this loaded phrase. I had always considered “y’all” to offer nothing but a grammatical indication of regional identity, similar to the word “howdy.” And, while I’m still convinced this conclusion is a valid interpretation of “howdy,” I have come to incorporate “y’all” into my daily vocabulary.

The first time I realized I had fully converted into a user of “y’all” was over Christmas break during my freshman year at Baylor. I was at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, and I needed to use the bathroom, but it seemed to require a code. So I walked over to the counter and asked the barista, “What’s y’all’s bathroom code?” Rather than simply completing this interaction by relaying the code to me, he proceeded to ask me where I was from. I responded, “I’m from here.” The barista made a confused face and recited the code. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that using “y’all” would make someone question my regional identity.

The Californian alternative to this phrase is “you guys.” Where “y’all” has a simple way of turning into a possessive (Is this y’all’s car?), the West Coast version of the second person plural possessive is much more complicated (Is this your guyses’ car?). Needless to say, one reason for allowing “y’all” to steep into to my otherwise Los Angelino diction is utility. Saying “y’all” simply gets the point across more quickly.

Modern standard English offers no simple solution to this dilemma of referring to a second person plural. Some opt to follow the rules I once did by saying “you guys” to speak directly to a group of two or more people. Some attempt to re-purpose “you,” twisting it to refer to either one person directly or a group, leaving the plurality of the word to depend on context. And still others, usually those who practice Southern English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE), say “y’all.”

Vann R. NewKirk II of the Atlantic explains that in old English, such as in the King James Bible, “ye” once served this purpose such as “Ye are the light of the world.” But utilizing this word is sure to produce some strange looks from your audience, unless they’re from the 1600s. Newkirk attributes the loss of this useful two-letter word to the influence of French on the English language.

As a fluent Spanish speaker, I find this confusion about the second person plural particularly annoying. In other languages like Spanish and even German, the word used to address an individual is clearly distinguished from the word used to address a group.

But additionally, as a Spanish speaker, I usually take refuge in the fact that English is a non-gendered language. In Spanish, the second person plural is inherently gendered: “vosotros” refers to a group of males or a coed group while “vosotras” refers to a group of females or a mostly female group. Therein lies a similar issue with saying “you guys” over “y’all.” Using the masculine “guys” to apply to groups that don’t contain all male-identifying individuals is incredibly archaic. “You guys” operates under the same principles as saying “he” to mean an anonymous, no gender-specific individual. In this way, it suggests that what is male is the universal and what is female is the particular. Words like “ladies” or “girls” are often used to address all-female-identifying groups, but what about co-ed groups? Or groups of women who don’t see themselves as “guys,” “ladies,” or “girls,” but rather people? Or even groups that include non-binary individuals?

In the realm of the singular, using “you” by itself eliminates any need for gendered connotations. But in the plural, only “y’all” adequately resolves these issues of gender inclusivity.

Looking back on it now, I find it hard to justify my long-time resistance to embracing “y’all.” It’s more economical, grammatically logical and gender inclusive. But, unfortunately, I had fallen victim to accepting and perpetuating the stigmatization of the word. Why does “y’all” have a bad reputation, anyway? The answer is regional and racial bias against Southern accents and AAVE. Just as movies and media often use foreign accents to indicate a villain, southern accents and the use of “y’all” have been used to signify someone with lesser intelligence. Although most may not realize their regional and racial prejudice against southern accents and AAVE, many who speak a different dialect of English subconsciously accept these harmful stereotypes.

A wider acceptance of “y’all” would work to eliminate the sexist implications of “you guys” as well as the regionalist and racist implications of “y’all” itself. So, I invite y’all, whatever yall’s gender, racial or regional identity, to completely embrace this second person plural.

McKenna is a senior journalism and Spanish major from Glendale, Calif.