LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION
Y’all: the Most Inclusive of All Pronouns
The South’s default collective form of address is the best of the American vernacular.
By Maud Newton
Oct. 18, 2022
Growing up in Miami, I dreaded being told that I sounded like a hick. In my teens, a boyfriend pointed out that I tended to say “sow” (as in the female pig) in place of “saw.” But most verbal indicators of my Texas roots fell away in nursery school, after my family moved from Dallas and I took to using the word “toilet” rather than “commode.” The way I began to say “pie” flummoxed my parents. It sounded, to their ears, like “poi.” When my mom joked that I was becoming a Yankee, my father scolded her and taught me “Dixieland.”
Raised in the Mississippi Delta, he was an ardent believer in the Old South who glorified our antebellum ancestors and published letters in Southern newspapers denouncing politicians as scalawags. My father defended slavery, demanded the subservience of women and adhered to “spare the rod and spoil the child.” (When contacted by this magazine, my father broadly disputed my memories of him.) He mostly ignored the changes in my speech, but one thing I said made him clench with fury: “you guys.” The term was “y’all,” he said, tightening his jaw. Little girls were not guys.
I recall having this conversation a couple of times as I moved through kindergarten and into elementary school. But every kid I met in Miami said “you guys.” And so, outside my father’s hearing, I carried on as before. He spanked me once when he overheard me saying it to a couple of playmates, both girls. The belt didn’t make me like “y’all” any better. On the one hand, I associated the South’s default collective form of address with my Texan granny, who was warm and fun and full of working-class sass. Conversely, “y’all” also seemed to reek of forced cheer and hidden demands that I associated with my father. It was tangled up with his tiresome rules about gender, the same rules that told me I wasn’t allowed to play with Matchbox cars, read “The Hardy Boys” or wear tube socks. It conjured his nostalgia for the Delta of the Jim Crow era, with its poll taxes and whites-only schools. I was at most a Southerner one step removed, and unwilling to claim even that. As I grew older, when Southern family and friends teased me and called me a Yankee, I agreed with relief.
Though a Southern term, it’s emblematic of the messiness and heterogeneity of American English — a language both inspiringly polyglot and marked by an ugly history.
My assumptions about “y’all” were muddled at best. Its origins are mysterious: While the term could have originated with Scottish-Irish immigrants, there are reasons to suspect it derives at least in part from the vernacular of enslaved Black people, whose influence on Southern speech is undeniable but difficult to trace. Though a Southern term, it’s emblematic of the messiness and heterogeneity of American English — a language both inspiringly polyglot and marked by an ugly history.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that. My resistance to “y’all” began to fade only in my mid-20s, when I lived in Tallahassee after law school. My apartment was 17 miles from Florida’s border with Georgia, and I practiced law alongside men who took offense when, after a full day opposing them in depositions, I declined their offers to carry my briefcase. My last name was hyphenated, too: a true “you’re not from around here” demerit. But in grocery stores and coffee shops, on the street and in the library, everyone — Black and white, queer and straight, working-class and wealthy — used “y’all,” and soon I did, too. I began to enjoy its warmth and inclusivity, the way everyone was equally gathered under its umbrella. I had to admit: It didn’t feel sexist, racist or classist. It felt friendly and — most of the time — genuine.
When eventually I moved to Brooklyn, I was relieved to live in a place where no one tried to carry my bag at the end of a workday, and the Civil War monuments I passed honored the Union rather than the Confederacy. I reverted to the “you guys” of my youth, conforming to dominant New Yawker ways, but it wasn’t the satisfying linguistic homecoming I’d expected. It felt a little brusque, and though it was a betrayal of my 8-year-old self, I had to admit: I didn’t identify as a guy.
Living in the city, meanwhile, upended all my conceptions about what my ancestors’ preferred collective form of address meant. Far from being a niche Southern phrase, it already had a home here. I might not hear it much in the Brooklyn neighborhoods where I’ve lived — Williamsburg, Greenpoint, then Kensington — but it resounded in Bed-Stuy shops, a favorite Ft. Greene barbecue spot (R.I.P.), a street between City College and the A train. “Y’all” had come north in the Great Migration, alongside collards and cornbread. Now it has spread not just to states above the Mason-Dixon line but as far as Australia and near as my current home in Queens. Far from the oppressive ethos I once imagined, “y’all” represents the best of American vernacular.
And so, on a bitterly cold night at my local dog run with some friends, I worked up the nerve to say it. As the word left my mouth, I worried I sounded like a caricature of the South, one I’ve discovered lives in my own head just as it does the heads of Northerners. But my friends took it in stride. True, they haven’t started using “y’all” yet, but I’ll keep evangelizing for this idiom that welcomes anyone who finds a home in it.
Maud Newton is a writer whose first book is “Ancestor Trouble” (Random House, 2022).