The distinctive Americanism is making its way across the world and becoming an unlikely favourite catch-all term.W
What do y’all think of when you hear the term ‘y’all’?
Perhaps the twangy accent of the Southern United States? You wouldn’t be wrong – the term, a contraction of ‘you all’, is a ubiquitous part of Southern speech that extends across demographic lines. For many people, it has a certain down-home, hospitable friendliness that sounds specific to the South
In other regions of the US, ‘y’all’ has historically been far less common. Yet, in the past couple years, ‘y’all’ seems to have exploded in use, including and especially among people who live far outside the South, in places north of the Mason-Dixon Line in the US, like New York City, and even overseas.
Australian Twitter users, many of whom have started saying ‘y’all’, are being playfully chided for trying to masquerade as Americans. Forty-something CEOs in the US have traded ‘you guys’ for ‘y’all’ under the influence of their more progressive Gen Z colleagues. And LGBTQ+ advocacy groups encourage the ‘y’all means all’ mantra, arguing that the term is preferred because it includes people of all gender identities.
‘Y’all’ is fun and useful – but the way the term has gradually slipped into conversation in other English-speaking regions and countries tells us a lot about how and why certain bits of language catch on. The more widespread use of y’all also signals a shift towards more careful use of language to be more inclusive, including within the workplace.
Where y’all came from
The exact origins of the term ‘y’all’ are unclear, but linguists say it started appearing predominantly in the South-eastern United States centuries ago. People in the South still use the term on a constant basis to informally address a group; sometimes it’s tweaked to ‘all y’all’ (“I’m talking to all y’all”) or ‘y’all’s’ (“y’all’s wedding was so much fun”).
Once limited to the American South, “y’all” has made its way across the country – and the globe (Credit: Getty Images)
My mother’s family is from the South, and I lived in the region for several years while growing up, where I heard ‘y’all’ daily. The term is used across race, class, gender and location throughout the South, says Renée Blake, an associate professor of linguistics and social and cultural analysis at New York University.
But far beyond the South, the contraction is used by African Americans all over the US. Some linguists attribute the term’s spread to the way other communities have appropriated certain words and phrases in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which is part of African American Language (AAL) – historically closely linked to the US South.
Blake, who studies AAL, says AAL carries cultural capital, and is “appropriated and used across communities – not only within the United States, but across the world”. AAL has always been appropriated into modern slang and pop culture, a process that’s especially evident on social media: from ‘lit’ to ‘woke’ to ‘spill the tea’, words or phrases (what linguists call ‘lexical items’) have been co-opted from spaces like black Twitter, and gone mainstream into other communities.
‘Y’all’ could be yet another example.
Heather Bonikowski, a linguist and lexicographer for Dictionary.com, who’s worked on the entry for ‘y’all’ in the site’s database, concurs. “The uptake of AAVE in the general population can’t be ignored here,” she says, emphasising that its role in the use and rise of ‘y’all’ is “absolutely important”.
Bonikowski says that the spread of ‘y’all’ outside the South has been in the works for decades. But there’s another reason why we could soon be hearing the phrase more in places far removed from Texas or Alabama: the idea that the language we use should be more inclusive. Social media has fuelled that discussion – as well as greater use of ‘y’all’ that transcends geographical borders.
‘Y’all’ is rapidly emerging as a non-gendered alternative to other types of addresses, such as ‘you guys’
English doesn’t have a formalised second-person plural pronoun: a word used to describe a group of people you’re talking to. Speakers use phrases like ‘you lot’, ‘you all’, ‘folks’, but the one that’s most embedded in daily life is ‘you guys’.
‘You guys’ is what linguists call ‘highly productive’, meaning it’s used by an extremely large group of people, all the time, everywhere. “I’ll hear my students say ‘you guys’ all the time,” says Blake, including “young women saying it to young women”. ‘You guys’ is so deeply ingrained in English that Blake describes it as “below the level of consciousness”; we use it so freely and often that we don’t even think about the fact that we’re using it.
Yet the problematic nature of ‘you guys’ has been examined around the Anglosphere, particularly its use in the workplace. The issue is that ‘you guys’ positions men as the default, and can exclude everyone else. A more formal option is ‘ladies and gentlemen’, but this excludes the non-binary and transgender community. In fact, British Airlines, Japan Airlines and Lufthansahave all dropped the term in favour of ‘everyone’ or ‘attention all passengers’.
‘Y’all’ is rapidly emerging as a non-gendered alternative; Blake says its spread is “going hand-in-hand with thinking about gender in really deep and complicated ways”.
Shige Sakurai, acting director of the LGBTQ+ Equity Center at the University of Maryland, US, says words matter “because they imply who can have power, who is allowed at the table and who is erased by our language”. They say there are many things we can do to make our language more inclusive and empowering. “Avoiding gender assumptions is just one way that we do that, and the use of ‘y’all’ is a perfectly valid approach.”
Some experts believe the use of “y’all” in both social and workplace settings shows positive momentum towards greater inclusion (Credit: Getty Images)
Bonikowski finds it interesting this evolution appears to be from the ground up. A top-down change in linguistics might be when a respected style guide announces a change: for example, recommending news organisations use ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman’. But ‘y’all’s’ ascent seems to be the reverse, starting from the speakers themselves and gaining traction on social media. “This grassroots acceptance of this is filtered into general public awareness,” says Bonikowski.
Regan Gross, HR knowledge advisor at the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), says discussion around ‘y’all’ shows positive momentum towards greater inclusion. “The fact that this is a topic shows that we are taking a pause and considering our words, how they affect people that may or may not think the way we do.”
The future of y’all
Gross says in terms of formality, it’s important to keep your audience is mind – you might not want to say ‘y’all’ to your board members in a quarterly meeting, just as ‘you guys’ implies a strong sense of casualness, too. But she believes there are ways to be both respectful and inclusive. “Adapting to the situation and knowing what words to choose, and when, has become a greater responsibility.”
Bonikowski says we choose our words as a way of showing parts of our identity. Using ‘y’all’ can signal to others your identity as an American Southerner, or it can signal your desire to be informal and warm to the person you’re addressing. But she says a third possibility has now emerged: “to show that you have a progressive identity – that you are making this mindful choice for inclusive language”.
“There’s this job that ‘you guys’ and ‘y’all’ are both competing to do,” says Bonikowski, “and I think ‘y’all’ is coming out on top.”