Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

Letter to the Editor: Getting Y’all Right

By Mark West

August 12, 2019

According to an article that recently appeared in The Charlotte Observer, 44,500 people moved to the Charlotte region between 2017 and 2018, making Charlotte the 16th biggest city in the United States. When I read this article, I flashed back to my arrival in Charlotte in the summer of 1984. Like many of the recent arrivals to the Charlotte region, I was a transplant from another part of the country. In my case, I arrived from Kansas. Before that I had lived in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Vermont and my native state of Colorado. I have now lived in North Carolina for the majority of my life, but I still remember what it was like to move to the South for the first time.

Mark I. West

The experience of moving to the Charlotte region from other parts of the country often involves adjusting to different speech patterns and language usage. Perhaps the most notable example involves the pronoun y’all. I am pretty sure that there is no word that is more associated with the South than y’all. For me, a quintessential Southern sentence is, “Y’all come back.” It is the word y’all that makes this sentence resonate. It communicates a sense of inclusiveness and warmth that we associate with southern hospitality.

Before I moved to Charlotte, I had assumed that y’all was just a Southern way of saying you, but I eventually learned the error of my ways. I ended up marrying a native Southerner, and she was the one who first explained to me that y’all and you are not exactly interchangeable words. 

I am the chair of the English Department at UNC Charlotte, and the linguists in my department would say that y’all is a plural second-person pronoun. It is a contraction for the words you all. Essentially, y’all refers to you and the people affiliated with you, such as your family, or it refers to the members of a group. For most native southerners, y’all is not be used when referring to an individual. 

The word y’all came into use in the American South in the early 19th century, and it can be seen as a response to a deficiency in the English language. Other languages have separate words for the singular second-person pronoun and the plural second-person pronoun, but standard modern English does not. Southerners are not the only ones to address this deficiency in the English language. In parts of the northeast, for example, some people use the phrase yous guys in the same way that southerners use y’all.

Many transplants also have problems when they attempt to write y’all. They are pretty sure that they are supposed to use an apostrophe, but often they are not sure where the apostrophe is supposed to go. As a result, they often write it as ya’ll, but this isn’t right. Y’all is a contraction for you all. Since the letters o and u are being dropped from the word you, the apostrophe is used to replace the dropped letters. 

To the many thousands of people who have recently moved to the Charlotte region, I extend my welcome. Although I am not a native Southerner, I now think of Charlotte as my home city. For me, part of feeling at home in the South is embracing the word y’all. Just make sure when using the term y’all that y’all get it right.

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