Youse, Y’All, and Other Confusions of Modern English 142 Comments
Liz fidgeted, then leaned forward, eyes wide-open, “But the worst—the worst—is that I find myself saying things like ‘how are you guys doing?’. ‘You guys’! It makes me sick to my stomach.”
My roommate on Claddaugh Key was Irish down to her last Guinness-drinking bone.
Alas, sitting along the harbor among the swan flocks in Galway, she was still shaking off the after-effects of a year of study in the US. More than the big cars and big people, it had been the word “guys” that drove her nuts, and now she couldn’t stop it from rolling off her tongue. She had become a counterfeit Yank.
“So what do you say then?”
“Oh, that’s much better.”
Beauty may be in the ear of the listener, but “you” in the plural (second person plural for you linguists) just ain’t as simple as it should be in English, particularly in the US. That is, except in the South.
“You all” or, more commonly, “y’all” is neat, clean, and logical. It is similar to Japanese, in which you simply tag a plural indicator after “you” (anata) to make it y’all (anata-tachi), just as “I” (watashi) becomes “we” (watashi-tachi). Chinese is the same (ni –> ni-men, wo –> wo-men). Once again, it’s the Nor-Easters who are setting the standards and causing problems. If you’re north of the Mason-Dixon, “y’all” just doesn’t work.
Grammar books brilliantly solve this problem by ignoring it: “you” is both singular and plural in English, plain and simple. If only it were that simple! Gotta love those academics.
What about just adding an “s” and calling it a day?
At least formally, Spanish-speakers worldwide can agree that usted becomes ustedes—end of story. Unfortunately, outside of the poetic vernacular of the Sopranos, “youse” remains an outcast. Even with the support of colloquial Kiwis, I doubt “youse” is a serious contender for replacing “you guys”, and “youse guys” is a bastard child we should keep locked under the stairs.
Maybe it’s time for us to return to our roots and learn a thing or two. After all, German is basically Old English with a funny accent, right? This is surprisingly true, but the retrofit doesn’t quite work; they have Du (informal) and Sie (formal) for “you” but a separate word entirely for “y’all”: Ihr. Alas, the perfect solution “ye” of “Hear ye!, Hear ye!” fell out of fashion in English a few hundred years ago.
What is a Yank to do? I propose imitating the Indonesians. That’s right. Talking to your girlfriends in Jakarta, it’s as easy as making ibu (you) ibu-ibu (y’all). Hanging with the fellas in Bali? Bapak becomes bapak-bapak. So, “how are you guys?” evolves into the elegant “how are you-you?”
[Postscript: Some commenters have noted that "anda" could and perhaps should be used in place of the above pronouns in Indonesian]
Much to the chagrin of my Irish roommate, “you guys” seems to be gaining momentum, not losing it. The Brits and Canucks are of no help here. Based on my extensive studies (sample size of two), both countries are already infected with usage of “you guys”.
You can only watch so much Baywatch and Simpsons before throwing in the towel, I suppose.
Posted on April 16th, 2008