What’s “y’all” got to do with “thee” and “thou”?

  • In my morning routine, in the hustle and bustle of getting myself to work, it hit me, y’all… In linguistics, basically, language/words/parts of speech are a function of human behavior. When our language is limited, we bend the rules to get around it. For example, there’s no pronoun that includes he/she in one word, so the great debate ensues, should we use “they,” alternate between he/she, use “she” only? Our language doesn’t fit the function. It occurred to me that “y’all” is another way we get around what our language can’t do to get what we want. And, it seems to me, it all leads back to “thee” and “thou.” Many languages distinguish between “you” singular and “you” plural … French has “tu” and “vous,” German has “Du” and “Ihr,” and in these cases, for example, the formal (vous) = plural (vous). English, in its democratizing, pragmatic way (direct, to the point), when it got rid of the formal (Thee and thou), at the same time, it got rid of our “you” plural; this left us with ambiguity, which, it seems, some of us have a problem with. We’d like to distinguish whether we’re inviting just one (you) or a whole crowd (you) to dinner! So some opt for “y’all.” And so language changes and evolves — all to fit the function for which it exists.