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Wednesday, July 13, 2005


LanguageHat points us to Metafilter which has an interesting discussion of the linguistic spread of y'all beyond the southern part of the U.S. I think English speakers often (usually?) feel a need to differentiate between you-singular and you-plural, which we once had in thee and ye. Various solutions to meet the need are in active usage in different dialects of English, but not yet accepted for formal literary English. I am as much a Northerner as one can be (coming from Alaska!) but sometimes find myself using the uncontracted form, you all, in somewhat formal writing to be sure it is clear that I am addressing more than one person. I suspect I have used you all in some posts on this blog.

Language usage and attitudes toward language change and variation is one of the most interesting areas of linguistic study. It is part of some of the debate about gender-inclusive language in English Bible translation today. Language change which becomes acceptable to all elements of society takes much more time than change takes at the level of the hoi polloi. But formal change eventually occurs when some critical mass is reached when a preponderance of speakers use a new form, and, often with resistance, the change is accepted even for formal, literate English. We've seen this with a number of changes throughout the history of English, including changes in negative word orders, change from thee and ye to just you, and many other forms.

I wonder if y'all or you all will someday be acceptable to indicate second person plural in English Bible translations. (Oh, BTW, I am aware that for some Southern speakers y'all itself has shifted so that it is used for both singular and plural. We heard a native speaker of Dallas, Texas, English once greet a large church congregation by referring to them as all of y'all. It was necessary to add the all because y'all had, for him and those in his dialect, been semantically spread to include the plural as well as singular.)

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