Hey, you guys!

Below follows Cristina Cumpanasoiu’s second blogpost:

Having originated in the U.S., the earliest instance of the noun guy in the sense of “man, fellow” according to the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to 1847 when Lord Chief Baron in Swell’s Night Guide said “I can’t tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy”. Since the nineteenth century the use of this simple word, more specifically its plural form guys, has developed to such extent its original meaning broadened but also came to be bleached, including women as referents as well.

Source: allhabs.net

I feel I should start by confessing that I don’t consider myself a feminist, but the word caught my attention when, in the beginning of their presentation, one of my fellow students greeted the audience by “Hi, guys!” although there were eight women and only three men in class. Nobody reacted to that and I doubt anyone would have expected a reaction. Why would they? Apparently, the vocative guys used for addressing groups of men, women or mixed ones, is spreading throughout British English as well. )

source: CUP website

According to the rules found in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, the user can to refer to both genders when using the plural: “The archetypal guy is male, but the plural guys can include both sexes, as often in the vocative form you guys.”(2004:237)

Now, this apparently simple, word can be used for instance to ask a group of female friends: “How are you, guys?” but never to compliment one female friend by saying: “Jennifer, you’re such a good looking guy!” I mean, nobody would think that if addressed as a “guy”, a girl would feel comfortable, to put it mildly.

In the same way, while everybody is used to addressing questions in the second person plural using guys, as in “How are you, guys?”, no one seems to use guy for the singular: “How are you, guy?”, even if the people involved are both men.

Now let’s stop for a moment and think what would have been our reaction if my fellow student instead of greeting the whole group with “Hi, guys!” would have said “Hi, girls!”. I bet some of us would have felt offended or at least amused … probably the guys, I mean, the men. So why is girls still gender-specific when guys is not? Is it because masculinity in general rejects any association with female-like features and as a result most of the generic words are male? Or is it because women are so keen in showing their equality to men? Whatever the answer may be, the vocative guys used for all gender, is nowadays creating controversy as it is spreading out to all the varieties of spoken English.

How about you? Have you ever stopped to wonder about you guys now being a new typeof  plural pronoun in English or are you so used to hearing and saying it that now it is part of your daily speech routine?

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7 Responses to Hey, you guys!

  1. Emily says:

    Is ‘girl’ really gender specific? I know gay men who often say ‘hey girl’ to each other. I think that in the future ‘you girls’ will be used together with ‘you guys.’ Sexist language can sometimes be easily avoided by adding a female form or a gender neutral form.Vocative forms seem to be rather productive nowadays. On Twitter you can find forms such as ‘you idiots’ and ‘you perverts.’ So why not use ‘you girls’ or gender neutral ‘you all’, right?

    • I think that girl is still strongly gender specific and will be even less acceptable with a mixed-sex group than you guys is. The use of you refer to is highly marked and only felicitously available for specific social groups — which you already mention — and in specific social encounters.

  2. It’s a good question, and I think that it’s true that generally speaking, masculinity doesn’t really accept feminine features, while it’s more accepted the other way around. And the term ‘guys’ is not an exception, as shown in the article By the Seat of Your Pants on the website of A Way With Words, which I posted on our Bridging the Unbridgeable facebook page a few weeks ago, Among other things, it discusses girls’ use of ‘dude’ amongst each other, even in the singular.

  3. Cornelio says:

    English is not unique in using a “male” word to address (not describe!) a mixed group (or even a female-only group). Dutch has “jongens” (boys) for this situation and Italian “ragazzi” (also boys).

  4. Yes, it seems that the plural you no longer has the strength to stand alone in English. I have a theory that this has something to do with the fact that we have an increasing number of L2 English speakers in L1 English environments and so speakers add a ‘clarifier’, such as ‘guys’ or ‘all’ when utilizing the plural you, just to make sure that everyone understands who is being referred to.
    I agree with Ingrid on the gender point – I feel like it’s sexist to refer to a mixed-gender group of people as ‘you guys’. Whether it’s done with sexist intention or not, it speaks volumes about the ways in which we linguistically accommodate the societal taboo that female qualities should never be attributed to males. I make a point of ‘you’ PL where the context makes its meaning clear, and resort to the gender neutral ‘y’all’ where additional clarity is required.
    As a footnote – in South Africa we do have a particular social sub-group who use the word ‘guy’ in its singular form, between two or more men, in a very colloquial way. E.g. ‘Howzit, guy’ or ‘Hey, guy’. It is acceptable for women to greet their male friends in this way too. The pronunciation of the PRICE vowel here typically has strong Canadian Raising.

    • Thanks, Christine!! (The credit for the post should go to Cristina, though!)

    • The problem with you all is that although it’s gender neutral, it is not a neutral term of address in other respects. It’s a form that carries fairly strong social stigma in many of the standard varieties of English. The best known example is the form y’all in American English, which marks the user as being from the South, with including associations of uneducatedness.

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