Okay, you guys, I’ve got a little more written… are you ready? —Joey Tribbiani (Friends)
To me it seems as if plural you is a little bit lost these days. Sitcoms and television series such as Friends, The Big Bang Theory, South Park and True Blood address multiple persons with plural second-person pronoun forms such as you guys or y‘all. On social media I more than often come across sentences such as “how are you guys doing?”. Although as a linguist I know why these forms exist, I must admit that these new plurals forms are one of my pet peeves. This pet peeve inspired my study to what extent regional plural forms have taken over the place of plural you in daily speech and which regional plural is the favourite among its users. Although I just mentioned television series as examples where these forms often occur, for my study I used Twitter because often we tweet the way we talk (Zayner 2014).
In the course of the history of the English language you, which originated as a plural pronoun, came to be used as a singular form as well as a plural form. With the rise of this all-purpose you, the number contrast in the second-person pronoun system was lost, making the pronoun you sometimes quite ambiguous. Different varieties of English tried to remedy the perceived gap in the pronoun system by introducing new plural forms, such as you all and y‘all (Americanisms), yous(e), you-uns, you lot and many other forms (my favourite among these is alls y‘alls as it is over the top pluralised).
The results of my study showed that these regional plural forms occurred almost as often as plural you. Often you was ambiguous in the results, i.e. it was not clear from the context whether the Tweets were addressed to one or multiple persons. Especially on Twitter where there is a lack of face-to-face communication people might feel the need to specify the number of persons they are addressing and therefore use regional plurals more often. From the regional forms, you guys and y’all were the most popular. Not necessarily surprising as we are quite often exposed to these forms through television. It is also a feature that is often in used in colloquial speech, for example ten years ago you all or y’all occurred “around 50 times per million words in British conversation, and 150 times per million words in American conversation” (Biber et al. 2004:330). What was surprising was that the results showed a preference towards the use of you all/y’all. I expected the preferred regional plural to be you guys instead of you all.
These regional pronouns are on the rise and seem to be contenders for a new plural-singular distinction. But which form will win? There are downsides to both forms. You guys, as Cristina Cumpanasoiu mentioned in her blog post on the pronoun, has the obvious disadvantage that it could be perceived as referring to males exclusively, even though you guys seems to be semantically bleached in the eyes of its users as it is often used to address an audience that largely exists of women as well.
The pronoun you all (y’all) is frequently associated with Southern American speech. This form as it is regionally marked can be felt to be socially stigmatised, associated with Texas or with ignorant, simple people. It is nowadays often used outside Southern American regions.
Both forms seem to be gaining momentum. I think that y’all is neat and short without implications to gender, so it would potentially be a useful new feature to make the singular-plural distinction. Only time will tell if these new, alternative plural forms of the second-person pronoun will have the sanction of dictionaries, grammars and usage guides and will be credited as actual pronouns.
So, what do all y’all use in your daily routine? Do you prefer to be addressed as part of an audience with either y’all or you guys or just with you? And will these forms eventually be adopted in the Standard English pronoun paradigm?
When we were living in Cambridge during my sabbatical three years ago, we were constantly addressed when walking into town with: Would you guys like to go punting today? I got terribly annoyed by this as it happened every day, and tried to find ways to seem more native, less like a tourist. (Not wearing an overcoat and carrying a regular bag instead of a mini-rucksack did the trick!) But really what annoyed me most was being addressed as “you guys”: I’m not a guy, and also, I’m not one of them, not one of their mates. But it is also the way our American neighbour addresses us at home: How are you guys doing? She doesn’t mean to be offensive at all, Sometimes I feel it is a kind of avoidance strategy, I don’t she has ever addressed us by our first names.