The English language lacks a second-person plural pronoun. Whether addressing an audience of one or 1,000, “you” is the prescribed pronoun.In much of the country, “you guys” is the vernacular plural, while “youse” is heard in parts of New York and New Jersey, and “you’uns” is the predominant form in western Pennsylvania and parts of the Ohio River Valley.
In Dixie, however, “y’all” rules. With a boost from rap music, the down-home “y’all” has become increasingly hip with the hip-hop crowd. As William Ferris, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, once put it: “The spread of ‘y’all’ is sort of like the spread of kudzu.”
Like that fast-growing vine, the increasing popularity of “y’all” surprises even some professional Southerners.
“I heard Marc Anthony on the ‘Today’ show this morning use y’all,” said Georgia author Ronda Rich. “It struck me when I heard him say that.”
Indeed, when Mr. Anthony, a popular Latin music performer, appeared on the NBC morning program Tuesday and was asked about his reported marriage to Jennifer Lopez, the 36-year-old native New Yorker told host Matt Lauer: “Y’all know I don’t talk about my personal life.”
For at least two decades, “y’all” has been a signifier of street authenticity for R&B singers and rappers, appearing in the title of songs by performers such as the late Tupac Shakur. That trend has grown stronger with the success of Southern-born rappers such as the Atlanta duo Outkast, whose repertoire includes “Y’all Scared.”
The rise of “y’all” also might be boosted by the influence of Southern celebrities such as Texas psychologist Phil McGraw, Texas-born singer/actress Jessica Simpson and Mississippi native Oprah Winfrey, Ms. Rich says.
“You have people like Dr. Phil and Jessica Simpson, who are distinctive Southern drawlers. They’re two of the biggest stars on television and they speak with a Southern accent. Even Oprah will very often slip back into her Southern native tongue of Mississippi,” says Ms. Rich, author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).”
The hip-hop use of “y’all” might not bring to mind visions of moonlight and magnolias, but the attendant Southern accent is “charming,” says Birmingham, Ala., writer Deborah Ford.
“I think for the Southern woman, it’s kind of an allure. With a pretty Southern accent, I think there is a softness, obviously,” says Ms. Ford, author of “The GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) Guide to Life.”
Ms. Ford and Ms. Rich are on opposite sides of a long-running debate among Southerners: Is “y’all” singular or plural?
Says Ms. Ford: ” ‘Y’all’ is singular. ‘All y’all’ is plural. ‘All y’all’s‘ is plural possessive.”
Miss Rich counters: ” ‘Y’all’ is plural. I never use it when speaking to one person. That’s like eating a grit.”
No survey is available to determine which usage Southerners favor. Despite such disagreements, the pronoun has been borrowed for a new publication, Y’all: The Magazine of Southern People.
“I came up with the idea about 2½ years ago,” says Y’all publisher Jon Rawl, a South Carolina native. After working in Nashville in the music business for several years, Mr. Rawl says, he noticed that the largest-circulation Southern publication, Southern Living, was about “flowers, gardens and recipes.”
“There has not been a magazine about Southern people,” he says. Since its debut in November, Y’all has featured Southern celebrities, such as New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr.; Miss America Ericka Dunlap of Florida; Smyrna, Ga., native Julia Roberts; and R&B diva Beyonce Knowles from Houston.
Even as Southerners conquer everything from television to music to politics — witness the Texas Republican who occupies the White House after narrowly defeating the Tennessee Democrat who was vice president to an Arkansas Democrat — some say the South itself is becoming less Southern.
Wayne Claeren, a Pennsylvania native who has taught drama at Alabama’s Jacksonville State University for 29 years, recalls he once had difficulty teaching young actors to speak without the local drawl.
That is less true today, the professor says, “largely because the culture is changing. For one thing, people move around more, which means that, from the earlier ages, people are hearing different kinds of accents.”
“The result is all the accents blend together. And, over a long period of time, we all start sounding much more alike,” Mr. Claeren says.
“Another factor, of course, is television, especially newscasts, because newscasters are trained to sound pretty much all alike,” he says. “We all know that a lot of kids hear the TV more than they hear their own parents, so they grow up unconsciously imitating what they hear on TV.”
Speech patterns are “becoming more universal,” Mr. Claeren says. “All that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still plenty of people with strong regional accents, but there are fewer and fewer of them.”
“There are portions of the South where the drawl is starting to droop,” Ms. Rich says. “But that is in areas like Atlanta where you’ve had a major migration from outside the South come in. But in towns like Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville; Memphis, the accents are still strong and distinct.”
She thinks most folks like it that way.
“People love Southern accents — they’re lilting,” Ms. Rich says. “It’s music to people’s ears. It plays soft on their ears.”
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