If you’ve ever taken the New York Times’ Dialect Quiz, you know that Southerners — and Tennesseans — have their own special lingo.
The quiz asks questions that pinpoint Southern dialect, like “How would you address a group of two or more people?” If you answered “y’all,” your Southern side is showing. This versatile word is a part of almost every Southerner’s vocabulary, but how did the word come to be + how the heck do you spell it?
While the word “y’all” is ubiquitous among native Southerners, plenty of people will tell you it’s not a word at all. (Sorry, but y’all are wrong.)
Unlike many languages, English lacks a second-person plural, so the word “you” can be used to address a single person or a group of people. For clarity, many American English speakers have adopted the phrase “you all” to indicate a multitude, and “y’all” just so happens to be a grammatically acceptable contraction of that (although similar words like “you’uns” or “youse” are typically less adored by strict grammarians).
But there are rules, y’all. As with any linguistic contraction — think: “I’m,” “she’s,” “won’t,” “we’ve” — the apostrophe replaces letters that are missing from the full word or phrase. Since “y’all” is the abbreviated form of “you all,” the apostrophe is placed where the o + u are missing. Thus, “y’all,” not “ya’ll.”
Another benefit of using it? It’s one of the most inclusive terms you can use to address folks because it encompasses everyone.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of this or other Southern dialectisms, check out the following titles: the “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English,” “The Companion to Southern Literature” + “Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.”