In our Southernisms column, we invite our readers to share their take on phrases, turns of speech, and peculiarities of life here in the south-land, while looking at how that southernism fits into the wider culture here in the south. Often what we find is funny. Sometimes poignant. At times, challenging.
Inspired by how I have recently seen it used by progressives here in the south, I’ve chosen this time around to focus in on perhaps the most quintessential southernism of all: “y’all”. In fact it is so emblematic of the south, it became a part of the “Beverly Hillbillies” TV shows:
Friends and readers shared the following about this southern phrase:
Annie Sheffield of Raleigh, NC, says, “People with southern dialects don’t think about saying ‘y’all’. It just happens.”
Brad Duncan shared that, “I always loved it in Oklahoma when people would say “y’all come back” instead of goodbye. Means we enjoyed y’all’s company enough that we wouldn’t mind if y’all came back soon!
“And when I moved to Michigan it was all ‘you guys’ which seemed a bit lopsided, but I still say both versions to this day, depending on the company.”
Yolanda Garza Plunkett of Fayetteville, NC, shared that sometimes a simple y’all wasn’t enough. At times it takes more: “I say ya’ll’s sometimes.”
Gabe Johnson of Johnston County, NC, had a bone to pick with all y’all who misuse y’all.
“ I find myself getting frustrated with non-Southerners treating ‘y’all’ as a singular. I’ve heard it plenty of times–both in person and on television. The trick is that they observe us asking an individual, ‘How are y’all doin?’ Any southerner knows that’s still plural–We’d never be so crass as to only ask about you as an individual. We’re going to ask after you and your people, whoever they may be–family, friends, etc. I’ve found myself explaining this a lot. Related social interaction question—‘How’s your mama and dem?’ meaning, ‘How is your mother and her extended family and friends?’”
Y’all is a flexible, fun, and recognizable word which is a signature feature of southern speech. As I will share, when we look at its usage it points toward some important values we southern folk have historically tried to live out we need to make sure not to lose in our fractious and fast-moving times.
But Gabe’s comment brings up a good question – First, what is the right way to use the word “y’all?” and just as importantly:
“Where y’all from?”
Of course, all of us who grew up in the south have heard this very question – “Where y’all from?” – asked as a way of saying: from where do you and your people come? Were you brought up in the city, or out in the midst of red clay and tobacco fields? Are y’all from around here, or did you move in from parts unknown? Who are your parent’s kin, your kin, and your partner’s kin?
That question, properly answered, ends up leading to a long and rambling tale of parents, grandparents, even at times cousins, children, and partners. I cannot answer that question properly without talking about my times in Los Angeles where I met my late wife, about my growing up in an army town, my parents hailing from the tobacco fields and moonshining runs of Johnston County, and my grandmother who (as my mother after her) was a school teacher. As a preacher myself, to really answer that question I have to tell you not only about my moonshining ancestors, but my grandma Myrtie’s grandfather who was a Free Will Baptist preacher.
“Where y’all from?” is one loaded question.
We can also ask it about the word y’all itself.
Linguists and historians of the English language have a lot to tell us about the history of the word y’all, and its importance.
In “Y’all, You’uns, Yinz, Youse: How Regional Dialects Are Fixing Standard English”, Dan Nosowitz writes:
“In ‘standard American English,’ meaning, essentially, schoolroom English, the second person pronoun is ‘you,’ for either singular or plural. Talking to your spouse? Use ‘you.’ Talking to your spouse and his or her entire family, at the same time? Use…well, also use ‘you.’ It is a huge, strange weakness in American English: when someone is talking to a group of people, we have no way of indicating whether the speaker is talking to only one person or the entire group. Peeking your head out from the kitchen at a dinner party and asking, ‘Hey, can you get me a drink?’ is likely to score you a look of confusion. Who are you talking to, exactly?
“’Why would we have one word for something as fundamental as singular and plural? That just screams “fix this,”’ says Paul Reed, a linguist at the University of South Carolina who, as a native Southern linguist, spends a lot of time thinking about the second-person plural pronoun. ‘And dialect speakers have.’ In place of any standardized second-person plural pronoun, English speakers around the world have been forced to scramble to make something up. You’ve heard the solutions: y’all, youse, you guys, yinz, you’uns…’
“’Y’all’ is easily the most famous solution. Its provenance is unclear, but certainly it comes from the American South. The two possible ancestors of y’all are the Scots-Irish ye aw, which means ‘you all,’ and the West African/Caribbean you all (a calque, or borrowed word, from England), which means, as you might expect, ‘you all.’ Because these two phrases are basically the same, and because something was needed to fill that gap, and because both the Scots-Irish and the newly dumped African slaves both lived in the same region, eventually the two phrases were combined and shortened. Hence: y’all.”
As a number of authors point out, y’all actually is a fairly inclusive solution to the need to distinguish between you directed at an individual or you in terms of a group, since often where y’all or an equivalent word hasn’t emerged in a regional dialect of English, people end up using “you” and “you guys”, which necessarily excludes women and non-gender-binary folks.
It should be noted that though “y’all” is the most commonly recognized plural form of you in American English, other regions have come up with less well recognized solutions to a lack of mainstream plural form for “you” in English:
“’you’uns,’ common in Appalachia, is a slight shortening of the Scottish ‘you ones.’ ‘Ones,’ in some forms of Scottish English, is a plural marker, like the American ‘guys,’ so you can say ‘you ones’ or ‘we ones.’
“’You’uns’ gets even shorter just north of the Appalachians, where it’s been turned into ‘yinz’ by the residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Yinz, like y’all, has become a sort of emblem of the area from which it comes; Pittsburgh residents sometimes refer to themselves as Yinzers, to honor the unique pronoun native to their fine city.
“A simpler version comes from the other side of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and has also bled up to parts of New York City: ‘youse.’ This is an understandable creation: you normally add the letter “s” to things to make them plural, right? And the word ‘you’ needs to be plural. So, I don’t know, add an “s” to it. Youse.”
“Namaste Y’all”: The Tao, or Wisdom, of Y’all
There is something to the T-Shirts I’ve seen all over that say “Namaste, y’all”. There is a tao, or inner wisdom, to the quintessential southern word “y’all”. As Gabe says, “asking an individual, ‘How are y’all doin?’ Any southerner knows that’s still plural–We’d never be so crass as to only ask about you as an individual. We’re going to ask after you and your people, whoever they may be–family, friends, etc. I’ve found myself explaining this a lot. Related social interaction question—‘How’s your mama and dem?’ meaning, ‘How is your mother and her extended family and friends?”
His statement points to a kind of wisdom at the heart of southern culture.
The reason why “Namaste, y’all” makes folks who know what both “Namaste” and “y’all” mean chuckle is it combines two very different ideas in a way that southerners will get. “Namaste” is a Sanskrit word used in Hinduism, yoga, and Buddhist meditations that means essentially “that which is sacred in me recognizes that which is sacred in you”. When a yoga or Buddhist practitioner bows to another saying “Namaste”, they are recognizing that other person individually, uniquely, represents the Sacred in a way no one else does. Encountering that other person as they are is an encounter with the Sacred. It is an Eastern philosophical way of saying what I grew up hearing many a southern preacher and southern grandma say when they said, in oh so Christian terms, “God ain’t got no grandchildren” or “God ain’t got no stepchildren”. In other words, you – uniquely you, just as you are – are a child of God, the Christian way of saying a bearer of Sacred worth. You, just as you are, before you can do anything good or bad to deserve or not deserve it, are of infinite worth, one deserving of love, respect, and of happiness.
Yet linking such a phrase to “y’all” links it to a deep wisdom at the heart of southern culture, the tao of southern life.
That wisdom is there is no “you” without “y’all”; no “I” without “us”. Who you are is intimately bound up with the lives of those who came before you and come after you.
Popular music here in the south readily picks up on this theme.
For instance, the country music song “Who I Am” proclaims a sense of identity grounded in community:
This same sense of our identity being rooted in our connection to our community, our family, our history, which “y’all” points to in southern culture, is also poignantly fleshed out in the lyrics of Durham, NC native Rhiannon Giddens’ “Can’t Cry No More” in a way that shows how this is often experienced by people of color and other minorities here in the south-land:
Similar sentiments are in Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “We are”:
Speaking of a similar concept in his African culture, archbishop Tutu puts this wisdom well, when he writes in No Future Without Forgiveness:
“Ubuntu […] speaks of the very essence of being human. [We] say […] ‘Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ … A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Southern intellectuals have drawn on similar ideas in their writing.
The late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail,
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Likewise, bell hooks, a feminist scholar, activist, philosopher, and ethicist born in the Kentucky hills, challenges us in her Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope:
“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”
That’s some deep wisdom, y’all.
Y’all Means All
This T-shirt, seen often at LGBT rights and women’s rights events here in the south-land, expresses an appropriate politics which ought to flow from living out the southern tao of y’all: recognizing our interconnectedness with all who are part of the diverse tapestry of the south-land, and working to uplift and defend the rights of all. For what oppresses another necessarily harms me; and what liberates another only furthers my own freedom.
In his article “the New Fusion Politics” in UU World, North Carolina Disciples of Christ preacher and activist Rev. Dr. William Barber, calls for a return to a pattern of politics founded on the tao of “y’all”, building bridges across the divide. He writes:
“In North Carolina, we look back to the state Constitutional Convention, where the Rev. Robert Ashley and the Rev. J.W. Hood—one white and one black—worked tirelessly to codify the language of fusion politics in our state’s primary legal document. Such cooperation could not have been possible if Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman had fought alone for their freedom. They built power throughout the nineteenth century by working with allies such as Levi Coffin, the white Quaker from Greensboro, who helped establish the Underground Railroad.
“Building the movement took decades, but when it finally came to power, Ashley and Hood had the necessary language to begin mending the gaps in the fabric of America’s democratic experiment. “We hold it to be self-evident that all persons are created equal,” they wrote in North Carolina’s constitution. Yes, they were two men, but they were men who’d learned to see new possibilities while singing freedom’s song. They couldn’t say, as their forefathers had, only that all men are created equal. They looked ahead to a day when their sisters would join them as full citizens of our state and wrote “all persons.” They didn’t throw out the best of Jefferson’s language; they retained it, because they loved their enemy well enough to learn from him. But their struggle had taught them to name what a slave-holding Southern gentleman could not—that all persons are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among which are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruit of their own labor, and the pursuit of happiness” (emphasis mine). Workers’ rights became part of North Carolina’s constitution when former slaves were at the table during America’s First Reconstruction.
“Between 1865 and 1900, interracial alliances in every Southern state arose to advance public education, protect the right to vote, and curb corporate power by reaching across the color line. These fusion coalitions outraged white Democrats because they led to raising taxes for public education. The fusion coalitions attacked the divisive rhetoric of white solidarity and pointed out the common interests of most black and white Southerners. As the fusion coalitions gained traction, more than a quarter of white voters in the South cast their ballots for interracial coalitions and the coalitions started to take political power. In the 1890s, a fusion coalition of Republicans and Populists in North Carolina swept the state legislature, won both U.S. Senate seats, and took the governorship. Together with their counterparts in other Southern states, these blacks and whites working together in the South passed some of the most progressive educational and labor laws in our nation’s history.
“But fusion politics in the South were met with a violent backlash. As these coalitions began to emerge, extremists who called themselves Redeemers started a campaign to ‘redeem’ America from the influence of black political power and progress. They immediately sought to deny the vote to blacks through violence, intimidation, and the passage of laws that, together, came to be called Jim Crow—a systematic, de jure denial of equality and rights, often achieved via the concept of “separate but equal.” From 1890 to 1908, ten Southern states wrote new constitutions with provisions that included literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that denied black people the franchise not because they were black but because their enslaved grandfathers had not been able to vote. As early as 1875, restrictive state provisions had been upheld by an ultraconservative, radical Supreme Court. Later, in the twentieth century, when the Supreme Court began to find a few of the provisions unconstitutional, states devised new legislation to continue the disenfranchisement of most blacks.
“Everywhere and always, the Redeemers howled about the use of tax money to support public education, especially for black children, and sought to suppress the African American vote. Driven by fear, they incited ‘race riots’ in New Orleans, Wilmington, Atlanta, Springfield, and other cities, arming poor whites and playing on old fears in order to destroy interracial democracy and create a Jim Crow political economy rooted in low taxes, low wages, and fewer and fewer voters.
“When we pay attention to this long history, a pattern emerges: first, the Redeemers attacked voting rights. Then they attacked public education, labor, fair tax policies, and progressive leaders. Then they took over the state and federal courts, so they could be used to render rulings that would undermine the hope of a new America. This effort culminated in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring segregation of public facilities under the doctrine ‘separate but equal.’
“Past is prologue: We can see the same pattern recurring if we examine America’s Second Reconstruction—what we commonly refer to as the civil rights movement. Once again, Dr. King and Rosa Parks did not launch our Second Reconstruction alone. From the very beginning of Jim Crow, there were pockets of resistance and efforts to build fusion coalitions against Jim Crow’s injustice. Black and white stood together within the NAACP to protest lynching and develop legal challenges to segregated education. Small pockets of labor in the South continued to organize across the color line. Faith-rooted radicals such as Clarence Jordan, who started an interracial community in Georgia in 1942, defied Jim Crow. Like the abolitionists before them, these freedom fighters built coalitions and established interracial institutions, such as Highlander Folk School, that invested in building strength for the long haul.
“As a mass movement, we can pin the beginning of the Second Reconstruction to two specific events: the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Declared the ‘case of the century,’ Brown established that intentional segregation was unconstitutional. This ruling fueled the struggle for civil rights and equal protection under the law, challenging the legitimacy of all public institutions that embraced segregation. But given the Court’s refusal to order an immediate injunction against segregation, public resistance to following its mandate was inevitable. The lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, was a vicious sign of that resistance. Till’s mother refused to mourn quietly, insisting on a public, open-casket funeral for her mutilated child. Photos from Till’s funeral were published in national magazines, exposing the violence of the Jim Crow South. Rosa Parks, a seasoned freedom fighter who had attended trainings at Highlander, was devastated by Till’s lynching. She said she kept her seat on a Montgomery bus in part to protest his murder.
“The Second Reconstruction’s power was in cross-racial, cross-class solidarity, embracing Chicano workers, Jewish students, Native American sisters and brothers, Malcolm X’s challenge, and the Poor People’s Campaign. What happened when they all got together? President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, mandating that projects financed with federal funds “take affirmative action” to ensure that hiring and employment practices be free of racial bias, and we saw the establishment of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We saw civil rights connected to economic justice in the Social Security amendments of 1965, which allowed domestic workers and farm workers to receive benefits that had been available for a generation to other workers. We saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson said that the Voting Rights Act was a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory won on any battlefield.
“But LBJ didn’t say ‘We shall overcome’ in a sudden moment of inspiration. It was a moral fusion movement that had moved him. His support for the Voting Rights Act was in direct response to the coordinated organizing of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and local leaders in Selma, Alabama. The Selma campaign grabbed the nation’s attention as they watched unarmed, nonviolent marchers gassed, chased, and beaten with billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When people of all different faiths and colors came together and demanded change from a moral perspective, it touched the conscience of the nation. Moral fusion politics gained tremendous ground in the Second Reconstruction.”
In this article and in almost every one of his sermons and speeches, Rev. Dr. Barber argues that this same “y’all means all” approach of fusion politics is the way forward in southern politics. As I argued in my recent Southernisms post about the phrase “This here is why we can’t have nice things, y’all”, where we are failing in my dear south-land is by embracing politics of division. And it isn’t just in the south. As a nation we are becoming more caught up in our cultural, political, and religious bubble.
Learning how to band together across the divide is part and parcel of how we can not just transform our life here in the south-land, but throughout our great nation.
And to think, this tiny word “y’all” points to all this!
Your progressive redneck preacher,