Q: I was at a meeting of my southern New Jersey quilting club when the newsletter editor asked, “Do any of yins have an article to put in?” I was not the only one who stopped the meeting right then and there and asked if she’d really said “yins.” What’s the story here?
A: “Yinz” is Pittsburghese. Sometimes spelled “yins” or “yunz,” it’s a plural form of “you.”
This puts it in the same category as “you-uns,” “yous,” “y’all,” “you guys,” and other terms that have been described as attempts to reestablish a separate plural of “you.”
As we’ve written before on the blog, “you” once had four forms in English: the singulars “thou” (subject) and “thee” (object), and the plurals “ye” (subject) and “you” (object).
From 1300 to 1600, these were gradually combined into one all-purpose “you.”
But for some people, one “you” just isn’t enough, and nonstandard plural forms have emerged over the last couple of hundred years.
A linguist would call them dialectal variants of the personal pronoun “you,” used with a plural inflection.
Does the persistence of these terms mean that people somehow feel the need to differentiate the plural “you” from the singular, and re-establish a separate plural form?
Some linguists have suggested as much.
For whatever reason, plural forms of “you” are familiar in many dialects of English, and not just in the US. They’re also heard in British, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, and Australian English.
Most of these colloquial forms were first recorded in the 19th century, but some are undoubtedly older.
Colloquialisms—that is, usages more common in speech than in writing—take a while to show up in published works. Many times, they first appear in the speech of fictional characters.
We’ll examine these plural “you” forms one at a time, concluding with “yinz.”
(1) “You-all” and “y’all” (we’ve written about them before on the blog): This usage is associated with the American South, but at least one linguist has suggested it could be an Irish import.
Alan Crozier, writing in the journal American Speech in 1984, pointed out that this use of “all” with pronouns is characteristic of Ulster.
He suggested it may have been brought to the Colonies by Ulster Scots—that is, Scots who settled in Ireland and later immigrated to the US in the 18th century.
(2) “Yez” (also spelled “yees,” “yeez,” and “yiz”) originated in Anglo-Irish, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
But a little poking around finds that it’s also used in Liverpudlian and other British dialects, as well as in Australia, the US, and Canada’s Maritime Provinces. We have a hunch this is a variation on “yous” (read on).
(3) “Yous” (also spelled “youse”) is familiar in dialects of American, Australian, and Irish English.
Crozier calls “yous” a “characteristic Hiberno-English plural form” and suggests that it was brought to this country by 19th-century Irish immigrants.
He says that while one researcher claims the American usage “is restricted to eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey,” it may be more widespread than that.
In explaining the possible Irish origins of “yous,” Crozier says the usage “seems to have arisen when speakers of Irish switched to English,” mostly in the 19th century, and “felt a need for a plural second person pronoun like Irish sibh.”
But “yous” has been used in a singular sense too, according to the OED.
For example, there are both plural and singular usages in Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893): “Youse kids makes me tired,” and “Ah, Jimmie, youse bin fightin’ agin.”
Among Irish examples of the usage, the OED cites this one from a drama, The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge: “Is it mad yous are?”
And here’s an Australian example, from My Brilliant Career (1901), by the novelist Miles Franklin: “Ye and Lizer can have a little fly round. It’ll do yous good.” (In the same novel, she writes, “have the table laid out for both of yez.”)
(4) “You-uns” (also seen as “youns,” “yuns,” and “yunz”) was first recorded in Ohio in 1810, the OED says. But it’s also heard in Pittsburgh and other parts of Pennsylvania, as well as in the Ozarks and the Appalachians.
Crozier and another linguist, Michael Montgomery, suggest “you-uns” was introduced into the Colonies by the Scotch-Irish. The plural “you ones,” the source of “you-uns,” is known to be of Scotch-Irish origin.
(5) We come at last to “yinz,” which some regard as another variant of “you-uns.” The linguist Barbara Johnstone has called it “a form of you ones.”
It should also be noted that “one” was (and sometimes still is) written as “yin” in dialects of Scotland, Ireland, and the north of England. The plural, of course, is “yins.”
Here’s a singular example from a Scottish poet, Robert Tannahill (1807): “A third yin owns an antique rare.”
And here’s a plural example from another Scot, the writer William McIlvanney (1975): “You young yins think ye inventit men an’ women.” (Quotations courtesy of the OED.)
But any Steelers fan will tell you that “yinz” is pure Pittsburghese.
Johnstone and another linguist, Dan Baumgardt, wrote in American Speech in 2004 that “the second person plural pronoun yinz (in any of its spellings: yunz, younz, yins, and so on) is the most salient and iconic lexical feature of ‘Pittsburghese.’ ”
The word “appears in every dictionary-like list of local words,” the two linguists write, and it’s so strongly associated with Pittsburgh that “a local term for a local person is yinzer.”
With that, we’ll—or, rather, we-all will—stop.
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