[Note: This post has been updated several times to report comments from readers.]
Q: As a native New Yorker of Italian-American descent, I have always been plagued by the term “yous.” I stopped using it many years ago during my freshman year at college when a dorm mate from Beacon Hill grabbed me by both shoulders and shook me vigorously while proclaiming, “ ‘Yous’ is not a word, God-dammit!”
I’ve accepted this but, in the interest of regaining some dignity, I do have a theory about its origins. New York is a city of immigrants who, like my grandparents, may have learned the English language but may have also retained some of the grammar of the home country. In English we express the plural of “you” with “you two” or “you three” or, in Katie Couric’s case, “you all.” But in Latin languages it is expressed with one word that, literally translated would be “yous” (for example: vous in French or vosotros in Spanish).
I therefore think that “yous” is almost a kind of creole for Italian-Americans rather than a sign that we have a strong aptitude for being a loan shark. Does this theory make sense or is my wife correct when she tells me I have much too much time on my hands?
A: You may have too much time on your hands, but there are worse things to do with it than think about the language! At least (presumably) this preoccupation keeps you off the streets.
As you say, modern English, unlike some other languages, has only one form of “you” for both singular and plural. (This wasn’t always the case, as we’ve written before.) It’s been suggested by some linguists that “you-all,” “you-uns” (a Pittsburgh expression) and “yous” or “youse” actually originated as attempts to differentiate plural “you” from singular “you.”
We can see that this might be a natural response on the part of immigrants (and not just Italians) whose first languages had both singular and plural forms.
Another reader has e-mailed us about the same thing, suggesting that there’s a connection between Irish immigration patters and the use of “youse” in this country:
“The use of the word ‘youse’ as a plural of ‘you’ is almost universal amongst the people of Derry,” she writes. “They also use the word ‘youse-uns,’ as an emphatic form, with remarkable frequency.”
[Notes: Another reader wrote on April 19, 2018, to comment that Irish has a plural form of “you”: sibh (plural of tú). This reinforces the notion that the use of “youse” and such forms has a connection with Irish immigration.
And a reader in Britain wrote on April 18, 2021, with this comment:
“ ‘Youse’ might definitely be linked to Irish immigration. People say that in Coventry (UK) a lot. It was about a third Irish the middle of the last century. Also, people don’t use it much in the surrounding area.” We replied that Pat was currently reading a mid-19th-century novel by the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, set in a rural village just outside Dublin. In dialogue, most of the forms of “you” that are addressed to plural auditors by working-class speakers are written as “yez.”]