Q: An article in the online magazine Atlas Obscura suggests that “y’all” may have originated in 17th-century England, not the American South of the 19th century. Do you think so too?
A: The regional “y’all” of the American South isn’t quite the same as the earlier contraction used in England, which has roots in Anglo-Saxon times.
The older usage is simply a contracted form of “you all” and means “all of you.” That sense of “you all” has been acceptable English for a thousand years, but has seldom been contracted.
The related regional “y’all” or “you-all,” perhaps the most recognized feature of Southern American speech, is more flexible and may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or Scotch-Irish immigrants.
The story begins in Anglo-Saxon days when Old English writers began giving the pronoun “you” a more specific sense by adding “all.”
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the subject or object pronoun “you” was “defined or made precise by a qualifying word or phrase.”
In the dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage, the Old English eow (you) is made more inclusive by adding ealle (all). In the following passage, eow ealle refers to all the people addressed:
“Ic for Cristes lufe forlæt eow ealle, and middaneardlice lustas swa swa meox forseah” (“I for Christ’s love abandoned you all, and despised the lusts of the world as dung”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.
And here’s the dictionary’s first example of “you all” with its modern spelling: “I longe after you all, from the very hart rote [heart rooted] in Iesus Christ.” From a 1549 translation, by Myles Coverdale and others, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament.
The contracted form “y’all” showed up a century later with the same inclusive sense of “you all.”
Here’s an expanded version of the passage that was cited in “The Origins of ‘Y’All’ May Not Be in the American South,” a Jan. 9, 2023, article in Atlas Obscura by David B. Parker, a professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Georgia:
The captiue men of strength I gaue to you,
The weaker sold; and this y’all know is true,
The free-borne women ransom’d, or set free
For pittie sake, the seruile sort had yee.
From The Faire Æthiopian, William Lisle’s 1631 translation of Αἰθιοπικά (Aethiopica, Ethiopian Story), an ancient Greek romance by Heliodorus of Emesa.
The article originally appeared on Nov. 29, 2022, on The Conversation, a website that publishes the work of academic researchers, and had a less etymologically startling headline: “ ‘Y’all,’ that most Southern of Southernisms, is going mainstream–and it’s about time.”
It’s clear from our expanded excerpt that Lisle contracted “you all” to maintain the iambic pentameter (a line of five metrical feet, each with one unstressed and one stressed syllable). He also contracted the “-ed” ending of “ransomed,” which was formerly pronounced as a separate syllable.
Here’s a conversational example we’ve found in The Goblin, a comedy by Sir John Suckling, first performed in 1638 and published in 1646:
“A race of criples are y’all, Iffue [if you] of Snailes, he could not else have escaped us?”
We’ve seen other early examples of “y’all” used to mean “all of you,” but the contraction was relatively rare in the past.
As for the colloquial Southern usage, the Dictionary of American Regional English describes “you-all” or “y’all” as “a second person pl pron, often including in its scope others known or assumed to be associated with the person or persons addressed.”
For example, a Southerner might say “How are you-all (or y’all)?” in asking a couple, or even a single person, about themselves as well as their family—a wider usage than the earlier “all of you” sense in speaking to a group of people.
(DARE, the OED, and standard dictionaries use the hyphenated “you-all” for the uncontracted Southern regionalism.)
The earliest example of this colloquial “you-all” in DARE is from an 1816 letter written by a New England clergyman on a trip to Virginia:
“Children learn from the slaves some odd phrases; as … will you all do this? for, will one of you do this?” (Letters From the South and West, 1824, by Henry Cogswell Knight).
The first DARE citation for the contracted “y’all” is from a fictional account of life in the rough-and-tumble days of the Republic of Texas. The speaker here is addressing two people: “Ar y’all alive and kickin’ in thar?” (The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, 1856, by Alfred W. Arrington).
And here’s a DARE citation for the singular usage, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education (March 1869):
“The Tennessee lady says … to a friend, as she bids her good-bye … ‘Won’t you all come and see me?’ or, on meeting her, ‘How do you all do?’ meaning only the one addressed.”
DARE notes that “you-all” or “y’all” is also sometimes used attributively, or adjectivally, as in this citation from a letter written during the Civil War:
“I wish this war would end so you all soldiers could get home one more time” (Corpus of American Civil War Letters, 2007, by Michael B. Montgomery and Michael Ellis).
And the regional dictionary says the usage, especially the contraction, is sometimes “used with a preceding qualifier, as all, any, both, some, without of,” as in this example:
“All y’all jes stand back” (from “Ole ’Stracted,” a short story by Thomas Nelson Page, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1886).
Linguists have suggested that the Southern usage may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or immigrants from Scotland or Ireland.
In “Y’ALL in American English: From Black to White, From Phrase to Pronoun,” John M. Lipski suggests the influence of Black English on the usage (in the journal English World-Wide, January 1993).
And in “The Etymology of Y’all,” Michael Montgomery suggests the influence of the Scotch-Irish phrase “ye aw” (in Old English and New, 1992, edited by Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringer).
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