I occasionally riff on word spellings and definitions on the blog. I don’t do it very often, but when I do, I go all in on the subject. I’m especially fond of obvious, having tripped over that word and its subtlety of definition enough times in the past. This image appeared in my newsfeed awhile back and it resonated with me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve typed something into a computer interface and had it not recognize the word or phrasing I knew was correct, or hoped was correct. You know how it is. I think this is a word, but spellcheck will save me from having to go dig out a dictionary and look the word up.
Or maybe you don’t know? Who has dictionaries anymore? I haven’t used one in years, but I have a few in the house. Who needs a dictionary when you can just ask one of those ridiculous computer assistants to tell you how to spell onomatopoeia or ask them what something means or to get synonyms for balk. Having to actually type words into the computer by hand?! How quaint.
Back when I was writing specifications, tech manuals and notes for architectural drawings, it used to drive me nuts having to check and then tell the computer to ignore (Passive voice! Arrrg! Everything in a specification is written in passive voice!) a spelling or word usage, or to add the more common ones to my personal dictionary. It isn’t worth the investment in time to modify standard spellings for obscure words on company computer spelling dictionaries. Computers that you are forced to abandon every other year.
…And don’t get me started on latin legal phrases or attempting to point out fallacious arguments with well-known shorthand acronyms. Or slang. Really, don’t get me started on slang. I mean it. Or as I said on Facebook at the time,
I find it amusing when someone outside of the South tries to tell me how to spell ya’ll. As if there is proper spelling for slang.
Another friend of mine immediately linked to a blog article on just that subject, completely missing the point that I was trying to make in their rush to insist that there was a correct spelling for the words we use in everyday conversation. Improper conjugations and amalgamations of words that may or may not make any sense to the speaker or the listener.
Some writers put the apostrophe AFTER the ‘a’, as in: ya’ll. *shudders* Now tell me, does that make ANY sense given the law of contractions? No. It does not. The proper way to contract ‘you all’ is by using the apostrophe to replace the ‘ou’ in you and the space between the words, as in: y’all It’s beautiful in its simplicity, don’t you think? Boy, do I feel better, maybe even up to tackling a semi-colon or two. Thanks for letting me get that out of my systemYa’ll vs. Y’all – A Texan’s Anguish
Now if I was trying to impart colloquialism, trying to drag you kicking and screaming into one of the Southern states of the United States, someplace where ya’ll is a word ya’ll’d hear regularly, I might quip something like them’s fightin’ words or something to that effect. But since you wouldn’t know the frame in which to place my attempts to communicate southernisms, most likely my attempts to draw you into the picture will fail and I’ll just look like an idiot. I’m used to that, but it isn’t a productive use of my time to repeat failed lessons from the past. I’m a quick learner, rumors to the contrary.
To put the problem as simply as I can, the error is in believing that ya’ll is a contraction to start with. As if ya’ll was ever two words compressed into one. As if slang is capable of being defined or set down into anything permanent, what written language is, and still preserve the emotion of the speaker and listener(s). It simply can’t be done. Even the best writers comment on how what they wrote is received by the reader, and how they don’t get the emotion that they hear in their head reflected back from the average reader.
The problem isn’t that simple. It isn’t something that can be fixed that easily. Just knowing the proper spelling for a Southernism will not make you Southern. Just knowing how ya’ll fix the issue of pronouns in your region of the English speaking world will not make me understand what it is to be from that region. The problem is that English is broken when it comes to second and third party plural pronouns.
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?
Thou and ye is a perfectly fine arrangement of second-person pronouns, and we’d all be better off if they’d stuck around, but they didn’t. Nobody exactly knows why, but scholars have focused on the mid-17th century work of Shakespeare to help tell us how people were talking to each other and what pronouns they were using. Atlas Obscura, Y’all, You’uns, Yinz, Youse: How Regional Dialects Are Fixing Standard English
There’s no two ways about it, English is broken when it comes to pronouns. You could be any number of people including just one person. I’ve had innumerable written confrontations with people on the internet just because they read the word you and think he’s talking to me. And while I am talking to you, I’m also talking to the ten thousand or a million or even a billion other yous that might happen upon these words and read them. It is a conundrum of English that I cannot express the difference between you (thee) and you (them) The Wife and I will occasionally use thou and thee because we are weird people who read a lot. You can blame Piers Anthony for that.
Speaking of readers: sometimes things in my fantasy fiction become real in Mundania. One is the “Thee Thee Thee” convention, said as a declaration of complete love. I was told of a couple who married using that instead of “I do.” Now I have heard of one who did use it as part of the ceremony, some time ago; he is now dead and she is passing along the ring to a family member with the words engraved on it. She asked me which book it came from, and I said Out of Phaze, where the robot Mach calls it out to save his beloved Fleta from death, the sheer power of that declaration nullifying the magic that had doomed her. But then I thought, how did Mach know to do that? Did the convention appear earlier? My senescent brain does not provide the answer, and I’m too busy to reread my own earlier novels; time is a greater constraint for me than money. If there is a reader out there whose memory is better than mine (that is to say, most of them), please let me know, so I can let my reader with the ring know: what was the first instance of the “Thee Thee Thee” convention?Piers Anthony
It’s somewhere in the Blue Adept series, Mr. Anthony. It was earlier than the one you recall. It’s been thirty years since I read the series myself. I have no idea where the first instance is, but it definitely was not that passage of the book. I’m sure someone knows and will correct both of us pretty much the minute I hit enter. They probably corrected you (or thee) the minute you hit enter, too. Unfortunately, that newsletter wasn’t the one I found first. This is an aside, don’t get your underwear in a bunch.
I have had people accost me before (carpetbaggers, mostly) insisting that ya’ll is properly spelled y’all. That it is a contraction of you and all and so duh! But as I say to them, that’s a connector between ya and ll, that little hanging bit (‘) in the middle. The apostrophe. The apostrophe represents any number of letters, syllables and whole words the speaker doesn’t feel they need to take the time to pronounce. If you actually attempted to write the word phonetically, it would have at least two a’s in it, something more akin to ya’all or ya-all. After a bit of pushback on the subject, more than a bit to be honest, I decided I’d trot out an example to illustrate the point I was trying to make. Consider the following sentence, which I’m sure most Southerners have heard more than once. What does this sentence mean?
Ya’ll be round later
Is it a question? Is it a statement? A demand? What words and/or punctuation will complete that sentence coherently? Is “you” or “all” in it? Well, it depends on the speaker. If they’re asking a question,
Ya’ll be round later?
It would probably be completed something like this,
Will all of you be present when I need you later?
If the speaker is making a statement
Ya’ll be round later.
It would render out something like the following in proper English,
Come by the house later, I’ll be here.
or maybe something more like Go (wherever I’m going) and we’ll meet up later. There really is no telling what the speaker meant without the context of the usage. If the speaker is making a demand,
Ya’ll be round later.
It would come out something like
You will be here later when I’m looking for you.
…And if it was dad (or pop maybe) making this demand, you’d better be where he wanted you to be when he was expecting it, or there would be hell to pay. So ya’ll is not two words squeezed together. It is a hodgepodge of meaning scrunched into four letters and an apostrophe, and I can spell it any damn way I like.
I don’t go around pretending to know how to spell any number of words that they might say in New Jersey (youse? use? Who knows?) it’s slang. They have the same problem that the rest of the English speaking world has, no way to speak clearly to an individual or a group using indefinite pronouns to define the loose collection of people being spoken to. You guys, you’unz, whatever. We’re all just making it up as we go along. Sometimes the apostrophe just shows up where it wants to. There is no accounting for it.
But try and explain it all again to me, if you feel the need. I’m from here, I’ve got nothing but time. But I do thank you for spending the time it took to read this. If ya’ll are ever in the neighborhood, come by and sit a spell. The tea will be on ice, but it won’t be sweet. There’s only so many Southernisms you can indulge in before the accumulation of them kills you.
Wildly expanded article first published in 2014.