The Remarkable History of “Y’all”

Frequency of "Y'all" in the United States

The frequency of "Y'all" usage in the United States (Wikimedia)

In contemporary New York City, it is common to hear local teenagers use the word “y’all.” A few decades ago, this word would have been confined to speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), who brought the word with them from the American South. Yet nowadays, with the spread of AAVE, the word has been adopted by young New Yorkers of every ethnicity under the sun.

But where did this strange little word come from? The answer reveals a remarkable (and unlikely) story of language dispersion.

If you’re a little confused about what “y’all” means, you’re not alone. Even people who get the basic jist of “y’all” don’t grasp its grammatical purpose. The word is a “second person plural,” meaning it is a plural version of “you.” So, for example, in the American South (where “y’all” is most widespread) somebody would say:

“You want to go to the store?” if they were talking to a single person. Or,
“Y’all want to go to the store?” if they were talking to a group of people.

How “y’all” got to New York City is quite obvious: at several points in the Twentieth Century, African Americans moved to northern cities like New York for industrial jobs, and brought this dialect word with them from the South. No big mystery there.

But where did “y’all” come from in the first place? A fews years back, historian David Parker explored this question on his blog. For an answer he looked to linguist Michael Montgomery:

…Montgomery claims that “y’all” goes back to the Scots-Irish phrase “ye aw,” and he offers as evidence a letter written in 1737 by an Irish immigrant in New York to a friend back home: “Now I beg of ye aw to come over here.” As I understand Montgomery’s hypothesis, “ye aw” was Americanized into “y’all,” which is indeed a contraction of “you all” but would not have come into being without the influence of the Scots-Irish phrase.

I see little reason for doubting Montgomery’s hypothesis. But I dug a little deeper to see where “ye aw” itself comes from. Turns out I didn’t need to look far: a quick Google search of “ye aw” brings up numerous examples of this phrase being used in contemporary Scots. (Scots is a language spoken in much of Scotland which derives from middle-English. It influences, but is separate from, contemporary Scottish English.) This language was brought to Northern Ireland by Scottish planters, then brought to America by “Scots-Irish” immigrants.

So if we take this evidence seriously, it looks like “y’all” followed a unique path: A phrase in the Scots language was brought to the American South by Scots-Irish immigrants primarily from Northern Ireland. The word filtered down to slaves and their descendants, and became a feature of African American Vernacular English. African Americans moved to the Northern cities and brought this word with them.

And that is the beauty of English: teenagers in the Bronx appear to use a dialect word that comes from an unique language spoken in Scotland. One word. Two continents. Three shores. Four centuries. Five separate dialects. Wow.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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53 Responses to The Remarkable History of “Y’all”

  1. Jack Trawick says:

    Regarding the provenance of “y’all” … I believe that too much is credited to African American outmigration from the South. Having grown up white on the South’s northern edge, I can say that the use of “y’all” was (and remains) as common among whites as among blacks. [Actually, in our part of the world (i.e. Louisville, Kentucky), we pronounce the second person plural, “yew all,” evidence that the classic southern drawl decompensates in direct proportion to the the distance north from Birmingham.]

    As long as you are on the subject of Southern American vernacular, I have two others about which to inquire. Native New Orleanians are sometimes referred to as “Yats,” deriving from the greeting, “Where y’at, dahlin?” Deleting “dahlin” from the expression, my question would be, whence cometh the combining of “where” and “at” into a single (indefinitely directional) adverb. (Come to think of it, perhaps the phrase is an adjective, rather than adverbial, modifying “y’…” (i.e. “you,”) rather than the implied verb “are.” (i.e. WHERE are YOU AT, dahlin’?, as opposed to WHERE ARE you AT, dahlin’?)

    One other, from a friend who grew up in rural Mississippi: “We might could do that sometime.” Implying a sort of conditional probability, “might could” — similar to “where … at” would seem possibly correct, if not conventional, usage. I hope that you might could clarify where at the originator of these expressions may have been at the time of their first utterance.

    • Josh says:

      I grew up in southern ky at the edge of the mountains and your deep-south examples are common here.

    • Gary Grimes says:

      Absolutely agree. Y’all is ubiquitous among all southern, English-speaking races and classes throughout Georgia.

    • Philip R. says:

      No doubt that white Southerners use y’all almost uniformly, but incidence of urban migration was probably higher among Southern blacks than among Southern whites in the early 1900s century.

  2. Erica Walch says:

    Does the “aw” from Scottish mean “all” and does the Scottish expression then have the sense of 2nd persona plural? “You all” makes perfect sense as a form of 2nd person plural (and a form noticeable by its absence in modern English). The idea that it came from another language is surprising. I’m in Massachusetts and the only time I hear y’all is from people who grew up in the Southern USA.

    • trawicks says:

      @Erica,

      It’s a bit of a tricky question, because Scots comes from Middle English, so in fact “ye aw” is really just “you all.” But as simple as “you all” seems to be, its systematic usage is pretty much confined to the American South. And that’s why I think Mr. Montgomery makes a compelling case.

      @Jack,

      In terms of the northern areas of “y’all” country–Kentucky, Southern Indiana, Southern Missouri, etc.–it’s true that those areas probably used the term (or its variant “you all”) before the large migration of African Americans northward. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that West Virginia has heavy “y’all” or “you all” usage, yet has a quite small African American population.

      In New York City, however, African American Vernacular English is spreading beyond its traditional ethnic boundaries, and with it, “y’all.” This is probably true of other cities as well. Whether “y’all” will migrate into more suburban or middle-class environments in the North has yet to be seen (notwithstanding teenage suburban hip hop enthusiasts).

      • Jack Trawick says:

        It would be interesting, I think, to map the different pronunciations of the expression both by geography and ethnicity. As I was reading your response, I realized that the African-American pronunciation of the expression (at least the one that comes to mind most immediately) is less “y’all” than “yawl.” For whatever reason, I associate this particular pronunciation with rural blues musicians (e.g. Taj Majal), who surely have had an influence in NYC.

        • trawicks says:

          “Yaw’ll” I think, is more common in the Coastal South. That pronunciation is produced because of something called “l-velarization” which basically just means that the “l” at the end of the words is weakened. In more extreme cases, “y’all” becomes similar to “yaw.” Because African American Vernacular English derives from the Coastal (or “deep”) South, you can hear this pronunciation amongst African Americans even in “Inland” Southern cities like Memphis or Little Rock.

        • Mike says:

          I, being from South Alabama can tell you that the word is spoken by both white and black people equally. I believe it was us southerners being lazy with our language that helped create it. Also the further away from the original English speaking people the more skewed words become. So, just because we say things a little different doesn’t make us dumb. I’m proud of this word.

    • Youngster says:

      Yes, although in Scots/Scottish Standard English I would refer to it as a’ (in the context of an abbreviated all) as opposed to “aw”. In Glasgow for example we would say “are ye a’ goin doun the shoaps?” trans: “Are you all going fown to the shops?”. I also think in American articles it’s important to refer to the Scots-Irish as the Scots-Irish/Ulster Scots just for clarity.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulster_Scots_people

  3. Aaron Bauman says:

    no comment on this post specifically, just wanted to drop a line and say how much I love this blog. So interesting; I added it to my daily reads and read all the back posts. Keep it coming!

  4. kato says:

    Despite Montgomery’s hypothesis, what is the argument against assuming “ya’ll” is simply a contraction of “you all” and a development independent from that of Scots/etc. “ye aw” ? He would also have to show that these Scots-Irish immigrants had a fair amount of linguistic influence in the American South, I’d think.

    Anyways, first time over here, and enjoying your blog. Keep it up!

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Kato! I’m not sure about the “ye aw” hypothesis completely, but I feel like it may have at least played a part. There are a lot of debates on this site about the exact degree to which Scots-Irish English influenced American Southern English, but we’ll probably never entirely know since we have no accent recordings from 18th-Century America!

  5. Robert Herrick says:

    Given the origin of the word, I thought was interesting.
    I was at a restaurant in Austin, TX with a friend of mine from Ireland. We walked up to the host station and the girl said, “Hi, y’all. Let me take you to your table.”
    Once the girl was out of earshot, my friend said, “What do you y’all, you stupid cow. There’s only two of us.”
    Maybe, you had to be there.

  6. Carole says:

    Having lived in Atlanta for 15 years after living on the West Coast, ‘ya’ll’ threw me for a while. But the rest of us sound just as odd to them when we say ‘you guys’ to a group that includes females.
    As the post above states, ya’ll can indeed refer to only two people, leading to the use of ‘all ya’ll.’ Try figuring out where that one came from!

  7. Sheila Mackey says:

    Growing up in southwestern Oklahoma, I thought y”ll was the only plural of you–until friends in S. Carolina informed me that I’d have to learn the phrase while visiting there. I thought we invented ya’ll in Oklahoma! I did have a friend in central Oklahoma that used “youinses” for the you plural.

  8. SuzanneV says:

    Any comment on the similar “youse”? I have seen this written to convey Irish dialect. I grew up in a family that used very standard (NYCity) English, so did not hear this at home, though the family background is Irish. Of course I heard gangsters in old movies say “youse guys”. And I did hear inlaws and neighbors use the reduced form: Whadda yez doin’? or Whera yez goin’? usually addressed by someone’s parent to a gaggle of kids.

    Really enjoy the blog.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Suzanne! I may indeed post a followup about “youse,” which I suspect is more common in its original home turf (Ireland) these days than in the US.

      • elinjean says:

        Unless you’re in Philadelphia, where “youse” is heard quite often — oddly enough, right alongside “all y’all.”

        • trawicks says:

          Is that a local Philadelphia accent that uses ‘y’all,’ or is it specifically the variety of African American Vernacular English used in Philly?

        • iMiker says:

          Was just to post a question about “all y’all” and would love it if you could take this a step further and explore where it came from, how it’s used. I first heard it on Friday Night Lights, actually (Fictional Texas white people – specifically the character of Tammi Taylor, coaches wife and principal of the local high school.).

  9. ShawnaLanne says:

    I’d like to point out that Y’all is a very common word used among people of all color in the south. Or at least Texas. I can personally vouche for that.

    Also, tracing accents – country music and Irish music traces a somewhat similar path as the one you found for “y’all.

  10. Bermy says:

    Having lived in Alabama for years, I was surprised the author missed the usage of “y’all” used to address a single person, “all y’all” when talking to 2 people, and “all all y’all” when talking to a group. And yes – it is not a racial thing. As we say in Bermuda “arrybody” (everyone) was saying it.

    • Alan Phipps says:

      I have only heard “all y’all” in reference to an inclusive group of people, and I have only rarely heard “y’all” refer to a single person unless some group was inferred that wasn’t present (like one’s family at home).

      “Y’all come over for dinner” — general, referring to the group or a subset.
      “All y’all come over for dinner” — specific, referring to the group as a whole.

    • Andrew says:

      There have been a lot of comments saying, “This is not a racial thing.”

      Well, anywhere out of the South, yes, it usually is. This is because Southern whites did not move in large numbers to the north after the civil war. It was blacks that moved north, taking a form of Southern English with them. So relax everyone, no one’s trying to take your “y’all” away from you.

      It remains, of course, obvious that pretty much everyone in the South, regardless of color, uses the term.

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  12. Abbie Whitehead says:

    It’s fascinating to know the origin a popular word. But if you’re going to use it you must know the plural- all y’all. Yes, when someone in the south addresses a small group of people, say two or three like an immediate family, y’all is used. For example, “Y’all want Popeyes tonight?”But if it’s a larger group, like a room full of teenagers, then it’s “All y’all better turn that music down ‘fore I wallop all y’all!”

    • iMiker says:

      There you go… :) Two forms of plural usage. That seems very odd, but makes sense.

    • John Voss says:

      I couldn’t agree more with the explanation being a Southerner myself. I would have to add though that “all y’all” sometimes doesn’t refer to the size of the group but simply to add emphasis that no one is excluded from the statement. Especially when being yelled at as kids to ensure that no one felt the reprimand was not intended for them. “All y’all’z in trouble now.”

  13. Alan says:

    A view from Cape Cod, MA
    Love these histories and discussions. But I think over the last 20 years the media cornucopia and global interconnectedness have completely taken over as the way words and usages change and spread. Last year I was watching America’s Best Dance Crew (like Am. Idol) with my 13 yr old daughter. The panel of judges were a black woman, black man, and white man, all about 25 years old, and, frankly, I feel uncomfortable identifying them that way. That’s because racial identity seemed to be an insignificant part of their experience of each other and of the dancer crews (which were also generally very mixed). All three said “y’all” and “all y’all” often and naturally. It was clearly a part of the latest “in” jargon, and while it is, it’s spread is more like carpet bombing, with echoes and ripples filling in the gaps, and much more generational. It could fall out of fashion and become something only squares and hicks say, though I hope not.

    My ex is from Arkansas – her parents (Scots/Irish descendants) say y’all normally, and my ex unlearned it when she went north to college and moved to Boston but she uses it some. I rarely do, but I have nothing against it. People around here don’t normally say y’all.

    So – if my 13 yr old daughter starts saying y’all, what is the path? I think it will have very little if anything to do with her grandparents or ancestry. It will be her friends and her peer group, and in this brave new world peer groups can homogenize cross-country and farther in just days.

    Y’all have fun, now; hear?

  14. Rich says:

    My girlfriend grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, and when we last visited, I was fascinated by the use of another second-person plural: “Younz”.

    Made be do a double-take once or twice, but now, I’m starting to enjoy it even more than the “y’all” I got used to growing up in Texas. Sometimes I heard it as “yinz” instead of “younz”, as in “Are yinz going out tonight?”

    Did some quick googling, but couldn’t find much on the origins of this use. Maybe something to do with Pennsylvania Dutch??

  15. What a great discussion! Thank you for taking the time to discuss it.

    Here in NETX, we tend to use “y’all” for two or more folks. “All y’all” is generally reserved for a larger group of folks.

    I love regional dialects. They are, I think, part of who we are. Down here we use “fixin’ to” for some reason (e.g., “I’m fixin’ to go to the store. Do you need anything while I’m there?”), and all soft drinks tend to be cokes (note the lower case “c”). If I want to buy a soft drink from a vending machine, I would ask you where the nearest coke machine was.

    It’s sad, in my opinion, that we’re losing much of the regional distinctiveness we once had. I blame TV and movies. We are all beginning to sound like we’re from the midwest. It’s not that being from the midwest is bad, it’s just that we’re becoming homogeneous in a dialectical sense.

    Either way, THANK YOU for a great blog. I enjoy reading it!

    • Julia Glahn says:

      I moved from northwest MO to southern MI at 8 years of age and was introduced to African American dialect. I think that their “fin to” was derived from your “fixing to.” Love it!

      • Julia Glahn says:

        . . . and living for 8 years in that particular part of the country, a very small part including a bit of northeast KS, my pronunciation made no distinction between “dawn” and “don.” I think I’ve kind of learned it by 55 years of age, but people in MI thought it was funny! Yes, here’s to regional distinctions!

  16. Jan Schreiber says:

    Can’t sound like you’re from the midwest if you say “coke.” It’s called “pop” there. And if you can’t find any, you’ll have to get water from a bubbler (not a drinking fountain).

  17. Patricia says:

    Very interesting about the “ye aw” origin. As a child of two Virginians, I grew up with “y’all” as a regular part of my parents vernacular although not used consistently; my father’s Air Force career had moved them out of the South long ago which had affected their word choices. Despite living in the Northwest for forty-two years and as far as you can get from the Southeast within the continental US , I find myself using “y’all’consistently in my everyday life with very few comments from Northwest natives; it seems ingrained enough not to be abnormal. One notable difference is that it usually lacks the Southern drawl most associate with it; it’s been “Northwesternized”.

    As for the reference to country music having Scots-Irish background as well, I’ve heard that, but it was specifically in reference to bluegrass which is deeply influenced by it. This is especially true for the bluegrass music played in the ‘hollers’ of Appalachia where outside influence has been lessened by topographical isolation.

  18. Joe B says:

    Growing up in the DC suburbs of Maryland, you will hear white people sometimes say ‘y’all’. But I feel it’s less because of our location below the Mason-Dixon Line, and more because of the heavy African-American population in this area.

  19. TABITHA says:

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  20. alex m. says:

    It’s y’ll fer cryn out loud!

  21. Robert Carter says:

    A great read. Interestingly, in South Africa, the Indians, mostly from Durban on the Natal coast, also use the expression Y’all, and have done so for as long as I can remember, and I am now 60 years old.

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  25. AUDIO NOIR says:

    As far as addressing a group of people throughout the States “YA’LL” is overwhelmingly southern (although slowly spreading), “YOUSE” or “YINZ” almost exclusively a few parts of the East Coast (and becoming rarer all the time) and “YOU GUYS” (regardless of the people’s gender which is one more thing for feminists to complain about) is by far the most common everywhere to the point that it’s now becoming common in other countries too (especially in Australia which seems to take on Americanisms more readily than anywhere else outside the U.S.).

    “YOUSE” is still fairly common throughout the British Isles and commonwealth, but for whatever reason “YOU LOT” is all but unknown in the U.S. but common everywhere else English is the first language.

    Like the word “RUBBISH” an American generally knows what it means but absolutely never uses it.

    Not sure about Canada. They seem to be in a constant backward/forward mode between British and American in addition to all their own peculiarities.

  26. Adam says:

    While I salute you for writing an interesting blog here, I have to say that it’s total overkill. There’s nothing “remarkable” about y’all. It’s just a simple shortening of two words – You & All, just like They’re (They Are), We’re (We Are), Haven’t (Have Not), Don’t (Do Not), etc. There really is nothing more to it than that. It didn’t need to migrate from one place to another because it’s the logical solution to shorten word groups which are used together constantly & would have evolved by itself anywhere English is spoken. If you repeat “You All” over & over again – in the end it comes out Y’All.

  27. Adam says:

    You’ll – You All.

  28. Adam says:

    Sorry, You’ll – You Will! =D

  29. Hippibilly says:

    I was born and raised in two different counties in middle TN. One closer to KY, the other closer to GA & AL. In both places, which had distinctly different variations of the middle TN accent, my family, friends and myself all said “yaw”. We might spell it as “ya’ll”, but we just say “yaw”. There was a tiny exception in really, really isolated hill people who were liable to say “yuns”. I remember blushing if one of my friends said that because it wasn’t as elegant as “yaw”. ha! Said correctly, yaw should feel like a warm hug. “Hey yaw” can mean so much more than hello you all, if you caress the yaw it means hello, I love you, good to see you. Oh: African Americans are a good conveyance mechanism for Southern culture… Soul food is a good example, I don’t think that white folks spread that up North, but don’t forget the hillbilly highway. That’s where a lot of cousins and uncles and such in both sides of my family went for work. Rubber plants, automotive, steel..etc. Thanks for this blog! Really neat.

    • pam says:

      I have been away the South for over 20 years (grew up in east TN backwoods)and had forgotten that anyone said “you’ins.” Like you, I always thought that was “backward” as my mother liked to call it. I had a sister-in-law who used you’ins instead of y’all and for that reason I always questioned her level of intelligence! On the other hand, I had a lovely Aunt Inez who always said “you all” in the slowest Southern drawl and I thought her to be a wonderful example of a southern belle; “you’ins” would have never passed her lips. Funny how we Southerners judge a person on the word they use for plural “you.”

  30. Meade says:

    More and more Southerners are saying “You Guys” in place of “Y’all”. Maybe its TV, but its also invasion from other areas. I live in Virginia so I thought since we’re closer to the North it was just here. But to my travels all around the South, younger people especially are saying “You Guys” or “hey guys” instead of “Y’all”. Im from Virginia and grew up saying mostly “You all” and sometimes “Y’all”. But “You All” is viewed are more proper.

  31. K.B says:

    This was explained on America’s Secret Slang on the History Channel. Season 1: Ya’ll Speak Country.

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