The recent snowfall was a reminder to break out my winter fedora and pack away the ball caps of summer, one of which was my fashion success of the year. It was festooned with a single word of proper English: “y’all” — and that simple exclamation drew positive comments almost every time it adorned my noggin. Some Yankees and grammar Nazis might have harbored other sentiments silently, but that’s just ignorance at work. They probably even spell it “ya’ll” or even “yall,” but both are slang, rather than proper English, and such thinking ignores the history of English contractions.
“Y’all” won’t be found in “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” or other reputable reference sources on slang, but Merriam-Webster defines it as “You — usually used in addressing two or more persons.” Y’all is also accepted by no less an expert than Bryan Garner, author of “Garner’s Modern American Usage: The Authority on Grammar, Usage and Style.” “This sturdy Southernism,” Garner wrote, “is most logically ‘y’all,’ not ‘ya’ll.’ Only the ‘you’ of ‘you all’ is contracted.”
Garner is a moderate on contractions in general, saying, “Many writers, especially those who write in formal situations, feel uncomfortable with contractions. And perhaps they don’t generally belong in solemn contexts. But why shouldn’t writers use them in most types of writing? Some writers use contractions to good effect, even in books.” William Shakespeare was a contraction liberal, but English contractions predate even him by centuries.
Historical contractions should be broken down by those preceding and following the invention of the apostrophe by the French printer Geoffrey Tory in 1529. Before apostrophes came along, words were contracted without any indication of what was going on. Contractions were utilized since Anglo-Saxon became Old English around 700 CE. For example, “nolde,” meaning “would not” was the contraction of “ne” (“is not”) and “wolde” (“desire”). However, apostrophes didn’t appear in Britain for another 30 years. The apostrophe made contractions easier to spot. Middle English had unapostrophed contractions, too, our modern “sit” was a shortening of “sitteth,” and “noot” contracted “ne woot” (“knows not”).
Modern English emerged around 1500, just before Tory’s apostrophe, and by Shakespeare’s day both printing and contractions were beginning to catch on. “Bad English” author Ammon Shea, said the popularity of English contractions in the 1600s was “like crack. It’s kind of addictive.” Etymology Online demonstrates their spread: “don’t” first appeared in 1630, then “won’t” (1660), “couldn’t” (1670), “can’t” and “ain’t” (both 1706), and “didn’t” (1775).
“Y’all” didn’t emerge until the early 1800s, and even today some experts insist that “y’all” can refer to single individuals as well as to more than one, but consider this: “y’all” uncontracted is “you all,” and Merriam-Webster defines “all” as “every member or individual component of.” Roy Blount Jr., author, journalist, playwright, humorist, poet, and radio personality who is a Phi Beta Kappa holder of a master’s degree in English literature from Harvard, is my authority of choice. In “How Does One Correctly Use the Term ‘Y’all?’” Blount states, ““Y’all is a specific second-person plural, which formal English lacks. All y’all is a more expansive y’all.”
Blount’s emergence as a national figure coincided with Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Carter was one of many presidents to employ “y’all” in everyday usage, and in 1980 the nation cried out for someone to explain Southern culture. Blount responded by writing “Crackers,” which even Yankees such as William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer lauded, and that was described by the New Republic as containing “pop zest and folk wisdom ... deep-dish country humor and acute sensibility. ... Like Mark Twain, (Blount) pits the sagacity and saltiness of the cracker barrel against the smooth, evasive rhetoric of the soapbox.”
Still some scholars insist on the singular usage of y’all. “Once in a blue moon,” Blount wrote, “I hear it used so, but almost invariably the speaker is a tradesman trying to charm a Northern tourist.” Blount proposed that “non-Southerners want Southerners to use y’all as a silly singular because they want to think of us as picturesque, puttin’ on folk (or folks) who don’t actually mean half of what we say — when, in fact we do. In the case of y’all, we mean both halves.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.