We had such an interesting array of comments on the proper use and meaning of "y’all" in the (Zach) Scruggs Nation post yesterday, I took some time last night to do a little independent research on the subject.
The comments overwhelmingly favor "y’all" exclusively as a plural, although a few commenters thought it might be used as a singular pronoun on occasion. The private e-mails to me offline ran exclusively in favor of plural. So when I found a scholarly article online in the journal American Speech entitled Can Y’all Function As A Singular Pronoun In Southern Dialect, I had to read it.
The article is from Spring 1984, and was written by Gina Richardson — the article doesn’t further identify her except to say she was affiliated with Georgetown University. Also, from the article, one learns her father had an office of some sort in Columbia, South Carolina, so we might make an educated guess that is where she grew up.
In short, the traditional interpretation of y’all is indeed the valid one — y’all is an exclusively plural second person pronoun meaning "more than one." Careful examination of the reactions of 123 informants and informal conversation with more than twenty others revealed not even one instance of y’all in normal usage that manifested anything other than a plural referrent.
She tells a story about how her confidence in this conclusion could have been shaken when she stopped by her father’s place of business to greet some friends. Her father led the way to the new office of one of these friends, John. As the author’s father stepped in, John did not know Gina was in the hallway and thought the father was alone. John said to Gina’s father, "Hi y’all." However, as it turns out, John’s greeting was a private joke: the father’s name was Elwood, the same first name as the Jimmy Stewart character in the movie Harvey, about a man with a giant invisible rabbit friend. So John had jokingly been greeting the father and his invisible friend — a plural use of y’all.
It is a good article. If you care to read it, go to www.jstor.org and you can search for it by title. If you don’t have a login for the JSTOR website, it has links to your local public library, and you can log in by entering your library card number.
This article is not the first or last on the subject of "y’all" in American Speech, the premier journal on American dialects and idiom. A 1928 article by Estelle Rees Morrison came to the opposite conclusion, as did a 1975 article in the same journal by Nancy Spencer. Gina Richardson also cites H.L. Mencken’s The American Language, Supplement Two (1948) for the proposition that, although 99 percent of uses of y’all are plural, a tiny percent are singular.
Richardson’s answer to these views is that all of them are held by non-native speakers. In her examination, including an empirical study employing a written test and follow-up interviews, she found that non-native speakers may confuse the fact that only one person is being addressed by a speaker with the fact that the speaker is using "y’all" to refer to a broader context, the addressee and some other person or persons not present but who are in some way contextually relevant to the conversation.
Two things in Richardson’s study convinced me she is right. First, she employed a test using the following lines, in which respondents had to fill in the blank with a pronoun.
"That was quick! Mike must have given y’all good directions."
"He sure did; _____ didn’t have any trouble finding it."
The responses were overwhelmingly plural — in other words, "we didn’t have any trouble" dominated. But second, Richardson also found that, in such situations, where the person answered "I," it was only because the person was taking it upon himself or herself to answer for the group, not because the person understood "y’all" as addressed only to the one who answered. For example, the person who actually drove the group there would answer "I" on behalf of the group.
For more views, here is a post on the word y’all on a history blog; the Wikipedia article referred to by a commenter yesterday; and an entry on dictionary.reference.com, which is based on one of the great dictionaries, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.
So there it is. Might be a good plot for the next Grisham novel — an ear-witness heard the victim say "This is not right what y’all brought me here, when I said I needed a delivery of sweet potatoes I didn’t mean for y’all to actually bring me sweet potatoes" just before the fatal shot rang out, and the witness turned the corner to see the accused standing there by himself over the body.
The questions for the jury: What was the difference in meaning, if any, between the two uses of "y’all"?
Did "y’all" refer to a second person the accused claims was present and who fired the shot before placing the smoking gun in the accused’s hands and running off?
Did "y’all" refer to the accused, who was there by himself, and to additional criminal conspirators who were not present?
Or did "y’all" refer to only the accused, as the victim may have been merely impersonating a true Southerner but was in fact from Oregon and didn’t know the right way to use the word?
Could the Oregonian victim have been addressing the real killer who ran off, or perhaps the real killer and an accomplice unseen by the accused?
Or was the victim watching a video called "Best of Y’all’s Bloopers" at the time of the killing, and was the voice that of a New Jersey-raised actor speaking with a fake Southern accent?
And what of the Manchurian Candidate "stealth" judge on the state supreme court who stands ready to review any conviction — a hot supermodel turned jurist and secret linguistics expert who unbeknownst to herself is the twin sister of the victim, separated at birth and raised by sweet potato farmer "parents" who are really members of a criminal gang specializing in the brainwashing of children, and who have long been plotting the ultimate, perfect murder?