I know we’ve talked about “y’all” a lot (2004, 2005, 2007, 2018, and earlier this year), but Maud Newton has written about it for today’s NY Times Sunday Magazine (archived), and dammit, I like Maud Newton (I was stealing links from her as far back as 2003) and I enjoyed her take on it, so I’m going to quote some bits here:
Growing up in Miami, I dreaded being told that I sounded like a hick. In my teens, a boyfriend pointed out that I tended to say “sow” (as in the female pig) in place of “saw.” But most verbal indicators of my Texas roots fell away in nursery school, after my family moved from Dallas and I took to using the word “toilet” rather than “commode.” […] My father […] mostly ignored the changes in my speech, but one thing I said made him clench with fury: “you guys.” The term was “y’all,” he said, tightening his jaw. Little girls were not guys.
She says “y’all” “seemed to reek of forced cheer and hidden demands that I associated with my father. It was tangled up with his tiresome rules about gender,” and continues:
My assumptions about “y’all” were muddled at best. Its origins are mysterious: While the term could have originated with Scottish-Irish immigrants, there are reasons to suspect it derives at least in part from the vernacular of enslaved Black people, whose influence on Southern speech is undeniable but difficult to trace. Though a Southern term, it’s emblematic of the messiness and heterogeneity of American English — a language both inspiringly polyglot and marked by an ugly history.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that. My resistance to “y’all” began to fade only in my mid-20s, when I lived in Tallahassee after law school. My apartment was 17 miles from Florida’s border with Georgia, and I practiced law alongside men who took offense when, after a full day opposing them in depositions, I declined their offers to carry my briefcase. My last name was hyphenated, too: a true “you’re not from around here” demerit. But in grocery stores and coffee shops, on the street and in the library, everyone — Black and white, queer and straight, working-class and wealthy — used “y’all,” and soon I did, too. I began to enjoy its warmth and inclusivity, the way everyone was equally gathered under its umbrella. I had to admit: It didn’t feel sexist, racist or classist. It felt friendly and — most of the time — genuine.
When eventually I moved to Brooklyn, I was relieved to live in a place where no one tried to carry my bag at the end of a workday, and the Civil War monuments I passed honored the Union rather than the Confederacy. I reverted to the “you guys” of my youth, conforming to dominant New Yawker ways, but it wasn’t the satisfying linguistic homecoming I’d expected. It felt a little brusque, and though it was a betrayal of my 8-year-old self, I had to admit: I didn’t identify as a guy.
Living in the city, meanwhile, upended all my conceptions about what my ancestors’ preferred collective form of address meant. Far from being a niche Southern phrase, it already had a home here. I might not hear it much in the Brooklyn neighborhoods where I’ve lived — Williamsburg, Greenpoint, then Kensington — but it resounded in Bed-Stuy shops, a favorite Ft. Greene barbecue spot (R.I.P.), a street between City College and the A train. “Y’all” had come north in the Great Migration, alongside collards and cornbread. Now it has spread not just to states above the Mason-Dixon line but as far as Australia and near as my current home in Queens. Far from the oppressive ethos I once imagined, “y’all” represents the best of American vernacular.
As someone with Southern roots myself, I can’t disagree.