How y'all doin'?
by Tom Sullivan
Axel Foley: What? Y'all the second team? Detective McCabe: We're the first team.
Eat black-eyed peas? Sure. Grits? Occasionally at Waffle House. Collard greens? Never. Say y'all? Once in a blue moon. Maybe. A lot of things you pick up over time. Y'all wasn't one of them.
When as a kid I moved South, the mannerisms, food, and culture (and religion) were pretty foreign. As were the accents. Over time, though, like Henry Higgins I could pick out what part of town people were from by their accents. There are few things more annoying than hearing some blond-haired, southern Californian actor attempting one of those one-size-fits-all, made-for-TV southern accents. The variations are too rich and subtle for that. Although inmigration has watered down accents somewhat overall, occasionally you can still hear one like this from a feisty friend of mine. (Underestimate her because of her accent at your peril.)
Writing in Salon yesterday, Cameron Hunt McNabb examined theories of how the ubiquitous Southernism y'all came into being. Commonly thought a contraction of "you all," that doesn't exactly work:
In academic circles, many subscribe to Michael B. Montgomery’s suggestion that “y’all” descends from the Scots-Irish “ye aw” and not directly from “you all.” He cites a 1737 letter by a Scots-Irish immigrant in New York as an example: “Now I beg of ye aw to come our [over] here.”
Montgomery’s argument relies on two observations about “y’all’s” unique place among English contractions. First, contractions in English place stress the first word and contract the second, such as in the case of “they’re,” where “they” is stressed while “are” has been shortened. But “y’all” does not conform to this pattern. Instead, it stresses the second word, “all,” and contracts the first, “you.” Secondly, there are no other contractions that involve “all” in English, whereas we have lots of contractions involving “will,” “not,” and “are.” These irregularities suggest a more complex origin, such as a cognate word, like “ye aw.”
Except no one really knows. But when you hear Brooklyn-born Eddie Murphy playing a cop from Detroit saying "y'all," as well as a few non-southern attendees at Netroots Nation, it has clearly spread beyond its southern roots. Would that other cultural exports from the South were as harmless.