A Letter From Charleston
Due in part to the recent rise in the use of the execrable pronominal “you guys,” a reaction has set in, or so it seems.
Those of us who object to the sheer vulgarity of “you guys” have been forced for decades to endure its cringe-inducing, ubiquitous assault on our eardrums while stifling our protests lest we come across as hopelessly pedantic or elitist. Of course, we in the South have been, for the most part, free of this semantic distress, except on those occasions when we reluctantly cross the Mason-Dixon line. Naturally, that distress is augmented by the difficulty we experience, in our journeys north or west, in finding decent sweet tea, edible biscuits, or shrimp and grits that don’t taste like fishy Cream of Wheat. However, I’m informed that all this may be changing.
How so? Well because the term “y’all”—infinitely preferably to “you guys” or “folks”—is now rapidly becoming the preferred second-person plural in places where, not so long ago, it was regarded as laughably countrified—in academic enclaves like Ann Arbor or in Manhattan board rooms. I would like to think that “y’all” is catching on because y’all Northerners have finally realized that we benighted Southern folk had it right from the beginning. Some, perhaps, have adopted our beloved pronoun because they just love the way it slides off the tongue like homemade butter, oozing hospitality.
But apparently, many more are now jumping aboard the pronominal midnight train to Georgia because “you guys,” they say, is sexist and binary. The exclusive use of “you guys” erases the existence of gals, or so the feminists argue, while transgender folks deplore the term because “you guys” implicitly evokes its opposite and populates the world with just guys and gals and nothing in between.
Thus, we are apparently trending toward a universal appropriation of “y’all” for woke ends. Bryan Lufkin, writing for the BBC’s Worklife page, states that “LGBTQ+ advocacy groups encourage the ‘y’all means all’ mantra, arguing that the term is preferred because it includes people of all gender identities.”
Well, if millions of people outside Dixie adopt our special pronoun just because they love its sound and convenience, then fine, even though as soon as it begins to spread like kudzu, it will no longer carry a uniquely Southern cachet. But if it enters the woke lexicon, I will certainly feel that some part of my identity has been “appropriated” (that means stolen, y’all) for deplorable purposes. Not long ago I thought about creating one of those “My Pronouns” macros that would automatically add “y’all” to my email signature. Now that it is the preferred term of the woke, I will have to worry that people might take it seriously and assume I’ve abandoned my reactionary ways and sailed off on the good ship Lollipop.
Speaking of appropriation, it has been seriously argued that the use of “y’all” by white folks is a racist appropriation of the black vernacular, or as our acronym mongers like to say, AAVE (African American Vernacular English). According to this understanding, “y’all” was invented by black slaves then adopted by Southern whites after the Civil War. Therefore “y’all” is a black thing. This is about as persuasive as the claim that Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt (you know, the one who shacked up with Marc Antony and was poisoned by an asp), must have been black. After all, Egypt is a part of the African continent, right? Well, as long-established historical consensus testifies, the ill-fated lady was in fact a bona fide Macedonian and a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Similarly, not a shred of evidence supports the notion that “y’all” is a black thing.
Nonetheless, this idea is frequently bruited about by the alphabet people, many of whom have indulged in some anguished handwringing over whether to embrace the “y’all means all” dictum. A few years ago, a person identifying as a “transbian” on a Reddit thread offered some useful advice. He/she was honest enough to admit that the origin of the southern “y’all” is deeply obscure but stated that if he/she were to be approached by a black person who admonished her/him as a racist for using “y’all,” she/he would defer to the wishes of said black person.
According to the enlightened double-standard proposed by this transbian, if a fellow white person calls you out for using “y’all,” its okay to fact-check him or her; but if a “melanated” person does so, “your best move is to say something like, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know that wasn’t OK.’” According to this same principle of self-abasement, she/he wrote that “people of privilege should be willing to take marginalized people’s word for it … even if we later decide that person wasn’t right.”
Speaking an as unmelanated PoP (Person of Privilege), I can say with some confidence that no black person—in the South, at least—will ever reproach me for using “y’all.” This is true because the word is one of those shared things which has shaped our common identity for centuries—along with barbecue, butter beans, and the Bible. We are friendly people, but trust me when I say we will have no patience with folks who start messing with our blessed pronoun.
But, alas, our hopes of preserving “y’all” as a marker of Southern identity may soon be dashed. A professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Maryland, Christine Mallison, argues in The Routledge History of the American South that “the more individuals, organizations or governments continue to examine language for gendered messages, whether to prevent discrimination in the toy aisle or to accept gender as a spectrum, the more ‘y’all’ stands a chance of being accepted by the masses.”
Heaven forbid. Even if such an acceptance “by the masses” might seem superficially flattering to us Southerners, it would, in fact, be another milestone on the path toward complete erasure of Southern identity.
As a child I spent many a holiday and summer vacation on my maternal grandparents’ Alabama farm. Among my fondest childhood memories is how on Sunday afternoons dozens of kinfolk and neighbors would gather there for the sabbath meal, all of them arriving with “covered dishes” of every description. There were always too many of us to gather around my grandmother’s groaning table, so most would gather on the spacious front porch, which overlooked a patch of pastureland. We lingered there for hours, eating, swatting flies, and telling tales—as Southerners are wont to do. But eventually, as the visitors began to descend the high porch steps we all stood up to see them off, gathering at the railing with hands raised and waving as they made their way slowly to their cars. We said, “Y’all come, y’all come now” over and over, and they would stop and turn and say, “Y’all come too. Y’all come see us.”
This ritual seemed to me at that tender age to go on forever. Puzzled, I once asked my grandmother, “Why do we say ‘y’all come,’ when they’ve just now come and gone?” She would smile and say, “We want them to know that they can come anytime.” And that was true. Her door was always open. No one ever needed an invitation. They would just walk in and make themselves at home.
That’s what “y’all” meant and means. It was indeed an inclusive pronoun. But all those good folk, most of them moldering in their graves now, would be appalled to imagine that it could somehow be construed as a blessing upon those who believe that one’s gender is a personal preference.