Before we begin, a word about the images in this post: To avoid lawsuits by photographers for using their work without permission, I’ve been limiting my image use to those that: 1) I have permission to use; 2) I take myself; or, 3) are royalty-free and in the public domain. MorgueFile is a handy site for finding things like that. Needing images for this post, I searched MorgueFile for pictures to illustrate the subject of “you.” I didn’t expect to find any, but I got a number of results, and the photos here are among them. What they have to do with “you” is anyone’s guess. But they’ll do in a pinch.
And now, back to the blog post.
The English language (which, sadly, is the only one I’m fluent in) is an endless source of fascination for me, and I could go on and on about it. In fact, I do go on about it (but not on and on) here. Today, I want to focus on one word. You guessed it: the word you. (Maybe we’ll talk about hey another time.)
Though I speak only English, I’m aware that most languages in the Germanic and Latin families (and perhaps others as well) have efficient means of separating the plural from the singular in the second person. (Remember conjugating verbs in school? First person is I/me, second person is you, and third person is he/she/it. All these come in two flavors: singular [just described] and plural [us/we, you, and they].)
I’m grateful to my parents for teaching me to speak properly from the time I was a toddler. But this caused me to be shocked when I started kindergarten and heard my fellow kiddies manhandling the language. One of the common butcheries I heard from that point and forever onward was the illegitimate son pluralization of the second person pronoun, yous. A girl in one of my high school English classes actually asked the teacher how to spell it and was incredulous to hear — apparently for the first time — that it wasn’t a word.
She was right to be taken aback. You needn’t be a linguist to realize the English language needs a plural form of you. So, lacking a proper word, we everyday-English-speakers make up our own. Depending on the location, you might hear locals say yous or yous guys, as they do in the Cleveland area where I grew up, or you-uns, as they do hereabouts (usually abbreviated you’ns), or y’all. Sometimes even all y’all. The more civilized speakers might say you folks. But in writing — unless we’re writing dialogue, or being very informal — there’s no way to tell singular from plural apart from the context; and occasionally, it’s necessary to know if the word is singular or plural in order to determine the context. It can get dicey at times.
What we tend to forget is that once upon a time, English did make the distinction between singular and plural second person. All those thee’s and thou’s in Olde English weren’t fancy embellishments; they actually meant something. Back in the day when King James authorized the translation of the Bible into common, everyday English, people understood that ye was the plural of the singular thee, and you and your were plural for thou and thine.
I’m not sure just when — nor why — those eminently useful words fell out of favor. It doesn’t make sense to drop the use of words that were fully established in common language and then cobble something to take their place — words that vary from place to place but are considered improper everywhere. Who decided to make this so devilishly difficult?
Personally, I like y’all and think it should be standardized. (I’d love to hear our friends in the UK using it.) But that’s not likely to happen. And since linguistic changes evolve on their own without any Language Authority decree, I can’t even suggest you (plural) petition someone to try to make that happen.
I have more to say on this subject, but I’ll spare y’all for now.