There was a recent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast (ok, not so recent, but I’m getting caught up) where they talk about y’all. Not y’all reading this, but the use of the pronoun y’all. The episode featured journalist Brendan O’Connor, who asked what hosts Tarence Ray and Tom Sexton thought of the word. Specifically, O’Connor wanted to know what the hosts thought of his use of the word since it was not part of his dialect growing up, whereas it was for both of the hosts (who are from Kentucky and Texas). O’Connor feels that the word is great because it’s gender-neutral, it rolls off the tongue and it’s fun to say. The hosts agree.
In this discussion, however, co-host Tom Sexton lays down some sociolinguistics about the word y’all:
What I’m saying is, yeah, you’re right: I think in terms of gender neutrality and all that stuff, [y’all is] good. There’s a phenomenon in this sort of, like – you know, me and Tarence refer to it as the Y’all-Star Movement, but it’s sort of this, like, this New South thing where all these James Beard Award-winning restaurants that pay their dishwashers $2 an hour and, you know, they’re reviving the cuisine of the Geechee peoples of South Carolina that were brought here to work the rice and sugar cane fields and all this shit. And those people do something I call the Gratuitous Y’all, where they’ll just try to inject it as much as they can in a sentence. And it just sounds so jarring to me. Like, to me a good y’all should be like the intrusive R that English people use – it just helps the sentence flow better, you know?
After that, Tarence discusses how some people naturally use it, but there are people and businesses in the US South that try to use it to sound more authentically southern. And when they do, it comes off as the opposite – like they’re trying to be something they’re not. It seems obvious that the spread of y’all is (or would be) a bottom-up change, but I’ve never thought about that politics of bottom-up linguistic changes in this way. That is, the upper classes are being immediately recognized and critiqued for adopting y’all into their planned/edited language (their marketing, etc.) – at least by some of the people who use y’all spontaneously.
Yes, even the ones that you don’t like. Here’s a quote from Spoken Soul by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford (2000: 92). It’s perfect in expressing the point that all language varieties have rules:
Every human language studied to date – whether loved or hated, prestigious or not – has regularities or rules of this type [i.e. conventional and systematic ways of pronouncing, modifying, and combining words]. A moment’s reflection would show why this is so. Without regularities, a language variety could not be successfully acquired or used in everyday life, and this applies to Spoken Soul, or Ebonics, as much as to the “Received Pronunciation,” or “BBC English,” of the British upper crust. Characterizations of the former as careless or lazy, and of the latter as careful or refined, are subjective social and political evaluations that reflect prejudices and preconceptions about the people who usually speak each variety.
That is so good. The book that it appears in is about Black English (also called African American Vernacular English), so of course Rickford and Rickford had to address the (uninformed) idea that Black English is just “English without rules.” It’s not and it never was.
You don’t get to claim that some specific group(s) of people don’t have any rules to the way they speak. Because if you claim that, it will say more about your judgment of those people than it will about your assessment of their language. (Well, it will also say that you’re not very good at making assessments about language.)
Every language variety follows systematic rules. Every single one. Not some. Not most. All of them. They may not follow the same rules as each other, but they follow rules nonetheless.
Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz is a very easy read since it is mainly colorful maps of dialect (sometimes lexical) boundaries in the US – here’s the line between people who say X and people who say Y (and occasionally there’s an island of people who say Z). The research behind the maps comes from a dialect survey that was featured in the New York Times in December 2013. It’s rather scant on details about language because that’s not really the purpose of this book. It shows, not tell.
To anyone familiar with linguistics, the maps will look familiar, although they are much nicer looking than the average dialect map in a linguistics textbook. Speaking American is a great coffee table book and I mean that in a positive way – it’s perfect for starting conversations between people. E’rybody loves talkin’ ‘bout language. The material is presented with such great imagery and it is so simple that it makes a great springboard into talking about talking. It happened at my house too. Both of my kids were very interested in how people said different things.
I did have a few misgivings with the book, however. I would have appreciated having the words of a few of the maps written in the International Phonetic Alphabet. For example, the maps showing the various ways that people say pecan were a bit tricky to figure out (PIH-KAHN, PEE-KAHN, PEE-KAN, PEE-KAHN, and PEE-KAN, pp. 80-81). But I suppose that the dialect survey in the NY Times wasn’t done using the IPA (and I know that the general public isn’t familiar with the IPA).
The section on California was a bit unclear to me. Katz writes that “for much of the twentieth century, California speech sounded like a mish-mash of dialects from everywhere else. California was a giant blender of the rest of the country’s speech: the general American dialect.” (p. 91) I don’t think Katz means that the rest of the country speaks in the General American dialect because that would be incorrect. But it would also be wrong to say that Californians speak in the General American dialect, so this part left me scratching my head a little.
Later in the section on Katz says that “in the mid-twentieth century, though, national radio began to replace local radio for the first time. The voices in America’s living rooms were […] Californians.” (p. 91) I’m not disputing the rise of (southern) California in the media industry, but I would’ve like to have a source for this. I assumed that national radio stations were still broadcasting shows out of New York in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Katz seems to suggest that surfer culture and valley girl speech spread the word cool out of California to other parts of the US. But that doesn’t seem right at all.
An eye-opening part of the book is where the data seems to shows that 75% of Americans have the cot–caught merger. The cot–caught merger basically describes speakers who pronounce these words identically. Since it’s two vowel sounds that are merged into one, it means that other pairs of words are pronounced the same, such as stock–stalk and pod–pawed.
But seeing that 75% of people have the cot–caught merger is bananas! I don’t know if I can buy this. Other linguistic research on the cot-caught merger, such as the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash & Boberg, 2006), would probably disagree since they show that large regions in the US resist the merger (and there are degrees to the merger, rather than just a yes-no classification).
But the data presented in Speaking American shows how many people have the merger based on their age. I think we can agree that the merger has spread, and obviously that language changes over time, but I’d like to see where the younger speakers in the data grew up. It seems like there might be an over representation of speakers from places where the merger has happened. If not though, this is some huge news.
One of the best parts about reading this book is how fun some of the sections can be. For example, if you know anyone from Philly or South Jersey, you might get a kick out of this section, which shows how some speakers pronounce the word crayons:
You are also bound to be surprised by certain sections. For me it was just how many people say “groh-shery store” (blue regions in the map below). I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, but look at all these people. They’re everywhere!
Finally, despite my misgivings about some aspects of the book, there is a refreshing linguistic commentary at the end, especially in the last paragraph which says
Dialect variation in American English shows no sign of disappearing […] No matter how much media we consume […] our parents, our siblings, and our childhood friends have an impact that far outweighs any homogenizing effects of television, film, or the Internet. (p. 197)
It’s nice to see such sound linguistic observation in a book aimed directly at the general public.