Where I grew up, “y’all” is as everyday as the Appalachian Mountains that surround you like an embrace, but I now have family and friends who cringe a bit at that word. A few even occasionally use “yous,” and I try my best not to shudder, though I realize my own regionalisms probably have the same effect on their ears.
Honestly, it all comes down to the same problem: When you’re talking to a group of people, what’s the best word to use to make it clear you’re talking to a whole bunch of people? You’re not just talking to Rebecca. You’re talking to her entire department or her entire family.
Maybe you have the Goonies in the back of your head, with Sloth saying “Hey, you guys…” And, again, while it offers an answer, “you guys,” is still not quite right. While many utilize “guys” as a gender-neutral word, it still has a male connotation that doesn’t always sit well.
Slate recently published an article about this problem, arguing for the natural growth of “y’all.” I hear you, Slate. I absolutely do. Y’all have a great argument. In fact, I’m with you. I just don’t see it happening any more than someone living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia suddenly taking up “yous” in their everyday speech because it offers an answer to the linguistic problem at hand.
There are substitutes that come up, like “everyone,” “team,” and my old favorite “folks,” but I’d like to point out that the English language itself offers up an answer. It’s not one that’s especially modern, but it exists and should at least be a part of this conversation.
Let me remind you about “Ye/You” vs. “Thee/Thou”:
In the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, there were multiple versions of the word we now know simply as “you.” There were adjustments for singular or plural, sentence subjects versus sentence objects, and even for levels of respect.
- “Thee” was the singular version of today’s word “you,” when it was used as a subject (e.g., “Thee sings so beautifully”; “get thee back to your studies”).
- “Thou” was the singular version, when it was used as an object (e.g., I took thou to the castle; he called thou).
If we really want to dive deep here, we can even talk about “thy” and “thine,” which rhyme and function like second person singular versions of “my” and “mine”—or more simply said, they are the equivalent of “your” and “yours” for just one person.
Of course, “thee” and “thou” were also used as word choices of intimacy or as a sign of a lower station or rank. Close confidants would use “thee” and “thou,” as would adults speaking to children and the more powerful speaking to someone lower according to class hierarchies of the day.
- “Ye,” could be compared to the French word vous. It is the subject pronoun to use when looking for that plural “you” of today—when you know “y’all” and “yous” aren’t the answer—or when speaking to someone, to whom you need to show respect.
Wow, even talking about respectful language is making me throw in a formal “to whom.” No ending with a preposition today, folks.
Of course, this version of “ye” is not to be confused with the other older version of “ye,” which was a substitute for “the” in the era where T + H was not yet the standard spelling of the “th” sound. (More on that here. You know you’re intrigued.)
- “You,” of course, is the word we know and love—or at least that we know and use. Originally, it was designed only as a second person plural object form, but it’s shed its past limitations, hasn’t it?
If we’re going to make a push for more clarity with our plural “you,” I say, why not bring back the “thee/thou/thy/thine” forms to complement it, and let’s throw “ye” back into the conversation. A bit old-fashioned, sure, but there’s thoughtfulness and respect hiding in these old forms that might do good for our communications and society.
Let’s let “you” be “you.” It just needs some company to solve this contemporary problem.
Am I serious? Not completely. But if we’re going to talk about what to do about the plural “you,” let’s at least have the history of “you” as a part of the conversation.
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