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Can "Y'all" Be Used to Refer to a Single Person?

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“Y’all” is the most identifiable feature of the dialect known as Southern American English. It simply and elegantly fills out the pronoun paradigm gap that occurs in dialects that have only “you” for both singular and plural. Even people who don’t speak the dialect, who sometimes look down on its other features, have a soft spot for “y’all.” It’s as American as can be, and it embodies our ideal national self-image: down-to-earth, charming, and useful. But there is also a mysterious side to “y’all,” and for over a century, a controversy has been brewing over what might be called the Loch Ness Monster of dialect study: the elusive singular “y’all.” There are a few who claim to have seen it in the wild, and many who denounce such claims as nonsense. Does it exist?

Most Southerners say no. The whole idea of singular “y’all” strikes them as, at best, the fanciful invention of confused and clueless Northerners, and, at worst, an outrageous insult. In the early 1900s, C. Alphonso Smith, a North Carolina-born literature professor, used to read aloud passages to his students from “Southern” novels written by Northerners that contained phrases like “Maw, y’all got a hairpin?” and “in every case the misapplied idiom was greeted with mingled incredulity and laughter.” Tearing down the myth of singular “y’all” became a matter of regional pride. As Linguist E. Bagby Atwood put it in his 1962 study of Texas English, “if anything is likely to lead to another Civil War, it is the Northerner’s accusation that Southerners use you all to refer to only one person.”

No one disputes that “y’all” is sometimes addressed to a single person. You can walk into a store and say to the clerk, “Y’all got any eggs?” But every Southerner knows that this is not really a form of singular address. The “y’all” in that case means “you and your associates.” In “How y’all doing?” it means “you and your family.” In “Where do y’all buy groceries around here?” it means “where do you and the other people in this neighborhood buy groceries?” The plurality is implied, and if you can’t see that, well, you got less sense than a hound dog chasing a porcupine in a rain barrel.

Still, there are documented cases of actual Southerners using “y’all” as a form of singular address that aren’t easy to explain away with the implied plural principle (many of them discussed in the pages of the journal American Speech): A waitress, saying to a customer eating alone, “How are y’all’s grits?” A shopgirl, saying to a lone customer, “Did y’all find some things to try on?” A student, saying to her professor “Why don’t y’all go home and get over that cold?” Could these be mishearings or misunderstandings? Possibly. But another explanation is that every once in a while, “y’all” is used as a mark of formality. When “you” feels a little too direct, the plural adds a little distance and deference. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened in language evolution. The formal “you” is the same as the plural “you” in French, German, and plenty of other languages.

“Y’all” might also take on the role of a formal marker through a sweetening effect. If you wrap the message in an extra layer of Southernness, it goes down easier. In a 1984 paper on the “y’all” controversy, Gina Richardson gives a few examples of the ways Southerners do just this. They exaggerate their dialect in front of outsiders for social purposes:

One woman reported that she had purposely used exaggerated speech on a recent trip when she had unwittingly aroused the anger of a New York bus driver, and decided it would be a good idea to stress her lack of New York savvy. A college student mentioned that she tended to use exaggerated Southern when she was trying to soften advice that might not be well received—for example, when she indicated her disapproval of her roommate’s fad diet.

Maybe Northerners aren’t just making stuff up. They have been hearing singular “y’all” all along. They just didn’t realize it was not part of Southern English, but a different dialect, Exaggerated Southern English. The very fact of their not being Southern is what brings the singular “y’all” into existence.

Of course, if an exaggerated dialect becomes enough of a habit, it can spread to in-group contexts too. This may have happened in some large cities in the South. In a 1998 survey study by Jan Tillery and Guy Bailey, one-third of Oklahomans said they used singular “y’all.” (This wasn’t just an Oklahoma quirk; a 1994 Southern Focus Poll found the same thing.) When Tillery and Bailey (for the record, Southerners themselves) broke down the results by social characteristics, there was one significant difference. There were more singular “y’all” users in urban metro areas (Oklahoma City and Tulsa) than non-urban ones. This wasn’t due to outsider transplants to those cities; natives actually admitted to it more. Overall, the form was “more likely to be used by better educated Oklahomans than by less educated ones, by urban residents than by rural ones, by middle-aged adults than by older or younger ones, and by men than by women.”

There is something counterintuitive about this result. We usually expect education and urbanization to be associated with a leveling of regional dialect features and an adoption of a more generic standard. But more contact with outsiders can also lead to a desire for a stronger distinctive identity. As Tillery and Bailey say, it might be

that the form is used by native Southerners—especially those who live in areas with large numbers of non-Southerners or who are in contact with non-Southerners in their work—as a badge of local identity, that is, as a way of affirming local values in the face of widespread migration into the area by outsiders who (often unwittingly) pose a threat to local values.

So the answer to the question of whether singular “y’all” exists has to be a “yes.” As for the question “exists for who?”—well, I may be a clueless Northerner, but I have sense enough to step right over that one and show myself the door. Later, y’all!

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Why Swaziland Was Just Renamed eSwatini
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With the arrival of a new African nation, mapmakers just got a little bit busier. The king of Swaziland surprised foreign powers and compatriots alike when he recently announced that the country’s official name would revert to eSwatini, the name it went by prior to British colonialism.

King Mswati III, one of the few remaining absolute monarchs in the world, announced the name-change decision during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the country declaring independence from Britain.

"African countries on getting independence reverted to their ancient names before they were colonized. So from now on the country will be officially known as the Kingdom of eSwatini,” Mswati announced to a crowd in the city of Manzini, located about 23 miles from the capital Mbabane.

The king said there was another motivation for the name change: to avoid being regularly mistaken for Switzerland. "Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland," Mswati said.

While some consider the name change to be a patriotic move, others were critical of the decision, arguing that the small country in southern Africa has more pressing issues to tackle, including poverty, hunger, and the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS.

The name eSwatini essentially means “land of the Swati” in siSwati, the local language. Editor and author James Hall took to twitter to break down the etymology of the name:

Several African nations have opted to shed the names given to them by colonial powers, including Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland), and others.

How hard is it for a country to change its name, though? According to eSwatini’s Ministry of Home Affairs, it “won’t happen overnight.” The country will also need to register its new name with international agencies like the UN and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Adopting a new internet domain could end up being one of the more time-consuming steps, according to the BBC. But fortunately, citizens of the country might not need to run out to get a new passport, as eSwatini is already included on the document in a smaller font.

[h/t CNN]

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Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
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15 Intriguing Facts About George Eliot
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

Born in England in 1819, novelist and poet George Eliot is best remembered for writing classic books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner. Despite the time period she wrote in, the author—whose real name was Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans—was no stuffy Victorian. She had a famously scandalous love life and, among other linguistic accomplishments, is responsible for the term pop music. Here are 15 things you might not know about the beloved British writer.

1. SHE WAS BORN ON THE ESTATE WHERE HER FATHER WORKED.

Eliot was born on the grounds of Arbury Hall and Estate, a sprawling mansion in Warwickshire, England with hundreds of acres of surrounding gardens and farmland. Her father, Robert Evans, worked for the estate's owners, the Newdigate family, as a manager and agent. His job entailed collecting rents from tenant farmers and overseeing the property's coal mine.

2. HER RURAL UPBRINGING INSPIRED HER LATER NOVELS.

Arbury Hall
Arbury Hall
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Eliot was just an infant when her family moved from Arbury Hall to a home in a nearby town. But Arbury and the Warwickshire countryside left their mark on her. In Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Eliot's collection of three short stories, she wrote about the area and drew inspiration from real places and people. And some of her stories mirrored reality pretty closely. For instance, she turned Arbury Hall into Cheverel Manor, and Sir Roger Newdigate, Arbury's owner, into Sir Christopher Cheverel.

3. SHE EDITED A JOURNAL FOR PROGRESSIVE THINKERS.

In the early 1850s, Eliot wrote for The Westminster Review, a London-based periodical founded by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, contributing essays and reviews using the name Marian Evans. She soon became the de facto editor of the progressive journal, though her role was anonymous. Years later, other writers reviewed Eliot's own pseudonymous works in the journal she once edited.

4. SHE WORKED AS A TRANSLATOR.

Throughout her life, Eliot put her language skills to work translating foreign works into English. She translated books like David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a highly controversial German treatise that argued that Jesus Christ was a real person, but not divine. (Upon reading her translation, one English nobleman called it "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.") Eliot also translated The Essence of Christianity by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the Latin Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, incorporating facets of these philosophical and religious ideas into her own writing.

5. SHE WASN'T A FAN OF MOST WOMEN WRITERS OF HER DAY.

Eliot was by no means a misogynist, but she did have some harsh words for fellow women writers. In an anonymous essay titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Eliot lamented the frivolous characters and unrealistic plots that she argued were nearly ubiquitous features of novels written by women at the time. Published in The Westminster Review in 1856, Eliot's essay asserted that these books, full of cliches and improbable romantic endings, made educated women look foolish. She also criticized the writing style of other women of her time, saying they mistook "vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality." However, she did allow that not every book written by a woman fell into this trap, praising writers like Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Elizabeth Gaskell.

6. SHE WAS NOT CONSIDERED CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE …

George Eliot, circa 1868.
George Eliot, circa 1868.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Eliot's appearance was a source of avid discussion during her lifetime, and her looks continue to fascinate readers today. Eliot herself joked about her ugliness in letters to friends, and the novelist Henry James once described her in a letter to his father as "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." He went on to say that the "horse-faced" writer had a "vast pendulous nose," a low forehead, and bad teeth, among other physical flaws.

7. … BUT MEN LOVED HER.

Despite her plain appearance, men were drawn to Eliot. In the same letter where he called her "deliciously hideous," James explained his counterintuitive attraction towards her like this: "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her."

After various dalliances and a marriage proposal that she turned down, she spent more than two decades with the philosopher and critic George Lewes. But Lewes was already married, and as a result, many in Eliot's social circle (including her brother) shunned her. Though Lewes couldn't obtain an official divorce from his estranged wife, he and Eliot lived together as partners until his death in 1878, and she referred to herself as Mrs. Marian Lewes.

8. HER PEN NAME PAID HOMAGE TO HER LOVER.

In 1856, both to avoid the sexism of the publishing industry and distance her literary work from her scandalous romantic situation, she adopted the pen name George Eliot, a male nom de plume that paid homage to Lewes. In addition to adopting his first name, some historians have also suggested that "Eliot" derives from "To L(ewes), I owe it."

9. SHE MARRIED A MAN TWO DECADES HER JUNIOR …

After Lewes's death, Eliot channeled her grief by editing his writing and spending time with her lawyer and accountant, John Cross. Although Eliot was 60 and Cross was just 40, the two friends fell in love and married at London's St. George's Church in the spring of 1880.

10. … BUT THEIR HONEYMOON TOOK A DARK TURN.

After their wedding, the pair traveled to Venice, Italy for their honeymoon. Although Cross wrote a letter to his sister indicating that he was having a delightful time, Eliot knew something was wrong. Her new husband was depressed, agitated, and losing weight. She called a doctor to their hotel room and was speaking with him when Cross jumped off the balcony into the Grand Canal.

Cross was rescued by a hotel worker and the personal gondolier the couple had hired to take them around the waterways. The newlyweds eventually continued on their trip, and they remained married until Eliot's death later that year. Historians continue to speculate about the reason for his jump, and whether it was a suicide attempt—Cross may have had a personal and family history of mental illness—or some kind of heat-induced delirium. The mysterious incident was recently turned into a novel.

11. SHE INVENTED THE TERM POP

You probably don't associate George Eliot with Lady Gaga, but the Oxford English Dictionary credits the Victorian novelist with coining the term pop to refer to popular music. In November 1862, Eliot wrote in a birthday letter to a friend, "We have been to a Monday Pop. this week to hear Beethoven's Septet, and an amazing thing of Bach's played by the amazing Joachim. But there is too much 'Pop.' for the thorough enjoyment of the chamber music they give."

12. … AND A NEW MEANING OF THE WORD BROWSER.

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK
George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK

Diamond Geezer, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eliot coined a number of other now-common terms in her writing. For instance, she was the first to use the word browser in the modern sense of someone who is casually looking around (like a browser in a bookstore). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, the word browser meant “a person who cuts the leaves and twigs of trees to use as food for animals in winter." Later, it came to mean an animal that searched for leaves and twigs to eat. Eliot's historical novel Romola marked the first recorded time the word was used to mean a person generally surveying something. In it, she describes several friends of Florentine politician Bartolomeo Scala as "amiable browsers in the Medicean park."

13. SHE WAS ALSO A POET.

Although Eliot was most famous for her novels, she also produced two volumes of poetry. Her first published piece of writing was a poem called "Knowing That Shortly I Must Put Off This Tabernacle." Published in The Christian Observer in 1840, the poem refers to the Bible and imagines a person who is about to die saying goodbye to Earth. In a later poem, "O May I Join the Choir Invisible," Eliot argues that improving the world during one's lifetime is the only way to achieve permanence.

14. VIRGINIA WOOLF ADMIRED HER WRITING.

Author Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch's mature prose, referring to it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And modern readers seem to agree. In 2015, a BBC poll of 82 book critics from around the world named Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time. Several authors, including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, have also listed the book as one of the greatest English novels ever written.

15. HER FORMER HOME IS NOW A STEAKHOUSE.

Griff House, where Eliot lived as an infant until her early twenties, still exists, but it's now home to a steakhouse and hotel. Called the Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Travel Inn, the spot also features a pond, gardens, and a play area for kids.

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