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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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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