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

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istock

“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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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