If you’ve never lived in the South, you probably don’t have the word “y’all” in your vocabulary. But nearly everyone knows that it’s the way southerners refer to a group of people. “Y’all”…it means “you all.”
It’s somewhat of a colloquial figure of speech, often mimicked or mocked by persons from other parts of the country. But linguists will tell you that it’s actually a sufficient solution to a problem which exists in the American English language. We don’t have a word that specifically refers to a plural “you.”
When we use the word you we are usually making reference to one person. If we want to indicate that it’s a reference to more than one person, we use hands or arms to gesture an inclusive meaning. Except in Mississippi or the other states in that part of the country we call “The South.” It can extend as far north as Washington, D.C. or as far west as Arizona, depending upon context. Like me, you may hate to make the concession, but the linguists are right. The southerners have figured out a way to use a second-person “you.” Y’all.
Well, there’s another place in the United States where they’ve done a similar thing: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is known for a number of things that are unique to the city or the region surrounding it. Primanti Brothers is the home of something known as “The Almost Famous Burger”…a creation made up of a freshly-formed hamburger, cole slaw and a healthy handful of french fries, all piled between two pieces of crusted bread to make one of the sloppiest, but tastiest sandwiches you can buy anywhere…in Pittsburgh.
And in any season of the year you can cruise the streets of Pittsburgh and find a chair, a shopping basket, a waste basket, or an abandoned baby carriage, holding a parking spot until Dad gets home from work. In other cities (like Boston) it’s a phenomenon in the winter when the apartment dweller has struggled to clear the snow in front of the house. But in Pittsburgh it can be a hot, summer day and you’ll find a place filler waiting for the right person to come along.
But to get back to the point. Pittsburgh dwellers also have a “y’all” substitute, and it’s unique to Pittsburgh. It’s the word Yinz. It’s a way of saying “you ones”…again, a way of indicating more than one “you.” And, like southerners, it is a legitimate way of solving a word deficit in American English. Not a pretty one. And not one that has caught on in other places. But, like the Steelers, it is unique to Pittsburgh and the town surrounding the city of bridges, steps, tunnels, and rivers.
And, speaking of the Steelers, that’s the meaning of the Pittsburgh question, “Yinz got rings?” It’s meant to be a put-down to other NFL teams who haven’t had the success of the Steelers in winning the big rings that come with a victory in the Super Bowl. The Steelers have 6. (My Patriots now have 5, so we’re gaining on them.)
There’s a kind of “hillbilly” sound to the word, but it isn’t restricted to one segment of the population. You’ll hear college professors and clergy-types throw it out…sometimes just for effect. It’s kind of jarring to us from the pristine New England area to hear it, but…then again…I’ve heard Providence people drop the “you’se” word, and it’s the same thing.
And some Northerners have been accused of substituting the term “you guys”* to signify the plural you. It’s not very politically correct, as it is used to refer to both men and women. And it’s kind of a crude term. But it, like y’all and yinz, is a way of trying to fill the gap.
So, there’s a challenge to wordsmiths. It’s not a new one. This question has been out there for a long, long time. How do we distinguish between a singular “you” and a plural “you?” Maybe we just move to Pittsburgh.
Image Credit:Red Bubble.com
*see Bryan Garner, p. 873