I've always been fascinated by the origins and peculiarities of the English language, particularly slang words and phrases. And here in the South, we have our fair share of weird sayings, but the word most identified with our region is "y'all." Ask any Yankee to do their best impression of a Georgia farmer and watch the "y'alls" fly. 1 It is so firmly attached to Southern culture, it has become a warmly welcomed cliche- a proud symbol of what it means to be from Dixie.
Merriam-Webster defines the word as:
y'all 'yol var of you all. 2
Sounds simple enough. But is it? Unlike other words, this dictionary offers no notation regarding the origin of "y'all." To find out where that treasured term comes from, you have to dig a little deeper. As with most slang, the explanations of it's introduction into our lexicon can differ greatly. Cultural and geographical perspectives come into play. The limited availability and questionable validity of source material needed to form an indisputable conclusion are a major factor. Therefore it's not surprising that "y'all" hasn't been given the scholarly attention it deserves. 3
So where DID "y'all" originate? And is it just a contraction of "you" and "all?" Following a fair amount of research, I discovered the science isn't settled on the issue. There is a disagreement among scholars because "y'all" is a slippery pronoun to pin down. It inhabits a space of informality that doesn't easily lend itself to documentation. That fact, however, hasn't discouraged a few intrepid souls from trying. Some evidence supports the contention that "y'all" is an Americanized version of the Scottish phrase "ye aw," brought to America by Scotch-Irish immigrants in the 17th and 18th century. 4 This gives rise to speculation that the term was adopted by the slaves they owned. After Emancipation, the freemen spread the word to the industrial North when relocating in search of employment. 5 This theory may help explain why in the South, "y'all" is universally used, but in the North it seems to be confined to African American communities or recent transplants from below the Mason-Dixon.
Others argue it is simply a matter of combining "you" and "all," or "ye all," and that can be traced even farther back to 17th century England. 6 This assertion does seem to have the most evidence to support it over the competing arguments. However, it does little to explain why it's use is far more prevalent in the southern U.S., since Scotch-Irish immigration was not confined to the South. 7 Still others maintain the term was the contribution of creole-speaking slaves and it was they who influenced the white population in the antebellum South. 8 This premise appears the least likely due to lack of credible sources from the theory's suggested time frame, not to mention the almost nonexistent influence of a slave over a master.
Wherever and whenever "y'all" appeared, it is more than just the joining of two words. It is a timeless cultural expression so deeply ingrained in the American vernacular, it personifies an entire demographic comprised of millions. And that's a powerful turn of phrase, y'all.
1 Parker, David. "More than Y'all Wanted to Know about 'Y'all,'" Another History Blog (posted 25 December 2006), http://anotherhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2006/12/more-than-yall-wanted-to-now-about-yall.html
2 Merriam -Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. "y'all."
3 Lipski, John M. "Y'all in American English: From Black to White, From Phrase to Pronoun," Pennsylvania State Personal Web Server Archive, date unknown. Introduction and pgs 24-25. http://www.personal.psu.edu/jml34/yall.pdf. John M. Lipski, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
4 Parker, David. "More than Y'all Wanted to Know about 'Y'all,'" Another History Blog (posted 25 December 2006), http://anotherhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2006/12/more-than-yall-wanted-to-now-about-yall.html
5 Trawick-Smith, Ben. "The Remarkable History of Y'all," Dialect Blog (posted 15 February 2011), http://dialectblog.com/2011/02/15/the-remarkable-history-of-yall/.
6 Parker, David B. "Y'all: It's Older Than We Knew," History News Network, George Mason University (posted 5 July 2015), http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/159662.
7 Wikipedia. "Scotch-Irish American," Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotch-Irish_Americans: last modified 10 July 2016, at 19:30: last accessed 29 September 2015), para. 1 under heading Migration.
8 Lipski, John M. "Y'all in American English: From Black to White, From Phrase to Pronoun," Pennsylvania State Personal Web Server Archive, date unknown. Introduction and pgs 24-25. http://www.personal.psu.edu/jml34/yall.pdf. John M. Lipski, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.