A few years back at Christmastime in Chicago, I wandered cold and sleepy into a store across from Wrigley Field. I’d been away from home too long, I needed comfort and I hadn’t found a Dr Pepper in days.
Inadvertently, a linguistic theory was born.
Yankees are known (yes, you are) for mistakenly using “y’all” to address an individual person. It’s like they don’t know what “all” means. There seem to be enough Southerners in the film/TV industry that you don’t see it make its way onto screens too often, but in person, yeah, you hear it. There’s nothing quite as jarring as being addressed in the plural, as though you have suddenly sprouted a second head. “Y’all” is a second-person plural pronoun, like “vous” in French, which makes Southern English more specific and more flexible than whatever they speak up there. And on this cold December day, I figured out why they do that: They are making the mistake of believing their own ears.
I walk into the store, a sea of Cubs apparel that also appears to have a convenience-store type array of food and drink. Tired and grumpy (I get grumpy when it’s under 20 degrees outside), I decide not to go hunting around the store looking for my fix, but go straight up to the counter and ask the clerk (the only person in sight): “Do y’all have Dr Pepper?”
What I was doing, of course, was politely and pre-emptively absolving the poor clerk of personal responsibility, as a good Southerner would automatically do. Thus, the plural. The full version of my question probably would have been, “Do your employers stock Dr Pepper, you poor thing? I know they don’t.”
But of course what he witnessed was a tiny, grumpy person walking up to him and addressing him, personally, as a “y’all.” Light dawns! No wonder that, if he ever chooses to attempt to use the term in speech (I’m sure only to describe how charming Texans are), he will undoubtedly and based on incontrovertible personal experience use it right out of the box incorrectly and make some poor person think they have two heads. Like the Titanic’s poor Capt. Smith, “Everything he knows is wrong.”
So, my dear Northern brethren, we politely and pre-emptively absolve you for saying it wrong. Y’all are all forgiven. (We’ll save the discussion of the emphatic “all” and collective “all y’all” for another day.)