Y’all (// yawl) is a contraction of the words "you" and "all". It is used as a plural second-person pronoun. Commonly believed to have originated in the Southern United States, it is primarily associated with Southern American English, African-American Vernacular English, and some dialects of the Western United States. It is also found in the English-speaking islands of the West Indies.
There is long-standing disagreement about whether y’all can have primarily singular reference. While y’all is generally held in the Southern United States to be usable only as the plural form of "you", a scant but vocal minority (for example, Eric Hyman,) argues that the term can be used in the singular as well. Adding confusion to this issue is that observers attempting to judge usage may witness a single person addressed as y’all if the speaker implies in the reference other persons not present: "Have y’all [you and others] had dinner yet?" (to which the answer would be, "Yes, we have", by a single person acting as spokesman for the group.)
For some residents of Southern states, when using "you" may be considered somewhat familiar, "y'all" is used in the singular sense to introduce a certain formality or respectfulness. In these same circumstances where premature familiarity is to be avoided, one may hear Miss or Mister introduced in front of a first name, as well as the use of Sir or Ma'am when a name is not used.
H. L. Mencken recognized that y’all or you-all will usually have a plural reference, but acknowledged singular reference use has been observed. He stated, appropriate use
is a cardinal article of faith in the South. ... Nevertheless, it has been questioned very often, and with a considerable showing of evidence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, to be sure, you-all indicates a plural, implicit if not explicit, and thus means, when addressed to a single person, 'you and your folks' or the like, but the hundredth time it is impossible to discover any such extension of meaning.
— H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 1948, p.337
There is no standard way of forming the possessive form of y’all. An apostrophe followed by the letter s (’s) is often used, yielding y’all’s. However, in English, only one other personal pronoun -- one -- ever uses an apostrophe to make the possessive form.
Following that same construction for y’all would mean that the possessive form would be written as y’alls rather than y’all’s.
While y’all is actually a contraction of you all, it is most commonly used as a plural form of you. All y’all, all of y’all, or alls y’all suggests, although there is no documented or accepted convention on the usage of the term, that the entire group is meant, rather than an undefined subset thereof. Cf. we vs. we all, or they vs. they all.
Y’all clearly arose as a contraction of you-all. Y’all fills in the gap created by the absence of a separate second person plural pronoun in standard modern English. This absence arose when thou/thee (singular) and ye (plural) disappeared, and you came to signify both singular and plural. This absence similarly gave rise to the phrases you-uns, you lot, or you guys. (Cf. yous, an informal plural second-person pronoun formerly used in New York City, still common in Ireland, often rendered "youse" in Australia and New Zealand, and yinz, an informal plural second-person pronoun commonly used in Western Pennsylvania and the Appalachians).
Though the you all contraction argument may make sense when considering current-day vernacular, it is prudent to consider the vernacular which existed at the time which y’all was likely invented. By the late 18th century, Scots-Irish immigrants had settled in the Southern United States. It is well established that Scots-Irish immigrants frequently used the term ye aw. Some evidence suggests that y’all could have evolved from ye aw due to the influence of African slaves who may have adapted the Scots-Irish term.[verification needed].
There is evidence that the original spelling was ya'll. The spelling of ya’ll could have originated from the contraction of ya-all because ya was a common spoken slang form of the word you. 19th and 20th century authors like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Carson McCullers used ya’ll. Though becoming less common, the spelling of ya’ll is still used within the Southern United States.
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