In some corners of our society, people are working hard to solve legitimate problems. I’m not talking about those trifling issues like how to squeeze in dinner before baseball practice or even things like the threat of statism in our society. No, I’m talking about real matters like whether our language is gender-neutral enough.
Take, for example, the plural of the word “you.” Our English teachers used to tell us that the plural of “you” is “you.” But that can get confusing. People often substitute “you guys” for the plural “you,” but then that pesky sexism raises its head. When someone says “you guys,” is he or she automatically assuming the patriarchy or leaving out the women in the room?
Believe it or not, two recent articles have addressed this problem. Joe Pinsker writes in The Atlantic about how problematic the phrase “you guys” can get:
There are, of course, plenty of people—including many women—who have no problem being addressed as “guys,” think the word has evolved to be entirely gender-neutral, and don’t see a reason to change their usage. But others aren’t so sure. “I think there’s a really serious and welcome reconception of gender lines and relationships between sex and gender going on,” says John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University and has written several books about language. He says “something has crested in particular over about the past 10 years”—something that has people examining their everyday communications.
In my reporting I heard from several people who said that the word is particularly troubling for trans and gender-nonconforming people.
And Rachelle Hampton reaches a similar conclusion over at Slate:
For years, women and trans and gender-nonconforming folks have dreaded the jocular guys that is the distressingly universal choice when attempting to casually address a group of people.
You’re probably like me, wondering if this is all that some people have to worry about. #FirstWorldProblems, am I right? But don’t despair: Hampton and Pinsker have settled on an acceptable alternative: “y’all.”
That’s right. The gender-neutral language police want to co-opt the South’s preferred plural second-person term.
As a good Southern boy, born and raised, I have a hard time agreeing to this compromise. I shudder at the thought of all these millennial hipsters in coastal cities using “y’all.” Fortunately I’m not alone, as some people Pinsker and Hampton spoke with attest.
I heard from people born and living outside the South who didn’t feel they could use the term naturally. “They’ll say, ‘y’all’? Are you from Texas?,” one Californian told me; another, who now lives in the Midwest, says she feels “self-conscious saying it as a non-Southerner.”
And Hampton goes even further:
I’ve heard that people weirdly hesitate to use the word because they would feel like culture vultures, appropriating either black slang or the language of the South. And yet this is one of the only words where that kind of hesitation seems to hold any sway… If anybody gets defensive over white northerners using y’all, it’s most likely because those same white northerners teased them for using it in the past.
Here’s the thing: “y’all” isn’t just some convenient bit of gender-neutral language for the word police to commandeer. It’s practically a badge of Southernness — one of the terms we Southerners can claim as our own. It’s a word that both white and black Southerners can take pride in, given its emergence from both Scots-Irish heritage and early African-American culture. In fact, research has shown that usage of “y’all” has been on the rise among Southerners in recent decades.
On the other hand, maybe we Southerners should take pride that among us, a region that the politically correct crowd has often deemed backward and behind the times, we’ve been using a gender-neutral term since the 19th century, long before concerns over gender-neutral language even existed.
I’m not crazy about outsiders co-opting ”y’all” just for the sake of political correctness, and I’d safely guess that I’m not the only Southerner who would object. But I do know this: if y’all start trying to talk like us, we can still spot the true Southerners who get to use the word honestly.