As a Canadian by choice, I freely acknowledge that my current home has a few advantages over the country of my birth, the good old U.S. of A.
But there’s one factor where the Land of Liberty has the Great White North beat: its linguistic crucible has led to the only second person plural pronoun our language has seen in hundreds of years. That’s right, I’m talking about “y’all.”
Y’all is a contraction of “you all” that came out of the American South, and as such has been unfairly maligned as a word used by stereotypes: cowboys and the above-linked (Beverly!) hillbillies. But it offers English speakers a handy way to refer to a group of people collectively (instead of the imprecise “you,” which is also singular). And, most importantly, it does so in a gender-neutral way: The most common workaround for lack of the appropriate pronoun is the term “you guys” which is increasingly inappropriate and insensitive to folks who identify as other than cisgender male. But “y’all” faces an uphill battle on several fronts towards widespread linguistic acceptance.
“For most […], pronouns fly under the radar. We repeat what we hear in the ‘linguistic ether,’ says [language, literacy and culture professor Christine] Mallinson, without much thought. And because we choose pronouns so automatically, it can be hard to change habits, even with strenuous mental effort, as those now incorporating the singular ‘they’ may have discovered.
For all the same reasons, however, doing the work to adopt new pronoun customs sends a strong message about one’s personal or cultural beliefs, Mallinson explains. So if someone values language that supports equality, but is unwilling to back away from you guys,’ they probably should be able to explain why. This is where this debate can get into sensitive territory.”
I think I’d feel like less of an impostor using “y’all” than some others (including the Canadian author of the above article), as I have my Americanness to fall back on. And I kind of like the fact it references being a rough and tough cowpoke — qualities that may be useful in certain meetings! Joking aside, English has a dire need for a word that refers to community, and especially a community that is diverse, and rich in the lived experiences of its members. The good news is, that fascinating word already exists. And the only thing I and all y’all, have to do is use it!