Thursday, August 28, 2008

2nd person plural

The second person plural is one of those funny things in English that doesn't exist even though we want it to. Virtually every regional dialect has a 2pl. form (y'all, youns) even though standard English lacks it (except perhaps for the periphrastic "you guys", which is what I use). And that's because, gosh darnit, it's useful. Sure, context can often disambiguate whether one is addressing an individual or a group, but redundancy is a part of language, and in this case it's not even always redundant. More interesting is the emergence of what could be described as a tripartite plural pattern in Southern English: you (2sg.), y'all (2pl., small group), all y'all (larger group). It's not really a singular/dual/plural distinction, because I don't think anyone restricts the use of y'all to only two people, but there are people for whom there is a small plural/larger plural distinction between "y'all" and "all y'all". It just goes to show that if a language doesn't work in the way speakers want it to work, they make it work. After all, communication is the reason behind language, and we want to be able to accurately communicate what we want to.


Anonymous said...

Yip, it does seem to be quite widespread. In Scots, we often say 'yous' (rhymes with 'news').

NW said...

I've always wanted to do an experiment on disambiguation. I find that when I have difficulty forcing myself to use simply "you" instead of y'all when talking to a group of people, and I'll often say "'all..." because I'm not being as specific as I can (a Gricean restriction?).

Ryan Denzer-King said...

It's my impression that Gricean maxims wouldn't require you to add in information that can be recovered from context (otherwise we wouldn't use pronouns). I think more likely it's simply a cognitive division (there are many perceptual differences between talking to an individual and a group) that wants to be expressed linguistically.

Alex Remington said...

In Pittsburgh, it's "yinz," a slightly different corruption of "you 'uns." But "yous," "youse," "youz," and "yez" are quite widespread, I think, from Scotland to Brooklyn.

Unknown said...

It isn't that we don't have a second person plural, we have hundreds of them.
You guys

Labsnark said...

Errrr... English DOES have a second person plural, it's the word "you". What it has lost is standard use of its word for second person singular; "thou" (nominative form) and thee (oblique form). Sadly, these very useful words are regarded as archaic unless they form part of a regional dialect (for example in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north of England).

Ryan Denzer-King said...

Good point -- in fact English lost the 2nd person singular, not the 2nd person plural. Of course, since singular is the unmarked category, we tend to interpret "you" as basically singular, with the plural meaning being interpreted as secondary.