September 18, 2005

Out of the y'all zone

Back in 1998, when Michael Lewis covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for Slate, he opined that Microsoft's lawyer

didn't take ... long to prove that technology doesn't sound nearly as impressive when it is discussed in a booming hick drawl. As he boomed on about "Web sahts" and "Netscayup" and "the Innernet" and "mode ums" he made the whole of the modern world sound a little bit ridiculous.

In a "true-life tale" in today's NYT Magazine titled "Yoga, Y'all", Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that eastern spirituality also sounds faintly ridiculous, to people like her, when translated into a southern-states idiom:

At last it was over, and Julie led us into a period of quiet meditation, where we were to lie on our backs, letting our bodies absorb the benefits of our practice. She changed the music over to a porno soundtrack and turned up the volume. "Shut yer eyes," she said. "Look for yer CHAK-ras! That'll be them bright-colored LIGHTS in yer soul! You gotta sur-REN-der to the MO-ment!"

"Porno soundtrack?" I'm assuming that Ms. Gilbert doesn't literally mean a recording of salacious exhortations and heavy breathing, but just a style of music that she found spiritually inappropriate. Anyhow, most of the rest of the article is much more explicitly critical, including direct assertions like

Over the next hour, Julie proceeded to do everything - I'm not sure how to say this politely - dead wrong.

and some things that are genuinely funny, in the way that ethnic humor often is:

Then, the oddest command of the day: "Work them BOOBS, y'all!"

So many, many yoga classes I have attended in my life, and never once had I heard "Work them BOOBS, y'all!" All I could imagine was that this was a local translation of "Open your heart-center toward the universe."

In the end, Ms. Gilbert lets Julie's class take her to the "y'all zone":

"O.K., then!" Julie concluded. "Everybody go to y'all's own QUIET place now!"

Her last instruction echoed in my head.

Go to y'all's own quiet place.. . .Y'all's own.. . .Y'all Zone.. . .

Indeed, it seemed I had entered the Y'all Zone. Estranged and disjointed, I thought back to those extraordinary months I'd spent studying with the great masters in India, where I'd experienced in my very bones the translation of the word yoga - union.

Though estranged and disjointed, she eventually decides to accept "Transcendence, Tennessee style":

I could resist and remain a critical outsider forever. Or I could do what Julie's students do - search like heck for the bright lights in my soul, surrender to the cacophonous moment and even try to absorb a little benefit from the stretching and straining. I'm still not sure if I can achieve all that, but I'll tell you what - I'm workin' my boobs off trying.

It's a good story, even if it demonstrates yet again that outlets like Slate and the New York Times will revel in jokes at the expense of the southern U.S. that they'd never print if the target of ridicule were almost any other culture.

However, I suspect that Ms. Gilbert invented many of the details. I suspect this partly on general principles: the piece has the flavor of a story improved over many retellings. But there's also some more specific evidence: the first of her southern-fried quotations is, my language consultants tell me, regionally ungrammatical:

My new yoga teacher reminded me profoundly of Julie McCoy from "The Love Boat." She wore a pink leotard and I'm pretty certain was also the grand mistress of Cardio-Burn Stepping. She bounded up to me, placed her nose an inch from mine and demanded, "What's y'all's name?" with such friendly enthusiasm it made me wish I had more names.

Cute. But all the American southerners I've ever asked about this tell me that they would never use y'all in reference to a single individual, no matter how many names he or she might have. Ron Butters ("Data Concerning Putative Singular y'all" , American Speech - Volume 76, Number 3, Fall 2001, pp. 335-336) agrees:

There has been considerable discussion in the past in American Speech about whether the pronoun y'all is coming to be used in the singular in the American South (e.g., Richardson 1984, who says it is not, and Tillery and Bailey 1998 and Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey 2000, who say it is; cf. Montgomery 1996). It has always seemed to me that arguments in support of putative singular y'all depend either on (1) data that is an artifact of the research situation or (2) a mistaken understanding of the pragmatics of the reported utterance--as, for example, when a salesperson bids goodbye to a solitary customer by saying Y'all come back, hear? (an idiom meaning 'you and your friends and family come back, please!'). Note that salespersons are not reported as greeting their solitary customers with *Can I help y'all?

There is certainly some disagreement about this -- Kinky Friedman is quoted as saying

Remember: Y'all is singular. All y'all is plural. All y'all's is plural possessive.

but I'm reluctant to trust the intuitions of linguists on things like this, much less a joke from a singer/songwriter/novelist/politician.

In a book review quoted on Language Hat's site, Roy Blount Jr. tore into this view, as follows:

Recently I became aware of an airy new Southern lifestyle publication -- Y'all: The Magazine of Southern People -- out of Oxford, Miss., that might better be entitled Y'all: The Magazine That Doesn't Know What Its Own Name Means. In its premiere issue, Y'all declared that: '' 'Y'all' is singular. 'All y'all' is plural.'' That bit of blatant misinformation also appears in the ''Dixie Dictionary'' portion of ''Suddenly Southern.''

I don't know whether Y'all picked this up from Duffin-Ward or vice versa. She is not the first non-Southerner to insist that Southerners may call a single person ''y'all,'' but to my knowledge she is the first to declare categorically, in the face of everyday evidence and all philological authority, that it is always a single person we so address. But she isn't one to brook elucidation. With regard to the singularity of ''y'all,'' she writes: ''Southerners will beg to differ here. They insist that even though they use it to address one person, it implies plurality.''

Something -- either second-person-plural envy or hyperjocularity -- has affected Duffin-Ward's ear. People in the South do indeed sometimes seem to be addressing a single person as ''y'all.'' For instance, a restaurant patron might ask a waiter, ''What y'all got for dessert tonight?'' In that case ''y'all'' refers collectively to the folks who run the restaurant. No doubt the implication of plurality is hard for someone who didn't grow up with it to discern. It may even be that Duffin-Ward has heard a native speaker, in real life, violate deep-structure idiom by calling a single person ''y'all.'' That would be arguable grounds for saying that ''y'all'' is singular on occasion. But how can she have missed daily instances of people unmistakably addressing two or more people as ''y'all''? When a parent calls out to three kids, ''Y'all get in here out of the rain,'' does she think only one child is being summoned? (''All y'all'' is of course an extended plural: ''Y'all listen up! I mean all y'all.'' Often it is pronounced ''Aw yaw.'')

So Blount agrees with Butters, and both agree with what my southern friends and relations say, and with my own observations of usage. Furthermore, Elizabeth Gilbert's own evidence is that her East Tennessee yoga instructor used y'all (not all y'all) repeatedly as a plain and clear plural -- "work them boobs, y'all"; "go to y'all's own quiet place".

Therefore, I'm betting that "Julie" didn't really say -- at least not to Gilbert individually, nose an inch from nose -- "What's y'all's name?"

Maybe the kindest verdict on her "true-life tale" would be the one I once heard from a wolf scientist when I asked him about the ethological plausibility of Farley Mowat's memoir Never Cry Wolf -- "mm, let's say that much of it is poetically true."

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 18, 2005 01:05 PM