January 07, 2008


There's been a flurry of news articles and weblog posts over the past few days about the development of a new gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore. In chronological order of dateline, there was "'Yo' Being Used As 'Gender-Neutral Pronoun'", BigNewsDay, 1/3/2008;  "A self-generated gender neutral pronoun", blueheron (LiveJournal); "Is 'Yo' Emerging as a Gender-Neutral Pronoun?", Alas a Blog 1/5/2008; Mark Peters, "'Yo' is the word when 'he' or 'she' won't do", New Scientist, 1/5/2008; "One size fits all", Baltimore Sun, 1/6/2008; "Yo", 1/6/2008, Andrew Sullivan's blog. (Datelines aside, I believe that the New Scientist article may have appeared first and prompted the others.)

This is a case where the media, new and old, have gotten it just about right. The source is a paper in last fall's issue of American Speech, the quarterly publication of the American Dialect Society. (You can join the society and subscribe to the journal for $50 a year -- $25 if you're a student.) The paper is Elaine M. Stotko and Margaret Troyer, "A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A Preliminary Study", American Speech 82(3):262-279, Fall 2007. (A pdf is available on the journal's website here).

If you're interested, you should read the paper for yourself -- just follow the link -- but here are some selections.

The abstract:

This article presents data collected on the use of yo in schools in Baltimore as a new third-person singular pronoun, as in Yo handin' out papers `She (the teacher) is handing out papers' and Peep yo `Look at him'. In the spring of 2004, a number of middle and high school teachers enrolled in a graduate linguistics class for teachers noted that their students at certain city schools were using yo in place of he or she. The authors collected spontaneous occurrences of the pronoun and then designed several writing activities and sentence judgment tasks. The tasks were administered to more than 200 students in two unrelated schools in Baltimore. It was clear from the results that students in these two schools use yo as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, primarily in subject position. Limited follow-up was conducted in the spring of 2007.

Other spontaneous examples cited in the paper:

Yo was tuckin' in his shirt!
Yo threw a thumbtack at me.
Yo been runnin' the halls.
Yo put his foot up.
Yo wearin' a jacket. A coat!
You acting like I said what yo said.
She ain't really go with yo.
Yo look like a sack ass gump.
Yo is a clown.
Yo sucks at magic tricks.
Yo needs to pull his pants down.
Yo looks like a freak.
Yo is a straight clown.
Yo goin to put that chicken in his mouth.
Yo, looka that dude pants. Yo is a clown.

In many of these cases, you might wonder whether yo is really a third person pronoun. The authors' argument seems persuasive:

In collecting usages of yo, it was also clear to us that yo had other, more common, uses in the speech of the students at these schools. It is used as a greeting: Yo, wassup? It is used as an attention-focusing device, as in the sentence Yo, get away from my locker! Yo is also sometimes used as a substitute for 'you' or 'your' (as in Yo Momma . . .). All three of these uses are documented in Smitherman (2000). However, in the sentences collected in Baltimore above, it was clear to the recorder from the context of the utterance that yo referred to a third person. For example, in the sentence Yo wearin' a jacket, the speaker was looking through the window and pointing at another student who was wearing a jacket even though the weather (in June) was quite warm. In the last two sentences, the person being discussed was not present in the room. Notice also the use of his in these sentences: Yo was tuckin' in his shirt; Yo put his foot up. The question arises as to whether the yo form being observed here is actually a newly created pronoun or whether the focusing yo has shifted to pronominal use.

They also note a possible issue of politeness levels:

While at times a teacher might be referred to as yo (as in Yo handin' out papers), other students sometimes saw this use of yo to refer to adults as disrespectful and would comment That's not a yo to a fellow student who used yo in this manner. Interestingly, several teachers in Baltimore have also commented on hearing parents correct their children when the children refer to a teacher as he or she. The comment "She gave us homework" when made to a parent might elicit the response "That's not a she; that's Ms. Smith." A topic for further investigation might be whether it is the use of yo for an adult (teacher) that is being objected to or simply the use of any pronoun.

The authors report the results of an experiment with 115 students. One of the items:

... students were asked to write a conversation of their own in response to the following

Tynisha and Antoine are in class. Tyreek jumps up and starts singing a rap song
and dancing. Write a conversation:

Tynisha: ________________________________________

Antoine: ________________________________________

Of the 51 students who wrote a conversation, 10 included the pronoun yo in their conversation. Some examples of the use of yo in these student-generated conversations include the following:

Yo started rapping.
Yo singing a rap song. Yo is dancing
Yo is junping up and down singing.
Yo can really rap, yo should be a rapper.
Yo can't dance or sing, just like D.H.
Did you see that? Yeah, yo jumped up.
Yo was singing a rap song.
Ha, ha, ha, yo stupit [sic].
Yo gave me a stuip [sic] part.

Since the conversation indicates that it is Tyreek who jumps up and starts singing, with the possible exception of the final two sentences, it seems clear that yo should be interpreted as referring to Tyreek.

The usage seems to be mostly if not entirely local to Baltimore:

A search of the lyrics from several thousand rap songs at Web sites such as http://lyrics.astraweb.com, which produced 35,100 instances of yo, turned up no songs with third-person pronominal yo. In an attempt to determine whether the pronoun is being widely used beyond the Baltimore area, the authors contacted a number of teachers in other cities (Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Dayton, New York, San Jose, and Long Beach, California) to see if they had heard the form used. The teachers who responded indicated that they had heard yo used as a greeting or as an attention-focusing device, but not as a pronoun. A teacher in Milwaukee indicated that she had heard yo used as a pronoun but very seldom and was able to provide a few examples similar to the ones we had collected in Baltimore; 54 students at the school completed 2 cartoons each, with no instances of pronominal yo being used (and only one instance of attention-getting yo). Fifty of them also completed the task in appendix C, with no student-written conversations containing yo.

Since their original work was done in 2004, the authors followed up in 2007 to see whether the usage was still current -- a quarter of 20 Baltimore teachers reported hearing the form, the others not.

Following our class discussion, one teacher had several conversations with his current Baltimore middle-school students about yo as a pronoun, to be told that yo is used for boys, but that shorty is used for girls: Yo is over there and Yo trippin' (boy); Shorty is over there and Shorty's lookin' good (girl).

The use of shorty seems like an instance of the general vernacular practice of using descriptive adjectives -- especially those that are used as nicknames or vocative epithets -- in a quasi-pronominal way.

[Update -- Steve at Language Hat writes:

I blogged your "yo" post ("Yo in Baltimore") and there have already been a couple of comments by people familiar with it, one by a young Baltimorean who uses it and "didn't know it wasn't universal" and one by someone who recently "taught 7th grade English for a year in Kansas City, KS" and was familiar with the usage from there. Kansas City! This thing definitely needs detailed investigation.

Absolutely! Let me point out that the Stotko and Troyer paper has an appendix with the materials that they used to check on yo usage in Baltimore schools. Getting (at least some of) the same tests run in other places would be great. It would also be nice to see some free recorded conversation among potential yo users.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 7, 2008 08:11 AM