The correct youse of English

An Irishman’s Diary about a verbal vacuum

Speaking of Americanisms, as we were recently (Irishman’s Diary, December 7th), I predict that sooner or later, the phrase “you guys” will have to be accepted as the new second-person plural pronoun in English. And if this sad day does come to pass, the guardians of the language will have only themselves to blame.

After all, they should never have let the old second-person singular “thou” go until they had a proper replacement trained in. Instead of which, while “thou” was given involuntary redundancy (sometime in the 17th century), they asked “you” – until then a plural only – to cover both roles, a situation doomed to failure from the start.

The absence of a specialist pronoun in the second-person plural department has been an embarrassment to English ever since; except maybe in Yorkshire, where they retained “thou” on a part-time basis, easing the workload on “you”. Everywhere else, the change left a gaping hole in the language that still begs to be filled.

Naturally, we in Ireland have not been founding wanting in the search for replacements. If anything, we have too many: including “youse” and “yiz” in Dublin, “ye” in Munster and the west, and “yousuns” in the North.

We even devised an unofficial grammar to complement these. A Dubliner resigning his job on a point of principle, for example, may tell his employers: “Yiz can take yizzer (poxy) job and shove it!”. Similarly, “youser” and “yeer” create the plural possessive form, where appropriate. (I think with “yousuns”, you just add an apostrophe after the S.)

The problem is that none of these sincere attempts to solve the problem are considered exactly respectable. Speakers of “proper” English instead remain stuck with a situation whereby, in some of the most common social scenarios, the language is a source of confusion, or demands inelegant clarification.

Take a common parental phrase – one I often use when addressing my children collectively – ie: “That’s it – you’re grounded!”. Even a six-year-old will instantly spot the legal loophole here, to be exploited later. So one always has to add: “I mean you-plural” to make the meaning clear.

But further proof that the double-jobbing “you” has never worked is that the Americans too have long been on the case of the missing pronoun. They tried a variety of things there, including the very logical one of retaining the you, but using a singular verb with it, where appropriate.

Thus the classic George Gershwin song Bess, You is my Woman, wherein the singer plights his troth by the careful avoidance of the plural verb (which might imply there was more than one woman in the relationship). Despite this impeccable logic, however, "you is" has been rejected as unacceptable usage, outside jazz and hip-hop circles.

Another possible solution, still popular in the southern states of the US, was “y’all”. Which, thanks to Dolly Parton and other missionaries, threatened to become global currency for a time. Unfortunately, it never quite escaped its origins, either.

But “you guys” is different. It had a broader base from the start, and its usage is now general in the US everywhere outside the old confederacy. This, crucially, includes Hollywood, from which it will conquer the globe, eventually, if it hasn’t done so already.

In fact, even in places where you might expect strong resistance, "you guys" has been making big inroads. A search of the Irish Times archive reveals that, shockingly, the phrase has appeared in our pages 44 times this year. (It's noticeable that many of the hits involve Rory McIlroy, who must have a deal for promoting the pronoun in Europe).

But resistance is probably futile, anyway. The Americanism is answering an obvious need in English. And inadequate as the double-jobbing “you” is, it surely is too late to rescue its former assistant from the museum.

Thou's big mistake, historically, was to get caught up in the English class system – even if, ironically, it was "you" that first came to be adopted as a formal single-person address to elders or superiors, in the manner of the French "vous" or the German "sie".

From then on, en route to extinction, “thou” was reserved for commoners. Perhaps the dramatic highpoint of this usage was at the 1618 trial of Sir Walter Raleigh for treason. At one point in his cross-examination, the prosecuting lawyer deliberately insulted Raleigh with the familiar pronoun: “I thou thee thou, traitor!”

The prisoner protested his innocence. But he underwent the royal hatchet anyway. And in a miscarriage of justice, the pronoun soon went the same way as his head.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

READ MORE