Y’all Means All: The Changing Indexicality of a Southernism

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School of Arts & Sciences::Department of Linguistics::University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Broderick McCurdy

This study examined folk linguistic data to investigate the sociolinguistic factors underlying the spread of 'y'all' outside the South first documented in Tillery, Wilkie, and Bailey (2000), and to map the changing indexicality of the pronoun. The data consisted of 15 interviews and 1,064 online survey responses from self-identified late-'y'all' adopters, native-'y'all' users, and non-'y'all' users. The data confirmed the trend first noted in Tillery et al. (2000) that individuals across the country have adopted 'y'all'. However, this study found that 'y'all''s social utility as a gender-neutral alternative to 'you guys' played an important role in the acquisition of the pronoun for many late-'y'all' adopters, suggesting that linguistic usefulness alone is an insufficient explanation for this language change. 'Y'all''s growing association with gender-neutrality has spurred the development of emerging indexical values associated with the pronoun like progressiveness, open-mindedness, and/or queerness and has even solidified into an increasingly-recognizable "woke hipster" persona. Consequently, two somewhat contradictory indexical values of 'y'all' emerged across the data—'y'all' as an index of Southerness and 'y'all' as an index of progressive identity—which have placed the pronoun at the center of two competing forms of prescriptivism. These findings exemplify the ways in which the indexical-reconfiguration of linguistic variables—even those as indexically-entrenched as 'y'all'—is "always already immanent" (Silverstein 2003:194). Furthermore, these reconfigured variables can be productively utilized in the construction of personae that are at odds with those stereotypically associated with these items. The sustainability of a variable with such divergent indexicalities and how this may impact the pronoun's ultimate trajectory, however, is still uncertain.

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