Several months ago, Cameron Hunt McNabb, an English professor at Southeastern University, wrote of her efforts when travelling in England to “tone down” the Americanisms in her speech “and in particular my Southern accent.” She was largely successful, she said, except for one thing: She couldn’t stop using the word y’all. This is a common problem for those of us born and raised in the South: we use the word frequently, often without intention or even awareness.
McNabb was writing about what she called “The Secret History of ‘Y’all.’” Most people, she said, assume it began as a contraction of “you all.” That’s certainly the way it’s used today, but the origins of y’all are unclear. Some scholars, for example, say that it began with the Scots-Irish “ye aw,” others that it came from African-American oral traditions.
Part of the difficulty with the history of y’all is that the literary evidence is sparse. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is in the mid-1850s, with just a handful of citations before the 20th century. The literary record is too brief and the number of early examples too few to build a convincing case for any particular hypothesis for the origins of y’all. But that might be about to change. A recent search of two databases—Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a Gale Digital Collections database that contains nearly 200,000 books and pamphlets, and Early English Books Online, a ProQuest database with over 125,000 titles published in the 16th and 17th centuries—shows that the word actually goes back considerably further than the 1850s, before the proliferation of either Scots-Irish settlers or African slaves in the British colonies. It also shows that perhaps y’all was first used with a British, not a southern, accent.
I first came across the British y’all in a poetry anthology published in London in 1702. The volume includes a poem, “Prologue to The Fate of Capua” (referring to a play by Irish dramatist Thomas Southerne) with the following couplet:
To Write well’s hard, but I appeal to y’all,
Is’t not much harder not to Write at all.
The poet clearly meant “I appeal to you all” (or perhaps “ye all”—“you” and “ye” were both in use in the early eighteenth century, and both appear in the book), but “you all” has one syllable too many to fit the line, so he used a contraction: “y’all.” He did the same thing, and for the same reason, at the beginning of the next line: “is it” does not fit, so he used the contraction “is’t.”
Another early example of y’all is in The Spanish Curate, a comedic play written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger in the 1620s. A printing of the play from 1750 contains the following:
But I know y’all for merry Wags, and ere long
You shall know me too in another fashion.
This is especially interesting because in an earlier version of the play (1711), the same publisher gave these two lines as:
But I know ye all for merry Wags, and e’er long
You shall know me too in another fashion.
In 1711, the publisher spelled out “ye all”; in the later edition, the publisher used the contraction to improve the poem’s readability.
These examples are from the eighteenth century, but we can also find y’all in the seventeenth. John Dryden’s Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards (1672), noted as having the first known use of the phrase “the noble savage,” also has an early usage of y’all. In one scene, Lyndaraxa speaks of the attention given to the woman engaged to King Boabdelin: “Heav’n, how y’all watch’d each motion of her Eye.”
The earliest of these newly-found examples of y’all is in William Lisle’s The Faire Æthiopian (1631, 225 years before the current citation in the OED), a re-telling of Heliodorus’ history of Ethipoia. Thyamis, the leader of a band of thieves, has captured Chariclea, with whom he has become smitten. Thyamis assembles his men, reminds them that he has always given them the strongest and most servile from among those they have kidnapped in the past, and asks if in this case he might keep Chariclea for his own. (They assent to his request.)
The captiue men of strength I gaue to you,
The weaker sold; and this y’all know is true,
The free-borne women ransom’d, or set free
For pittie sake, the seruile sort had yee.
So y’all has a considerably earlier origin in the literary record than we previously realized: with a few minutes’ work, we have moved it back from the decade before the Civil War to a few years after the founding of Jamestown. Michael Montgomery, the leading scholar of the word, wrote that the historic y’all “is unknown in the British Isles.” That assertion must now be revised. It’s true that these older examples originated in a more formal context than we see in later usages from the American South. Most were necessitated by the demands of a metered line of poetry; the presence of y’all in a poem or dramatic work does not mean that we should expect to see it in other eighteenth-century English contexts (just as we would not expect to see “is’t” except in a poem). The British y’all might be thought of more as a simple contraction than as the second person plural pronoun. In any case, this discovery of the British y’all calls into question the alternative explanations. We no longer need the Scots-Irish or African slaves to explain the presence of y’all in the American South. They might have played a role in the migration of the word to this side of the Atlantic—and perhaps a very important role—but we now know that the word did indeed exist in England as early as the 17th century as a contraction of “you all.”
So our favorite southern word has a long and respectable history. Next time she’s visiting England, Cameron McNabb should use the word with pride. If anyone asks, she can respond simply, “We got it from y’all.”