When I was a college student in Charlottesville, VA, our university Hillel marketed T-shirts genially proclaiming “Shalom, Y’all!”
Before I headed south after high school, my only association with “y’all” was a throwback to 1960s TV, when each episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” ended with its signature “Y’all come back now, hear?”
While Northerners might cringe at the, well, southernness of “y’all,” we have to concede that it fills a need, as in these examples:
“You want to go to the mall?” (ambiguous; speaking either to a single person or to more than one person) — or “Y’all want to go to the mall?” (no ambiguity here; clearly speaking to a minimum of two people).
How else can we address more than one “you”? We do have “youse” and “you guys,” but the former is reminiscent of Archie Bunker (another old TV reference; if you’re under 40, you can skip this part) and the latter is great for asking your pals out to grab a pizza. But in a boardroom? Not so much.
I hear “folks” a lot these days, but to my ear it sounds so . . . folksy.
The simple fact is that there is no distinction between the singular and plural “you” in modern English. Of course, you Yiddish speakers already are thinking of du and ir, French speakers of tu and vous, and so on. Linguists refer to this split as the T-V distinction, which provides two forms: an informal “you” and a more polite, reserved “you,” which reflect varying levels of familiarity, social standing, or age (as well as singular/plural).
The linguistic etiquette involved can be quite tricky. Using the informal in a formal situation in a “davka” way can be a stealthy means of insulting someone. Heaven help the non-native French speaker who addresses a Parisian shopkeeper familiarly as “tu.” Quel faux pas!
So what happened to these distinctions in English? We used to have “thou”/“thee” and “ye”/”you,” but only “you” has survived, unless you count a few outliers like “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and “Ye Olde Gift Shoppe.”
Whither “thou” and “ye”?
Over the centuries, “thou” couldn’t quite make up its mind. What started off as a neutral way of addressing another (singular) person got downgraded to denote someone either familiar or inferior, as “ye” and “you” gained popularity for those of higher standing. Eventually “you” supplanted “thou” altogether. In an ironic twist, “thou,” despite its humble origins in the lower ranks, is considered archaic today, reserved for solemn occasions and formal ceremonies.
Interestingly, one area where the informal “you” persists is in addressing God in many languages, German, Spanish, French, and Russian among them. Even in English, “Blessed art Thou” might sound almost courtly, but it is in fact informal usage. When I was a Russian-language teacher at a girls’ yeshiva high school, I incorporated some Jewish liturgy in translation into the curriculum. I still recall how unsettled my students were when they saw the informal “you” form Tbl (ty) in a Russian-language siddur. How could they possibly address their teacher, as required, in the formal Bbl (Vy) but refer to God Himself in the familiar?!
There are many historical-linguistic reasons for this phenomenon, mostly having to do with translation issues from biblical Hebrew and ancient Greek. But a lot of us would like to think that speaking to God in the informal register signifies the closeness of our relationship with God. In one online forum, a Jewish commenter noted that God is to be revered to the extent that we are not even allowed to write God’s name, but at the same time, “we have a long tradition of kvetching to Him very intimately.”
So back to the drawing board. If “y’all” is too regional, “you guys” too casual (I’ve bristled at TSA agents announcing “Guys! Shoes off and laptops out!”) and “youse” just plain wrong, what are we left with?
If you’ve been paying attention to the buzz around a certain recent movie, which (inexplicably to this writer) has occupied a top-ten spot on Netflix for over a month, you’ll know this is leading up to “You People.” Paradoxically, the least offensive thing about this movie is its snarky title, which obviously was chosen with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Yet I am forced to recall a mortifying episode when I may have uttered this offensive phrase. For many years, I was a volunteer driver for Kosher Meals on Wheels. In the early days, back in the 1990s, meal pick-up took place at the old Barnert Hospital in Paterson, where the kitchen staff was mostly Black. My duties included schlepping cumbersome food warmers to the kitchen.
One day, I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, between the schlepping and a mistake that had been made in my delivery route. (The KMOW system long since has been streamlined.) I was speaking to a kitchen manager, trying to ask that she have the staff implement such-and-such a change, when I found myself tongue-tied. “Um . . . you . . . all of you . . .” Somehow I heard myself put the words “you” and “people” together and immediately felt the awfulness of their impact. The manager let me know it. I left red-faced and apologetic.
Now back to “You People,” the movie. Despite its popularity on Netflix, the general consensus seems to condemn this film as un-funny. Search for it on “Rotten Tomatoes,” and you will be confronted by a barrage of green splats, the site’s symbol for a box-office (or streaming) bomb. A typical comment: “A movie that so rarely rings true it starts to make your skin crawl.” (Brian Tallerico, RogertEbert.com)
Jewish critics have excoriated the movie as tasteless and — far worse — guilty of abetting antisemites and the conspiracy theorists who claim that the Jews were solely responsible for the African slave trade.
“You People” was co-written by Jonah Hill (né Feldstein) and Kenya Bariss, best known as the creator and showrunner of the popular TV series “black-ish.” Hill — who recently filed a court petition to drop “Feldstein” from his legal name (make of that what you will) — gives the movie its Jewish bona fides, at least superficially. But does he have the sensitivity to do the delicate dance of self-mockery without stepping on his own people’s toes?
For the answer, I looked to a classic “Seinfeld” episode, “The Yada Yada,” which finds Jerry Seinfeld in a confessional booth in a Catholic church:
Father Curtis: Tell me your sins, my son.
Jerry: Well, I should tell you that I’m Jewish.
Father Curtis: That’s no sin.
Jerry: Oh, good. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
Father Curtis: And this offends you as a Jewish person?
Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian!
What’s my take on “You People” (the movie)? It offends me both as a Jew and a lover of a good joke. And I doubt it would be much funnier if it were titled “Y’all.” But we still need a plural “you.” Is it time for “y’all” to head north? What say ye, dear readers?
Ann Brodsky of Fair Lawn is a proud word nerd, an enthusiast of all things language-related. She is a lifelong educator, now at Hunter College, as well as an editor and translator.