28 May 2007

Divided by a Common Language in Lionboy

The circus proprietor in Lionboy is named Major Maurice Thibaudet, pronounced Tib-uh-day. (Every novel should have a circus proprietor, don’t you think? It would have made all the difference to Crime and Punishment.)

The major speaks “French, but with an accent Charlie [our young hero] recognized to be southern Empire.” The trilogy never identifies that Empire straight out, but a powerful clue appears on page 110 of the first book:

”Hey there, Lionboy!” called a voice from the deck behind him. It was Major Tib. “Y’all better get back on board right now. We don’t do shore leave without leave. Get back in here and help Maccomo. There’s plenty of work to be done.”
The “Ya’ll” is a giveaway that Major Tib comes from the American South--and that author Zizou Corder (Louisa and Isabel Adomakoh Young) does (do) not.

Major Tib is using “y’all” to address one boy. But “y’all” is a second person plural form.

Centuries ago, English had different pronouns for the second person singular and the second person plural. The singular forms were thou, thee, thy, and thine. The plural equivalents were you, you, your, and yours. The first group has fallen by the wayside, kept up into the last century by traditional Quakers but no one else. In both Britain and America, people use you in both singular and plural contexts.

(Similarly, in French the plural vous also serves as a formal singular form, with tu reserved for intimates and children. Though I recently read that past president Jacques Chirac and his wife still use the vous form with each other.)

American Southerners apparently realized that there’s grammatical value in distinguishing between second person singular and second person plural. So they’ve recreated the plural form as you all or y’all. We Yankees and English-speakers from other countries (who think all us Americans are Yankees) usually don’t realize that, and get y’all all wrong--as in Lionboy. We think it’s just those quaint Southerners being ungrammatical, but this word reflects a more sophisticated grammar than the rest of the English-speaking world uses.

Americans from outside our South use “you all” as a synonym for “all of you”--i.e., everyone I’m addressing now. So if Southerners understand “you all” to mean y’all, how do they signal when they’re addressing an entire group?

“All y’all,” naturally.

(A final note: Lionboy’s reference to the USA as an “Empire” makes an interesting contrast to our depiction as rebellious colonies in other recent British fantasies that revive the British Empire. Unlike those books, Lionboy is set in the near future, after a petroleum crash.)


Anonymous said...

We think it’s just those quaint Southerners being ungrammatical, but this word reflects a more sophisticated grammar than the rest of the English-speaking world uses.

Speak for yourself! Where I grew up in Brooklyn (Bensonhurst, if you wanna know), plenty of people still said youse. I haven't heard it since we moved to Staten Island, but I heard it all the time before I was ten, and no doubt there's people there still saying it. (Though not many. If you want to hear a "real" NYC accent nowadays you have to go to Jersey. The older groups have moved out en masse, and newer immigrants are moving in, changing the language with them.)

But the point remains that there are many dialectical ways to make a singular/plural distinction in the second person. In Pittsburgh, isn't it, they say "yinz", and in some part referenced in the DARE (I'd have to look it up) they say "with-you", and there are even a very few parts of England where you can hear "thou"! And there's you-uns and whatnot.

J. L. Bell said...

Having Quaker relatives, I know people who still use the “thee” form. But that usage, along with the Brooklyn/Philly “youse” and the Pittsburgh “yinz”, appear to be growing less common and more self-conscious.

In contrast, “you all/y’all” is used over a larger cultural and regional base, and doesn’t seem to show any sign of becoming a quaint memory (e.g., “When I grew up in Brooklyn…”). Time will tell what survives, but I’d put my money on “y’all”.