Yo as a Pronoun
Researchers discover that kids are using "yo" as a slang pronoun.
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Language and Evolution
Maybe I find this story especially interesting because the kids seem to have spontaneously filled a void in the English language. As I've discussed before, English doesn't have a pronoun for cases where you don't know a singular person's sex. Traditionally, people have used he, but most style guides object to using he because it is considered sexist and in some cases misleading. In the crazy cartoon example, for instance, if you were to write a caption that says, "He's crazy," you would lead people to believe the character is male.
What's also interesting about the kids’ language is that people -- mostly academics -- have been trying to introduce a gender-neutral singular pronoun into the English language for about 200 years, with very little success. And then a group of kids in Baltimore just make one up and start using it.
I was able to speak to Dr. Stotko on the phone last night and she was delightful. Of course, I wanted to know where the kids got "yo." Did it show up on some TV show, for example? And -- I love it -- she answered, "Who knows why kids do anything." The researchers were unable to find an origin. They even went so far as to review lyrics from over 3,000 rap songs to see if it might have come from rap music, but they didn't find anything. As a professor of linguistics, Dr. Stotko is very familiar with slang and changing language in general. She pointed out that kids are always creating and discarding slang terms, and that the whole point is to come up with things that their parents and other adults don't understand. She also pointed out that people create words when there is a need. For example, we always had the word pause,* but we invented the word unpause only when cassette tape players became popular and people would pause and then unpause tapes. [Note: Unpause isn't in any of my dictionaries, but I've certainly heard the word used in the way Stotko describes.]
Now yo is still definitely slang. I doubt any of us will be writing, "When a patient comes in, have yo complete an insurance form," and I still believe they and them are the best choices in such situations. Nevertheless, I have to hand it to the kids for achieving in their own private slang what academics have been unable to do in 200 years of trying.
Again, Dr. Stotko is a professor of linguistics in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Among other things, she studies dialects, how language is a system, and language differences between men and women, all of which sound like an awful lot of fun to me! The research article was published in American Speech (1), the journal of the American Dialect Society.
For additional references see the Grammar Girl episode about generic singular pronouns.