Episode 91: January 11, 2008
by Mignon Fogarty
Yo! Grammar Girl here.
I have grammar news about the word yo this week.
Yo as a Pronoun
The grammar news is that Dr. Elaine Stotko, from the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, and her student, Margaret Troyer, have discovered that school children in Baltimore are using the slang word yo as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Dr. Stotko was teaching a master’s class at Johns Hopkins, and it came out during a discussion that several of the high school and middle school English teachers had noticed their students using yo as a pronoun. Often the students would be talking to another student, would point at the third person they were referring to, and would say something like "Yo threw a thumbtack at me." This made teachers think they were using yo to mean "he or she" instead of yo as you would normally hear in phrases like "Yo momma."
To test the theory, Stotko and Troyer showed kids a cartoon with a goofy-looking person, but the kids couldn't tell whether the person was male or female. Then they asked the kids to write a slang caption for the cartoon. Some of the kids wrote, "Yo crazy," instead of "He or she crazy," or "They crazy." Follow-up research showed that kids definitely intended yo to mean "he or she." They used yo as a pronoun.
The researchers found that it was most common for the kids to use yo in the subject position; for example, "Yo wearin' a new coat," (to point out someone wearing a new coat). But they also used yo in the object position, as in "I saw yo at school," and "Look at yo." [Note: the kids also use "yo" as a generic pronoun to refer to someone even when they know it is a boy or a girl. So, for example, even though they know the person they saw at school was a boy, they might say, "I saw yo at school," instead of "I saw him at school."
The kids also frequently use yo as an attention-getter (as in "Yo, Adrienne"), and as a shortened version of your (as in "Yo momma"), but the researchers were careful to show that the use as a pronoun was distinct from these other uses.
In the past I've advocated strongly for using they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun when you can't rewrite the sentence to make the whole thing plural, and I still believe that's the best solution, but I also think the emergence of yo to fill this role in slang is fascinating.
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.
1. Stotko, E. and Troyer, M. "A new gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A preliminary study." American Speech, Vol. 82. No. 3, Fall 2007, p. 262.
* I shouldn't have used such an absolute word. We haven't always had the word pause. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the verb pause back to 1440.