Episode 65: June 29, 2007
by Mignon Fogarty
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is “What's with those people who talk weird?” or regionalisms.
Language is constantly changing, and a lot of people have asked me about how and why it happens. This isn't my area of expertise, but I've done a lot of reading about it lately and it's an interesting topic.
Standardization, Cross-Cultural Influences, Discoveries, and Inventions
The development of the printing press led people to think about standardizing the English language (1), especially spelling (2, 3), whereas travel and trade led to interactions with people who spoke other languages and was a catalyst for adding new words (1). When we encounter new things, whether a new spice long ago or a new technology today, we need new words to describe them. Also, when people are bilingual they sometimes create new words that are a combination of the two languages. I remember interviewing the founder of the magazine Latina when it first came out and she talked about her decision to use “Spanglish” words in the magazine, or words that are a combination of English and Spanish such as marqueta [mar-ke-tah] for supermarket (4)
In the same way that people in social groups tend to wear similar clothes, people create slang and new words to show that they're all part of the same group (5). Think about the Valley Girls in California; they had, like, a totally particular way of speaking, and you can usually spot MBAs by their phrases such as “paradigms for incentivizing key FTEs.” In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of a strong group that doesn't have its own jargon or slang. The separation of American English from British English was an important part of the early American identity, and the first dictionary of American English was published in 1828 by Noah Webster (6).
Soda Versus Pop
Regionalisms are words that are associated with a particular region. A classic regionalism is seen in how people refer to fizzy sugar water. Is it soda, pop, coke, or something else? I grew up in Seattle and we called it pop. When I moved to California, I noticed that everyone called it soda. If you're from the South, you probably call it coke.
Dialects vary in different geographic regions at least partly because there is less interaction between groups that are physically far apart. A new word or phrase may arise in one group and not have a chance to spread to other groups because interactions are limited. When groups of people don't interact with each other, their language tends to change in different ways. Because of my background in science, I've always thought of this as a process similar to genetic isolation, where groups that are separated accumulate different mutations in their DNA, so I was happily surprised in my research for this episode to see that some linguists use natural selection as an analogy for how language changes (4). Of course because of air travel and the Internet, it's much easier for people to interact these days, so there is less language isolation. I regularly read the BBC news on the Internet, whereas it would have been much more difficult for me to do that 20 years ago.
In Line Versus On Line
A common regionalism that listeners ask me about is people using the phrase on line instead of in line to mean they are physically waiting in a row with other people. For example, Mary wrote that she read a story in the New York Times describing people standing on line instead of standing in line. She said she's been hearing it more and more in the past few years and thinks it sounds ridiculous, and Julie noted that it's irritating because when someone says they are on line, she assumes they are on the Internet.
There's nothing grammatically incorrect about using on line to mean standing in line; it just sounds strange to people who aren't used to hearing it. From the dialect map I've linked to from the website, it's clear that people who say on line are clustered in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, possibly Philadelphia. This is a very small but densely populated, media-rich area. The phrase standing on line will probably spread as it becomes widely distributed by large New York television programs and publications and as people travel and move in and out of the region.
A Google search for “standing in line” returns about 37 times as many hits as a search for “standing on line,” so it would appear that for the time being in line is still much more common.
Another regionalism that people ask me about a lot is the Southernism y'all, which is short for you-all.
Again, there's nothing wrong with you-all or y'all, but it's a regionalism that will peg you as being from the southern United States if you use it because today, in standard English the word you is both the singular and plural second-person nominative pronoun—that just means you use it when you're talking to one person or a group of people. But a long time ago English actually had different singular and plural second-person pronouns. Thou was singular and ye (y-e) was plural (7).
Regionalisms: y'all, youse, you guys, yu'uns, ye, yins, you lot
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, at some point in the 14th Century, the plural form—you—started being used to address one person as a way to show respect. They point out that once the word you started being used that way, the use was likely to spread because it's always safer to show respect than not to (8).
To me, it's shocking that our language could have lost such a useful tool as differentiation between an individual or a group. Would you like to go to dinner? can mean either Would you (Squiggly) like to go to dinner? Or Would you (the group made up of Squiggly, Aardvark, and Sir Fragalot) like to go to dinner?
And the need to differentiate between those two meanings is probably the reason that regionalisms such as y'all came about. Other substitutes include youse, you guys, yins, yu'uns, and you lot.
Personally, I love the word y'all. Ever since I worked as a restaurant hostess in college and had to continually address groups of people (e.g., "Would you-all like to sit indoors or outdoors?"), I wondered why the English language didn't have a formal word that I could use to inclusively address a group (such as ihr in German). You guys was the only other version I had heard at the time, and it sounded too informal to use at work. You-all sounds much more polite. And now I am reflecting on the fact that the language lost ye because of people trying to be polite, and I use y'all—a word considered non-standard—also in an attempt to be polite.
And, here's an aside about y'all. Most sources agree that y'all should only be used to address groups (8, 9), and Southerners say that Northerners give themselves away as Yankees when they use y'all to address one person (8). In addition, I'm not absolutely certain about this, but I've found a few less formal references that say y'all is the plural for small groups, and all y'all is a Southernism for addressing larger groups (10, 11). For example when calling a school assembly to order, a principal might say, “All y'all settle down now.” Please post a comment at the end of this transcript if you can confirm that this is true.
Finally, it seems to me that nearly everything about language variation is a generalization. If you look closely at the dialect maps I've linked to from this page, you'll see that there are almost always outliers—for example, although New York is the epicenter of people who wait on line at the store, there is a smattering of people in many other states who also say on line instead of in line. After my last show about on accident versus by accident, a listener from NY wrote in to dispute that the difference is an age-related phenomenon. Despite the fact that the researcher I referenced found a striking correlation between age and word choice—with on accident being almost exclusively limited to people under age 35—the listener noted that his 75-year-old parents have always said on accident, and that in his experience, on accident is a New York regionalism.
If you have a question, my e-mail address is email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
- Algeo, J. “Where did English Come From?” The Five Minute Linguist. 2004,
http://www.cofc.edu/linguist/archives/2005/02/ (accessed June 24, 2007).
- Wikipedia contributors, "Printing press," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Printing_press&oldid=140587583 (accessed June 27, 2007).
- “How Did Things Get This Ridiculous?” Simplified Spelling Society, 2006, www.spellingsociety.org/kids/print.htm (accessed June 27, 2007).
- "Spanglish: A New American Language" NPR, Moring Edition, September 23, 2003 www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1438900 (accessed June 28, 2007).
- Lieberman, M. “Language Change and Historical Reconstruction.” Linguistics 101, University of Pennsylvania, Fall 2001, www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Fall_2001/ling001/language_change.html (accessed June 24, 2007).
- McArthur, T. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004, p. 857.
- “you-all.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.2000 www.bartleby.com/61/66/Y0026600.html (accessed June 24, 2007).
- Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 1994, p. 970.
- Garner, B. A. Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 847.
- Wikipedia contributors, "Y'all," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Y%27all&oldid=140854117 (accessed June 28, 2007).
- The Word “Y'all.” h2g2 Web Site, June 20, 2001, www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A573978 (accessed June 22, 2007).