City

Why Youse Guys Should Start Saying Y’all

Y’all is gentler. And more inclusive.


youse guys

Is this the end of youse guys? Illustration by Martha Rich

Anytime I’m talking to someone new, the question inevitably arises: “Wait — where are you from?” My apparent outsider status is given away by one simple word: y’all.

For some Philadelphians, “y’all” is a tell. “You guys” and, more distinctively, “youse guys” are the second-person plural pronouns typically associated with these parts. But that could be changing. Listen closely, and you’ll start noticing it, from the waitress at the new all-day cafe around the corner to the interns trading Tinder stories over cocktails in Center City: Y’all is creeping in.

This could be a sign of the times. With more people coming out as nonbinary, we’re more gender-conscious than ever — and “y’all” doesn’t exclude. Jeff Kaplan, an executive coach who trains managers at companies like Vanguard and Jefferson Health, agrees: “More and more, ‘you guys’ feels jarring.”

It could also be a sign of who’s coming here. According to search service Apartment List, nearly 40 percent of out-of-towners looking for rentals in Philly last year were from the D.C. area. (That’s more than double the number of those looking from northerly New York.)

There’s also the fact that “y’all” has always been here. Per Betsy Sneller, who holds a doctorate in linguistics from Penn and studied Philadelphia English under famed linguist William Labov, the phrase came north with the Great Migration. “Youse” is associated with working-class white folks in South Philly, but “y’all” is the grammatical alternative to “you guys” in the dialect of Philly’s African American communities.

For me, using “y’all” is a conscious decision. With roots in West Philly, Pittsburgh and Northern Virginia, I’ve tried several second-person plurals. “Y’all” best gets across how I want to be perceived. The way the “yah” rolls to the back of the throat to meet the fullness of the “ull” — it’s softer, slower. It’s a warm hug inviting you in and genuinely hoping you stay a while. “Youse guys” is sharper. More staccato. A little too straight-to-the-point for me.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently true about the feelings I ascribe to these sounds. “When pronunciations make you feel certain things, it’s never about the actual sound,” Sneller says. “It’s about associations with who uses them.”

Still, I can’t help but feel that the extra beat in y’all is something we could all benefit from. Efficiency made sense for the tight-knit Old Philly, but these days, everyone’s got new neighbors to meet. And if we’re not going to invite them in for sweet tea, we can at least offer more space in which they can move around.

Published as “This Could Be the Death of Youse” in the November 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.