Jewish World Review May 10, 2005 / 1 Iyar 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Department of language | Dear Brooklyn,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your reaction to my doubting that Y'all is ever used in the singular in these Southern latitudes — even by Texans.

It seems a couple of linguists in San Antonio claim to have heard Y'all used in that atrocious way. But I have too high an opinion of San Antonio to believe them.

The lack of a clear second-person plural in English seems to have produced a number of candidates for the job in addition to Y'all. Such as You Guys, which I blame on — excuse me, attribute to — New Jersey.

Your hometown pride is about all that commends your suggestion that the nation adopt Youse Guys, which you claim originated in Brooklyn. You can probably show us the exact site where it was first used on Flatbush Avenue; somebody ought to put up an historical plaque. But it still offends the Southern ear.

You then ask how can Y'all be plural because you've learned, since settling in Arkansas, that it has a plural itself: All Y'all.

Good point. And anyone not Southern, and therefore the product of an oral tradition, would be at a loss for words at this moment. Instead, allow me to explain:

Y'all applies to a small group, like one's immediate family or just enough people to fill the double cab of a pick-up. ("Where y'all headed?") While All Y'all would refer to a larger group, like your extended family, including dogs, cats and kissin' cousins gathered for a reunion, or your whole high school class, as in "How all y'all doin' down there in Bogalusa?"

All Y'all is just plain friendlier. It's like being nice enough to remember the folks back home, too, when you inquire after somebody's well-being.

Caution: Do not try the All Y'all construction in Brooklyn or in standard English. The result might sound awkward. ("How are all you?") And it might inspire some strange, indeed sarcastic, replies. ("All me is fine, except I have a stomach ache.")

In short, always follow the guiding principle of Southern linguistics: It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

Glad to have cleared all that up for you, and for all y'all.

Sincerely as ever,

— —

Dear Professor,

I can well understand why a retired professor of logic would object to the new and increasing use of the phrase begs the question to mean prompts the question, rather than the traditional meaning in logic: assuming a point rather than proving it, or avoiding the relevant question. Sometimes it's called circular reasoning.

I don't remember when I began hearing this now common illiteracy, but it has become more frequent, and, like a lot of bad habits in language, may be an accepted meaning by now. Language changes, not always for the better.

I've also noted some other, even more annoying abuses of the language of late. The distinction between "uninterested" and "disinterested," for example, seems to have pretty much disappeared. That's a great loss in a society in which disinterested judgment is as needed as it is rare.

My theory is that things started to go wrong when we began using "different than " rather than "different from " when comparing things. It sounds weaker. Like the annoying habit of going up in pitch at the end of one's sentences, which turns every statement into a question. It's a practice I associate with the young and Californians, both deeply subversive groups.

The decline of form in general set in when we first allowed players to wear anything but whites on the tennis court. After that, John McEnroe and epigones were inevitable. Function followed form. Downhill.

It would be nice to think society could level up instead of down, but it seldom works that way. Instead, in language as in behavior, to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan's apt phrase and diagnosis, we define deviancy down. More and more things become acceptable in language, then action.

Entropy happens. But the language, even as it deteriorates before our eyes (and ears), continues to reveal remarkable powers of rejuvenation. American English still shows a characteristic tendency to grow ever more standardized and less discriminate, just as the Republic continues to become more and more of a mass democracy. Which has both its good and bad aspects.

Happily, regional dialects are enjoying a new vogue. See the popularity of country music and the whole, stock-car racing culture. This may be America's way of rebelling against national conformity and today's computerized impersonality. Regional/class/ethnic speech allows us to assert our distinctive origins. It's a kind of safety valve after all that standard, colorless usage has been pounded into us.

No matter what the purely descriptive linguists may say, there is such a thing as good language — as opposed to bad. And good form as opposed to bad. There was a long-gone time when there was no more damning phrase in an Englishman's vocabulary than Bad Form. Nothing more had to be said. Pity times have changed.

Those of us who favor good form will just have to keep making pests of ourselves to keep the American lingo both democratic and discriminating, nuanced but not snobbish, open to all but not uniform. Not so much to correct others, which can be impolite, but so we ourselves don't forget there's a right way to speak, and to do.

Keep the faith,

— —

Dear Irritated,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your letter demanding to know why I use incomplete sentences, a habit that drives you crazy. Appreciated it.


Inky Wretch

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