Why This Southernism Is Spreading Like Pimiento Cheese
Just call it “y’all sprawl.”
Never tamper with perfection when you can simply copy it. As a recent article on al.com reported, conversations across the USA are now getting peppered with that most perfect of all Southernisms: “y’all.”
The site quoted retired Auburn University linguistics professor Thomas Nunnally, who spoke at Birmingham’s Samford University in February 2019. Nunnally is editor of the essay collection Speaking of Alabama: The History, Diversity, Function and Change of Language (University of Alabama Press, 2018).
Y’all sprawl, he said, can be attributed, in part, to the popularity of Southern culture in general, but there’s more to it than that. (As if we have to tell y’all this.)
“Y’all” is a marvelously functional contraction. And we all know the y’all definition. Not only does it succinctly convey “all of you,” making it a more clearly plural version of “you,” but it’s gender neutral. Would you ever walk into a Junior League meeting and say something crazy like, “Anna Kate, Mary Kate, Laura Kate—do you guys have the annual benefit buttoned up?” No. Not unless you want to see Anna Kate, Mary Kate, and Laura Kate clutch their pearls and tag you with the tacky stamp (bless your heart).
“Y’all” can also ramp up to the super-plural, as in “How y’all doing?” “That means you and your kinfolk,” Nunnally said.
Without a copy of his book on hand, we can only speculate as to whether Nunnally and his fellow linguists took the next step, from dissecting the respectably functional “How y’all doing?” to celebrating the linguistically sublime “How’s y’Mama’n’em?”
First, “Mama’n’em” literally translates as “Mama and them,” which means, “your mother, her extended family, and even Aunt Virgie, who isn’t really Mama’s blood relative at all, but she sure was good to Big Mama before she died so we treat her like kin and try to make her feel special.”
We never pronounce a full “your” in front of Mama'n'em because that would completely throw off the rhythm. Instead, we opt for something that sounds like “yuh” or "yeh," depending on your personal style. Also, we say “how’s” instead of “how are” for the very same reason. It just sands down the rough edges and glides smoothly off the toungue: "How's “y’Mama’n’em?”
When you get down to it, Southern speech is all about the musical flow. Let’s hope they get that in Toledo.