A little south out west

San Francisco Chronicle | March 13, 2005

By Leslie Guttman

Around the Bay Area, I have noticed quite a bit of nonlocalized y’alling these days. What I mean by that is people who aren’t from the South saying things like: "Y’all ready to go?" "Y’all stay in touch, OK?" "Y’all put your hands together now!"

It first came to my attention at a poetry jam sponsored by Youth Speaks, the San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to nurturing spoken word artists. There were teenagers from places like Berkeley and San Francisco, many of whom, while well-traveled, had never touched down anywhere between New York and Florida, or eaten bourbon balls for dessert, or a raw Vidalia onion as an apple. They may have had crawfish etouffee before, but it probably had raisins and pine nuts in it.

One of the poets was a young Latina who blistered out an amazing rant, bookended by: "How y’all doing out there? Y’all take care now, thank you!"

I grew up in the South, and it sounded weird to my ear to hear un-Southerners use y’all, a cultural mismatch, like wearing a guayabera as a mini-dress. When I was 8, my dad told my family we were moving from Philadelphia to Lexington, Ky. A skinny girl about 12 from Georgia was visiting another family on our street at the time. One night playing kickball with us, she got upset about the finer points of the game, sat down on the pavement and wailed: "Y’ALL NOW STOP IT, Y’ALL ARE BEING MEAN TO ME!" My brother and I looked at each other with dread. We were snotty enough to know leaving the Main Line meant something worse than never finding a decent bagel again: We might sound like her someday.

He didn’t, as it happened, and I did. By the time I got out of college and started working as a journalist, I had an accent every single source I interviewed made fun of. It wasn’t a sweet or sultry accent like some people I know have, especially if they are from North Carolina. I sounded sort of like a girly Dr. Phil. ("That dog won’t hunt!")

I practiced hard at losing my accent, and did. But a part of me missed it, and slipped it back in on visits home. When I left, I was careful to cover it up again, like I do the water stain on my maple dresser.

How did y’all break out? I assumed it was from hip-hop, the way hoodies have gone cashmere, and Dyanna Loeb, a 17-year-old spoken word performer in San Francisco told me that was so. "It just became ingrained in my subconscious," she said, from the music and its linguistic migration into her and her friends’ conversations.

Aaron Peckham, 24, a computer science major at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, runs the addictive Web site Urbandictionary.com (of whose entries my favorite is: "podestrian: A person who can be spotted with the iconic white standard iPod earbuds in their ears.")

"Language developed because people moved; now language develops because information and music move," said Peckham.

Bert Vaux is a linguistics professor at the University of Wisconsin who also taught for years at Harvard. The crossover y’alling is from hip-hop and its roots in Southern black speech, he said, but it’s not that different from the way musicians’ words from other musical eras found their way into civilians’ vocabulary. In the jazz age, Vaux said, there were hip, cool and cat. From swing, he pointed me to Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, first published in 1939, with entries like righteous ("splendid") and icky ("one who is not hip, a stupid person, can’t collar the jive").

Vaux spoke quite a bit about the phenomenon of wiggers — white people like MTV veejays trying to sound black. I wondered if he saw a distinction, though, between wiggers and crossover y’allers, because to me, y’all is a word Southerners often use to make other people feel comfortable. Vaux said yes, it’s a social solidarity word conveying the primitive message: "Hey, you’re one of us!" Another word like it out there, he added, studied extensively by dialectologist Scott Kiesling, is "dude," the surfer’s y’all.

So this is why I think all the y’alling is going on. On a lonesome, whirring planet, it subconsciously evokes a feeling that encapsulates what is best about the South: a combination of friendliness, pleasure and relaxation — come join our picnic blanket. The word reminds me of my childhood spent with three close girlfriends: drifting down Kentucky Lake on inner tubes, cheering the horses on at Keeneland, drinking iced tea on the porch until the lightning bugs went to sleep. At my family’s house in Lexington, a picture of Winston Churchill hangs in the den. Although he probably never drove a pickup, he put it well: Short words are the best, and the old words best of all.