by George Jochnowitz
An extraordinary change has taken place in American English. Suddenly, we have a new pronoun: you guys. You was once either singular or plural. But, about two years ago, millions of people stopped using you as a plural. When they addressed two or more people, they began saying you guys instead of you, whether the people addressed were, in fact, guys or not. This most remarkable development, which happened without anyone's noticing, is the biggest thing to hit the English language since the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616).
There is nothing unusual about language change. New words like disco come and go. Old words take on new meanings; look what happened to gay. Grammar also changes. Time was when the plural of cow was kine and cows sounded as funny as mouses does now. But pronouns are something special; they are quite stable. Before you guys, there hadn't been a change in pronouns for more than 300 years, when thou and thee disappeared from spoken English. Originally, thou and thee were singular; ye and you were plural.
At the end of the 14th century, ye and you came to be used in the singular as polite forms. Servants, animals and children were addressed as thou; strangers and nobility were addressed as you. Most European languages have maintained a distinction between the familiar and polite forms to this day. In 17th century Britain, however, the familiar thou disappeared, surviving only in prayer and poetry. Quakers also lost thou, but kept thee. For whatever reason, English became a most democratic language.
When English lost the familiar thou, it lost its second-person singular pronoun in the process; you became both singular and plural. I has the plural we; he, she and it have the plural they. To handle the you problem, new forms were created in various parts of the United States: you-all, youse, you-ones and now you guys. When we hear Southerners say you-all, we find it decidedly regional; when Archie Bunker says youse, we consider it low-class; if we come across you-ones, we think it rural and archaic. As to you guys, it lacks the grace of you-all, the logical efficiency of youse or the charm of you-ones, but it is nonetheless here.
In a recent article in Verbatim ("Watching All the Guys Go By") winter 1979-90). Norman R. Shapiro deplored the use of guys to refer to women as well as men. However the noun guy remains masculine. Only the pronoun you guys, or its shortened vocative form, guys, is common gender.
Shapiro did not realize that he was talking about a new pronoun. In fact, you guys could never have spread so far if anyone had stopped to think what a major innovation it was. Changes in grammar are ordinarily mocked and castigated when they first appear. Even William Safire, who writes a weekly column in The New York Times Magazine called "On Language," did not see what was happening. He casually used you guys in his column of Aug. 12, 1979. That a columnist writing about usage could introduce a new grammatical form is startling.
I first heard you guys in 1958, as used by a cousin from California. As recently as 1976, it sounded odd to me when I heard it again from a different California cousin. Since then, you guys has become ubiquitous.
It may be that you guys has had so much success because it came from the West. Movies and TV programs are produced in California. The title character in "Rhoda," supposedly a New Yorker, said you guys six years ago, thus convincing other New Yorkers that they said the same thing. In addition, most Americans think of California and Western speech as lacking in regionalisms. Therefore, if a regionalism comes from that region, it is regarded as a general American form.
There is another reason for this pronoun's acceptance: it is needed. Ever since thou and thee fell into disuse, there has been a hole in the pattern of English pronouns. Youse and you-all couldn't fill the gap because they weren't from California. You-ones never even had a chance. Okay, you guys? That's it.
George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally published in The New York Daily News, April 22, 1980, p.32; it was reprinted in California Linguistic Notes, Fall-Winter 1991.This article can also be found on George Jochnowitz. It is published here with the permission of the author.