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Mind Your Yahs and Y'alls
Aug 27, 2012
|Vice President Biden's controversial "y'all" raised a ruckus in Danville, Va. recently. Official White House photo.|
If you are entertained by politics, as I am, Joe Biden is the gift that keeps on giving. Speaking to a largely African-American audience in Danville, Virginia, the Vice President accused Mitt Romney of wanting to unchain Wall Street. He then said: “They gonna put y’all back in chains.”
Now I happen to think that “y’all” is a useful construction. We’d be well advised to adopt it as it would give English a genuine second person plural. It is a slang conjunction of “you all,” which is what a Southerner sometimes says when he wants to make it clear that he is addressing a group and not a single person.
However, when a fellow from Delaware says it to a room full of Virginians, he is asking for trouble. Like most types of slang, it is associated with backward and uneducated folks. Doug Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia, raised another familiar objection to Biden’s remark. By saying “y’all” rather than “we,” Biden was exempting himself and so putting himself a bit above his audience. This is the reason that the phrase “you people” is considered so politically incorrect.
This incident reminded me of the local reaction to the movie Fargo. The characters in that excellent film spoke with an exaggerated regional accent and dialect. Some couldn’t get out seven words without saying “yah” twice. I discussed the film in class once and some of my students were more than a little offended by this. They felt that they were being insulted.
This is unfortunate. While it is certainly good to be able to speak Standard English, regional dialects and accents are rich in charm and information. They can tell you a lot about where people came from and what happened to them after they ended up here. My Uncle Tee loved to tell stories about the speech of German immigrants in Missouri. A friend once directed him to his house in these terms: you take the up hill, the down hill and the corner round.
As the Vice President learned, however, it can be perilous to mimic a style of speech that is not in any sense your own. There is no doubt that his remarks would have been taken as plain evidence of racism had they been spoken by Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. Governor Wilder was suggesting something like that about Mr. Biden. This is unfair. He was only making a fool of himself, which is what most of us do from time to time when we are trying to be clever.
Mr. Biden discovered how difficult it is, under the rules of political correctness, to defend himself. What used to count toward offensive speech, both in etiquette and law, was what your intentions were and whether you violated some well-known rule. Today what counts is whether someone belonging to a specially defined group feels insulted by what you said. This makes it increasingly difficult for us to talk to one another at all.