This article is authored by Georgia and first appeared in the December 2012 edition of The Trip, Triple R community radio’s subscriber magazine.
Jeff Fenech, Austrayan boxing champion, infamously uttered the words “I love youse all” in appreciation of his fans after a win in a 1987 title fight. He was full of emotion and wanted to make that known to everyone who’d supported him. He encompassed everyone with the phrase youse all, leaving no doubt that he meant many people – not one, not two, but his sizeable group of adoring supporters and compatriots.
Youse all is a phrase that’s not widely accepted as ‘Proper English’ and I’ve seen people twitch madly when it’s used, as if the speaker is single-handedly contributing to the decline of civilization. But I think Jeff was on to something. Let’s put aside our judgement and all the identity issues we have tied up in language use, and just have a think about why youse (or yous) and constructions like youse all or youse guys can help us communicate more clearly. Hearing these words spoken or written may make some of us squirm, but it’s hard to argue that it’s bloody useful and there’s a strong case to be made for its increased use.
Compared with other languages, English is noticeably lacking in the pronoun department. In our suite of accepted ‘correct’ pronouns (which include I, you, she, he, it, they and we) we use you to refer to one person, but then we double its job by using it to refer to two or more people too. Because it can do two tasks, it’s not always clear who exactly are the referents of the information. It’s got a good work ethic, but geez it’s a bit lax in the quality of its job – it often just doesn’t quite provide the specificity that we need.
Many other languages have distinct pronoun forms that clearly point out the difference in whether it’s a singular ‘you’ or a plural ‘you’ that’s being referred to. Par exemple, French has has tu and vous, German has du and ihr, and Russian uses ty and vy.
Historically, English used the distinct second person pronouns thou (singular) and ye (plural), but since they’ve dropped out of regular use we are stuck without a consensus on how to quickly and easily distinguish between one person and many when we’re talking to them.
Some of us add all or both to the pronoun you in order to be more specific about the referents, but adding a whole new word can be inefficient and clunky, sometimes.
Enter youse (sometimes also spelt yous). It’s a natural fit for the job. It just copies the way we create other noun plurals, by adding the suffix that means ‘more than one’ in our shared conventions of English grammar. My personal favourite is when it’s used in a really low-key way, sounding more like yez as its vowel sounds are shortened.
We think it’s a pretty Oz-As thing, but its use goes beyond our shores. Youse is found in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, parts of the United States and in pockets of Ontario. (In places like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, youse is actually used by some speakers both as second person plural and sometimes second person singular pronoun. It’s flexible. You can’t argue with the Philly dialect, which is generally attributed as the birthplace of the word ‘yo’ as well – but that’s another story.)
The word youse has evolved, much like y’all vs. all y’all, to reinforce the plural via constructions like youse guys (and also one I’ve particularly grown to appreciate, youse c*nts) in use within Australian English.
Other creative versions of plural pronouns that have evolved in various English-using speech communities include you all, y’all, yinz, you ens, you lot, your lot, you mob and you guys.
Y’all is probably the most well-known second person plural pronoun in English. The prevalence of American-made culture imported into Australia means that most of us have come across a Southern American English speaker.
Y’all does the job of a plural form of you. All y’all, all of y’all, or alls y’all clarifies that the entire group is meant, rather than an undefined subset within the group. I think it’d be great if youse here in Australia becomes as accepted as y’all is in US English (and also in the West Indies and in English-speaking parts of the Philippines, as it happens).
It’s time for us to take a good hard look at what’s working for us as our language grows and evolves. I reckon it would provide us with a clearer, more specific way to communicate. Youse should probably give it a chance, yeah?