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insight by wfx

Welcome to Wordwide FX's new enterprise!

Insight by WFX is a synthesis of our passion for languages and the financial markets. Here you will find technical and fundamental analyses from our clients, media partners and contributors in different languages, as well as discussions on languages and translation. And of course we will keep you updated on what is happening inside Wordwide FX Financial Translations. Hope you enjoy it! Greetings from the Wordwide FX team!

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03/10/2018

24 Old English Words You Should Start Using Again

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Lifehack

Language changes over time; words and phrases come and go. In many cases, there is a good reason for words leaving our vocabulary.

I am certainly grateful that modern sewer systems mean there is no longer a need for the term Gardyloo – a warning call before chamber pots were poured out of windows onto the streets below.

Other old English words, however, still have perfectly valid meanings in our modern world and really need to be brought back, if only for the pleasure of saying them.

Here are 24 old English words and slang terms that are fun to say, still useful, and should never have left us in the first place:

1. Bedward

Exactly as it sounds, bedward means heading for bed. Who doesn’t like heading bedward after a hard day?

2. Billingsgate

This one is a sneaky word; it sounds so very proper and yet it refers to abusive language and curse words.

3. Brabble

Do you ever brabble? To brabble is to argue loudly about matters of no importance.

4. Crapulous

A most appropriate sounding word for the condition of feeling ill as a result of too much eating/drinking.

5. Elflock

Such a sweet word to describe hair that is tangled, as if it has been matted by elves.

6. Erstwhile

This very British sounding word refers to things that are not current, that belong to a former time, rather like the word itself.

7. Expergefactor

Something that wakes you up is an expergefactor. For most of us it’s our alarm clocks, but it could be anything from a chirping bird to a noisy neighbor.

8. Fudgel

Fudgel is the act of giving the impression you are working, when really you are doing nothing.

9. Groke

This means to stare intently at someone who is eating, in the hope that they will give you some. Watch any dog for a demonstration.

10. Grubble

Grubble might sound like the name of a character from a fantasy novel but it does in fact mean to feel or grope around for something that you can’t see.

11. Hugger-mugger

What a fun way to describe secretive, or covert behavior.

12. Hum durgeon

An imaginary illness. Sounds more like an imaginary word. Have you ever suffered from hum durgeon?

13. Jargogle

This is a perfect word that should never have left our vocabulary, it means to confuse or jumble.

14. Lanspresado

It sounds like the name of a sparkling wine, but no, it means a person who arrives somewhere, having conveniently forgotten their wallet, or having some other complicated story to explain why they don’t have money with them.

15. Mumpsimus

Mumpsimums is an incorrect view on something that a person refuses to let go of.

16. Quagswag

To shake something backwards and forwards is to quagswag, who knew?

17. Rawgabbit

We all know a few rawgabbits. A rawgabbit is a person who likes to gossip confidentially about matters that they know nothing about.

18. Snollygoster

I think we can all agree this is a fantastic sounding word. It means a person who has intelligence but no principles; a dangerous combination. Watch out for the snollygosters, they live amongst us.

19. Snottor

This old english term has the unlikely meaning of “wise.” Really?

20. Trumpery

Things that look good but are basically worthless. I said THINGS, not people.

21. Uhtceare

This means lying awake worrying before dawn. We all do this, we just didn’t know there was a word for it. Say it now, like this: oot-key-are-a.

22. Ultracrepidarian

Similar to the rawgabbit, this person takes every opportunity to share their opinion about things they know nothing about. Social media is the perfect outlet for these people.

23. Zwodder

Being in a drowsy, fuzzy state, after a big night out perhaps?

And finally, I broke the alphabetical listing to save my favorite till last…

24. Cockalorum

A small man with a big opinion of himself.

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11/09/2018

People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, research finds

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

New UChicago-led research suggests that someone who speaks in a foreign language is probably more credible than the average native speaker.

Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Yoella Bereby-Meyer, professor in psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, co-authored a recent paper in Topics in Cognitive Science that sheds new light on the role language plays in the natural impulse to lie.

In the research, native speakers of English, Spanish, Hebrew and Korean in four countries were invited to play a dice game in which they were paid according to the numbers they reported. Participants who used a foreign language were less likely to cheat than those using their native language, researchers found.

“When individuals have a chance to profit from dishonesty with no risk of being caught, their instinctive tendency is to cheat, while they refrain from cheating when they have time to deliberate,” Bereby-Meyer said. Such opportunities often occur in everyday situations, such as lying about a child’s age to get a cheaper ticket price, or not speaking up when you receive too much change. “There is a natural temptation to lie in these situations,” she added.

Roll of the dice

Working with groups in Spain, the United States, Israel and the Netherlands, researchers randomly assigned participants to perform the game in their native language or in a foreign language. They were paid according to the numbers they reported, and because the outcome was private, participants could cheat to inflate their profit without risk of repercussions.

Even though the game itself only involves reading numbers on a dice, all of the interaction was in the designated language and participants clicked on ‘number words’ on the screen, Bereby-Meyer said. “The die paradigm was a natural way to examine language’s effect on honesty.”

Even though the participants’ responses were private, the higher proportion of 5s or 6s selected by native language users showed that participants had a greater tendency to inflate their numbers when working in their native language.

“Even though there wasn’t much language involved, just being in a foreign language mindset made them more likely to resist temptation,” said Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago graduate student who was in charge of the UChicago part of the project.

Check your bias

Keysar and Bereby-Meyer argue that the findings challenge theories of ethical behavior to account for the role of the language in shaping ethical behavior. They believe the outcome is due to the fact that using a foreign language is less intuitive, so the automatic response systems that might give rise to cheating may be disengaged. “There is less temptation, so it becomes easier to refrain from impulsive behavior,” Bereby-Meyer said.

The study also provides a compelling narrative about inherent biases toward foreigners. “Studies have shown people with accents are perceived as less credible because they can be more difficult to understand,” Keysar said. These results suggest the opposite may be true.

Keysar believes this research has important implications, particularly in global business, in which companies work with foreign suppliers and customers on a daily basis. Even though a person’s gut instinct may be to trust these people less, the data show that if they are using a foreign language, they might be more honest.

Bereby-Meyer and Keysar plan to continue their work together in a new study exploring how language affects trust. The most recent study was done in collaboration with Shaul Shalvi from the University of Amsterdam, Albert Costa and Joanna Corey from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Sayuri Hayakawa from the University of Chicago.

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14/03/2018

The History of Appalachian English: Why We Talk Differently

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Appalachian Magazine 

“Where are you from?”  An annoying question asked in a condescending tone I have been forced to endure nearly my entire life.  Whether I travel north into Yankeedom or south into Dixie, it seems that the way I (and everyone I grew up with) talk just seems oddly out of place.

We don’t have a Yankee accent, but we also don’t really speak with a southern drawl. Ours is an accent that is entirely unique and though it’s often the subject of scorn and ridicule, the Appalachian dialect is an ancient connection to our rich heritage and deserves to be safeguarded and honored.

The language we speak is known as Appalachian-English and actually serves as one of the oldest varieties of English spoken in this nation.

But why do we speak it and where did this dialect come from?

Like nearly all things related to Appalachia, there is no one clear answer to this question; however, extensive research has been conducted on this very topic for the better part of a century in order to determine why so many of us pronounce words such as “wire,” “fire,” “tire,” and “retired” as “war,” “far,” “tar,” and “retard” respectively.

Appalachian-English also places an “-er” sound at an end of a word with a long “o”.  For example, “hollow”— a small, sheltered valley— is pronounced like “holler”.  Other examples are “potato” (pronounced “tader”), “tomato” (pronounced “mader”), and “tobacco” (pronounced “backer”).

H retention occurs at the beginning of certain words as well. “It”, in particular, is pronounced “hit” at the beginning of a sentence and also when emphasized. The word “ain’t” is pronounced “hain’t”.

The noun “grease” is pronounced with an “s,” but this consonant turns into a “z” in the adjective and in the verb “to grease.”

And then of course there is the unending and longstanding feud regarding what is the proper way to pronounce the region itself, “Appalachia”.  People who live in the Appalachian dialect area pronounce the word with a short “a” sound (as in “latch”) in the third syllable, while those who live outside of the Appalachian dialect area or at its outer edges tend to pronounce it with a long “a” sound (as in “lay”).

Of course on this subject, we all know it’s “App-ah-latch-uh”… or I’ll throw an apple-atch’a!

But why is it that we speak so uniquely?

The predominate theory is that the existence of Appalachian-English is the result of the isolation the mountains beyond the Blue Ridge ensured — making our dialect one of the most ancient and protected dialects in the nation.

While our high-browed relatives who moved to the big city and lost their accent may frown upon our words and pronunciations, it is believed that the Appalachian dialect is a remnant of Elizabethan English.

An evidence of this is the use of words such as “afeared”, a Shakespearean word that is largely forgotten by most English speakers outside of the Appalachian region.

Other ancient phrases include the use of “might could” for “might be able to”, the use of “‘un” with pronouns and adjectives (e.g., young’un), the use of “done” as a helping verb (e.g., “we done finished it”), and the use of words such as airish, brickle, swan, and bottom land all of which were common in Southern and Central England in 17th and 18th centuries.

Interestingly, Appalachian-English has virtually no Native American influences (with the exception being place names, e.g., “Appalachia”, “Tennessee”, “Kanawha”, etc.) while so many other regional dialects in the nation do contain heavy influences from Native Americans.  This is noteworthy, as it showcases something we know and realize today — the people who settled this region are not easily influenced by the accents and languages of others, even if they become displaced, Appalachian-English is a hard dialect to lose.

Further evidence of this reality may be found in several areas in the State of Texas.

Nearly two centuries ago, the sons of Virginia’s Appalachian region (Stephen F. Austin & Sam Houston), as well as men of Tennessee (Davy Crocket) and Kentucky (James Bowie) made the decision to leave the mountains and head into the land of Tejas — eventually forming a new Republic, built by the blood and sweat of Appalachia’s sons.

Despite being some 1,200 miles apart, Appalachian-English is still alive and well in multiple Texas localities.  There, in the Lonestar State, you’ll hear phrases such as “Like’t’a”, proving that you may take the man out of Appalachia, but you won’t be able to take the Appalachia out of the man.

 

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20/12/2016

Seven seriously silly Swedish sayings

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Local.se 

Swedish is a tough language to learn, and strange proverbs about cows, dead dogs, and suspicious owls don't help. The Local has listed some of the seven silliest sayings to help you on the way.

1. Det är ingen ko på isen (here's no cow on the ice)

This is a roundabout Swedish way of saying, quite simply, 'don't worry' or 'take it easy'. It remains unknown how often Swedish cattle are milling about on frozen lakes, but it's no stretch of the imagination to understand that a cow on the ice would be worth worrying about.

2. Med skägget i brevlådan (with your beard in the letter box)

While their English-speaking cousins are messing around getting their hands stuck in cookie jars, Swedes are getting their (probably trendy hipster-style) beards caught in letter boxes. Don't ask what they were doing with their faces so close to the letter box in the first place.

3. Det ligger en hund begraven (there's a dog buried here)

There's something fishy going on here… there's nothing fishier than a dead dog, right? Well, that's what a Swede would say. Perhaps it's the stench of the buried mutt, perhaps it's the idea of a missing canine companion, or perhaps it's just the absurdity of it all, but it's definitely fishy.

4. Ana ugglor i mossen (sensing owls in the bog)

You may think there is nothing fishier than a buried dog, and that's a perfectly logical assumption. But what about owls in the bog? Yes, those crazy Swedes are at it again. When something strange is afoot, they'll whisper to each other about those fishy owls and their boggy surroundings.

5. Inte ha rent mjöl i påsen (not have clean flour in one's bag)

If you're anar ugglor i mossen, it may be because someone doesn't have clean flour in their bag. In Swedish, this means that someone is up to no good or that they are hiding something. What are they hiding? Could be anything. Perhaps they're trying to cover up the dirty flour in their bag.

6. Du har satt din sista potatis (you have planted your final potato)

If you have had it up to here with someone, this is a good threat to throw at them. This is it. This is your final potato. There will be no more potatoes planted after I'm done with you. We suspect it stems from a time when Swedes used to walk around planting potatoes everywhere they went... or something like that (give us a break, we're not historians).

7. Nu är det kokta fläsket stekt (now, the boiled pork is fried)

Who would want to eat fried pork if you had meant to boil it? Not the Swedes, anyway. If you'll forgive us for being crude, it basically means that you're in very deep shit. Things are bad. Things are really, really bad. The boiled pork is fried, I'm telling you. The expression comes from pork being expensive back in the days, and if you boiled it as well as fried it you wouldn't have a lot of pork left.

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07/12/2016

The World’s Most Efficient Languages

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Atlantic.com

By John McWhorter

How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?

Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.

But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?

Well, for a German speaker, more. In “Der Vater sagte ‘Komm her!’”, although it just seems like a variation on the English sentence, more is happening. “Der,” the word for “the,” is a choice among other possibilities: It’s the one used for masculine nouns only. If the sentence were about a mother, it would have to use the feminine die, or if about a girl, the neuter das (for reasons unnecessary to broach here!). The word for “said,” sagte, is marked with a suffix for the third-person singular; if it were “you said,” then it would be sagtest—in English, those forms don’t vary in the past tense. Then, her for “here” means “to here”: In German one must become what feels to an English speaker rather Shakespearean and say “hither” when that’s what is meant. “Here” in the sense of just sitting “here” is a different word, hier.

This German sentence, then, requires you to pay more attention to the genders of people and things, to whether it’s me, you, her, him, us, y’all, or them driving the action. It also requires specifying not just where someone is but whether that person is moving closer or farther away. German is, overall, busier than English, and yet Germans feel their way of putting things is as normal as English speakers feel their way is.

Other languages occupy still other places on the linguistic axis of “busyness,” from prolix to laconic, and it’s surprising what a language can do without. In Mandarin Chinese, a way of saying “The father said ‘Come here!’” is “Fùqīn shuō ‘Guò lái zhè lǐ!’” Just as in English, there is no marker for the father’s gender, nor does the form of the word shuō for “said” indicate whether the speaker is me, you, or him. The word for “here,” zhè lǐ, can mean either “right here” or “to here,” just like in English. But Mandarin is even more telegraphic. There is no definite article like “the.” The word for “said” lacks not only a suffix for person, but is also not marked for tense; it just means “say.” It is assumed that context will indicate that this event happened in the past. Much of learning Mandarin involves getting a sense of how much one can not say in an acceptable sentence.

Moreover, anyone who has sampled Chinese, or Persian, or Finnish, knows that a language can get along just fine with the same word for “he” and “she.”* And whereas Mandarin can mark tense but often doesn’t, in the Maybrat language of New Guinea, there’s pretty much no way to mark it at all—context takes care of it and no one bats an eye.
If there were a prize for the busiest language, then a language like Kabardian, also known as Circassian and spoken in the Caucasus, would win. In the simple sentence “The men saw me,” the word for “saw” is sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś (pronounced roughly “suck-a-LAGH-a-HESH”). This seems like a majestic monster of a word, and yet despite its air of “supercalifragilisticexpealidocious,” the word for “saw” is every bit as ordinary for Karbadian-speakers as English-speakers’ “saw” is for them. It’s just that Karbadian-speakers have to pack so much more into their version. In sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś, other than the part meaning “see,” there is a bit that reiterates that it’s me who was seen, even though the sentence would include a separate word for “me” elsewhere. Then there are other bits that show that the seeing was most significant to “me” rather than to the men or anyone else; that the seeing was done by more than one person (despite the sentence spelling out elsewhere that it was plural “men” who did the seeing); that this event did not happen in the present; that on top of this, the event happened specifically in the past rather than the future; and finally a bit indicating that the speaker really means what he’s saying.

The prize for most economical language could go to certain colloquial dialects of Indonesian that are rarely written but represent the daily reality of Indonesian in millions of mouths. For example, in the Riau dialect spoken in Sumatra, ayam means chicken and makan means eat, but “Ayam makan” doesn’t mean only “The chicken is eating.” Depending on context, “Ayam makan” can mean the “chickens are eating,” “a chicken is eating,” “the chicken is eating,” “the chicken will be eating,” “the chicken eats,” “the chicken has eaten,” “someone is eating the chicken,” “someone is eating for the chicken,” “someone is eating with the chicken,” “the chicken that is eating,” “where the chicken is eating,” and “when the chicken is eating.” If chickens and eating are à propos, the assumption is that everybody in the conversation knows what’s what. Thus for a wide variety of situations the equivalent of “chicken eat” will do—and does.

So does the contrast between Riau Indonesian’s “chicken eat” and Kabardian’s “they saw me and it affected me, not now, and I really mean it” mean that each language gives its speakers a different way of looking at the world? It’s an intriguing idea, first formulated by anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir and amateur linguist (and fire inspector!) Benjamin Whorf. If it were correct, an English-speaker would generally think about the past more than a Chinese-speaker would, while Germans would think more about movement than Americans or Brits.

Experiments have shown that this is often true to a faint, flickering degree a psychologist can detect in the artifice of experimental conditions. But does this mean a different way of experiencing life? Is a Kabardian shopkeeper in the Caucasus more exquisitely attuned to the nuances of experience than a Riau Indonesian-speaking fisherman in Sumatra? If that Kabardian shopkeeper’s jam-packed verbs mean that he vibrates in tune to the jots and tittles of life, then doesn’t one have to say that the Riau Indonesian speaker, whose grammar directs his attention to so few details, is something of a limp string on the guitar? We would run into similarly hopeless comparisons around the world. The Zulu speaker would be hypervigilant given the complexities of his language, the Samoan speaker inattendant given the less obsessively complicated nature of hers.

If thought and culture aren’t why some languages pile it on while others take it light, then what is the reason? Part of the answer is unsatisfying but powerful: chance. Time and repetition wear words out, and what wears away is often a nugget of meaning. This happens in some languages more than others. Think of the French song “Alouette, gentille alouette …” (“lark, nice lark”) in which one sings “ahh-loo-eh-tuh.” In running speech the word has long been pronounced just “ah-loo-ett” with no -uh at the end. That –uh in the song today is a leftover from the way the word actually was once pronounced normally, and it indicated the word’s feminine gender to the listener. Today, beyond marginal contexts like that song, only the final e in the spelling of alouette indicates its gender; hearing it in a sentence we’d have to rely on the definite article la alone to know that the word is feminine.
In a language where final sounds take the accent, such sounds tend to hold on longer because they are so loud and clear—you’re less likely to mumble it and people listening are more likely to hear it. In Hebrew, “Thank you very much,” is “Toda raba,” pronounced “toe-DAH rah-BAH.” The sounds at the end of the word mark gender in Hebrew, too, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon because they are enunciated with force.

When a language seems especially telegraphic, usually another factor has come into play: Enough adults learned it at a certain stage in its history that, given the difficulty of learning a new language after childhood, it became a kind of stripped-down “schoolroom” version of itself. Because all languages, are, to some extent, busier than they need to be, this streamlining leaves the language thoroughly complex and nuanced, just lighter on the bric-a-brac that so many languages pant under. Even today, Indonesian is a first language to only one in four of its speakers; the language has been used for many centuries as a lingua franca in a vast region, imposed on speakers of several hundred languages. This means that while other languages can be like overgrown lawns, Indonesian’s grammar has been regularly mowed, such that especially the colloquial forms are tidier. Lots of adult learning over long periods of time is also why, for example, the colloquial forms of Arabic like Egyptian and Moroccan are somewhat less elaborated than Modern Standard Arabic—they were imposed on new people as Islam spread after the seventh century.

In contrast, one cannot help suspecting that not too many adults have been tackling the likes of sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś. Kabardian has been left to its own devices, and my, has it hoarded a lot of them. This is, as languages go, normal, even if Kabardian is rather extreme. By contrast, only a few languages have been taken up as vehicles of empire and imposed on millions of unsuspecting and underqualified adults. Long-dominant Mandarin, then, is less “busy” than Cantonese and Taiwanese, which have been imposed on fewer people. English came out the way it did because Vikings, who in the first millennium forged something of an empire of their own in northern and western Europe, imposed themselves on the Old English of the people they invaded and, as it were, mowed it. German, meanwhile, stayed “normal.”

Even if languages’ differences in busyness can’t be taken as windows on psychological alertness, the differences remain awesome. In a Native American language of California called Atsugewi (now extinct), if a tree was burned and we found the ashes in a creek afterward, we would have said that soot w’oqhputíc’ta into the creek. W’oqhputíc’ta is a conglomeration of bits that mean “it moved like dirt, in a falling fashion, into liquid, and for real.” In English, we would just say “flowed.”
 

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05/12/2016

Y’all, You’uns, Yinz, Youse: How Regional Dialects Are Fixing Standard English

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

For reasons briefly outlined below, English lost the singular/plural distinction for the second person pronoun at some point in history and "you" is used either to refer to just one person or to a group of people. The different dialects of English have come up with different solutions, the most popular maybe being American English "you guys". In this article, Atlas Oscura author Dan Nosowitz argues that "you guys" is flawed and that it is the worse solution of them all. Let's see why.   

Via Atlas Oscura

By Dan Nosowitz

There is perhaps no greater argument that American English is a deeply flawed, infuriating, and difficult language than the simple phrase “you guys.”

“You guys” is the most common way Americans refer directly to a group of people; it is a de facto pronoun, duct-taped together. If you remember your high school linguistics, you might also remember that this pronoun would be the second-person plural. (First person is “I,” second person is “you,” third person is “he/she”.) The need for a pronoun to directly refer to a group of people is not a small one, or one that can simply be brushed aside; this is one of the most basic elements of language.

And American English is terrible at it. 

In “standard American English,” meaning, essentially, schoolroom English, the second person pronoun is “you,” for either singular or plural. Talking to your spouse? Use “you.” Talking to your spouse and his or her entire family, at the same time? Use…well, also use “you.” It is a huge, strange weakness in American English: when someone is talking to a group of people, we have no way of indicating whether the speaker is talking to only one person or the entire group. Peeking your head out from the kitchen at a dinner party and asking, “Hey, can you get me a drink?” is likely to score you a look of confusion. Who are you talking to, exactly?

“Why would we have one word for something as fundamental as singular and plural? That just screams ‘fix this,’” says Paul Reed, a linguist at the University of South Carolina who, as a native Southern linguist, spends a lot of time thinking about the second-person plural pronoun. “And dialect speakers have.” In place of any standardized second-person plural pronoun, English speakers around the world have been forced to scramble to make something up. You’ve heard the solutions: y’all, youse, you guys, yinz, you’uns.

These are widely seen as incorrect, or nonstandard. The most famous, of course, is y’all. So what’s the history of y’all? How did such an amateur linguistic fix become a pillar of everyday speech?

Ancestral varieties of English do, strangely, have words to distinguish between second-person singular and plural pronouns. Sara Malton, a professor at Canada’s Saint Mary’s University, has a great essay on the strange transition in pronouns from Old to Middle to Modern English. The basic history is thus: Old English, which would sound to modern ears more like German than English, did in fact have singular/plural distinctions.

Even crazier, they not only had basic one/many distinctions, but got even more granular: Old English had a third category, for dual pronouns, used for talking about or to a group of specifically two people. Old English’s nominative second person—nominative refers to the subject, like the “you” that is doing something—is þū. As for pronunciation: that first letter is pronounced with something dental (like a “t” or “th” or “d,” dental meaning a consonant that’s made with the tongue pressing against the teeth) followed by a high-back vowel (high-back referring to the position of the tongue within the mouth, like “oh” or “ooh” or “uh”).

For plural, the Old English version of “you” was , pronounced something like “yih.” And the dual form, which was completely thrown in the garbage by the transition to Middle English, was git, pronounced like “yit.”

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, heavy influence from French speakers began to quickly change the nature of English, marking the move to Middle English. That dual form vanished, and the singular and plural forms changed. Within a couple of centuries, the dominant singular version of “you” was “thou,” and the plural was “ye.” Those each had their own families of related pronouns, like “thy” and “thine” and, interestingly, “you” and “your.” (The former is singular, the latter plural.)

Thou and ye is a perfectly fine arrangement of second-person pronouns, and we’d all be better off if they’d stuck around, but they didn’t. Nobody exactly knows why, but scholars have focused on the mid-17th century work of Shakespeare to help tell us how people were talking to each other and what pronouns they were using.

What changed around this point is that the singular/plural division between thou and ye became, we think, less important than the formal/informal divide. Thou became informal, and ye became formal. The general belief is that this change came from the French, thanks to the Norman Invasion: French has and had a firm formal/informal divide in its pronouns. “As is often the case in Middle English, English speakers like to say, ‘we have the French to blame,’” says Malton. If you remember your classroom French, you’ll remember the formal/informal pronouns: tu is informal, vous is formal.

Because of that rising influence of French, English began to show some formal/informal divide as well. We can see this in Shakespeare’s work, when he sometimes used it as a subtle dig: in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has a noble refer to another noble with “thou,” which would have been a sign of slight but clever disrespect.

The formal/informal thing is also why “thou” makes so many appearances in the King James Bible, as in “thou shalt not (do anything).” “When you’re talking to God you want it to be this intimate thing, so that’s why the authors of the King James Bible used thou,” says Reed. But as Malton notes, this is really all just a guess; it’s not that clear that Shakespeare’s dialogue was really (or even meant to be) an accurate depiction of the way people really talked. Using it as a linguistic source has its difficulties! But we also don’t really have much better data, so.

By the beginning of the 18th century, “thou” began exiting the language completely. “Ye” stuck around, but changed slightly to become “you.” Nobody really knows how this happened; it’s possible that nobody really wanted to use any noun that was associated with the informal lower classes, and it’s possible that the colonization of North America, and subsequent desire for separation from England, led new Americans to spurn these social hierarchy language formations. There’s also the potential that the existence of the colonies, with suddenly possible upward social mobility, left little desire to use any informal pronoun at all.

“We all aspire to ‘you,’” says Malton. But that’s really all just guesswork based on how stuff turned out. All we know is that “thou” rapidly disappeared.

As the previously plural, formal “ye” became the universal “you,” English speakers worldwide became aware pretty quickly that losing a singular/plural distinction is…bad. So around the world, solutions began popping up.

“Y’all” is easily the most famous solution. Its provenance is unclear, but certainly it comes from the American South. The two possible ancestors of y’all are the Scots-Irish ye aw, which means “you all,” and the West African/Caribbean you all (a calque, or borrowed word, from England), which means, as you might expect, “you all.” Because these two phrases are basically the same, and because something was needed to fill that gap, and because both the Scots-Irish and the newly dumped African slaves both lived in the same region, eventually the two phrases were combined and shortened. Hence: y’all.

But y’all isn’t the only solution regional dialects have come up with. Reed grew up using “you’uns,” common in Appalachia, is a slight shortening of the Scottish “you ones.” “Ones,” in some forms of Scottish English, is a plural marker, like the American “guys,” so you can say “you ones” or “we ones.” 

“You’uns” gets even shorter just north of the Appalachians, where it’s been turned into “yinz” by the residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Yinz, like y’all, has become a sort of emblem of the area from which it comes; Pittsburgh residents sometimes refer to themselves as Yinzers, to honor the unique pronoun native to their fine city.

A simpler version comes from the other side of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and has also bled up to parts of New York City: “youse.” This is an understandable creation: you normally add the letter “s” to things to make them plural, right? And the word “you” needs to be plural. So, I don’t know, add an “s” to it. Youse.

Which brings us to the most popular and worst plural form: “you guys.” This solution has so, so many faults. For one thing, it’s gendered; taken by itself, “guy” refers to males, and it’s both inexact and distinctly sexist to use that word to apply to a group of people of any gender. It’s also just kind of awkward, the most transparently stapled-together solution to the second-person plural problem we have. “You, uh…guys. All the guys.” It’s informal in a way that feels, in many situations, entirely too casual. (The word “guy” in English seems to originate from the Gunpowder Plot, a failed assassination attempt, and one of its plotters, Guy Fawkes. Eventually, in England, “guy” came to refer to the effigies burned in remembrance on Guy Fawkes Night, and eventually to any male.) 

Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, solutions vary. “Ye,” somehow, actually persists in some parts of Ireland, as well as in the strangely cockney dialect of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. But it’s also changed; “ye” is now plural, and “you” is usually the singular.

In England, the most popular version is “you lot,” essentially the English version of the American “you guys,” and just as awkward. 

Though Quakers are stereotyped for their use of “plain speak,” which is said to include words like “thou” and “thee,” theoretically helping them to distinguish between singular and plural, in fact very few Quakers still actually use these words. Oh well. They’re good words.

 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the second-person plural pronoun is what it tells us about the entire idea of “standardized” languages. Standard English doesn’t have a singular/plural distinction, and this is what’s taught in schools, drilled into our heads through newscasters and books and media. At the same time, it’s self-evidently a weakness; there is absolutely no advantage to lacking a second-person plural, and plenty of reasons to have one. 

Regional dialects around the world have filled in the gaps, with y’all and youse and yinz and you lot, but due to the weird tyranny of standardized language, these aren’t seen as clever solutions to a problem we all face: they’re seen as wrong. Incorrect. Maybe the speakers are perceived as dumb or uneducated.

Partly that’s due to stigmatization of the groups that created them.; “There’s always the underlying thought that something from the South might be somewhat lesser, or something from African-Americans might be somewhat lesser, because of the history of our nation,” says Reed. The same thing colors our national reaction to you’uns (it comes from poor rural areas), youse (poor urban areas) and yinz (Pittsburgh). 

And this is all ridiculous, if difficult to change. Y’all is not wrong or dumb; it’s a solution to a problem endemic to the “correct” dialect. “People that we would consider non-mainstream speakers kind of led the way,” says Reed. “They filled the gap that standard language, however we want to define it, left. And their language can be considered richer from that viewpoint.” Y’all is a beautiful word. It’s “you guys” that’s the problem.

 

 

 

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