‘Yuns’ Should be Proper English

“The people here talk curiously, they all ‘reckon’ instead of ‘expect.’ ‘Youns’ is a word I have heard used several times, but what it means I don’t know. . . .”

Those lines were written in 1810, in the journal of an educated young Northeastern woman as she traveled by covered wagon through central Pennsylvania. Imagine my joy when I, a lover of history and specialist in hoopies and the hoopie dialect, stumbled across that early historical reference to the word that survives regionally in Appalachia to the present day: “yuns.” (Or “yinz,” as proud “yinzers” say in Pittsburgh.)

I found a slim paperback titled “A Journey to Ohio in 1810” at a used book sale. It is the journal of Margaret Van Horn Dwight, age 20, of New Haven, Conn., written during the trip to fulfil a promise to a best friend at home and passed down through family. First published by Yale University Press in 1913, it describes in lively personal fashion the people she met and the conditions she endured on a miserable five-week journey across the ridges and rain-swollen streams of Pennsylvania to the newly settled town of Warren, Ohio, where she expected to find a husband. (She did, marrying an Irish-born dry goods merchant, moving to Pittsburgh, and dying a month after the birth of her 13th child at age 45.)

Miss Dwight did not realize that the word she first heard used by the rough waggoneers who frightened her and the hostelers who ran filthy log cabin inns answered a linguistic need felt by Scotch-Irish immigrants for a plural form of the second person pronoun “you.”

“Yuns” is a contraction of two words: “you ones,” as in, “You’uns come over here.”

“YUNS” IS THEREFORE properly plural, yet when I give my stock humorous/historical talk on “How to Speak Better Hoopie” to a local audience, and ask them whether the term is singular, plural or may be either, most say ‘either.’

“Then why,” I ask, “do people also say ‘yunses?'”

“That’s when,” comes the usual reply, “there are a lot of yuns.”

“It is a huge, strange weakness in American English,” states Dan Nosowitz, a freelance writer, that “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 to the entire group.”

Most languages have different words for singular or plural forms of “you.” English once did, using “thou” for one person, and “ye” when speaking to two or more. When “thou” fell into disuse, “ye” morphed into “you” and served as either singular or plural.

To fill this gap in the language, speakers in the South adopted “y’all” (“you all”) while in Philadelphia and up the seaboard they pluralized “you” in the common way, by adding an “s” to it, creating the execrable “youse,” which we hear in movie gangster dialogue and on TV’s “Jersey Shore.”

The younger generation of Americans has adopted “you guys,” and, ignoring the latent woke issue, uses it indiscriminately for females and groups of mixed gender, despite “guys” being a male term.

“Yuns,” may I point out, is gender-neutral.

BETWEEN 1717 and the American Revolution, an estimated 200,000 Scotch-Irish and Lowland English emigrated to America, a large number of them Presbyterians. My great-great-great grandfather Miller, David Miller, was among them, an immigrant from County Tyrone in Ulster Plantation, Northern Ireland. (To understand why they were both Scotch and Irish, google Kings James VI and Charles I.)

I got it on the maternal side, too, because mother’s Adkins ancestors were English who came over the Virginia mountains and settled on poor-dirt farms north of the Kentucky state line.

By 1790, one in six residents of the United States was Scotch-Irish by birth or descent.

Scotch-Irish may have arrived at Philadelphia, but they didn’t stay long. They moved quickly westward to find cheap land on the frontier; that is, hereabouts: central and southwestern Pennsylvania, mountainous western Virginia, and southwest into Kentucky and the Carolina hills.

So “yuns” is made from two common English words, correct according to the grammatical rule for making contractions, spoken in America for more than 200 years, and answers a real need for a plural form of the second person pronoun “you.” Why then isn’t it considered proper English?

For the answer we need only look at Margaret Van Horn Dwight, who in her 1810 journal critiqued the word without ever trying to understand it . . . because of who spoke it.

She was literate, from well-to-do Puritan New England. Her grandfather and uncle were presidents of Yale University. A great-grandfather was American theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards. “Yuns” was spoken by poor mountain people who were uncouth Scotch-Irish to boot. (She didn’t care much for the Dutch of Lancaster, either.)

In his 2004 book “Born Fighting,” former U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) maintains that the character traits of the Scotch-Irish – loyalty to kin, distrust of government and tendency to bear arms – helped shape the American identity. I would add self-reliance, a strong work ethic, cussed stubbornness and low tolerance for those whom my mother, Ol’ Food, called “educated fools.”

So go ahead and freely use the word “yuns.” If someone tells you it is not proper English, ask: “What grammatically correct, gender-neutral, historically American, second person plural English pronoun would you like me to use?”

(Give the gift of Fred Miller for Christmas for $10. His book of 100 stories, “Falling Under Honey’s Spell,” is available at Connie’s Kitchen, Davis Bros. Pharmacies, Frank’s Pastry, Giant Eagle Calcutta, Museum of Ceramics, and Pottery City Antique Mall.)


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.61/week.

Subscribe Today