Ye, youse and yiz in Irish English speech

In modern standard English, you as second person pronoun serves a multitude of purposes: singular and plural, subject and object, formal and informal. It wasn’t always so.

Centuries ago the language had singular thou and thee, plural ye and you. The numerical distinction then changed to one of register: thou and thee for familiar use and for speaking to children or people of lower social standing; ye and you for marking courtesy or respect.

Gradually ye and you shifted to the default position, supplanting thou and thee, which were marginalised to regional, religious, and archaic use. Then ye began to wane, for a variety of reasons, until you had taken centre stage as the pronoun of choice in singular and plural uses in all registers – but not all dialects.

Hiberno-English is one dialect where ye is found: I grew up using it in the west of Ireland, and I find it extremely useful. Ye behaves much like you: we have yeer ‘your’, yeers ‘yours’, ye’ll ‘you’ll’, ye’d ‘you’d’, ye’ve ‘you’ve’, ye’re ‘you’re’, and yeerselves ‘yourselves’ (all plural).

These are far more often spoken than written, so they’re less codified than the standard paradigm for you. But I would still consider ye’re ‘your’ in this Irish Examiner article an error (yere without the apostrophe is less wayward):

irish examiner headline ye're yeer

But we didn’t stop at ye. Alongside it there is yous, also spelled youse, you’s, youze and youz, and the more fronted yez, yehs, yiz, yeez, yees, ye’s, yeeze, etc. One reason there are so many is that the vowel is often unstressed (and thus orthographically opaque). But speak to people from around the island and you’ll hear different vowel sounds, even from the same speaker depending on the word’s environment.

It helps to think of these in two main sets: ye and youse. Or perhaps three: ye, youse, and yiz – this is the system preferred by Raymond Hickey (PDF). In my own speech I favour ye, but I use all three types. Ye is a Germanic holdover, but youse appears to be an Irish innovation. T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English comments on its emergence:

From the time large numbers of Irish people became exposed to English, in the late 16th century and onwards, the ‘you’ form was therefore the normal form of address to a single person. As regards the verbal forms, there is evidence that in the 17th and 18th centuries some people tried to distinguish between singular and plural by making changes in the verb: we thus find ‘you is’ and ‘you are’; but this useful device was abandoned in the interests of so-called purity of language. Confronted with this bewildering volatility in the use and formation of the second-person pronoun, it would appear that Irish speakers of English decided to distinguish singular from plural by attaching the plural signal s to the singular ‘you’, on the analogy of regular pluralisations . . .

Ye and the y_z forms are not evenly distributed. Jeffrey Kallen’s Irish English (vol. 2) notes a significant discrepancy between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Treating yous(e), yez, yowz and yiz as a single group, ye as another, he searched the ICE-Ireland corpus and found 52 youse in NI, 18 in ROI, and 40 ye in ROI and none at all in NI.

While ye is inflected as yeer in the possessive case, youse/yiz may be realised as the remarkable yizzer or yisser. Here it is in use:

‘I’ll book the airport chapel where Lorna and the rest of youse can do yizzer praying for a few minutes, but that’s the end of it.’ (Deirdre Purcell, The Winter Gathering)

‘Why ardent yiz weerdin yisser bleaten c…c…collars.’ [Why aren’t you wearing your bleedin’ collars] (Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, Downturn Abbey)

And a few versions of youse/yiz:

‘Howlt on there, youze,’ said the C.G. (Samuel Beckett, Murphy)

‘I’d say it’d be as well for yeez both if he wasn’t found here.’ – Jennifer Johnston, How Many Miles to Babylon?

‘Are yous goin’ to put on th’ gramophone to-night, or are yous not?’ (Seán O’Casey, Juno and the Paycock)

‘From now on yiz can collect yer letters at the post office.’ (Ferdia Mac Anna, The Last of the High Kings)

‘What did yis do to him?’ said John Paul. (Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors)

Ye and yeer:

Did ye practise yere piano pieces? her mother asks. (Mary Costello, ‘You Fill Up My Senses’, in The China Factory)

‘That’s all yeers, and here’s mine.’ (Seán Ó Faoláin, ‘The Talking Trees’)

‘Have ye no business of yeer own to mind without nosing round here?’ (Frank O’Connor, The Holy Door)

When she left, Malachy kept saying, Will ye mind yeerselves, will ye? (Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes)

And both at once, in Paul Lynch’s Red Sky in Morning:

You’re right. Evicting youse is pure wrong. But if Faller sees ye lumping about – there’s fuck all you can do. […]

Faller and his boys will be over to yous later. Ye know how it is.

irish times headline - ye

Dialects that exclude ye as a normal pronoun still retain it in several niches: fossilised expressions like ye gods and hear ye; biblical sayings like Oh ye of little faith and Judge not, that ye be not judged; old poetry like Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; and old hymns like O Come All Ye Faithful and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.

The spread of you to dominate the pronominal paradigm in English simplified things, but at the cost of nuance and occasionally clarity. The prevalence and popularity of alternatives – to the Irish list we can add y’all, ye aw, you’uns, yinzyunz, yupela, and others from the US and elsewhere – suggest that people have found the deficit unsatisfactory.

Update:

I asked on Twitter what second-person plural pronouns people used (and their dialect). All the replies can be read here.

26 Responses to Ye, youse and yiz in Irish English speech

  1. astraya says:

    Because of the Irish influence, ‘youse’ is widespread is AusEng. I usually use ‘you’, but sometimes write ‘yez’ jocularly eg ‘Happy Australia Day to the lot o yez’.
    ‘yupela’ (you fellows) is a 2ppl form in some varieties of Australian Aboriginal English.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yez feels more natural to me than youse in the lot o’ ___ because the phrase is very colloquial; youse takes a bit too much effort in that position. I’d tend to use ye there anyway. Thanks for reminding me about yupela – I’ll add it to the final paragraph.

      • astraya says:

        Presumably related: one day a US colleague came into the office, saw a donut bag a desk and asked ‘Who’all’s been to the donut shop?’. I asked her if that was standard for people her age in her part of the US, and she said yes.

  2. astraya says:

    PS if I had to, I would write ‘yous’, being a plural form.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wonder why the youse spelling is so common. It’s just about the only word ending in -ouse with a /uː/ vowel. I imagine it’s partly by analogy with other -use words, and maybe to confirm that it’s deliberate (i.e., not a typo). Then again, yowz is also found, but I don’t know if that spelling reflects pronunciation or vice versa.

    • Lady Demelza says:

      I completely agree. I love that we have the word ‘youse,’ but it seems to me that it really ought to be spelt ‘yous.’ I’ve yet to see one single example of such, however, and ‘youse’ is so standard that I’ve surrendered and even see it spelt that way in my mind’s eye as I speak.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I think it’s a question of what one gets used to. I may have seen youse at an early age, or got it into my head that that’s how it was spelled, and it stuck. Only later did yous occur to me as a more sensible form. I’m fine with both, but I tend to use youse.

  3. Tim Martin says:

    Interesting! Do “youse” and “yez” in varieties of American English come from Irish English? My (Irish-American) mother grew up in northern New Jerey, and has always used “yez” as a plural of “you.”

    (Interestingly, the linguistic community where I grew up *doesn’t* speak this way, and so neither do I. But apparently I used to. I saw a video once from when I was 5, at which time I apparently did use “yez” as a plural of “you.” I suppose I later unlearned it, since my mother was the only person in my life who spoke that way.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      It seems they probably did, Tim. Michael Montgomery’s book From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English says youse (also yees, yiz, yuhs, etc.) is ‘apparently a form arising in Ireland’; and Charles Jones’s Edinburgh History of the Scots Language says Macafee 1982 ‘considers this to have originated in Glasgow as a result of borrowing from Hiberno-English’. He also cites Joseph Wright’s research that found yous, yees in HibE from the mid-19thC and in AmE and AusE at the beginning of the 20thC. I’d expect these to have been antedated since, but I haven’t looked into it.

      On the use of youse in the US, here’s a note from the American Heritage Dictionary:

      Youse is common in vernacular varieties in the Northeast, particularly in large cities such as New York and Boston, and is also common in Irish English. You-uns is found in western Pennsylvania and in the Appalachians and probably reflects the Scotch-Irish roots of many settlers to these regions. You guys and youse appear to be newer innovations than the other dialectal forms of plural you.

  4. Vinetta Bell says:

    Thanks for the very interesting article and readers’ comments, Stan. I thought immediately of the King James 1611 version of the Bible with its use of Elizabethan English, the speech of U.S. citizens in various parts of this country, and the plain speech of congregants in the Society of Friends (Quakers). Spoken American English reveals these variants more than written English, according to my experience. Thanks for an interesting few minutes of reading about other countries and cultures.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m glad you found it interesting, Vinetta. I like dialectal variants of any stripe, and for so fundamental a word as a pronoun they are especially noteworthy. As a child I assumed everyone said ye, until I learned how restricted it was geographically. US English, as you say, is blessed with an abundance of alternatives, but standardisation has kept them more at bay in the written language.

  5. Nurn says:

    Yeah, Stan, I find the “ye’re jobs” to be a bit jarring too. With an apostrophe, I would read it as “you are” rather than “your”. I’m also in Galway.

  6. The ‘ye’re’ is just plain wrong! I feel like putting a red pen through it!! Yet funnily the correct word is probably ‘yeer’ which is definitely colloquial! !

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yeah, I want to change it too! But you can forgive a subeditor for not knowing; it wouldn’t be in most dictionaries. I’d spell it yeer too, but Mary Costello spelt it yere in a book of short stories I read recently, and I’d allow that as a variant.

  7. Lady Demelza says:

    I remember once, many years ago when I travelled in Europe, a German-speaking Swiss friend interrupting herself in the middle of a sentence to exclaim in frustration that she hated the word ‘you’ (in the plural context) because it doesn’t sound like ‘ihr.’ I knew what she meant. She was very pleased when I told her how Australian English had solved that problem with ‘youse.’

  8. ‘You guys’ is pretty much Standard Spoken American English (as I call it). At one time ‘guys’ referred to males as opposed to ‘gals’. ‘Guys’ is now gender neutral.
    I watch/listen to BBC dramas on DVD. In Estuary English one says, ‘You lot’.
    Doncha?

  9. […] (There’s also Ah lads as an expression of general discombobulation.) And of course we have ye, youse, yiz and the like. But guys is holding its […]

  10. mollymooly says:

    In broad Cork and Kerry speech the initial y- is dropped from all second-person pronouns, giving singular oo oor oors, plural ee eer eers.

    This contrasts with broad Scots, where oo oor oors is first person plural. There’s some comedy gold in there for the right audience.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I haven’t heard or seen those much, except occasionally in fictional dialogue and maybe shows like The League of Gentlemen. I should get out of Cork city next time I’m down.

  11. sioe Ní hUasal says:

    There is a real need to introduce (a) plural second-person pronoun into common usage, in the English language; too many times I’ve had to state: I don’t mean you personally… I mean in general!
    By contrast, the Irish language is uber-equipped with plural pronouns.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s a strange lacuna, especially given the fact that English once had this as part of its common grammar. The prevalence and popularity of regional options shows its value.

  12. Mike Ladd says:

    I heard a factoid today that “ye” is actually pronounced as thee because it is of viking/Scandinavian origin and the “y” is a misappropriation of a Norse letter that has a ‘th’ sound. I immediately looked to your fantastic blog. Any truth to the claim?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Ye in its usual guises is pronounced as you’d expect, but in pseudo–Early Modern English phrases like “Ye Olde” (sometimes seen on shopfronts or pubs), it should be pronounced “the”. The Y is a mistaken representation of the letter thorn, þ. For more background see e.g. h2g2 or Wikipedia.

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