Saturday, August 3, 2013

How do youse spell it?

Headlining today’s report on the Whitey Bulger trial, my hometown paper went with a defiant quote from Whitey’s affirmation that he would not be testifying:

Hmm. I don't know about youse guys, but I've never thought of using yous for that (usually plural) dialect variant of you. It's normal in plurals like thank-yous and how-could-yous, and both spellings are used for the contraction of "you is," but yous guys? Not in my spelling book.

It may have been a Globe style ruling: The yous version also appeared in Kevin Cullen's column, though it may not have been his choice.* After quoting Whitey, he added a comment with a more colorful spelling: "Sort of appropriate that his final word would include a 'yooze.' For all his literary pretentions, Whitey is a thug, and he talks like one."

(Interestingly, a story on the Globe's website filed yesterday, when testimony ended, has neither youse nor yous: The quote has Whitey saying “Do what you want with me.” But cleaning up quotes, a labyrinthine issue, is not today's topic.) 

The court transcript of the hearing may be the reason for today's use of yous: That's how the court reporter wrote it. For me, that's not a good enough reason. The court's idea of how to spell the word has no special authority; it could just as easily have been transcribed as youse or youze. And the Globe has historically chosen youse as its preferred spelling, though naturally examples are scarce. In the archives since 1988, there are 37 instances of youse, and only two (besides the Bulger cites) of yous.

I haven't the time (nor the brains, possibly) to design a wider search for the yous spelling that won't drown me in a sea of thank-yous and I-dare-yous and such. But a Google Ngram search (American English) for yous guys (blue) vs. youse guys (red) puts youse far ahead, for what it's worth.

On the other hand, the online OED, in an entry updated last year, gives only the spelling yous, with the label "regional (chiefly Irish EnglishU.S., and Austral." -- even though three** of its eight cites spell it youse. (Youse is mentioned only as an 18th-century variant.) And several American dictionaries give both spellings, though I haven't found one that offers only yous.

Maybe this is just a word that appears so rarely in edited prose that a consensus spelling hasn't emerged. Or is it a generational thing, like mic vs. mike, with younger people, more distant from the hard-boiled baddies of earlier fiction, inventing the spelling anew (and dropping the final e)? It seems to be a live issue; just last month, the staff at NewsWorks, the news site of Philadelphia's WHYY, hosted*** a debate on yous vs. youse.

I'm sure I've left many stones unturned in this quest, so I'm looking forward to hearing some helpful testimony from y'all, yinz, youse, and all the rest of you guys (of both sexes) out there.

*I have e-mailed him asking for clarification.
**One American, one English, one Australian.
***I'm so glad host as a verb is no longer taboo.


Vance Maverick said...

The spelling "pretention" is also unusual -- is this columnist simply idiosynkratic in such matters?

Jan said...

Surely just a run-of-the-mill spelling error; I didn't think it deserved a [sic].

empty said...

I spell it "youse". I remember my delight when, as a child, I first encountered this word in the wild. A mother of a friend of mine said something like "Do youse want some lunch?" Up to then it had always been a word said by a movie gangster, or maybe Bugs Bunny. This might also have been the first time I encountered "youse" not followed by "guys".

Geoffrey said...

There are parts of the Missouri Ozarks where you-uns (rhymes with Byron's Don Juans and has two syllables) is in free variation with y'all. I heard both in the same discourse from the same speaker.

Jen said...

I'm Australian, and "youse" is very much used in speech. You rarely see it written though, so I have no idea how to spell it!

Gregory Lee said...

I've only ever seen "youse", and I think I know it from The Saint stories by Leslie Charteris. The Saint had a buddy, Hoppy Uniatz, an American gangster, who used it.

I'm not very enthusiastic about the underlying idea that every word must have a unique spelling.

Stan said...

Yous has appeared in books by James Joyce and Christy Brown. I also see yehs, yez, yiz and similar spellings in colloquial Irish English (with subtle differences sometimes reflecting regional pronunciation). And we use ye, with inflected forms like yeer (= your (pl.)).

Jean | said...

Jan, I spell it "youse," not that I often have occasion to spell it at all. But I do like consistency in spelling, so let's press for "youse," shall we?

Anonymous said...

You get 'youse' in some scouse (Liverpool) dialects. I think it is Irish originally.

See the title of this paper for example:

But if you google scouse youse you get a lot of dialect discussion.