Well, actually, nothing. “Youse” has much to commend it, but regretfully it’s not standard.
Putting aside the discussion of “standard”, which is for another chapter, let me first explain why “youse” is OK. But then let me explain why you shouldn’t use it at the office.
Why is “Youse” OK?
First, consider language dynamics, understanding that all languages, all the time, are in a state of flux.
When my grandparents were amazed, they said “That’s a corker!”. For my Dad, something good was “Jim Dandy”. When I was young with shoulder-length hair, everything was “groovy”, but today, “groovy” is, like, ya know, so-o-o-o “not cool”!
But shouldst thou read Shakespeare or the King James Bible, thou wouldst wist how much the tongue hath changed in but four hundred years. Earlier still, you might perhaps agree with Chaucer, “Ful wys is he that kan himselve knowe!”
As English evolves, its tendency is toward simplification. In comparison to other languages, even related European languages, we have lost features like agglutination and declension, and “voice” is only retained in the subjunctive*, and then rarely (and badly) used. English drives toward simplicity.
But what we gain in simplicity, we give up in precision. And this is where we get into the touchy discussion of “youse”.
In nearly every other language in the world there is at least one word to express the second person singular, and at least one other to express the second person plural. In French you have “tu” and “vous” (with further rules having to do with the formality of address) while in German there are multiple choices because you first have to consider “case”. We anglos get off pretty easy.
As recently as a few centuries ago, English followed the normal pattern. Although today it’s “you say” for everyone, not that long ago it was the singular “thou sayest” and the plural “ye say”. So, “youse” is simply a logical and courageous holdout from another day.
But wait, there’s more! There’s a further complication- a skeleton in the closet! Many of our ancestors, even “British” ancestors, did not speak English at all, and they all said “youse”, or some perfectly legal equivalent.
Gaelic and Welsh were the everyday languages of many of our “British” ancestors, and these living languages persisted in common use well into the Twentieth Century. Even today there are over a million speakers of these tongues in the British Isles and these languages continue to influence the way bilingual Welsh, Irish and Scots speak English, eg: “Come you over by here now!” And most of us in the New World are influenced, at least on one side of our families, by some Celtic ancestor.
Bilinguals tend to keep the thought-patterns of their maternal language even while they are speaking the majority language. And the Celtic languages, like every other sensible language, differentiate between the singular and the plural. So, as our Celtic ancestors were forced to speak English, they kept their Celtic minds and Celtic language patterns, because these made sense. “You” for one, “youse” for two or more. Who could argue?
As the Scots-Irish made their way to the American Appalachians they continued to distinguish, addressing two or more as “y’all”. The Gaelic Scots and Irish who settled Newfoundland and Cape Breton kept “youse” alive. Parts of the eastern United States have regions where “yinz” is the term for second person plural. I’m sure our Australian, New Zealand and South African readers will provide further examples.
Even our children sense that there needs to be a distinction, and they say “you guys”.
We see, therefore, that “youse”, “y’all”, “yinz” and “you guys” have impeccable credentials and deserve respect. So, all of youse who bravely assert this logical structure, be proud and stand your ground!
But just not in the office.
Why You Can’t Say “Youse” in the Office
Unfortunately, majority rules. If youse or y’all want to live in a cabin in the hills, youse and y’all can say whatever you like. But if you go into the city and work in an office, people will laugh at you. That’s not fair, but that’s just the way it is. That’s because “youse” and “y’all” are not “standard English”. Even “you guys” is substandard, and when you get out of grade school, you need to stop using it. Standard English is what the people with the money and the printing presses say it is, and you need to speak to them in their language.
While “Standard English” is not completely standard-- there are British, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African variations (and more), by and large academic work is virtually indistinguishable from one country to another, and good journalism, unless you watch carefully for the “labour”/“labor” shibboleths, is also virtually the same. We seamlessly read each others’ legal judgments (“opinions” in US legal language), and it is really difficult to discern the country of origin of a scientific paper. Professionals and business people all, by necessity, speak the same language.
If you want to sound like you belong in the office, or the university, or the courtroom, then you need to speak Standard English. Unfortunately, there is no place in the world you can slip a “youse” into a treatise without raising eyebrows.
So, while I will show “youse” and “y’all” the historic respect they deserve, I don’t plan to use either one in my next lecture!
Youse have a good day, now, y’all!
*The subjunctive is use to describe a state of mind, rather than an actual fact: “I wish I were in Australia right now”, not “I wish I was...”
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.