The English Language Keeps Evolving

Spontaneous order in action


"What's beautiful about language is that people will modify it to suit their needs," Drake Baer writes in New York magazine. He's right: English is not a fixed set of commandments but a constantly evolving spontaneous order powered by innovation and adaptation. Baer highlights a recent example:

Spontaneous Order

Around the turn of this century, a new usage popped into the vernacular: Your guys'. Like a caller ringing the spectacular "Car Talk" radio show: "I wanted to get your guys' opinion." Or in the millennial tour de force, Napoleon Dynamite: "Hey, can I use your guys's phone for a sec?" Or what [Ben] Yagoda has as the earliest entry in Google Books, from a 2002 novel called Impeachment: "Well, it is, but that is your guys's problem."

In this case, your guys' came about to deal with the weakness of the standard possessive form, you guys', which sucks because it sounds just like the nonpossessive you guys when you say it. "Of course, one could differentiate it by treating guys as if it were a nonplural ending in s, adding an extra syllable, and saying 'you guises,' the way one would say 'Jesusez' (for 'Jesus's') or 'the Jonezez' (for 'the Jones's')," Yagoda writes. "But (in my admittedly small sample) I've never heard it pronounced this way, probably because it sounds childlike, if not childish."

I always went with "you guises" myself, but I think it's pretty well established that I'm not a bellwether for anything. In any event, you can read the rest of Baer's post here and you can check out the Yagoda piece he's riffing on here. If you've got any interest in emergent orders, you're likely to find them interesting.

Bonus link: Of course there's a constructed-order side to language too. For an example from the Reason vaults, I give you Turkey's attempt to ban the letters Q, W, and X.

NEXT: 35 'Press Freedom Predators' Named and Shamed By Reporters Without Borders

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Que?

    1. +1 tower

  2. Turkey’s attempt to ban the letters Q, W, and X.

    Since we don’t RTFA, I’m going to assume that the ban attempt was Scrabble-related.

    1. They’re not in the alphabet. The alphabet has 29 letters and is phonetic.

      The X sound would be “eks”

      There is no q sound, but you could cobble something that sounds like it using “k?”

      W would be ?, which is not really a w sound but a simmilar sound made by softening a g until it is no longer a constonant.

      1. So by phonetic you mean not phonetic at all.

        1. No, it’s a phonetic alphabet. Turkish doesn’t have the w phoneme. Nor the q.

          And the x is really vowel + ks, eg. Taksi

          1. S fr s m cncrnd, Gyptn ws th nly phntc lngg.

          2. Technically, Sparky is correct, Turkish is written phonemically, not phonetically. There is some discrepancy between the graphemes and morphemes, but far less than in English.

          3. Korean is like that: really great phonetic writing system that no longer has f, v, z (it used to to accommodate Chinese borrow words that the Koreans can’t pronounce, but the characters were eventually deprecated). F was fun because it either becomes a soft wuh sound or a hard p sound.

            Still the easiest writing system I’ve ever learned. IIRC Korean and Turkish are closely related, no?

            1. Both were grouped in the Altaic language family, but most linguists no longer believe the family to be valid. The languages do have some features in common, however.

          4. Didn’t Ataturk convert to the Cyrillic alphabet, but because Turkey was mainly an Islamic country, and they learn Arabic to read the Koran, Turkish is still heavily influenced by Arabic.

            So it’s a weird mix of Arabic and other languages that’s written using the Cyrillic alphabet?

            1. It’s not Cryllic.

              It’s Roman.

              He was trying to model the new country after the French Republic.

  3. It’s no Lewis’s Convention.

  4. A word should be considered valid if another person upon hearing the utterance can demonstrably communicate understanding of the words meaning.

    The dictionary is arbitrary and bureaucratic.

    1. As arbitrary as what you just said, so that’s no point against it.

      1. Grammar Nazi’s use the dictionary as an appeal to authority and it’s annoying.

        All that ‘ain’t ain’t a word’ shit but now ain’t is a official word. Fuck you Webster, you ain’t god!

        1. Grammar Nazi’s

          *narrows eyes*

          You did that on purpose, didn’t you?

        2. Didn’t you mean, “ain’t is an official word”?

          1. Thanks, that threw me as well.

  5. Do all y’all use yous guys’?

    1. I’m surprised that’s not more common.

      1. I’m living in the south…all y’all is the new 2nd person plural. Y’all is now the singular. I blame the fact that we dropped thou, thine and thee.

        1. Your ideas interest me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

      2. I’ve heard “your guys’ ” in Canada ever since I was a kid back in Ontario.

        Which was five decades ago. ???

    2. No you illiterate hillbilly mouth breather, the correct word is ‘youins’. Ya’ll is acceptable.

      1. NO! IT’S YINZ!

        Goddamn bunch of illiterates!

        1. There is nothing wrong with yinz. Jagoffs.

      2. Absolutely correct, Hyp!

        “It is the proper address a single individual . . .when . . . the specific comments are applicable to more than just the individual him-/her-self. e.g., Bill speaking to John alone about his up coming family trip: ‘Y’all need to get visit the Grand Canyon, too, if you vist Hoover Dam’.”

        I whole-heartedly agree with Brett. One of the problems Northerners have is understanding how y’all fits in Southern culture. You may, of course, use y’all when talking to one person, but you are always referring to that person and his/her family. The issue is not how many people you are addressing but what the y’all refers to.

        If fact, in Russian the, “Vy,” form of addressing people is either for polite, formal conversation, addressing someone you don’t know at/very well, or for addressing a crowd of people. In the case (ha!) of the last, “You all,” or, “Y’all,” is perfectly grammatically correct. (This is also true of Ukrainian, by the by).

        1. I tried translating “??” as “y’all” in Russian class in college. The professor was not amused.

          1. Your mom goes to college

            1. [runs away]

          2. Then your professor is incorrect. I have translated that for our Medical Guides (specialised, real word, interpreters for foreign patients on Medical Tourism), and all have agreed it is an acceptable translation for the, “Vy” form, which is plural. Which is also true in American English, with the uses of, “Y’all”, which has all but abandoned any semblance of a case system.

            The prof probably didn’t like Countrifried folk, and other deep fried Southin’ flavoured types.

            1. He probably shouldn’t have taken a teaching position at the University of Virginia, then.

        2. I don’t know if you’ve experimented, but you should be able to pepper a few errant Cyrillic (or any other) non-“English” glyphs into posts without throwing the yellow flag. I recall you having some amount of problems before, but after some experimentation I found that as long as the post appears to be predominantly in Latin character sets, you’re probably fine.

          1. I know, but I don’t like peppering comments with Cyrillic, since it doesn’t work half the time for me, and I don’t like switching from VK to VK, either via workstation or website VK.

            Besides, I am fluent in TransLit, as is Dr. ZG. Her English is terrible though, and is extremely uncomfortable trying to speak it. (Though her, “AMERIKAN AKCENT,” impression is absolutely hilarious).

            1. Ah, I see. Didn’t want to presume, I just remember you had trouble with it in the past.


              It’s funny, it goes the other way too. My Russian (naturalised) friend and I have a good amount of time using Cyrillic to write English words between each other. Actualising the Russian accented English can be extremely hilarious. ?? ?? ?????? ??? ?? ???!

              The software keyboards on phones are great and switching is more trivial than on Windows workstations. I taught myself (and retained) the Russian Cyrillic alphabet 20 years ago from flash cards. Now thanks to the software keyboards, lighting off the Russian for English speakers course with Duolingo has been completely painless. The drawback of doing it this way by mobile is that it’s not conducive to any of the grammar and usage primers before the exercises. Duolingo has been handy for keeping my Spanish from going to complete shit too.

              1. That was absolutely stunning.

              2. Is it anything like this?


                1. NEEDZ MOAR MINISKIRT DANCE!

            2. Translit is an abomination. I cannot stand it. Though I wonder how Serbs feel about using two writing systems.

              1. Translit is an abomination. I cannot stand it.

                Understood. There many Russian websites where use of Translit is expressly forbidden and use can warrant an instant BanHammer.

                That said, it can be very convenient in a pinch without a VK or even a Cyrillic enabled phone. It’s also useful for teaching our son both Russian and English, since he is growing up with both in the household.

              2. Nationalists rail against the Latin alphabet when they remember to. Rest just duals as needed (I’m guessing that nowadays Cyrillic is dominant more then when I lived there).

                It’s convenient to be Latin-literate when travelling, and it allowed us to read Croatian-published comic books. It suffers from not being fully phonetic, as it lacks couple of sounds (soft N and L are represented with “lj” and “nj” respectively).

    3. It’s youz guyz


      1. Bitches pleaze

          1. I stand corrected

    4. yous guys’?

      You mean me and him?

      1. In my yout,’ I once tried to convince my sisters not to use “guys” to refer to groups of females. I suggested “you girls” for minors and “you gals” for adults. I was laughed down as a real Poindexter!

        Context: Lawn Island, 1970 ? 2 years.

        “Your guys” is properly used when razzing a buddy when his team is losing: Your guys ain’t doin’ so good, huh?”
        Or, when you need something done, you might ask Do ya think your guys could take a look at this mess?

  6. I’m pretty sure this is a rehash article. Maybe even a rehash of a rehash.

  7. True dat

  8. The thing about language is that it serves a purpose. Sure folks can start making up new words, phrases, or constructions, but if it fails to convey your meaning to an audience then it pretty much fails as language.

    1. And if that happens, people won’t use it. Or they will use it specifically because it fails to communicate effectively with other people who they don’t want to understand them.

      That same argument goes both ways. You can’t just make shit up because it won’t be effective in communicating what you want to say. But on the other hand, if “incorrect” grammar or usage becomes the norm, then that is the language.

      I do think that too rapid change makes it difficult to speak or write with a lot of precision. So I think it is good to try to be conservative about big changes to language. But you also have to accept that it does change and what was just wrong 50 years ago might be perfectly fine now.

      1. To paraphrase:

        “Language is the meaningful sounds that we all make together.”

        1. Yeah. That and I reserve the right to still be pedantic about usage and grammar when I feel like it.

  9. I say ‘ you girls’ sometimes when speaking to a group of all females. Thanks for teaching me the virtuous path Interpersonal Communication teacher — except 7 years later such a phrase might be sexist or othering or something something wrongthink. I don’t know what to believe, but I think that was their goal all along.

    1. But isn’t “you girls” always followed by “wanna have sex”? So I think it’s fine.

  10. As long as the ethnic pejoratives and swear words keep evolving I’m good. Trigger the fuck out of the snowflakes I say.

  11. Y’all English game is on fleek, yous guyses.

    1. Totes bae.

      1. Article so lit

  12. If Derpetologist, Heroic Mulatto*, and Geoff Nathan, do not make an appearance in this thread, I will be very put out.


    *HM, I am still of the opinion that Noam Chomsky’s Language Theory, AKA, “Universal Grammar,” is correct.

    1. Then, I’d like to ask you, what is it about human languages that we can’t acquire it using general cognitive mechanisms that we use for learning anything else? Is it just the poverty of the stimulus?

      That having been said, I think we will eventually find out that UG is how we acquire syntax and cognitive linguistics explains how we learn semantics. But that’s barstool theorizing.

      1. Is it just the poverty of the stimulus?

        As I currently view it, yes. I am of the opinion, based on reliable understanding of human perception, which is what language simply describes in a consistent and reliable manner.

        The, “Subject,” “Verb,” “Direct Object” paradigm appears to conform with all languages, with the real deviation being how the concept of time, via tense, is expressed and concretely linguistically handled. Which makes sense, sense perceive and view the concepts of time and tense demonstrably differently.

        1. “…since discrete cultures perceive…”

        2. Luc Steels has done a lot of work showing how an neural, evolutionary, and computational model of cognition renders the poverty of the stimulus moot through the brain’s amazing abilities in statistical pattern recognition (so much so that we are left with so many cognitive biases around it.) Gambler’s Fallacy, anyone?

          The, “Subject,” “Verb,” “Direct Object” paradigm appears to conform with all languages

          Only because typologists are lazy and classify ergative languages within the S/V/O system.

  13. What’s wrong with “your”?

    I suppose sometimes you need to distinguish second person singular and plural, but in most cases I think the meaning is clear enough.

    1. Ok, but your wrong.

      1. I’m wrong about what I suppose and what I think? I’m not sure how you’d know that.

        1. Yes, you’re suppositions and thoughts are wrong.

    2. Phone keypads and auto-corrects are such a pain in the ass, I just don’t get being pedantic about this stuff.

    3. More Top Man elitism from Zeb.

      1. Well, it’s pretty obvious that I’m the only person in the world qualified. Y’all a bunch of commies.

  14. A problem I have with “modern English” is matching the plurality of the verb with the closest noun.

    Sorry, that is just *wrong*.

    1. I think most people still consider that a mistake.

      It does often create ambiguity. And just sounds dumb.

    2. That, and “I Melt with You” is an atrocious song.

  15. Out of everything that made Mencken an intellectual giant, I would have to say that I find his book The American Language to be his most impressive work. I don’t understand, this guy didn’t go to journalism school, how could that have been?

  16. Would have been more insightful had the article compared the exemplar to, e.g., French.

  17. Here’s another thing English needs: Different ways of expressing first person plural to distinguish “you and I” from “he and I”. “We” can often be ambiguous.

    Also, “how” should be two different words to distinguish “in what manner” from “by what means”.

    1. I don’t care how, but you should learn how to talk right.

      1. I came up with the “how” one in response to the assholes who when asked “how did you do that” will respond with something like “carefully”.

  18. The English Language Keeps Evolving

    Just like every other language in the planet. However, what makes English unique in this regard is that it is the only major world language that doesn’t have some sort of “official” regulatory agency.

    Or put in another way, English is open source with several major forks (British, American, Australian, etc.) and has an active community on Language GitHub.

    1. Great, now I just have to decide which rarely worked on, broken fork I want to spend too much time with to get running.

      1. It’s either that or Esperanto Vista, so the choice is clear.

  19. Anyone who says, “From Whence,” deserves to be caned. “Whence,” is a solitary form of, “Where,”; “From Whence,’ is redundant, and is right up there is, “Irregardless.” That’s another one that deserves immediate, “Hostel,”-style swift and just punishment. Like forcibly removal of one’s fingernails with rusty pliers by a hermaphrodite named,” Chester.”

    1. Groovus, we really could care less about your language obsession.

      1. You ever notice how it’s always the foreigners that complain?

      2. Do you gesture in English or Turkish, tarran?

        It’s not a nonsensical question! (At least when verbs of motion are concerned.)

          1. Read the study if you can access it. It’s really, really cool and the findings suggest further evidence for embodied cognition.

    2. I’m with you on those for sure.

  20. It does. Which is why “an historic” is fucking retarded Old English nonsense and you’re an idiot if you say it in the modern world. Especially in America, where he actually pronounce the letter H.

    1. Pedantry about using “a” or “an” is stupid. It’s there to make spoken language sound better. Do whatever works best.

      1. And “an historic” sounds stupid because it’s breaking the rule of using “an” before words that begin with vowels or sound like they begin with vowels. All because some long dead British guy decided that words longer than three syllables beginning with the letter H for some reason should be added to the list.

        Like I said, if you say it, you sound like a fucking moron, especially in America.

    2. Not so fast, JayU.

      “An historical X” means one thing. “Ahistorical X” means kinda the opposite.…..historical

      Being able to tell which the speaker actually said is useful.

    3. Whie I loathe articles in general, and breaking of rules on said articles even morel, this is one where I learned to accept it. “A historic” and “ahistoric” are opposite concepts, they should be easy to distinguish in speech.

      Though now my spellchecker tells me “ahistoric” is incorrect, so {insert shrugging guy ASCII}

      1. For some reason, “ahistoric” isn’t an official word, but “ahistorical” is.

        1. I give up. French have their Academy to decide what is correct French Language.

          English Language is basically decided by ?\_(?)_/?

          (I’m back on desktop, I can paste things!)

      2. Except it has nothing to do with the specific word “historic.”

        It has to do with words that start with the letter H and are more than three syllables.

        According to this “rule” the “correct” way is to say “an hydrangea.”

        1. Hey, you decided to off about “an historic”, not me.

  21. For an example from the Reason vaults, I give you Turkey’s attempt to ban the letters Q, W, and X.

    by Mark Twain

    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

    The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later.

    Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

    Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

    Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

    Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

    1. Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

      Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

      I’m pretty sure I’ve seen people who communicate in this language on Tumblr.

    2. It took me awhile to figure out “ius xrewawt.”

    3. Here’s the earliest attempt at reforming English spelling. It didn’t catch on.

  22. Examples of language evolving:

    “Sex” – now means “gender”.
    “Shall not infringe” – now means “May regulate”.
    “Public use” – now means “public purpose”.
    “Right” – now means “entitlement”


    Ain’t it grand?

    1. well done

  23. I’m sorry, the correct answer is “y’all”.

    1. Yes, it’s far superior to “you guys.” It’s a contraction of you all. Easy. Done. Maybe even just make it its own word, yall. (But that’s already a word, so…).

      1. The correct possessive form is “y’all’s”. Singular and plural.

  24. Are these people retarded? In every one of these examples–

    : “I wanted to get your guys’ opinion.”

    : “Hey, can I use your guys’s phone for a sec?”

    “Well, it is, but that is your guys’s problem.”


    The phrase refers to someones ‘guy’ or ‘guys’. Somebody else’s friend or friends

    “I wanted to get the opinion of the experts you’ve invited onto your show..”

    “Hey, can I use your friend’s phone for a sec?”

    “Well it is, but it’s a problem for your people to handle.’

    It means something entirely different from ‘you guys’

  25. By the way, you should all check out the History of English Podcast. Interesting as fuck.

  26. When I first moved to Florida in 1979, i learned that y’all was the second person pronoun for both singular and plural subjective (just like you is supposed to be in standard English). For second person singular and plural possessive “y’all’s” worked perfectly.

    As in the sub-contractor’s foreman who said to me, “Ah hear y’all are the new head nigger of that there engineering outfit over there.”

  27. An interesting side story of the reform of the English language has to do with the american-born Australian politician King O’Malley who was influential in naming Australia’s socialist party the “Australian Labor Party”. That spelling lasts to the the present day, int spite of the fact that all other “or” words use the “our” spelling, including “labour”. Federation era Australian politicos were big fans of the USA, which lead to a “House of Representatives” and an elected Senate with equal representation for each State.

    Another interesting thing is that O’Malley was re-elected to several terms by the hard drinking miners of western Tasmania in spite of his tee-totaling-prohibitionist positions.

    1. So…O’Malley wanted a law against serving alcohol to miners?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.