The irony of my critique of the English language is not lost on me. Despite being a writer, I don’t always show proper respect for English rules. I absolutely love dangling modifiers, split infinitives, and ending sentences with prepositions. The presence or absence of Oxford commas triggers no emotional response from me. Oh, and I like starting sentences with conjunctions.
These things really aggravate some people, but I don’t sweat these things as long as communication occurs. People love to share funny sentences that need an Oxford comma to avoid outlandish statements. Yet, in many cases, any sensible person understands what the author actually meant despite the absurd possible meaning. For me, language is primarily a vehicle for communication, and as long as the actual meaning is conveyed, why worry or stress. As Jesus said, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
However, I have become convinced that the English language has a glaring problem that affects adequate communication – second-person pronouns. Unlike many other languages, the second-person singular and second-person plural pronouns are the same in English. ‘You’ is both singular and plural. Chances are, if you are an American or from another individualistic culture, you will be tempted to read the English ‘you’ as a singular pronoun first. Sometimes the context clues simply are not available to determine whether the writer means “you” (singular) or “you” (plural).
Every region of the United States has its own slang version to distinguish between the second person singular and plural. For the South, Texas, and Oklahoma, “y’all” or even “all of y’all” is used for the plural. The Midwest uses “you’uns,” “you all,” and “you guys.” Pittsburgh and parts of Appalachia have the delightful “yinz.” We instinctively recognized the problem with our language and created ways to deal with it in the spoken word. But we don’t often write “y’all” or “yinz” in our business letters and official communication.
“Relax,” you may say. “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” And in most cases, the “you” or the “y’all” is either insignificant or easy to differentiate. But what about in our Bible readings. (Hat tip to Stephen Harris for mentioning “Shalom Y’all” and reminding me to address this issue). The Hebrew and Greek languages – created by more community-oriented cultures – distinguish between the “you” and the “y’all.” At times the person and number are embedded in the word endings. In other cases, the pronouns appear as stand-alone words. As you (singular or plural) read the Bible, it would be wise to pause a moment when “you” appears in the text and work hard to understand if the “you” is singular or plural. I began practicing this pause as soon as I realized my tendency as a westerner to see the individual first and the community second. If I personalize a “you” that is meant to include the whole community, I could miss some of the point.
I do not want to make a mountain out of a molehill. I am not suggesting that we cannot understand the message of the Bible because of this issue or that the issue is widespread. In fact, any command given to the group is likely binding to the individual. And commands presented in second-person singular also have implications for the community. The Shema and the verses that follow in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 are given using second-person singular pronouns. However, these commands were foundational for the Hebrew people as a group.
I will never forget the Greek exegesis class I took from Dr. Don Stewart. One of my fellow students loved to contextualize his translations. In addition to dropping Cajun phrases in his translations, this student always translated his plural “yous” as “y’all.” While I just thought it was humorous at the time, my appreciation of his practice has grown in the decades since we had the class.
In the end, I am not arguing that some great theological truth hinges on the second-person plural – only that ones culture might influence how a person reads “you” in the text. Just as a person from a more collective-minded, community-oriented culture may struggle to see the individual implications of commands and instructions, individualistic Westerners can struggle to see the communal implications of commands. It is at least worth our time to ask, “Does this ‘you’ mean ‘y’all?”