The way we address one another reveals our cultural and personal attitudes, our self-awareness, our sensitivity to others, even our social standing in relation to that of our interlocutors; for, as sociolinguists remind us, words never exist in isolation. It is also true that language, like all living creatures, is in a constant state of evolution; and most linguistic changes are initiated in the lower echelons of society and flow to the more resistant, less-populated upper classes. Along with relaxations in rules of social etiquette that have occurred during the last fifty years, there has been a similar relaxation in what constitutes polite language behavior, especially in regard to forms of address. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, senators, teachers, graduate students, mothers, fathers, grandparents are now addressed as “you guys”; and while this leaves a portion of the population with the curious sensation of having been insulted, the designation seems firmly entrenched in American English.
What is unique about you guys in its generic guise is that it can function as such only in its plural vocative form. For example, the referents in expressions such as “There’s a guy at the door” or “I’m going out with the guys” are undoubtedly male, whereas the referents of “Hey, you guys,” might be a male or female. Whether its referents are male or female, you guys continues to grow in acceptance, even by those who reject terms such as mankind or generic he. Women or men who protest being addressed as guys are accused of being out of step, out of time, even elitist. Some, such as Sherryl Kleinman and David Hofstadter, have tried to launch more public protests; but, to date, few converts have signed on.
It’s everywhere. “Back to you guys in the studio” is the new ten-four of morning and evening news programs; adult women call one another you guys; restaurant servers address patrons as you guys, professors call graduate students you guys. This paper seeks to analyze the reasons you guys has achieved its present height of popularity. To this end, thirty-eight women and twenty-two men responded to a questionnaire asking them to indicate the frequency with which they use the term as well as their reaction to being addressed as you guys in various social and professional settings. The ultimate purpose of the questionnaire was to determine whether people who include you guys in their regular cache of speech acts feel there are occasions for which it is inappropriate. This aspect of the research will be discussed later in the paper.
“Pataki’s a real guy, a real man.” (Former NYC mayor Rudi Giuliani in a television advertisement for NY Governor George Pataki)
“So what is you guys’s relationship like?” (pronounced guises) Jules Asner interviewing female pop star)
Some are delighted with what they call this “new generic noun developing right before our eyes” (Clancy 283). They don’t understand the furor over a word that is, by their thinking, not a substitute for man. After all, we don’t say guykind or woguy’s work is never done or the milk of huguy kindness or guy shall not live by bread alone. What’s more, champions of guy also refute the gender exclusivity of the word man. The Old English word for male human being was not man, but wer; indeed, man meant man long before William the Conqueror inadvertently conquered the English language.
Nonetheless, historical linguists will agree that time and usage are dedicated obliterators and transformers of meaning. Language must change if it is to continue living. Therefore, lexical sources don’t determine current meaning; rather, their most recent incarnation carries the most import. To appreciate the rapidity with which primary meaning is lost, we need only look at the very recent transmogrification of a word such as awesome. Thirty years ago, awesome evoked images of the terrible power of god or nature. About twenty-five years ago, the qualifications for awesomeness were diluted by American teenagers; referents were no longer gods, but kaleidoscopic colors and media personalities. Now, even a peanut butter sandwich might qualify as awesome, and the original meaning is entirely lost, except in old writings.
“What do you guys think?”
If we believe linguistic determinists such as Sapir and Whorf who maintain language has the power to determine how we view the world around us, we cannot use terminology such as mankind or you guys without considering their implications in a society where everyone is supposed to be regarded as equal. In fact, Kleinman suspects “[you guys] entered the scene around the time that official titles like ‘chairman’ were being challenged” (1). She writes, “You can push the provost to change freshman to first-year student or complain to publishers about their use of congressman in textbooks. But, you can’t go to court to make your friends stop using you guys” (1).
There is no doubt that you guys has gender implications. For native-speakers of English, the prototype of “guys” is male human beings. Here’s a simple fill-in-the-blank test:
“_________ and gals.”
Guys and gals are non-gradable antonyms, or complementary pairs, as are man and woman, boy and girl, male and female (Yule 118-19). So, if the prototypical guy is a single male human being and a woman is also a guy, or single male human being, what is a gal? And why isn’t she speaking up? An ever-growing number of women call other women guys, and they don’t seem to mind the designation for themselves. Hofstadter, who writes that he has been “railing against the term for years,” suggests that people find the expression difficult to give up, partly because they don’t know what to use in its stead (A Long Way).
“You guys need to make a plan you can both get excited about!”(Dr. Phil McGraw counseling a heterosexual couple considering divorce.)
Some have suggested that you guys fills the gap left by thou, ye, and thee, which fell out of use sometime during the Middle Ages, leaving the objective plural you to cover all second-person bases. People preferred you to more familiar forms of address because it conveyed respect and reverence for people whom they considered their social superiors and it expressed respect and politeness toward their peers. Therefore, we now have a language in need of a distinct plural vocative. And, as any linguist will tell you, languages are loathe to import or create new function words. Once they are lost, they are lost forever. Indeed, during the 1970s and ‘80s, American feminists tried unsuccessfully to create generic pronouns to replace he/she and himself/herself. Clearly, speakers would rather struggle with awkward he/she and singular “they” than welcome a new function word into the language; and so the gap remains.
“Would you guys like some grated parmigiana da Reggio?” (Twenty-something waiter to four seventy-something diners.)
Sociolingistics tells us that when we like the people with whom we’re talking or when we want to gain their confidence or trust, we change our speech to accommodate them, to speak as they do. Van Dijk agrees, “people everywhere adjust their speech according to how they view those they are speaking with…” (254). Adults simplify their language when speaking to children; politicians change their language behavior, even their accents, depending on the dominant social and educational status of their immediate audience; Northerners slow down their speech when speaking to Southerners; native speakers simplify and pace their delivery when addressing non-native speakers. Although this seems likely, for we can probably find hundreds of instances in which we accommodate our interlocutors’ speech, it does not account for the proliferation of you guys as a form of address, because, for many men and women, you guys is an insult. This suggests there are other factors that are far stronger than an inherent willingness accommodate.
The implication of accommodation theory is that both parties accommodate and then assimilate, so that they end any given conversation almost in the middle of a linguistic identity switch. However, this assumes each speaker likes the other or wants something s/he has. But, consider that men as a group enjoy greater professional and economic standing than do women; and consider which gender is evoked when one wants to impart an insult (You’re acting like a woman). Given the obvious responses to the above, it follows that women are more likely to accommodate men, to try to sound more like men, perhaps even to adopt their terminology and speech behavior. That’s why women become guys and men do not become gals.
It is also possible to take accommodation theory to its logical extension and propose that in addressing a group of women or women and men as you guys, one is giving women the option of ignoring the message. Brown and Levinson suggest a similar possibility in regard to plural you, which “…provides a conventional out for the hearer…That is, since it doesn’t literally single out the addressee, it is as if the speaker were giving [the hearer] the option to interpret it as applying to [him/her] rather than…to [his/her] companion” (cf. Goody 203). This subtle form of backhanded politeness, of course, would be entirely subconscious on the part of the speaker, but it can be explained in terms of the roles history has assigned to women and the tenacity of the myths haunting those roles. After all, women sometimes need to defer to their stronger male companions, for they are weak, emotional, and easily unnerved—the weaker sex. Women who don’t want membership in a club of such dubious quality will probably opt to join the other club—the guy club.
“Before I pay, I’d like to see what you guys have to offer.” (Male client negotiating with female brothel employee. From a TV documentary.)
TRADITIONAL EXPLANATIONS OF WOMEN'S LINGUISTIC BEHAVIOR
Sociolinguistics claim that women use more Standard English than do men. Holmes notes the contrariness of investigating women for using standard forms as though standard forms were manifestations of aberrant behavior. Why not, she writes, investigate men’s traditional repudiation of Standard English (158)? Nevertheless, many sociolinguists believe that women’s fondness for speaking well is related to their traditional familiar and societal roles; and they are fond of analyzing the “peculiarity.”
Women Are More Status Conscious than Men; therefore, they try to create an aura of having achieved a certain social elevation by using standard forms of English. The data supporting this contention are based on interviewers’ judgments of standard pronunciation and prescriptive language. As Holmes wisely notes, the symbiotic nature of the interview triggers the mechanism of accommodation, which makes it impossible to analyze interviewees’ normal speech behavior (236).
Women Are Guardians of Societal Values, and one of those values is prescriptive grammar. Sociologists have long known that adults are swift to correct misbehavior in girls, but tend to shrug off similar behavior in boys. And since good behavior is equated with standard speech, it is logical that teachers and parents will tend to correct girls’ non-prescriptive speech and ignore it in boys. Thus, when little girls grow to adulthood, society looks to them to serve up the next generation of well-behaved children. We know the responsibility of childrearing falls exclusively on women, because when baby grows up to be a social misfit, it’s usually mom’s fault.
Women Are Subordinates; therefore, they are more polite than men. Women have played and still do play a subordinate role in American society. They are paid less than men; they dominate lower paying jobs; they struggle to bring in a paycheck and bring up children, often with no help from their children’s fathers. Instead of recognizing and praising women’s strengths and resourcefulness in the face of all this stress and struggle, sociolinguists claim women try to compensate for their apparent or authentic handicaps by being extra polite, which means using Standard English, saying please and thank you, using hedges such as like and I mean. Again, standard speech is assumed to be a manifestation of polite speech; polite speech is assumed to be a deviation from the norm.
These explanations of women’s speech behavior seem quaintly old-fashioned, but they are not innocuous for they perpetuate traditional ideas about woman’s place. And, in so doing, they encourage women to imitate masculine speech as if to prove there is no such thing as women’s language behavior. The paradox is that women are also adopting traditional forms of non-prescriptive masculine speech ("Me and him went to a party"), even referring to one another as masculine beings, or guys. After all, as Holmes tells us, “vernacular forms express machismo” (160), and you guys is a decidedly vernacular form of address.
Women have not yet completed their quest for liberation from the bonds of old thinking; instead, they are stuck in the guy phase of the journey, attempting to become more like the men who once owned the rights to their bodies, material possessions, and even their thoughts. Unfortunately, in identifying themselves and one another as guys, they are confirming rather than denying that the old patriarchal order is alive and well and supported by women and men of all walks of American life. In fact, it’s a clever way to escape the analytical eyes of social and linguistic scholars, who never assess men’s linguistic behavior as aberrant. Men who use Standard English are educated; women who use Standard English are trying to compensate for their social, economic, and academic inadequacies. Isn’t that right, you guys?
“Okay, Chuck, Sue. Now back to you guys in the studio.” (TV newsperson—all of them.)
According to sociolinguistics, when a speech unit or grammatical form is not used by young people—young is not defined—but is still used by older people—not defined—it signals its certain demise. They claim this is because people tend to use more standard forms as they mature (Holmes 171). Conversely, if a linguistic form is adopted by young people and remains unused by older people, it signals its imminent assimilation into the language. The questionnaire suggests that many Americans in their twenties, thirties, forties, and some even in their fifties address people as guys without giving it any thought. Most respondents—thirty-eight out of sixty, or 63 percent—stated they were not offended when addressed in this way, even in formal situations. When asked, however, to name three instances in which you guys is an inappropriate form of address, fourteen respondents wrote, “when speaking to older people.” One must assume, then, that older refers to people born in any given prior generation. Youth has nothing to do with chronological age and a great deal to do with self-perception.
It is far more likely that you guys, a childish form of address popularized by children’s television during the 1950s, was carried into adulthood by hordes of baby boomers who didn’t know how to give up the habit. The questionnaire reveals that the dividing line for those who unthinkingly use the term and those who find it offensive is about fifty-five years of age. The offense is two-fold—the expression assumes a familiarity that may not be welcome, and it is inherently gender-specific, not unlike calling a woman a fellow. While etymological documents suggest that guy had no direct connection with male human being until the twentieth century, it does have that connection today. Thus, it is not unexpected that 76 percent of respondents admitted they would not like it if the generic word for men and women were gals. One female respondent wrote, “Gals seems so hokey.” When a football coach accuses his all-male team of playing like women, it’s no compliment. Kleinman suggests, if you think you guys is genderless, “saunter up to a group of [males] and offer a friendly, ‘hey, gals, how’re you doing?’” Oh, and please let her know what happens (3).
“You guys over there really know how to live…” (Jeanette Winterson addressing male and female New Yorkers.)
There is a pervasive feeling in the United States that young is better than old; that smooth skin is more desirable than wisdom; that looking one’s best is equivalent to looking as young as possible. It is not, therefore, unreasonable to suppose that when people willingly subject themselves to face-lifts and tummy tucks in an effort to imitate and emulate the physical trappings of youth, they will also adopt the language behaviors of youth. This can be seen in the growth and proliferation of uptalk—the habit of ending declarative clauses with an interrogative—as well as an increase in the use of adolescent hedges such as “basically,” “like,” “I mean,” and “no ‘m sayn?” The uptalk trend is alive and well in adult women and men, and the phenomenon was born only about twenty years ago in the mouths of a few wealthy teenage girls in California.
The results of the questionnaire revealed that people under forty are more likely to address people as you guys than are people over forty. Therefore, it can be assumed that you guys is an under-forty expression used by people who are aware of and follow youthful trends. Their use of you guys when speaking to older people might even be prompted by the best of intentions—namely, to make their interlocutors feel younger and, therefore, more acceptable. In turn, older people who aren’t necessarily trying to imitate young people, but who wish to be liked by them, accommodate their young interlocutors by speaking as they speak. In this way, the linguistic floodgates remain unchecked, and youthful expressions crash like giant lexical waves over every crevice in the language, drenching every echelon of society.
“Do you guys have any comments?” (Male school principal addressing teachers, most of them women, during a faculty meeting.)
Respect and Social Distance Guise
Wierzbicka uses sets of explications to describe forms of address. She states, for example, that when one uses the honorific Mr. in addressing John Brown, one expresses two attitudes:
[distance] (a) I want to speak to you the way people speak to men they don’t know well and the way people don’t speak to men they know well, or to children.
[respect] (b) I want to show you I feel something good toward you of the kind that people show they feel toward people whom they don’t know well (309-10).
Borrowing her descriptive technique, let’s consider the non-honorific you guys.
Distance: (a) I want to speak to you the way people speak to children and men they know intimately and not the way they speak to children or men or women they don’t know well. (b) I want to speak to you in a way that will make you feel at home. (c) I want you to appreciate that I am including you as a temporary member of my group.
Respect: (d) I want to show you that I am willing to come down to your level and make it appear that you are as good as I, even though I don’t really think you are. (e) I do not want to speak to you in a way that shows you that I respect you.
That some would disagree with the above explications of their language behavior calls for a determination of what constitutes politeness in American society. For some, politeness and distance are synonymous. This is relatively easy to determine in languages with built-in expressions of social distance and politeness such as Japanese or Arabic. But politeness and social distance are not so uncomplicated in English, especially in American English. What is clear is that more than 50 percent of questionnaire respondents indicated that you guys is inappropriate when addressing people who “deserve respect”; according to respondents, these include religious people, employers, doctors, lawyers, professors, political figures, and strangers. In other words, they would consider it impolite to address some people with such familiarity. But, by their own admission, many—almost 75 percent—continue to use the term without thinking about it. There is only one way to explain this—you guys is a form of address that indicates the speaker’s conscious or subconscious lack of respect for the addressee.
“I mean, come on, you guys.”
(Newscaster filling up time with co-anchors on major morning news show.)
Polite behavior is an elusive term because its definition is always polysemic and it changes from person to person, culture to culture, generation to generation. Some people think that adding please to a command renders it polite, as in, “Get over here please, or I’ll smack you.” The smackee or potential smackee might not appreciate the polite intentions of this command, which indicates there is a difference between how people think they act and how others think they act. But, in terms of honorifics, people over forty do tend to address strangers by titles—Mr., Ms., Mrs. or Miss and surname. Thus, we can say that a certain air of formality is generally thought to be a polite way to address someone to whom we are introduced or with whom we are only mildly acquainted. The same holds true when addressing a group of people. “Ladies” or “ladies and gentlemen” are also traditional forms of address that acknowledge a respectful distance between interlocutors. But, what has come to constitute polite behavior in US society is changing the way people treat one another.
“Thanks, guys.” (Today Show host Matt Lauer addressing six US Senators after a serious interview about US bombing of Iraq.)
As a society, Americans tend to be unaware of the importance of social rituals in other cultures, and this ignorance has earned us a less-than-shiny reputation. On our own soil, especially in metropolitan areas, we are often surprised, even suspicious, when people treat us politely. Linguists describe what they call positive polite behavior in terms of acting in ways that some might, in fact, find invasive. For example, “When the boss suggests that a subordinate should use [her] first name, this is a positive politeness move, expressing solidarity and minimizing status differences” (Holmes 268). Cursing by the boss, claims Holmes, is also a demonstration of his/her generosity of spirit and democratic sensibilities (268). It’s an invitation by the boss to join his/her club. It’s almost like being friends. It is, however, inescapable that employees are not allowed such liberty with the boss, and herein lurks the underlying negativity of the situation.
It is not clear why linguists judge inequality a manifestation of positive behavior, but it is clear that their reasoning is based on culturally biased ideas of politeness and its relationship to social distance. In truth, when a person has economic, political, or academic control over another person, there is an unmistakable and measurable distance between them that can’t be euphemized by linguistic tricks. If my boss or professor uses the term you guys, I hear: [power] (a) I am addressing you in a way that I address a person over whom I have power; I am demonstrating my awareness that you are not in power. (b) I want to treat you the way I would treat a child; [respect] (c) I want to show you that I am willing to interact with you on your level, which is lower than my own level, as long as you respect me by treating me in a way that I do not treat you.
“You guys are making too much noise!” (Elementary school teacher yelling at a group of boys and girls.)
In response to the questionnaire, most men over fifty indicated they were unhappy when a store clerk, server, employee, or stranger addresses them as you guys. However, women respondents of all ages were far more accepting of the term, even in formal situations. Men’s objection to you guys is not due to its gender-specificity; rather, its implications of familiarity, which they consider disrespectful. Men, especially older men, are used to functioning on higher professional and social strata than women are; thus, they are used to a degree of respect from people and are irritated when they are not treated in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Women, on the other hand, are not used to expressions of respect and are more willing to regard as normal impolite behavior toward them.
Women and men in their twenties and thirties seem to have accepted you guys as a common form of address, at least among their own social groups. Although most under-forty respondents claimed they were not aware of the term’s offensiveness, many stated they would refrain from addressing a group of nuns or doctors as you guys. In other words, despite their habitual commission of this speech act, they understand some of its off-putting connotations.
“And it’s gonna be even colder for you guys in the burbs.” (Chris Cimino, weatherguy on urb TV.)
New York assemblywoman Sandy Galef successfully campaigned for changes in the language of the New York State Constitution that eliminate men-only references and gender-marked language. This is a start, at least. For, whether language determines worldview or worldview determines language, there’s no denying that when one gender is left out of a language, that gender is left out of everything from history books to voting booths to prestigious jobs. We have seen some changes over the last thirty years. Firemen are firefighters, policemen are police officers, authoresses are authors, human beings are members of humankind, and the man in the street is … well, still the man in the street. The problem, however, is more complicated than raising the linguistic gender consciousness of the masses, because it involves profound issues concerning respect, social distance, and the choice not to be a guy.
When I’m called a guy, I have much the same feeling of having had my peace disturbed as I do when a telemarketer invades my home or when AOL sends yet another unwanted CD or when MBNA won’t take silence for an answer when I ignore their offers of “free” credit. In the latter case, corporate America is insisting itself on me, violating the harmony of my personal space; in the first case, the reigning me-ism is doing the same thing. Its discordant notes grate against my sensibilities. And, even in this country that prides itself on its ability to create entire industries out of linguistic fads—“shit happens,” “my child beat up your honor students at … school”—you guys seems strangely un-American.
Douglas Hofstadter includes a satiric chapter in his book Metamagical Themas that demonstrates how absurd and offensive English would be if its present gender-marked forms—words representing males are unmarked; those representing women are marked—were replaced with race-marked forms—words representing whites are unmarked; those representing blacks are marked. So, unmarked words would include chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, forewhite. People would address one another as you whities and scoff at “black libbers” who would have the temerity to “’liberate’ us poor dupes from [the language’s] supposed racist bias” (aka Satire 1). One can only imagine the outcry if a portion of the population were denied linguistic citizenship. Embracing masculine lexical units and imitating immature speech acts have not given women wings or wisdom or membership in any club. They have only slowed the journey and made us less than we are.
“Hey, you guys. What’s happening?” (Fifty-seven-year-old male talking to my dogs.)
The article was originally published by The Vocabula Review
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