“Yo” said, “yo” said…

May 21, 2012 by

A recent LotW post discussed a newly introduced gender-neutral third person Swedish pronoun hen. It appears that a similar gender-neutral pronoun is developing naturally in a local dialect of American English. According to a post on LanguageHat blog, in Baltimore attention focusing yo has evolved into a gender-neutral pronoun. A story in Baltimore Sun says:

Elaine Stotko, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, began hearing of kids here who say “yo” to indicate another person of whatever gender, and after pursuing survey work over two years has nailed that usage down. Now she has a paper in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society.

 

Some examples: “Yo handin’ out papers.” “Yo threw a thumbtack at me.” “She ain’t really go with yo.”

 

A little further study showed her (showed yo – it can stand in for “her” and “him,” too) that this use of the word doesn’t show up in other cities; kids in Washington say “youngin’” in a general sense, but typically that’s reserved for boys.

As the comments on the LanguageHat indicate, it is indeed unclear who uses this gender-neutral version of yo and when. For example, one reader confirms:

The antecendant of ‘yo’ is more often male, but doesn’t have to be. For example, if a girl crosses over a boy in basketball, you could say, ‘yo broke his ankles’. It is obvious and unambiguous in this sentence that ‘yo’ refers to the girl, since ‘to break [someone's] ankles’ cannot be reflexive.

This use of yo may not be limited to Baltimore either, as another LanguageHat reader shared the following:

I taught 7th grade English for a year in Kansas City, KS (ending about 19 months ago) and this exact sense of “yo” was used there in exactly the way described, particularly by African-American boys. It took me ages to figure out that it replaced “he” and “she.” I don’t know that I ever heard a girl use it, and I should also note that it was almost always used in an accusatory sense – a kid would march up to my desk and point at someone in the class and yell, “Yo took my pencil!”

I would be curious to see if any LotW readers are familiar with this yo, use it themselves, or can share any more information on this.


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  • Séamus Mac Conmidhe

    Could it possibly be a survival of the old English “heo” pronoun which is still around in some English dialects?

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Interesting idea! I am not sure, as I’ve not seen any evidence of continuous survival of that pronoun. “Yo” seems to have appared anew…

      • Séamus Mac Conmidhe

        The “heo/yo” pronoun hasn’t been written down in a long time but it has survived in the west of England. Only by going back to ancient texts has the link been made with medieval English and pre-Norman English. Bristol, especially, played a huge part in the slave trade and slaves desperately trying to acquire English by listening to their captors surely would have heard Bristolian English on their way to America or after their arrival. It may only be recorded recently but given the contempt for African American English it’s understandable why it wouldn’t have been recorded in the last two hundred years.