Jack Reese, Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at ACU, put into words (on many subjects) what has been on my own heart and mind in his recent book Body Broken. This is the first topic of a few I’ll probably share/comment on. In this case, it’s best I quote directly:
Though outsiders often make this mistake, I should be absolutely clear that West Texas is not in the South. Most people who live up North can’t distinguish between the accents of Savannah and Lawton, between Mobile and Midland. The dialects of the two regions are not the same, by accent or by vocabulary. One word, however, that Southerners and Westerners share is “y’all.” This is a fine word, originated for noble purposes. Because the word “you” can be both singular and plural, the contraction “y’all” seems like a happy solution. It is easy to see how “you all” slurred into “y’all,” in the same way, I suppose, as the English have come to call Worcestershire “Woorshtersure,” much to the puzzlement of American condiment users everywhere.
The problem, from the standpoint of us Westerners, is that some Southerners wasted the advantage of this handy contraction by allowing “y’all” to become singular as well as plural. In Birmingham or Jackson, if people say “y’all come,” they might be referring to just one person, though you can’t be absolutely certain. You can surely see the advantage that was squandered in this unfortunate shift.
We Westerners don’t have this problem, in the same way that we don’t have the problem of pretending that grits is a breakfast food edible by humans. (And since I’m not from the South, I don’t know for sure whether grits is singular or whether they are plural, but that’s another digression altogether.) Those of us who live in the Southwest normally employ “you” for the singular and “y’all” for the plural. Enterprising Southerners, however, in an attempt to address the confusion caused by the use of “y’all” in the singular, created a wonderful and uniquely Southern expression: “all y’all.” When they look at you and say “y’all come,” you don’t know for sure, but they might mean just you. However, if they say “all y’all,” then you can have confidence that everyone in your family and anyone else you know are invited.
–Jack Reese, Body Broken; © 2005 by Leafwood Publising, page 62