Why ‘youse’ deserves its place in Australia’s national dictionary
For 30 years Susan Butler has been at the helm of the Macquarie Dictionary. Here she defends the inclusion of a much-derided word
Sheep near Canberra
Hey, youse ewes! Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
I like to joke that, as the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, I am like the woman with the mop and bucket who comes along to clean up after the party is over.
By this I mean that I do not create the mess. I am not devising the new words and bending the language to new uses. That is the consequence of the creative, not to say intoxicated, efforts of the language community.
All I do is tidy up and decide what is worth putting in the dictionary and what goes out with the rubbish.
Over the years the editors of the Macquarie Dictionary have occasionally been taken to task by people who feel we have let the side down by including the word “youse” in the dictionary.
The dictionary’s raison d’être is to be a record of the language choices of the community that have fashioned our own particular variety of English. That means that the fundamental criterion for inclusion in the dictionary is established currency of use.
It also means that the dictionary should be a complete record, not a bowdlerised one, of all that is good and bad in our language in terms of both style and content.
Having said that, there is scope in the dictionary not just to record the existence of a word but to comment on attitudes towards it. So that the most complete descriptive dictionary is in one sense also prescriptive in that it gives a word an approval rating of some kind based on community consensus.
Sometimes this can become complicated when a word is in a state of flux, with one section of the community regarding it as beyond the pale and another group feeling that it doesn’t present a problem at all. The curious dynamics of language are such that although in some instances this can lead to rapid change, in other cases the community can remain in this kind of standoff for generations.
The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler
The cover of Susan Butler’s latest book. Photograph: Macmillan Australia
So does “youse” have currency? Undoubtedly in the spoken language. The defence of youse is constructed as follows. Since we abandoned the singular thou we have felt the need for some way of differentiating between you as a singular pronoun and you as a plural pronoun. In writing there is more leisure to construct ways around this ambiguity, but in speech instant clarity is required.
The English Dialect Dictionary lists yous and yees as items from Irish English and comments that yous travelled to both the American and Australian versions of English. Possibly the lowly status of Irish English in Australia in relation to British English ensured that yous would be common in colloquial speech but condemned in formal speech and writing.
But it cannot be ignored. A glance at the corpus of Australian writing shows that there are numerous citations for it in the forms yous, youse and yez. These are usually in dialogue or in a spoken narrative, a context that nevertheless needs to be explained by usage notes and labelling in the dictionary.
While it is true that youse needs to be dealt with in the complete record of our English, other dictionaries serve different purposes. The educational range is by necessity prescriptive in many ways. First of all, each dictionary presents a much smaller selection of the words of the language. So a great deal of colloquialism is left out in favour of the jargons of particular subjects being studied. There is no need in such a framework to include representations of speech in the written language.
Prescriptivism is not necessarily a dirty word. And descriptivism is not an open-slather approach to lexicography. Both words get bandied around a good deal but as with all such branding, the words themselves, contrary to nature, lose illumination as they gain heat.
In all this the dictionary has tried to describe, as objectively as possible, what the language community seems to be doing and where it is headed.
We have on occasion attempted to forge consensus with some of the major players in setting language style but this is difficult. The very people who care passionately about language matters are the ones who are likely to be the most stubborn about particular issues.
As we make our language choices we should know when to care and when not to care. For myself, I care about ’s plurals. This seems to me to be the one major blight on our texts at the moment and I wish something could be done about it. I would recommend losing the apostrophe completely rather than give in to the ’s plurals.
In contrast to this, I think that, broadly speaking, variation should be accepted and that we should have greater tolerance of the choices made by others.