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Tú, usted, vosotros

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Uve van Haven, Vos, tú, usted, vosotros, Spanish pronouns, pronombres personales español

Tú, usted, vosotros, vos. You, you, you, you. No wonder native English speakers attempting to speak Spanish may want to flip tables. When it comes to delving into a foreign language, the toughest bits to grasp are the ones that your L1 1 conceptualizes in a different manner. In this case, the English pronoun <you> correlates with several variables in Spanish 2. That’s quite the challenge for a native English speaker to comprehend, let alone use correctly in speech. So, when do you use which one? Let the Linguiputians 3 explain:

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Are you talking to your friend or acquaintance? Use . Are there more than one? Use vosotros. Are you addressing your boss, an elderly person, a big fish, or an aristocrat with a monocle wearing a wig? Use the formal and reverential usted 4.

If you are unsure about whether to use tú and usted, pay attention to the people around you and how they address each other. When in doubt, just use usted at all times unless you are talking to a child. Better to be safe than sorry, amirite?

You might be thinking: hold on, if tú has the plural vosotros, what happens if you talk to more than one monocle-enthusiast, wig-wearing aristocrat? I’m glad you asked.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

In this case, we ought to use ustedes, the plural form of usted. In addition, if you address multiple female friends or acquaintances, pick vosotras – as opposed to the plural masculine pronoun vosotros.Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

“Waaaah! The Linguiputians are making my head hurt!” – I know, too much information. Let’s recap before we move on to the fun part:

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Whereas English is quite happy with its functional and simplistic <you>, Spanish seems to be a master hoarder of personal pronouns. But how did we get here? Well, it all goes back to the original language.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Latin had two personal pronouns for the second person: <tu> and <vos> 5. The pronoun <tu> worked in the same manner as the modern-day Spanish tú 6, and <vos> had two usages: plural 7 and reverential 8 – pretty much like the current French <vous>. Quaint, uh?

The Castilian folks inherited these two pronouns from Latin, and used them happily throughout the Middle Ages. However, a few things happened to vos. First, having only one word for both “y’all” and “Your Highness” was somewhat ambiguous, so they came up with vosotros (vos + otros) 9 in the 13th century. So, at this point we had:

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Additionally, vos – originally reserved to monarchs and nobles – became an ubiquitous trend. Everyone was tweeting about it: #LinguisticChange, #ImVosToo. Everyone wanted to be a vos. It became so overused among peasants and their family members that, in the 17th century, the pronoun had lost its deferential usage. It was basically a “you” to address your king, lord, trusted blacksmith, spouse, fellow farmer, dad, sister, uncle, lover, cattle and stray dog 10.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, español, Linguiputians

Monarchs and overlords weren’t pleased. They needed to flaunt their power and wanted a linguistic device that separated themselves from their subordinates. That’s when the plebs came up with deferential formulae such as “vuestra reverencia” 11, “vuestra señoría” 12 or “vuestra merced” 13 in order to keep their masters happy.

As it always goes, artifacts we manipulate the most, wear out faster 14. These formulae were not an exception. Their phonetic surface morphed after years of prolonged, recurrent usage. It went down more or less like this:

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Uve van Haven, Vos, tú, usted, vosotros, Spanish pronouns, pronombres personales español

Whereas most of these formulae were rendered obsolete, “vuestra merced” turned into usted, the reverential pronoun that made its way to present-day Spanish 15. That’s how Peninsular Spanish ended up with tú, vosotros and usted, and the pronoun family lived happily every after.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Oh, right. Not only did vos lose its deferential value, but it also became quite derogatory in its final stages, and left to address folks of inferior status. Vos wasn’t cool anymore 16. By the 18th century, it had vanished into thin air.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Sorry, my bad. Vos was no longer around in the Iberian Peninsula because it had become a globetrotter of sorts. It joined the Spaniards who crossed the Atlantic during the 15th and 16th centuries. But vos didn’t travel around the vast continent all at once, nor did it stick everywhere it went. Some regions embraced it, some leaned towards tú, and some kept both.

And that’s why vos is nowadays alive and kicking in no less than seventeen Latin American countries. Vos is predominant in some regions (e.g. Argentina, Nicaragua), absent in others (e.g. Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico), and some have a the three-tiered system – vos-tú-usted – that reflects the degrees of respect and familiarity (e.g. Honduras, Chile) 17.

And that’s also why – in my opinion – Spanish is one of the richest, most vibrant and fascinating languages on this rich, vibrant and linguistically fascinating planet of ours.

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Linguiputians, Vos, tú, usted, vosotros, Spanish pronouns, pronombres personales español

9 Comments

  1. Raquel

    I am indeed curious about the linguistic diversity in Latin America :-). Thanks for the information and the blog, it’s really interesting and fun to read.

    Greetings from another Spanish expat in Deutschland!

    • tXc

      ¡Hola, Raquel!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. :D

      Noted, I put it on my list of future topics. It can take a while (I’m already writing the next pieces), but stay tuned!

      What are your whereabouts in Germany, if I may ask?

      • Raquel

        I’m based in Munich, beer capital of Germany. What about you? Feel free to answer me on my mail address if you don’t want to start a public personal exchange of life details in the comments :-)

  2. notafish

    How fun would it be to send the linguiputians on the tracks of words (and sometimes the concept associated with them) that don’t exist on another language. Irgendwie does not exist in French, Mensch Takes two words in many other languages (human being), Saudade can’t be explained in les than at least a sentence in a lot of languages. “Home” does not translate in many languages…. In any case i’m interested in your “untranslatables” ;)

  3. notafish

    Argh… “In another language” autocorrect. + Less takes two s but “takes” takes not capital To. If you can correct it above I’d be grateful

    • tXc

      Hi there! Thanks for stopping by. :)

      Untranslatable words are – along with idioms – one of my favorite language topics! I have considered writing about untranslatable words many times, then somehow didn’t because there are already so many articles and illustrations online dealing with this topic. But it would definitely be fun to draw and research! *Noted* : )

  4. Joshua

    Even though I haven’t studied Spanish in over 20 years (high school) and Judeo-Espanyol for some 15 years, I found the topic really interesting as it brought back a couple of memories and you explained it in an entertaining (good) way. I like your Latin American idea, when you get to it.

    American expat in that German city with the famous “far-looking” tower. Having the endless struggle between “du” und “Sie”, and it’s frustrating to pay attention which one to use, and then as soon as you realize that it’s been said, you think…which one was it?

    • tXc

      Hey, Joshua! Thanks for stopping by and your support! ^^

      It was actually my American partner and his struggles with “du”, “Sie” and “ihr” that initially got me thinking about this issue. Getting the hang of German is difficult for everyone, but I guess English-native speakers must be extra confused. I mean… spoons are male and forks are female. What?! x)

      • Joshua

        …and you forgot, knifes are neither male or female!

        As for articles, it’s confusing, but at least I remember a few “rules” from my Integrationskurs some 5 years ago. It’s the cases that gets me even more confused…nominativ, no wait the subject has already been stated, so….akusativ oder dativ? Und genativ? “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod”, hat Bastian Sick geschrieben.

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