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 conceptualizes in a different manner. In this case, the English pronoun <you> correlates with several variables in Spanish . 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 explain:
Are you talking to your friend or acquaintance? Use tú. 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 .
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.
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.
“Waaaah! The Linguiputians are making my head hurt!” – I know, too much information. Let’s recap before we move on to the fun part:
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.
Latin had two personal pronouns for the second person: <tu> and <vos> . The pronoun <tu> worked in the same manner as the modern-day Spanish tú , and <vos> had two usages: plural and reverential – 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) in the 13th century. So, at this point we had:
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 .
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” , “vuestra señoría” or “vuestra merced” in order to keep their masters happy.
As it always goes, artifacts we manipulate the most, wear out faster . These formulae were not an exception. Their phonetic surface morphed after years of prolonged, recurrent usage. It went down more or less like this:
Whereas most of these formulae were rendered obsolete, “vuestra merced” turned into usted, the reverential pronoun that made its way to present-day Spanish . That’s how Peninsular Spanish ended up with tú, vosotros and usted, and the pronoun family lived happily every after.
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 . By the 18th century, it had vanished into thin air.
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) .
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.