Colombia, Language, Multiculturality

Saying “you” three different ways

As a linguist, and having grown up reading the King James Bible and Shakespeare, I get extremely irritated when ignorant people goof around with “thou” conjugation and add “-eth” or “-est” to adjectives, nouns, wherever they think it might be funny. There is a mystique associated with “thou” because of its use in the King James. But its use was not complicated, although its conjugation can be. “Thou” was originally the singular form, and “you” plural. With time, “thou” became the familiar form and “you” the respectful form. By the late 1600s, “thou” fell into disuse, and now we use “you” for everyone.

Spanish has a more complicated pronoun history, and remains more complex than English. In school you were taught “tú” and “usted” for “you”. “Usted” conjugates with “él/ella” and is the respectful form, “tú” is the familiar, paralleling “you” and “thou”.

However, in real life, vast sections of Latin America use a third form, “vos”. If you hear it in a song, the singer or songwriter is probably Argentinean. But in conversation, you’ll also hear it in parts of Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay… It’s rare in the Caribbean, and in Spain “vos” is only used in court.

I learned Spanish in the southwest of Colombia (Pasto and Puerto Asís). Nearly all of our conversation used “usted” (or “busté” as my buddy Pedrito would say). When we moved to Medellín, we had to start using “tú”, plus they also used “vos”, which we had never heard at all before. This took a lot of getting used to.

Roughly speaking, “vos” is familiar/casual (like “dude”), “tú” is familiar/standard (like “you”), and “usted” is respectful (like “sir”). People are not necessarily consistent, plus it varies by region and even family. My wife Alicia, however, is extremely systematic and consistent in how she uses the terms of address.

She always uses “tú” with her son. He also addresses her with “tú”.

With shop girls and street vendors, she uses “vos”. They will respond with “usted” or “tú”, depending on where they’re from.

With her siblings, she uses “usted” if it’s a serious conversation (like if she’s lecturing or advising them, which is frequently the case). She uses “vos” for casual or joking conversation with them. (Her siblings use “tú” or “vos” all the time, and rarely use “usted” with family.)

With friends, she uses “tú”, and occasionally will joke with “vos”.

With me, she always uses “tú”. I sometimes use “vos” with her, especially if I’m being silly. Once I used the “usted” imperative form (asking her to hand me something), and she was hurt. (I grew up using the respectful imperative and didn’t learn the familiar “tú” imperative until college. I still have to think about it sometimes.)

Here are examples of the three in imperative (command) form. The respectful imperative uses a subjunctive conjugation (another feature that has largely disappeared from English). The familiar imperative uses the same form as third person singular present tense, excepting a few irregular verbs. The “vos” form is usually a modification of the “vosotros” form (plural of “tú”, used primarily in Spain), with some exceptions, as you can see below. Sometimes it’s appropriate to add a pronoun suffix (-te, -se, -os, -me):

Usted          Tú              Vos               Vosotros
¡Venga!        ¡Ven!           ¡Vení!            ¡Venid!             “Come!”
Coma           Come           Comé             Comed             “Eat”
Vaya             Vete             Vete               Id                      “Go”
¡Cállese!     ¡Cállate!      ¡Callate!        ¡Callaos!           “Shut up!”

Simple, huh?


18 thoughts on “Saying “you” three different ways

  1. Interesting how the plural concept is associated with respect in some languages. As the sole owner of a business, I’m allowed to write a formal letter beginning with “We would like to inform you….” I, claiming respect? How about the “How are we feeling today?” Respectful, or condescending?

    My wife’s family never uses tu, as far as I know, only Usted. Even for pets. However, they do not frown upon my use of the familiar.

    I’ve always assumed Usted is derived from Su Merced. Mary’s mother used that quite a lot.

    • Usted comes from Vuestra Merced, but there was also Su Merced, Ussía (from Vuestra Señoría), and I don’t know what else. wikipedia has a great article on voseo. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it seemed to match what I’ve seen.

  2. My kids were in gifted classes in CA where they were taught in English AND Spanish. It helped the Mexican children learn English and taught all the other kids Spanish. It was cool!

    Well, I guess I better not add -eth or -est to any words just to be silly.


  3. Oh Spanish and days of yore spent conjugating verbs. The horror, the horror! But I kid, a little, thanks for putting together this post on saying YOU in 3 different ways 🙂

    • I did most of my conjugating in grade school, and never did enjoy it, but I did tend to hang on to what I learned. I’m 54 and still find holes in my vocabulary and grammar, especially since the bulk of my daily conversation is in Spanish now.

      I also remember the list of English linking verbs from 5th grade: am is are was were taste feel sound look smell seem become. Likewise I absorbed the rule that nominative case is used for both theme and rheme.

      It’s a burden to be conscious of grammar.

  4. Reblogged this on A Place in the World and commented:
    I first learned Spanish in Colombia and then moved to Costa Rica where they used “vos”. I didn’t realize it was so widely used – and have dropped it as “tu” is more common.
    In my youth it was acceptable to address most everyone (except children) with “Usted” but the reverse usage of “tu” was not true; this seems to have changed. Language seems to have become much less formal and I find everyone addressing me as “tu” and I have to remember to do the same. Do you and Alicia agree? (Alicia…what a great name… tell her that is the name of the heroine in my novel!)
    I’m a language lover myself and would like to repost this.
    Saludos, Cinda

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