A topic often neglected in courses of Spanish is that of el voseo, or the use of vos as a familiar form of address for the second person in the singular. This is used in about a dozen different countries in Central and South America,1 and it is another subject where there is wide regional variation in its use. In some areas it does not exist at all, in others it completely replaces tú, and in yet others it coexists with both tú and usted. In some regions the pronoun is used but with the tú forms of verbs; in others it goes with its own inflected forms. And to further complicate matters, the way that these inflections are formed also varies greatly.2,3 Given such complexities in its use, we’ll limit ourselves here to illustrating some of the grammatical aspects of only a single form of voseo, namely that accepted as the standard in Argentina. But before doing that, however, we’ll take a brief look at the interesting history of this feature of the language.
Vos was originally the second-person plural pronoun and by the 4th century had come to be used as a highly respectful singular form of address, initially as a way of responding to the royal ‘we’. Its use in addressing authority figures gradually spread and by the 7th century, using vos to respectfully address a single person had become widespread.
Later social changes in Spain led to its progressive devaluation as a mark of respect and in the 15th century that role was taken over by the rival vuestra merced (used with verbs in the third person). The latter evolved, via a number of intermediate stages, into usted. Tú then settled as the familiar form of address in the singular.
These changes were reflected in the then viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru, but not elsewhere in Spanish speaking America, where the use of vos survived.
Note that in Spain otros was added to vos (in its original plural sense) in forming the informal second-person plural pronoun vosotros in order to distinguish it from the formal singular sense. (Compare this with French, where vous is used for both the second-person plural and the formal second-person singular.)
In the dialect of Spanish spoken in the River Plate region (rioplatense Spanish),5 vos replaces tú as the familiar second-person singular form of address. It also has its own verbal forms. It is used in speech and in formal writing and is the accepted standard in Argentina. It is this form that is given in the verb conjugation tables in the dictionary of the Real Academia Española (DRAE).6
In rioplatense Spanish, the vos verbal forms differ from those for tú only in the present indicative and the imperative. In all other cases (including the present subjunctive) the tú inflection is used.
The inflections for vos are derived from those for vosotros, the familiar second-person plural form used in Spain. The present tense conjugation is created by suppressing the weak vowel in the ending of the counterpart for vosotros, as shown in the examples below.
vosotros habláis — vos hablás
vosotros coméis — vos comés
vosotros vivís — vos vivís
vosotros sois — vos sos
There is therefore a difference in the position of the stress between the tú and vos forms (llano or grave in the former, but agudo in the latter), e.g.
(tú) sabes — (vos) sabés
In certain (radical changing) verbs, the vowel in the stem becomes a diphthong when the stress falls on that syllable, for example in the inflection for tú. This does not therefore occur with the equivalent vos forms, e.g.
(tú) puedes — (vos) podés
The affirmative imperative is formed by dropping the final ‘d’ of the vosotros command and the final vowel is accented to preserve the original stress, e.g.
(vosotros) ¡comprad! — (vos) ¡comprá!
If you do decide to use el voseo, be sure to get acquainted with the variation used by the people that you’ll be talking to. As mentioned above, its use instead of tú is widespread in Argentina, for example. But this is not the case everywhere. In Guatemala, for instance, tú is an intermediate familiar form, and vos is extremely familiar, reserved mostly for use between close friends. Nor is it common there to find men addressing women using vos or vice versa. If you happen to use vos with the wrong person you may inadvertently cross a line and cause offence. You should therefore be very careful in deciding when to use it.
- According to Wikipedia, “Vos is used extensively as the primary spoken form of the second-person singular in various countries around Latin America, including Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Uruguay but only in Argentina, Uruguay, and increasingly in Paraguay and Nicaragua, is it also the standard written form. […] Vos is present in other countries as a regionalism, for instance in the Maracucho Spanish of Zulia State, Venezuela, in Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico, and in various states in Colombia.” — http://en.wikipedia.com/wiki/Voseo ↩
- theWikibook (in Spanish) http://es.wikibooks.org/wiki/Espa%C3%B1ol_/_La_conjugaci%C3%B3n_/_El_voseo provides a comprehensive comparison of the regional variations of el voseo and includes details of the differing ways in which the inflections are formed ↩
- http://www.sopreproc.org/voseadores2.html provides conjugation tables illustrating ‘pure’, Venezuelan and Argentinian variants of the inflection ↩
- The article http://www.elcastellano.org/artic/voseo.htm (in Spanish) deals more thoroughly with the history of el voseo ↩
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rioplatense_Spanish for more information about rioplatense Spanish. A similar article in Spanish can be found here http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espa%C3%B1ol_rioplatense
- http://buscon.rae.es/draeI/ — search for an infinitive and then click on the blue square next to the definition head word for its conjugation ↩