Spanish in Costa Rica: Say you, say me: using tú, vos and usted
Back in the days when many people outside of Latin America thought that all the region had to offer was tacos, Chiquita Banana, and Desi Arnaz, Spanish students learned there were four ways to say “you”: the singular and plural informal forms, tú and vosotros, normally used when speaking to close friends, relatives, children, and animals; and the singular and plural formal forms, usted and ustedes, used to express respect. These were the only forms students learned, and al diablo with the barbarians south of the border.
Nowadays, attitudes have changed, and in any given Spanish class, the Latin American forms are the norm.
Why all this confusion over what, to us (at least, nowadays), is just one simple word? Let’s look a bit at the history of “you” in Spanish.
Tú is a direct descendent of the Latin singular informal form tu, and up until the middle ages, the Latin plural form vos was the only word for the plural “you.” Then it came to be used in a formal singular sense as well. Therefore, to distinguish between something like “you, respected person” and the plural “you,” the Spaniards added otros (others) to vos, rendering vosotros, “you others” – much like the southern “you all” or our ubiquitous “you guys.”
At this point, then, there existed three forms of “you” in Spanish: tú (singular informal), vos (singular formal) and vosotros (a general plural).
In 16th-century Spain, matters became further complicated. In place of vos, there came into being an even more polite form of address, vuestra merced(your mercy), used with the third person of the verb, much as we might say, “How is his majesty today?” or “Does your honor wish to speak?”
Over time, this form became usted and the plural form became ustedes.
With this new polite form, vos, the former polite singular, lost prestige and became yet another informal singular form, while vosotros stayed on as the informal plural.
Over more time, Spaniards stopped using the redundant vos, and stuck with tú. Thus, Castilian, or standard Spanish, ended up with four forms: tú, vosotros, usted and ustedes.
Tú and vosotros use their own second person verb forms, while usted and ustedes share the third-person forms with “he,”“she” and “they.”
Since all of Spanish-speaking America uses ustedes for both the familiar plural and the polite plural, Spanish teachers and grammar books now teach and practice in the classroom that there are three forms of “you” in Spanish: tú, usted and ustedes. They add as a side note, of course, that vosotros exists in Spain.
Well and good, we’re back to three forms. If you recently took a Spanish course back home and you’re in Costa Rica now, you should be on target, right? Wrong. As it turns out, Spanish courses are targeted at Mexican Spanish, and we have a couple of hitches in the words for “you” in Costa Rica.
In the first place, Ticos don’t generally use the tú form at all among themselves, but will often use it with foreign friends because they expect it.
So what do they use with their friends and family? The answer to that question depends on the Tico to whom you put the question.
Everybody, of course, uses ustedes for the plural “you.” The singular is another matter. Many simply use usted all the time, while others use usted or vos.
This brings us to the second hitch: some use two forms of the singular “you,” depending on whom they are addressing: usted and vos.
Moreover, Costa Rica is not the only country to use vos. Much of Central America, parts of Colombia and most notably Argentina, among others, also use it. Mexico and Peru, however, do not.
Why is this? And what exactly is the vos form, anyway? I’ll explain all this in a future column. Meanwhile, I suggest you stick with the old, reliable usted until you get a handle on this thing.
The original version of this piece was published on September 9, 2007.
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