Saying “you” three different ways in Spanish

In my youth it was acceptable to address most everyone (except children) with “Usted” but the reverse usage of “tu” was not true; this  appears 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 first learned Spanish in Colombia and then moved to Costa Rica where they use “vos”. I have dropped it as “tu” is more common, but didn’t realize it IS so widely used.
I’m a language lover myself and would like to repost this.
Saludos, Cinda

Fine Roadkill Cuisine

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…

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4 thoughts on “Saying “you” three different ways in Spanish

  1. Enrique – thanks for you details. Nationalistic reasons? I thought it was just form of respect that has become a formality. (BTW: I believe “Usted” came from “Vuestra merced” which was used as “your honor”).


  2. Regarding tu, usted and vos: in colonial days “vos” was the formal pronoun. Because there was a vast status difference between actual Spaniards (and their descendants) who owned everything, including the mines and the vast haciendas, slaves,etc., a two-tiered way of addressing each other developed. In England thou was a formal pronoun used by everyone but there were no racial overtones. So, in countries with large indian, mestizo or black populations, Spaniards addressed them with “tu” which was a pronoun reserved for people with a lower status. I’m not sure how “usted” started but I suspect it was the word that the lower classes used with Spanish nobles, landowners, soldiers, clergy, etc. In CR, Argentina, Uruguay and other areas where the indian population died out or was small to begin with, Spanish settlers addressed each other with vos. In time it ceased to be a formal pronoun because the population was homogenous, of European origin. Tu was not used because it would have bordered on insult to address a friend that way by implying that he/she was of mixed race. The correct plural of vos is vosotros, but it is not used in CR or Argentina, only in Spain, mostly in Castille. So the correct classical plural conjugation of “to be” (ser/estar) would be “vosotros sois;” all throughout the western hemisphere it morphed to “ustedes son.” In its singular form, it became either “vos sos,” sos being a vulgar adaptation that became familiar, not formal, or usted es. Usted is always formal, used under the following circumstances, at least in conservative countries and regions: a child would use usted with an adult (many Mexicans and Cubans don’t follow this custom, especially in the countryside); two strangers addressing each other (ditto Mexicans, Cubans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and areas of northern South America); by a person of an inferior social status, as in a domestic servant to her/his employer, or when addressing someone in a position of authority (vestigial royal or noble authority and status), like a cop, judge, elected official, unless the person addressing them has a relationship of equality or friendship in which case tu or vos would be used. So you would never use usted with our classmates, only with our teachers because they are older and therefore entitled to be addressed with a layer of respect (but they can address us with vos). In CR it would always be vos, and in Colombia, particularly Bogota, it would be tu. There is however a new trend I’ve detected with the younger generations. The internet, TV and social media have influenced how they talk, to the point that even in CR I’ve heard some use “tu”, (and increasingly there is much less respect for their elders and themselves) which was a shunned no-no for nationalistic reasons, at least when I was a kid.
    Hope this brings some clarity.


  3. I think generally you won’t go wrong addressing people as “tú” nowadays, especially at our age. I had a Cuban coworker in Dallas who was 30 years older than I. She told me early on to quit addressing her as “usted”, which I did without thinking. Sometimes in my job as a translator I’m called to help an attorney or law enforcement officer interview a prisoner, and I force myself to use “tú” immediately even though the prisoner is a stranger, because in that context he is automatically lower status.


    • Enrique and RdKS: had not realized that about “tu” – I thought it established a MORE equal and “warmer” relationship so I have been addressing people who work for me as “tu” whereas some years back I would have called them “usted”! Oh the subtleties of the language!


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