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Vosotros, tú, vos, Usted, Ustedes: Why Spanish has 5 words for “you”

Why is “vosotros” used in Spain? Why do they use “vos” in some South American countries such as Argentina? Why are Usted and Ustedes conjugated the same way as the third person?

Like many great tales, this is a story that begins in ancient Rome.

Why so many words for “You”?

Spanish evolved from Latin. Classical Latin had two words for “you”: one was singular and the other was plural.

The Romans were at least egalitarian in their form of address, using the same pronoun for a person regardless of their social class, occupation, or going-to-be-eaten-by-a-lion status.

Lion by William Warby (CC BY 2.0)

Who knows what pronoun they used with the actual lions.

Classical Latin “You”
Singular Plural
tu vos

In Late Latin “vos” began being used to address someone formally, such as a superior or an elderly person.  

Late Latin “You”
  Singular Plural
Informal tu vos
Formal vos vos

Old Spanish inherited the Late Latin system in which “vos” was both the plural and formal form of “you,” and “tú” was the singular, informal form.

Vos gained usage and began loosing its formality to the point where it meant almost the same thing as “tú”-

  Singular Plural
Informal tú/vos vos
Formal vos vos

This created a problem for Spanish speakers who suddenly had one word for four different concepts. Imagine how frustrated you’d be if there were suddenly no words for individual fruits and you wanted to order a smoothie or make a clever sexual innuendo.

Clearing up the Confusion

And so the quest began to fill the linguistic gap.

New Plural “you”

Spanish speakers began saying “vos otros” (you others) to distinguish between the plural and singular “vos.” This is similar to the way English speakers sometimes say “You all” to address a group of people.

Perhaps under the influence of this new term, “nos” was expanded and became “nosotros.”

New Formal “you”

A variety of new terms were used to express the formality that had been lost in “vos”:

  • Vuestra merced (“your grace”)
  • Señoría (“lordship”)
  • Tu merced (“your grace”)
  • Vuestra excelencia (“your excellence”)
  • Vuestra majestad (“your majesty”)

The term “vuestra merced” (“your grace”) won over as the formal form of address, with “vuestras mercedes” (your graces) being used as the plural, formal form. 

Because “vuestra merced” and “vuestras mercedes” were third person nouns, they were conjugated as such:

Quiere vuestra merced su cena? Does your grace want his dinner?
Quieren vuestras mercedes su cena? Do your graces want their dinner?

This created the system-  

Singular Plural
Informal tú/vos vosotros
Formal vuestra merced vuestras mercedes

And at last, Spanish speakers had what they’d wanted- 4 words for 4 different concepts, with one to spare.

Everyone Loves Usted

“Vuestra merced” went through a series of contractions, sometimes being used as vuesarced, voacé, vucé, vuced, vested. It was finally combined to “Usted.” 

Because “Usted” and “Ustedes” are contractions of third person nouns, they are conjugated as such:

Quiere Usted su cena? Do you want your dinner?
Quieren Ustedes su cena? Do you (all) want your dinner?

The Battle Continues

Vosotros  vs. Ustedes

The use of “vosotros” declined and eventually disappeared in the Americas and parts of Andalusia, favoring “Ustedes” as the plural of formal and informal address.

Tu vs. vos

The battle between tú and vos was settled in a number of ways:

“Tú” won out in some countries such as Spain and Mexico.

“Vos” won out in countries like Argentina and Uruguay, though its conjugation varies by region.

In other places both words continued to be used with slightly different degrees of formality. 

One language, 5 different words for “you”

So here we are in the 21st century with 5 different Spanish words for “you,” sprinkled around the globe, used in various combinations such as:

“You” in Mexico
Singular Plural
Informal Ustedes
Formal Usted Ustedes
“You” in Argentina
Singular Plural
Informal vos Ustedes
Formal Usted Ustedes
“You” in most of Spain
Singular Plural
Informal vosotros
Formal Usted Ustedes

As confusing as this may appear in chart-form, it’s a matter of debate about how much stress and confusion this actually causes Spanish speakers in their lives.

But this certainly does have real world implications, such as beginning Spanish learners being confused by Juanes lyrics.

“Vos? He wants to be in love with vos? Doesn’t that mean ‘voice’?”

References

Azofra Sierra, Ma Elena Morfosintaxis histórica del español: de la teoría a la práctica pp. 58-59
Penny, Ralph John A History of the Spanish Language pp.137-139
Whitley, Melvin Stanley Spanish/English Contrasts: A Course in Spanish Linguistics pp.170-172

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2 Responses to Vosotros, tú, vos, Usted, Ustedes: Why Spanish has 5 words for “you”

  1. Robyn December 26, 2013 at 9:57 AM #

    What an interesting article! I’ve just stumbled across your site and I’m really enjoying your articles. I’m a Spanish teacher in high school and you’re teaching me a thing or two! Thanks!

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