In the Spanish-speaking world, we widely use the pronoun tú to address those with whom we have a familiar relationship, like our friends or colleagues, or those we have some form of seniority over, like children or subordinates. But despite the widespread acceptance of tú, you’d be surprised to know that, in some regions, this pronoun seldomly occurs. In others, it is virtually nonexistent. In those tú-less regions, the unquestionable pronoun for the familiar second-person singular is always vos.
Take, for example, the Spanish of the region of the Río de la Plata, an area of the globe that has its center of cultural and linguistic influence in the city of Buenos Aires. Several million speakers of Spanish populate La Reina del Plata -as the city was once known- and its metropolitan area. At these coordinates, the norm is to use vos instead of tú, both in spoken and written language. While vos is largely accepted as the norm, tú -although recognized and understood- is benched at the sidelines, only to join the game in extremely rare occasions.
The use of the form vos to replace tú is known as voseo. The linguistic phenomenon of voseo is not exclusive of Argentina, but also present to various extents in several countries in Hispanoamérica, such as Chile, Paraguay, Costa Rica, and Honduras, to name a few. The word voseo derives from the pronoun vos, which originated in Latin to indicate the plural of the second person in nominative case. Vos appears in classic and medieval texts of Spanish literature, although the pronoun isn’t necessarily semantically uniform throughout the corpus of texts. In the famous Cantar de Mio Cid (written in medieval Castilian circa 1200) vos is used to address the nobility and the upper classes, whereas tú is the customary form to address individuals of inferior strata. A few centuries later, the same semantic distinction holds true. In Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), the many masters of Lazarillo address him as tú, but are addressed back as vos by the young apprentice. However, in that same literary work, a change in the status of vos becomes palpable when the squire -one of the masters- angrily reacts to a villager after the latter addresses him using vos, instead of the more deferential vuestra merced.
But, you may wonder, how exactly does voseo manifest in practice? From a grammatical aspect, voseo consists of the association of the pronoun vos with a number of verbal suffixes. These associations can be disconcerting for those who are not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of voseo. But, as a native speaker of voseo rioplatense, I can confidently furnish you with the basics of this particular variety:
When it comes to its pronominal paradigm, voseo rioplatense presents a combination of its own pronominal forms (nominative pronoun and complement of a preposition), and other pronominal forms borrowed from tú (accusative, dative, reflexive and possessive pronouns). As far as its verbal paradigm, vos differs from tú only in two tenses: present of the indicative and imperative.
The present of vos is formed from a verb in infinitive, by removing the suffix (-ar/-er/-ir) and adding (-ás/-és/-ís). For example, vos hablás/ vos tenés/ vos venís (as opposed as tú hablas/tú tienes/tú vienes). The beauty of this rule to form the present of the indicative is that it applies to all verbs, whether they are regular or irregular verbs. There are only two exceptions with verbs ser and ir (vos sos/vos vas).
The imperative of vos is even easier. Simply remove the -r of any verb in infinitive and add an accent mark to the last vowel. For example, vos hablá/vos tené/ vos vení. The exceptions are ir and irse, which use the forms of the infinitive andar (vos andá/vos andáte).
The examples below offer a summary of the pronominal paradigms of vos and tú, so that you can compare for yourself.
Vos: Vos tenés hermanos.
Tú: Tú tienes hermanos.
Accusative (direct object)
Vos: Te conocí en la estación.
Tú: Te conocí en la estación.
Dative (indirect object)
Vos: Te leo un libro.
Tú: Te leo un libro.
Tú: Te relajas.
Vos: Tus llaves. Las llaves tuyas.
Tú: Tus llaves. Las llaves tuyas.
Vos: Estas flores son para vos. Estoy con vos. Sin vos no soy nada.
Tú: Estas flores son para ti. Estoy contigo. Sin ti no soy nada.
Now that you’ve learned how voseo rioplatense looks like in practice, it is important to note that the history of vos and voseo has been one of struggle for survival, of opposition and resistance. Despite the seemingly harmonious coexistence of vos and tú in the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Age and throughout the Renaissance, an adverse attitude about voseo began to emerge by the Seventeenth Century, and negative connotations were increasingly associated to the use of the pronoun vos. To make a long story short, the progressive stigmatization of vos ultimately led to its virtual disappearance in the Iberian Peninsula and contributed to the consolidation of tú as the sole form for the familiar of the second-person singular pronoun.
The animosity against voseo had its echo in Hispanoamerica, where many grammarians -chief among them Andrés Bello- found that the phenomenon of voseo was a tremendous abhorrence of language and fervently advocated for the discontinuation of its use. These detractors of voseo based their attitude on three main arguments: it was socially vulgar, archaic (on grounds that the trend of eradication of vos that took place in the Iberian Peninsula should have followed suit in Hispanoamerica), and illogical (because of the hybrid nature of its pronominal and verbal paradigms).
Despite the opposition, the attitude toward voseo in Hispanoamerica has been generally more tolerant than it has been in the Iberian Peninsula, and voseo was able to find in the new continent a place to set roots. But that didn’t happen without a fight. In Argentina, where voseo was historically considered by purist grammarians to be a “problem” of the language, and policy efforts were put in place at different times in history to eradicate vos from the written language, voseo defiantly survives. And it does so because in the Río de la Platavoseo is neither vulgar, nor archaic, nor illogical. It is, instead, a very important trait of the linguistic identity of its people and transcends any considerations of status or class. Attempts to eliminate voseo from speakers who have it so deeply incorporated into their linguistic ADN have proved futile so far.
1. Río de la Plata is the widest river in the world. It is formed at the confluence of the Uruguay River and the Paraná River and empties into de Atlantic Ocean. In English it has been known mostly as River Plate, although Silver River or River of Silver are other possible translations.