Voseo

1. Introduction
The term voseo refers to the use of the form vos, which is cognate with French vous, as a 2nd person singular subject (and post-prepositional) pronoun. Voseo is also associated with a distinctive verbal morphology, although this varies according to region. Example (1) below illustrates the phenomenon.

(1)      Vos sos por naturaleza violento y peleador, no lleves el arma.
          ‘You are by nature violent and quarrelsome – don’t carry the weapon.’
           (Jorge Halperín, in ABC; retrieved using Corpus del Español)

The equivalent of vos sos in the Iberian Peninsula would be eres.

From the Peninsular perspective, voseo represents an archaism, in that it involves the retention of a pronoun and verb forms that have died out in Europe. In Latin America, however, voseo is very much alive, belonging to the speech of about 40% of Spanish speakers in the region. It is associated above all with the River Plate area, and in particular Argentina, but it also enjoys a good deal of vitality in Central America, Chile and parts of the Andean region (see the map in Section 2).



2. Historical originImage of Charlton Heston in the role of El Cid
Old Spanish inherited the 2nd person pronouns tu (sing.) and vos (plu.) from Latin. In Classical Latin deference towards an addressee was not formally marked in the pronominal system. However, it seems likely that in later varieties the practice evolved of using the plural form vos with singular reference either in formal contexts or to acknowledge the superior social status of the addressee.

This practice must have been extended and consolidated in Ibero-Romance, because by the beginning of the Old Spanish period vos clearly has the function of a singular deferential term of address. In the 12th century epic Poema de Mio Cid, for example, the Cid entrusts his standard to the knight Pero Bermúdez using the following language:

(2)       E vos, Pero Vermuez, la mi seña tomad
           ‘And you, Pero Bermúdez, take my insignia’
           (Poema de Mio Cid, line 689)

The Old Spanish familiar 2nd person singular subject pronoun was tu, exactly as in modern Spanish (modulo the absence of an acute accent above the letter u), while the deferential category was unmarked in the plural. Overall, then, the medieval Spanish system of 2nd person pronouns was as in Table 1 below, from which it can be seen that the system was structurally identical to the one found in modern French.

Table 1   Old Spanish 2nd person subject pronouns

 
Familiar
Deferential
Singular
tu
vos
Plural
vos                       

From the late Middle Ages onwards, while vos retained its capacity for singular reference, its deferential value was gradually eroded. An idea of the pragmatic shift undergone by vos can be gleaned from the definition of the pronoun given by Covarrubias (1611) in his famous Tesoro, according to which, aunque usamos dél en singular, y no todas vezes es bien recebido (‘although we also use it in the singular, it is not always well received’).

However, in the Peninsula at least, vos never became entirely synonymous with tu, the latter being used, again following Covarrubias 1611, only towards criados humildes y a personas baxas (‘humble servants and low people’). Rather, vos seems to have acquired an ambiguous pragmatic status. This is discernible in the definition of vos given in the Real Academia Española’s Diccionario de autoridades (1726–39), according to which se usa [. . .] hablando con personas de gran Dignidad, como tratamiento de respeto [. . .] se usa assimismo como tratamiento que dan los superiores a los inferiores (‘it is used when speaking to persons of great dignity, as a term of respect; it is also used as a term of address by superiors to inferiors’).

The erosion of vos’s deferential value coincided with (and probably was affected by) the emergent grammaticalization of the erstwhile honorific vuestra merced ‘your Grace’ as a new deferential term of address (and ultimately as a new 2nd person pronoun). A 16th century example is given in (3) below.

(3)    Señor, ¿qué es lo que vuestra merced manda?
        ‘Sir, what is it that you require?’
        (Miguel de Cervantes, Entremeses, 1582; retrieved using Corpus del Español)

This newer deferential term of address also had plural form, namely vuestras mercedes, implying that for the first time in the history of Spanish the deferential ~ familiar distinction came to be formally marked in the plural.

Taking all of the foregoing changes into account, the system of terms of address that existed at the outset of Spain’s overseas expansion to the Americas can be idealized as in Table 2 below.

Table 2   Early Modern Spanish terms of address

Familiar
Deferential
Singular
tu ~ vos
vuestra merced
Plural
vos vuestras mercedes

From this time onwards, however, vos was undermined – in the Iberian Peninsula – in two complementary ways. Firstly, when used as a plural form, the pronoun was frequently reinforced by the word otros ‘others’. Over time this tendency became categorical, resulting in the agglutination of otros to vos and hence in the creation of the modern 2nd person plural pronoun vosotros. However, this development does not appear to have spread to Andalusia, the Canaries or Latin America, as vosotros is not a feature of the Spanish used in any of these areas (with the possible exception of some Eastern Andalusian dialects). Nevertheless, even in these areas, vos ceased to be capable of being used with plural reference. Instead, the relevant varieties of Spanish now exhibit ustedes as an unmarked 2nd person plural pronoun.

In the singular category, in the centuries following the discovery of America, vos fell into desuetude in the Iberian Peninsula and by the end of the 18th century it had ceased to be part of European Spanish except in archaic registers. In the colonies, in contrast, singular vos was generally retained and there it was that tended towards elimination from everyday speech. One possible explanation for this divergence with respect to the Peninsula is that early colonial society was simultaneously more egalitarian than its Peninsular counterpart – in the sense that the rigid hierarchies that existed in Europe were not transferred intact to the Americas – and infused with the belief that Spaniards were innately superior to the indigenous population. This last point is nicely illustrated by the famous words of the Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, who emigrated to Hispaniola in 1502:

Aquí viérades a la gente vil y a los azotados y desorejados en Castilla y desterrados para acá por homicianos y homicidas, y que estaban por sus delitos para los justiciar, tener a los reyes y señores naturales por vasallos y por más que bajos y viles criados (Historia de las India, libro II, cap. I)

(‘Here you must see how commoners, criminals and miscreants deported from Spain as killers and murderers, and who would have had to pay for their crimes had they remained, treat the native kings and leaders as vassals and as worse than lowly or common servants.’)

Given the somewhat dichotomous social structure that characterized early colonial society, it would not be unexpected for a pronoun like vos, with its residual deferential value, to come to be used as an unmarked term of address among the Spanish population, with perhaps being reserved for the native population.

Whatever the exact causes, vos came to be the usual pronoun by means of which Spaniards in the colonies addressed one another, except in contexts in which a clear indication of deference was required, in which case the formula vuestra merced was used. In this way, vos came to displace the inherited singular nondeferential pronoun in the colonial dialect. This process was, however, kept in check in areas that maintained strong links with Spain, viz. the Map showing modern distribution of voseo Caribbean (due to its role as a hub for shipping) and the viceregal capitals of Mexico City and Lima, together with their hinterland. But elsewhere in the Americas vos entirely replaced , although has been partially reintroduced in some areas as a consequence of the normative efforts of 19th century grammarians such as Rufino José Cuervo and a school system that has traditionally been Peninsula-centric in linguistic matters.

As regards vuestra merced, as a deferential term of address this tended to be contracted in speech. In the plays of Calderón (1600–1681), for example, forms such as vuesarced and vucé are readily encountered. One contracted form, namely usted, evidently found favour and by at least the 18th century it had entirely replaced the full form vuestra merced.

The plural form ustedes does not represent a contraction of vuestras mercedes, but is instead an analogical innovation created by applying the plural suffix -es to usted. For reasons that are not entirely clear, in those areas where vosotros never took root, ustedes came to be used as an unmarked plural term of address. Thus in Latin American, Canary and Andalusian Spanish it is now used indiscriminately in contexts in which Castilian Spanish requires ustedes and those in which Castilian Spanish requires vosotros. 

 


3. Associated verbal morphology
Vos is normally used with verb forms that descend from the Old Spanish 2nd person plural forms, which reflects the pronoun’s originally plural value in terms of number.

3.1 Declarative verb forms
Except in the preterite and the imperative, the endings of the Old Spanish 2nd person plural consisted in the conjugation vowel (a, e or i) immediately followed by the suffix -des, as in fablades ‘you talk’, fazedes ‘you do’ and dezides ‘you say’. The intervocalic d in these endings must have been pronounced as a weak fricative [ð] and eventually it was lost altogether. This occurred in the 15th century among paroxytone verb forms and in the 17th century among proparoxytone verb forms (those stressed on the antepenultimate syllable). For example, fablades (a present indicative form) must have evolved from [haˈβlaðes] to [haˈβlaes] during the 15th century, while the corresponding imperfect form fablavades [haˈβlaβaðes] must have evolved to [aˈβlaβaes] some two centuries later.

In each verb form in which it took place, the loss of intervocalic d created a hiatus. Throughout the history of Spanish when a hiatus has arisen through sound change it has subsequently been eliminated by a later phonetic adjustment. The hiatus created by the loss of -d- in 2nd person plural verb forms was no exception to this general pattern, although the resolution of this particular hiatus resulted in the co-existence of two distinct groups of verb endings. These can be referred to as the dissimilated endings and the assimilated endings.

The dissimilated endings result from semivocalization of the second vowel in the hiatus, i.e. [-aes] became [-ajs] and [-ees] became [-ejs] (the sequence [-ies], from -ides, did not undergo this process). This reason why this process can be viewed as an instance of dissimilation is that it causes the second vowel in the hiatus to become less like first vowel. The effect is to eliminate the hiatus itself, because, following semivocalization of the second vowel, the two vowels formerly in hiatus come to be pronounced as a diphthong. The fact that [-ies] is excluded from this process can be attributed to the likely instability of the sequence *[-ijs] that would have resulted from [-ies] had the latter undergone dissimilation.

The assimilated endings arose through a process of assimilation, whereby the hiatus’s second vowel became identical to the first vowel in the hiatus and was ultimately absorbed by it, i.e. [-aes] became [-as], [-ees] became [-es] and [-ies] became [-is]. In the -ar and -er conjugations, these endings eventually died out in the Iberian Peninsula, but they are retained there in the -ir paradigm, which, as just noted, lacks the dissimilated endings. On the other hand, the majority of the Latin American varieties that retain vos also continue to use at least some of the assimilated endings (and consequently have abandoned the corresponding dissimilated endings), but with singular rather than plural meaning.

An interesting structural effect of the foregoing process of assimilation was that it resulted in merger of the plural and singular forms of the 2nd person in those tenses/moods in which the 2nd person plural was originally proparoxytonic, i.e. in the subparadigms of the imperfect, the imperfect subjunctive and the conditional. For example, given a modern form such as cantabas, it is impossible to say whether it comes from cantavades (2nd person plural), following loss of -d- and subsequent assimilation of [e] towards [a], or whether it comes directly from cantavas (2nd person singular). Thus the verb forms associated with voseo and tuteo are normally identical in the imperfect, the conditional and the imperfect subjunctive, e.g. vos/ hablabas ‘you used to talk’, vos/ hablarías ‘you would talk’ and para que vos/ hablaras ‘so that you would talk’.

An analogous merger effect also arises in the present tense if the relevant verb forms are monosyllabic. For example, the present indicative forms das ‘you give’ and has ‘you have (aux.)’ could come from either plu. dades, habedes or sing. das, has. Note that merger does not arise in the case of the irregular verb ser ‘be’, because the inherited 2nd person singular form is eres (< Latin eris) whereas the assimilated 2nd person plural form is sos (< Old Spanish sodes). Hence we find tú eres but vos sos.

The assimilated vos-related verb endings that can potentially be encountered in Latin America (depending on the region) are shown in Table 3 below.

Table 3  Assimilated 2nd person verb endings associated with voseo

(Old Spanish etyma shown in parentheses; bold font indicates stressed syllable) 


 

-ar

-er

-ir

Present indicative

cantás
(cantades)

comés
(comedes)

vivís
(vivides)

Present subjunctive

cantés
(cantedes)

comás
(comades)

vivás
(vivades)

Imperfect

cantabas
(cantavades)

comías
(comiades)

vivías
(viviades)

Imperfect subjunctive

cantaras
(cantarades)

comieras
(comierades)

vivieras
(vivierades)

Imperfect subjunctive

cantases
(cantassedes)

comieses
(comiessedes)

vivieses
(viviessedes)

Future

cantarés
(cantaredes)

comerés
(comeredes)

vivirés
(viviredes)

Conditional

cantarías
(cantariades)

comerías
(comeriades)

vivirías
(viviriades)


In many varieties the assimilated future tense endings and, to a lesser extent, those of the present subjunctive have been replaced by the corresponding endings.

In addition, some varieties use the dissimilated verb endings, i.e. those which go with vosotros in the Iberian Peninsula. However, commonly in these latter varieties the -éis ending has been replaced by -ís, resulting in forms like comís ‘you eat’, tomís ‘you take (subjunctive)’ and tomarís ‘you will take’. A good example of this situation is provided by Chilean voseo.

3.2 Imperative forms
The usual modern vos imperative (cantá ‘sing’, comé ‘eat’, salí ‘come out’ etc.) also appears to be the outcome of assimilation. The modern Peninsular imperative endings in -ad, -ed and -id descend from the Latin plural imperative endings -āte, -ēte, -ĭte and -īte through voicing of /-t-/ and apocope of /-e/. The voseante equivalents have an identical source, but what seems to have happened in their case is that the [ð]
resulting from the voicing of Latin /t/ in intervocalic position was lost and the subsequent hiatus was resolved through assimilation: [kantaðe] > [kantae] > [kanta] cantá etc. Assimilated imperatives were common in the Peninsula until the early modern period, surviving there only when followed by enclitic os (e.g. acordaos ‘remember!’).

 


4. Associated clitics and possessives
In modern Spanish, the clitic pronouns and possessives that correspond to vos are the same as for (see examples (4) and (5) below), but vos occurs as the object of a preposition (see example (6)):

(4)      ¿Te acordás de mí?
          ‘Do you remember me?‘

(5)      ¿Vos creés que en tu casa no se habrán dado cuenta?
          ‘Do you think that in your house they won’t have realized?’

(6)      Claro, como todos viven pendientes de vos.
          ‘Of course, as everyone’s life centres around you.’

This state of affairs was not always the case. In Old Spanish, the weak object pronoun corresponding to the subject pronoun vos was unstressed vos, which over time lost its initial consonant, surviving as os, while the corresponding posessive was vuestro. The formation of the paradigm vos, te, tu(yo) dates from about the 18th century and was much decried by 19th century normative grammarians such as Andrés Bello.


References

Covarrubias, Sebastián de. 1611. Tesoro de lengua castellana o española. Ed. by Martín de Riquer (1943). Barcelona: S.A. Horta.

Moreno, María Cristobalina. 2002. ‘The address system in the Spanish of the Golden Age’. Journal of Pragmatics 34, 1: 15-47.

Williams, Lynn. 2004. ‘Forms of address and epistolary etiquette in the diplomatic and courtly worlds of Philip IV of Spain.’ Bulletin of Spanish Studies. 81, 1:15–36.