Of all the ways in which Spanish differs from one country to the next in Latin America and in Europe, voseo is probably among the most obvious ones.
For this article, we have taken the key facts described in The Handbook of Hispanic Linguistics (edited by José Ignacio Hualde, Antxon Olarrea, Erin O’Rourke) and in The Voseo Phenomenon: An Analysis of the History, Structural Patterns, and Pragmatic Uses and Perceptions of Voseo in the Spanish-Speaking World (by Ian Ramsey) and broken them down into easy-to-understand sections. Sit back and enjoy!
What Is Voseo?
Whereas in the majority of Spain there is one form for informal treatment and one for formal treatment, in the singular as well as in the plural, Latin American Spanish is a different story. In Latin America, we find different systems of address as far as the singular forms are concerned, with voseo being the most salient feature. Voseo is the use of the personal pronoun vos as an alternative to tú. The opposite of voseo is tuteo.
Voseo requires special endings for most verb tenses (especially in the Present tense), with differences from one region to another.
It is also worth mentioning that although voseo derives from the Old Spanish singular deferential (i.e., respectful or courteous) form of address vos, nowadays in Latin America it is only used to treat someone informally and confidentially.
The Origin of Voseo
In Old Spanish, the deferential form of address was the pronoun vos, inherited from Latin. Throughout the 16th century, this pronoun gradually lost its value of respect, becoming a form to treat equals. It was this multi-value vos that the Spanish conquerors brought to Latin America, where it remained in use by the settlers and the “criollos” (those born in the Latin American colonies to Spaniards). It thus became the most frequent singular form of address, more frequent than the other informal singular form of address tú.
In the 17th century, vos fell into disuse in Spain. This linguistic change, however, only reached the Latin American regions that kept in close contact with the homeland (as in Spain, these regions adopted the exclusive use of tú for informal contacts). On the other hand, regions that had been cut off from Spain kept using vos as a confidential form of address, disfavouring tú. This historical development explains the particular distribution of voseo across Latin America. Currently, voseo belongs to the speech of about 40% of Spanish speakers in the region.
Vosotros Vs. Ustedes
From the 16th century onwards, vos was frequently reinforced by the word otros (‘others’) when used in the plural form. Over time this tendency resulted in the creation of the modern second person plural pronoun vosotros typical of most European Spanish varieties. However, this development did not reach Latin America, where even vos lost its plural reference. Instead, Latin American Spanish exhibits ustedes as an unmarked (i.e., normal) second-person plural pronoun both formally and informally.
Probably the most noticeable characteristic of the forms of address in Latin American Spanish is the complete absence of vosotros. Ustedes, therefore, has generalised as the only plural form of address in Latin American Spanish.
Something curious is that there are regions where speakers use a mixture of the pronouns and verb endings of vos and tú. When a speaker uses mixed voseo, they either use the pronominal form of vos combined with the verbal ending of tú (pronominal voseo), or they use the verbal morphology of vos together with the pronominal forms of tú (verbal voseo).
Regions with Exclusive or Almost Exclusive Use of Tú
Among the countries with exclusive or almost exclusive use of tú, we can name: the Spanish Antilles: Santo Domingo, Cuba (except for a very small region on the eastern end of the island), and Puerto Rico; Mexico (except for the state of Chiapas), and central Peru.
During the colonisation, Mexico and Peru were home to Spanish viceroyalties shortly after the Spaniards arrived on the continent. Santo Domingo hosted an important university and ships on the way to South America made stop-overs there. Finally, Cuba and Puerto Rico only became independent in 1898 and therefore remained very closely tied to Spain for a long time. Because of these close contact, vos disappeared from the scene, as in Spain, leaving tú as the only informal form of address.
Countries Where Vos Coexists with Tú
In all the other Latin American countries, vos is used either exclusively or coexists with tú. The most important representatives of the former group are the River Plate countries Argentina and Paraguay, where vos is the unmarked and only informal form of address. Moreover, all social classes use it.
In Central America, for a long time, Costa Rica has been the only country where the same happened, but lately tú seems to be reappearing.
In countries or regions where vos and tú are both used as informal confidential forms of address, the former is characteristic of the spoken language. In addition, vos tends to be preferred by the popular classes, frequently being considered as sub-standard, whereas tú is used by the higher classes and learned at school. Countries with these sociolinguistic features are, for example, Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile.
Uruguay, one of the River Plate countries, is an interesting case because of the fact that the two forms are used by the same speakers in different situations and with different interlocutors. Vos is an intimate form whereas tú is confidential but less intimate. The difference, therefore, is based on the relationship one has with the interlocutor. Both are prestigious forms of address.
On the other hand, in countries like Guatemala or Bolivia, vos is considered to be a substandard form that reflects a lack of education and is characteristic of the lower classes.
Countries Where Vos Is the Norm
In countries where vos is the norm and the only informal form of address, like Argentina, the sociolinguistic attitudes towards it are positive. There, vos enjoys great prestige and is considered an important feature of the national identity. It is used in spoken language as well as written documents by all social classes.
The Deferential Form of Address in Latin America
As in Spain, in most parts of Latin America the singular usted is a form of address that expresses deference and politeness. Usted is a second person singular pronoun (like vos and tú) but it indexes formality and respect in all age ranges and genders, and reflects a more formal relationship.