Voseo: Why Some Latin American Spanish Use Vos Instead of Tú
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. Voseo is the use of vos as the informal singular pronoun (“you”) instead of tú.
As the second most widely spoken language, with more than 400 million speakers, Spanish has a significant number of different varieties across the 21 different countries where it’s spoken. And each region has its own rules and customs when it comes to forms of address.
For example, unlike Spain, where tuteo (the use of tú) and its verbal inflection system are predominant, voseo is more common in Latin America. And like voseo, there are other linguistic features that vary from place to place. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at voseo, how it works in different Spanish-speaking countries, and why it matters.
What is voseo?
Is vos the short form for vosotros? Is it vosotros singular? Is ustedes the plural for usted? And what is the plural for tú?
Spanish has many forms of address depending on the meanings speakers want to convey and the context of interaction. In Spain, vos is no longer used (except for classic literature books); tú is the singular alternative for informal speech, and vosotros is the plural for both formal and informal interaction. However, Latin America is a whole different story: we find different systems of address, with voseo being the most salient feature as far as the singular forms are concerned.
Voseo is probably one of the most complex features of Latin American Spanish grammar: it’s the use, in Spanish, of vos as a pronoun meaning “you”, as opposed to tú. While tuteo (the use of “tú“) is the most commonly known form of treating others in Spanish (and this is what students of Spanish a second language normally learn), voseo is as much a constituent feature of the Spanish language as tuteo. The difference is that voseo is predominant only in certain Spanish-speaking areas, such as Central America, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador.
The origin of voseo
The voseo pronoun has been in use since the Middle Ages in Spain, specifically in the central and southern regions. In Old Spanish, it was the deferential form of address, inherited from Latin. It was how the native peoples used to address Kings and other noble people during the colonisation period, as it showed respect and emphasised hierarchical distance.
Throughout the 16th century, this pronoun gradually lost its value of respect, becoming a form to treat equals. 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. For that reason, it is important to know how the voseant system works and how it varies from country to country in order to use it correctly.
Voseo’s pronominal system
In voseo, the pronoun vos is used as the subject form, while for the rest of the pronominal system we have the following:
- The possessive determiner tu or tus, as in “voy a tu casa” (your house)
- The possessive pronouns tuyo, tuya, tuyos, tuyas, as in “la casa es tuya” (the house is yours)
- The object complement te, as in “mañana te llamo” (I’ll call you tomorrow)
- Prepositional phrases with vos, as in “hace mucho no hablo con vos” (with you)
This means that the voseo system is not purely voseant, but combined with forms that belong to tuteo. The plural of vos, contrary to what most people think, isn’t vosotros, but ustedes.
The difference between vosotros and 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 been generalised as the only plural form of address in Latin American Spanish.
The difference between vos, usted, and ustedes
Voseo is one of the most complex features of Spanish, and it is also known to be “a headache” for most Spanish learners. In Old Spanish, for instance, vos was specifically used as the courtesy form. It used to be how speakers addressed a stranger, a superior, or an elder. However, we currently use vos as the colloquial form of address in some Spanish-speaking countries, such as Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Central America. On the other hand, usted is always the formal form of address, regardless of the country.
As for ustedes, it is necessary to clarify that, on the contrary to what most Spanish learners consider, this form of treatment is not exclusively the plural form of usted. Ustedes is also the plural form of vos, and that is why voseo can be somehow confusing. In Latin American Spanish, speakers don’t differ between courtesy and colloquial forms regarding the second person in the plural. In other words, vos is the familiar form of address in the second person singular, usted is the formal variant to vos, and ustedes can be used either in colloquial or formal speech, depending on the context.
When do you use usted?
As already mentioned, usted is the formal form of address in the second person singular. Usted can be used in different contexts. You can use it mainly when you want to be polite, when you talk to a person who is older than you, or when you don’t know the person very well. For instance, at a job interview, you might want to use usted if you want to show respect to the person who is interviewing you. The same happens when you talk to a teacher, a police officer, or any other type of authority figure. We also use usted to talk to the elderly, as a sign of respect.
Simple as it sounds, voseo is not all about pronouns. This form of treatment affects the whole verbal inflection system, and each conjugation takes its own particular ending according to voseo. We’ll expand on this below.
Voseo‘s verbal system
The voseo system also includes a number of verbal tenses that are different from those of tuteo. They also vary from one region to another and, sometimes, voseo and tuteo inflective systems even work alongside within the same utterance.
In Present tense, voseo takes special endings for each conjugation, as in the following examples:
- 1st conjugation verbs (-ar): “Vos cantás una canción” (You sing a song) as opposed to “Tú cantas una canción”
- 2nd conjugation verbs (-er): “¿Querés una manzana?” (Do you want an apple?) as opposed to “¿Quieres una manzana?”
- 3rd conjugation verbs (-ir): “¿Venís en tren?” (Are you coming by train?) as opposed to “¿Vienes en tren?”
Another case in which voseo differs to tuteo verbal endings is the imperative mood, particularly in the affirmative form, as follows:
- 1st conjugation verbs (-ar): “Cantá una canción” (Sing a song) as opposed to “Canta una canción”
- 2nd conjugation verbs (-er): “Comé una manzana” (Eat an apple) as opposed to “Come una manzana”
- 3rd conjugation verbs (-ir): “Vení en tren” (Come by train) as opposed to “Ven en tren”
Apart from the mixed voseo alternative for the negative imperative, mixed voseo is a fact in many regions where tuteo and voseo have traditionally been in contact. This situation is especially frequent with the pronoun vos, which can take tuteo endings according to the context, as we’ll see below.
In Northwestern Argentina, particularly in Santiago del Estero, voseo pronoun is known to be mixed with tuteo verbal inflections. If you ever visit Santiago del Estero, you will hear them say “¿vos tienes cambio?” (do you have change?) instead of the voseo variant to the verb “tener” (to have), which is “tenés”.
In Chile, on the other hand, voseo is not conveyed by the use of the pronoun vos, but exclusively by verbal inflections. For instance, someone looking for change in this area will ask you “¿tú tení cambio?”. It’s important to clarify that voseo verb endings work differently in this region to the rest of Latin American countries. In general terms, they tend to close the last e to sound more like an i.
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 this 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, Uruguay 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, Colombia, 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 sIn 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 use of vos in marketing and public communication
It’s commonplace to see both brands and public bodies using vos in their marketing and public communications in countries where voseo is the norm. This also applies to international brands targeting voseant regions. The vos pronoun is seen as a way of establishing a more personal and friendly relationship with the audience.
Perceived closeness and personalisation are key to get people to engage with a brand or message, whether it’s for sales purposes or to increase awareness about an important issue (e.g., a government campaign about the importance of wearing a seatbelt when driving).
Moreover, the use of tú is likely to backfire in voseant regions as it would convey a sense of distance, formality, and foreigness.
In conclusion, voseo is a sociolinguistic phenomenon that varies across Latin American countries. In some regions, it is the only informal form of address, while in others, it coexists with tú. It also evokes different levels of prestige depending on the region. In some countries, it is considered standard and is used by all social classes, while in others it is seen as substandard and is mostly used by the lower classes.
Nevertheless, voseo is a constituent feature of Latin American Spanish and it can be seen in both spoken and written language. For brands, using it as a way to establish a closer and more personal relationship with the audience isn’t just effective to increase engagement and conversion, but also a nod to local culture and traditions.