San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Say You, Say Me: More on Tú, Vos and Usted

In my last column, I explained to you that Ticos don’t always say “you” the way you probably learned in your Spanish class based on Mexican Spanish. For one thing, though they always use the plural form ustedes, they don’t use among themselves. Many simply use usted all the time, while others use usted or vos, depending on whom they are addressing.

Why is this? And what exactly is the vos form, anyway? To understand, we have to look to the past once again.

Remember that by the 16th-century in Spain, vos had become a familiar rather than a polite form. This was the state of affairs when the colonists came to America, and, as a result, large sections of Latin America, including Costa Rica, still use vos instead of as the singular familiar form of address. In other words, the usage changed in Spain, but not in certain sections of Spanish-speaking America, including Costa Rica.

However,Mexico and Peru, among others, use rather than vos, because they were the locations of the old viceroyalties and therefore kept in contact with the current language in Spain.

All of this is similar to a quaint situation that exists in the United States, where in the deep hollows of the Appalachian Mountains people speak the English closest to that of Shakespeare, because the language evolved less there than in England or other parts of the United States.

The verb form used with vos is a modified plural of the old Spanish, but it is different from only in the present tense and the positive commands. The way it works is that you remove the “r” from the infinitive, add an “s” and put an accent on the last syllable. Thus, with hablar (to speak), the form is hablas (emphasis on the hab-), and the vos form is hablás (emphasis on the -lás). With comer (to eat), it’s tú comes, but vos comés. With vivir (to live), it’s tú vives, but vos vivís.

An exception is the verb ser (to be); the form is eres and the vos form is sos. The positive commands are the same, but you drop the final “s”: hablá, comé, viví. Since the imperative of ir would be i, you use the verb andar instead: andá. The remaining verbal forms and object and possessive pronouns are the same as the form. The subject pronoun and the pronoun following a preposition is vos. Thus, “You ate,” is Vos comiste, and “I love you” is Te quiero a vos.

Those are just the mechanics. Understanding just when and where Costa Ricans use vos is problematic. I have talked to people who claim that Ticos never use anything but usted among themselves and all the rest of it is just confusion caused by foreigners and the media.

The family with whom I lived during my stint with a language school here taught me to use vos, and most of the time they used it with each other. A friend of mine once told me that he couldn’t use vos with me because it would be “disrespectful.” A waiter once explained to me that, out of respect, he used usted with other waiters in front of clients but vos when they were alone. I have observed another friend of mine using vos with his children, his mother, his sisters and me, but, again out of respect, usted with his father.

Often, Ticos who use vos will switch to usted when they get angry with each other. By the same token, Ticos usually use the usted command in an assertive sense, whereas they use the vos command in a softer, more appealing sense. Thus, ¡Venga! Means “Come here!” and Vení means something akin to “Would you come here, please?”

What all this means for you as a learner of Spanish in Costa Rica is that if you’re still in the struggling stages, you’re safest using only usted and ustedes. If you’re here temporarily and Mexican Spanish is what’s important to you, you’d better keep practicing the form.

On the other hand, if you are well along in Spanish and are going to be here a long time, you might want to start working on your vos form.


Comments are closed.