Voseo Vs. Vosotros

Although I now consider myself a near-native Spanish speaker and I refer to Spanish as my second language, I am definitely a product of the language classroom. I was first introduced to Spanish in the classroom as an elementary schooler, through a video-based (we’re talking VHS video, people) curriculum called “Saludos.”

(Wow, this “vintage” video makes me feel really vieja!!!)

At the same time, this was in South Florida in the early 90s, so for me Spanish was not confined to the classroom nor did I imagine it as a language spoken in a country somewhere far away. I learned how to say vestido in school, but I also learned how to order maduros at the Cuban restaurant near my house. I also learned that my friends who came from Latino families didn’t necessarily learn Spanish at home or even speak it with their parents. Some did, but not all.

Those of us who learn Spanish in school can form a lot of ideas and stereotypes, often without intending to, that can only be modified or corrected by our experience outside the classroom. This is not a criticism, just an honest observation. Obviously it is impossible for an educator to introduce every variation in language and culture that exists in an entire linguistic community.

However, I do feel compelled to present a criticism of one very specific component of the way Spanish is generally taught in the United States. As any one who has taken a Spanish class in school or in college in the US will be able to testify, all verbs are introduced with conjugations for the following persons: yo, tú, él/ella/usted, nosotros, vosotros, ellos/ellas/ustedes. In my experience, I was never tested on the vosotros conjugation of verbs, but it was always there just to make sure we were familiar with it. Every little colored box in every textbook that broke down the conjugation of a verb had it there, between nosotros and ellos/ellas/ustedes. We were taught, correctly, that vosotros was used in Spain, but that ustedes was used in Latin America. Great, thanks for making me aware, got it!

But as soon as I set foot in a bilingual office setting working with colleagues who were born in several different Latin American countries, I learned that there was another widely used second-person pronoun and verb conjugation that no teacher had even introduced to me: vos.

An example of a PSA from Costa Rica employing the voseo.

So, let’s see, there are about 47 million Spanish speakers in Spain, plus some more around the world, who use vosotros. According to Wikipedia, the voseo (use of vos) is used exclusively in place of the tuteo (use of ) in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but it is also used in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, and in parts of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Belize. Just the populations of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay alone represent over 56 million Spanish speakers who use vos.

Numerically speaking, shouldn’t we be including vos in the little colored verb conjugation boxes?

Map showing where vos is used, from Wikipedia. See page for author [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
All I am suggesting is that we at least expose students of Spanish to the voseo, in the same way that we expose them to vosotros. (There’s a whole other level of linguistic variation in how the voseo is used from country to country, which I am not going to get into here and probably is more detail than we need to introduce in the classroom.) Let’s help students become familiar with it, without necessarily testing them on it. As they are more than likely to come into contact with it at some point, we would be doing them a great service. In fact, unless a student is planning to go to Spain, he/she is statistically far more likely to encounter vos than vosotros.

I rest my case.

Two recent encounters

I had two recent encounters with Spanish mixed right smack dab in with English as part of the American experience. Just like that!

The episode of This American Life from November 8th featured a story about Chris García (who also happens to be a comedian), his father, and a conversation they had while driving along a familiar route through Los Angeles. Chris and his father speak Spanish/Spanglish with one another, and although Chris narrates the story and retells their conversation in English, you can catch snippets of their original conversation which Chris recorded on his phone. The story is quite touching so I won’t give much more away about the content or context of their conversation, but there were a couple of things I found interesting from a linguistic point of view:

  • Chris refers to his father as “Dad”
  • Chris responds affirmatively with “uh-huh” and “yeah”
  • Chris states the number 218 as “dos eighteen” (then “dos uno ocho,” but never “dos dieciocho” or “two eighteen”)

The choices we make when code-switching are always fascinating to me. Using English words or phrases that make more sense than their Spanish translations in the context of driving around L.A. (e.g. “ride” and “high school”) was no surprise to me, but I was especially intrigued by the code-switching in the middle of expressing one single number. (I could just be behind on my scholarly reading.)

My other encounter was in All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. To me this was a very American novel, full of cowboys and ranches, bootstrap ambitions, and descriptions of sunsets across the untamed West, but perhaps unlike other samples of traditional Americana there are stretches of dialogue in Spanish without translations. (Either McCarthy himself is bilingual or he collaborates with someone to write the passages, and so far the internet hasn’t helped me to figure out which it is.) The main character is a Texan who grows up speaking English and Spanish and who crosses the border into Mexico and back. Another interesting aspect of the book is that several of the Mexican characters located in Mexico are portrayed as completely competent communicating in English. The speech of others is portrayed as broken or with an accent. Overall I found McCarthy’s treatment of dialect and idiolect as varied and realistic, rather than monolithic and stereotypical.

As a bilingual reader, I felt like a special member of a particular audience that McCarthy knew would have a certain sensibility and that would comprehend his novel without the aid of outside sources (such as the many websites featuring translations of the Spanish passages). That’s probably just a stretch of both my imagination and my ego, but you never know…

McCarthy has written a number of novels and screenplays that take place along the US-Mexico border, of which several have been adapted for film including All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men.