If you studied Spanish in a high school classroom, you probably learned on day one about the two different forms of addressing someone in the second person: tú and usted. Not so hard–one for familiar folks like friends and family, the other for the people you’d give a “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to in English, and ya, done.
Except that’s only two-thirds of the story.
If you ever take off backpacking through Latin America, go far enough and someone will inevitably ask you: “de dónde sos?” This is the voseo: in this case sos is the form of the verb ser conjugated for the second-person pronoun vos, which you may have never encountered in a formal study setting. Vos is a different pronoun that’s used by tens of millions of Spanish speakers from Guatemala to Argentina and many places in between. In many Spanish dialects, it just takes the place of tú, but in others it peacefully and confusingly coexists alongside the more familiar pronoun.
You don’t need to learn to use the voseo to speak great Spanish, but if you want to really understand the language as it’s spoken by millions in the Western Hemisphere, you’re just a couple conjugations away from mastering the voseo form.
Where It’s Used: Geographic Distribution of Voseo
You’ll hardly ever greet a local in the Southern Cone of South America without prompting a “bien, y vos?” in response.
Countries where voseo is common. It’s used to exclusion in the dark blue regions, and in the lighter blue areas coexists with tuteo.
Image by Marcel Montes via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5,
In Argentina, just as in neighboring Paraguay and Uruguay, voseo is universal: that familiar tú you spent years studying in the classroom hardly appears south of the Tropic of Capricorn.
While these are the only parts of the Spanish-speaking world where vos is the written and spoken standard, the tricky pronoun can be found in the speech of many other parts of Central and South America.
Not quite as dogmatic about their pronouns, Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans are partial to voseo, but tú crops up in certain contexts, sometimes marking a difference in familiarity and sometimes not. Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and much of Colombia all use vos regularly alongside tú, and in parts of Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela, it shows up in the language.
So if the Spanish speaking world can’t get on one page as to whether or not they even use voseo, how can a language learner be expected to know how or when to use it? We’ll start with the hard part.
When It’s Used: Picking the Right Pronoun
Why does Spanish even have multiple ways of saying “you” in the first place?
The complicated answer has to do with Latin and etymology, but the simple one is that they’re used to differentiate between levels of familiarity, or the amount of social distance between you and your conversation partner.
In English we’re also aware of whether we’re addressing someone as a familiar or as socially distant: most twenty-something English speakers don’t just walk right up to a little old lady or a police officer and greet them by their first names.
In Spanish class, you learned that usted is used for the unfamiliar cops and little old ladies, and tú is reserved for your friends and peers. This isn’t a hard and fast rule anywhere in the hispanophone world, and when you throw in voseo, it can create quite a chaos.
An advertisement from phone company Claro in Argentina, imploring you to switch to them in voseo. Photo by Qqqqqq via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0,
Some places are easy: in Argentina, for example, you can think of vos as simply a replacement for or equivalent to tú. Easy call: if you’d use tú elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, substitute vos here and you’re good to go. The same is true of Uruguay, Paraguay, and most of Costa Rica.
In other parts of the hispanophone world, voseo coexists alongside tuteo. This is where it can get tricky.
In Medellín and the surrounding Antioquia region of Colombia, for example, both voseo and tuteo are present. In this case, while usted remains the go-to polite option, vos serves a sort of intermediary role with people who seem a bit too familiar for usted, yet not quite close enough for tú: that can mean anything from not-super-close friends of a similar age to the friendly cashier at the corner store you’ve been going to for two years.
In other places, like in Honduras and El Salvador, it’s the opposite: vos is the affectionate term reserved for lovers and best friends, while tú is the intermediary polite form.
And then you have places like Chile, where not only do both forms exist, but mixing and matching pronouns and verbs is no problem: a sentence starting with tú followed immediately by a pronoun conjugated for vos is an everyday occurrence here.
Use of the three you’s is highly particular to the country you find yourself in, so memorizing rules about it will do you little good. Instead, if you learn to conjugate and recognize verbs conjugated in voseo, you’ll not only understand what’s being said to you, but you’ll probably be able to crack the code of how vos is used in the region where you find yourself.
How It’s Used: Conjugating with Voseo
Knowing when to use vos can be difficult, but conjugating verbs with it is easy.
For the standard voseo conjugation, drop the r from the end of your infinitive verb, add an s, and move the stress to the last vowel. Another way to explain it is that regular verbs in voseo are conjugated just the same as tuteo, but with the stress moved to the last syllable.
It looks like this:
Irregular verbs of course follow their own pattern: tú eres, but vos sos. And imperatives, subjunctives and the like make up a grammatical puzzle big enough for its own entire website.
Just as with sensibilities on when and where to use each pronoun, the exact conjugation of verbs in voseo can differ by country. The Wikipedia page has a great comprehensive table with an overview of the voseo forms used in various parts of Latin America.
Have you ever traveled anywhere where voseo is common? Did it trip you up at first? Does it still? Tell us about it in the comments!