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¿Qué Onda Vos? Where Vos Came From

By James Gray

Recently in this space we covered the grammatical side vos, the informal form of the singular personal pronoun “you”.  This month, however, we’ll attempt to explain its background, i.e. where and how commonly it is spoken, as well as how it originated.

You’ve probably realized that here in Guatemala you find three forms of you singular: the most formal usted, the medium-formal and the informal vos.  All three are common, and the one you’ll use depends on the type of relationship you have with someone and how long you’ve known them. Generally speaking, the more informal the relationship, the more likely you are to use vos. See the February 2010 edition of this column for more on when and with whom to use vos.

Yet vos is neither unique to Guatemala nor spoken everywhere in the Spanish-speaking world.  In Argentina, for example, vos is the default form of you. A friend who travels there often said that if you use there, they ask why you’re talking like a foreigner.  Other areas where vos is equally or more common than Guatemala are Paraguay, Uruguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua & Chile. Chilean Spanish is unique in that vos has its own conjugation patterns.

In addition, vos is used regionally in various countries, such as the state of Chiapas, Mexico and parts of Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru.  Vos is not used in everyday speech in Spain, only in historic texts, except for the state of Zulia.

So where did vos come from? The linguistic development is long and complicated, but here’s the XelaWho-style answer. Vos originated in Spain in the 4th Century as a way to address someone of higher authority with respect. As social norms changed in the 13th & 14th Centuries, became a way to express equality and vos superiority as religious clerics, noblemen and business classes fought for influence among each other. When vos arrived in Latin America, it took on its own dynamic and rose or fell over time depending on numerous local societal factors. In some countries, some political nationalists promoted its usage while some dictatorships censored it out. In other areas, young people thought it was cool and revived it to be different and rebellious. There are also places where vos is considered rural and used by the less educated.

This is why you find such a patchwork of vos usage throughout Latin America.

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