¿Qué Onda Vos? A Series on Speaking Guatemalan Spanish

“¿Qué onda vos?” is XelaWho’s a monthly guide to speaking Spanish Guatemalan style. This month’s topic: That Crazy Little Thing Called Vos.

By James Gray

Does the whole vos thing – that somewhat uniquely Guatemalan form of the personal pronoun “you” – freak you out, too? For me it’s the scariest part of the ‘Guatemalan’ language. Before coming to Xela, I studied Spanish with a Guatemalan woman who used vos a lot with me, so I got the conjugation down – at least somewhat. Furthermore, my teacher’s husband always made fun of me when I used tu and gave me the impression that guys always use vos. So when I arrived here, I assumed vos was super common. Well, it is…and it ain’t.

Having lived in Xela for a year, I’ve discovered that vos is much more informal than I had imagined. In my experience, vos is very common within families: siblings almost always use it; parents often use it with their kids while kids will often use usted with parents; romantic couples and spouses will often use vos, but tu is very common, too, perhaps more so. Meanwhile, boys and men that are friends or in informal social situations (e.g. at the bar) will almost always use vos.  Girls and women, on the other hand, use vos among each other but more selectively.

Among many Guatemalan men, according to the book Qué onda vos, the tu form “automatically carries the sentiment that both men are homosexual.” (Just reporting, folks, not approving.) But those signals generally don’t apply if you’re not from here. I have come to use tu a lot among both men and women in my XelaWho business dealings and with my somewhat close friends and acquaintances. Tu is mildly informal yet respectful. In business, though, I still use usted a lot since it shows more respect. As far as vos is concerned, I only use it among guy friends I have known for a long time – or if I’m chatting with the dudes at El Infinito. You get the idea.

Still, though, I remain skittish about using vos. Many locals have told me that if someone immediately uses vos, it comes across as jolting and disrespectful. Therefore, if you want to convey respect, especially with someone you don’t know well, default to usted.  After gaining someone’s confidence, you can move to tu, though it’s better to follow the other person’s lead. I have found myself in situations where I feel ready to use tu and the other person sticks with usted, which feels awkward to me.

Among guys, you might find yourself skipping tu and heading straight for vos, but again, it’s best to follow their lead so you don’t offend.  Among women or when interacting with women, it is probably unlikely you’ll use vos, but again, follow the lead of the local and you’ll be OK.

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