From the Language Police Blotter: Vosotros

Although most people on the east coast (and many people here) haven’t realized it yet, Eric Garcetti was elected Mayor of Los Angeles on Tuesday.  I’m pleased. I voted for him, and despite the fiscal and governance difficulties that he faces, I think he will do a good job as much any Los Angeles mayor can.

Much of the media has been taken up with Garcetti’s status as the City’s first Jewish mayor.  In fact, he is quite the hybrid, much like the city itself: his Mom is Jewish, his Dad (former LA County DA Gil Garcetti) is of Italian descent, but the family lived in Mexico for a couple of generations, making him also something of a Latino.  Perfect for a Los Angeles politician.

But he is going to have to do better than this if he wants to get real credibility among the Latino population (which he carried in the election).  Addressing an east side audience, Garcetti declared:

Soy uno de vosotros.

That literally means, “I am one of you,” and the notion is standard politician fare.  Notice something?  For “you”, Garcetti used vosotros, a form that is perfectly grammatically correct, but is basically only used in Spain.  It supposedly means something like “you guys” in my understanding: it is the plural form of tu.  But I have never heard it used in Latin America or among Latinos in the United States.

A colleague of mine learned how to speak Spanish in Spain, and then went to Argentina on an exchange.  He used vosotros, and, he says, “my hosts thought it was absolutely adorable, like speaking with an English accent.”  And that’s with Argentinians, who have their own series of strange words, and make every effort to dissociate themselves from the rest of Latin America.  (See Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter for more).  The closest comparison I could make would be something like, “Hey — I’m down with thee.”

In fact, this is such an obvious mistake I’m wondering whether it was reported correctly.  But I’ve now heard it from different places.  Anyone else have a different take — has anyone heard it used among Latinos in the United States?  We would love to hear from thee.

Comments

  1. SadDem says

    Verily, didst he say that? Fijate vos. “Vosotros” is not used in Mexican Spanish, unless you’re some kind of ancient evil spirit in a cheesy movie.

  2. Allen K. says

    I did witness a Mexican using it (or maybe it was a 2nd-person-plural verb conjugation) on another Mexican, but unquestionably as a joke. I suspect your “thee” comparison is pretty apt.

  3. Ed Whitney says

    In parts of Latin America, it is common to use “tu” with your co-workers and classmates, but “Usted” markes the relationship as a special one, so that, for example, it is frequently used between girlfriend and boyfriend in Chile.

    Not the same as the question about the plural form but does show some variations in usage in this hemisphere.

  4. J says

    Maybe there’s a Mexican branch of Quakers that cut themselves off from the rest of the world, like the way a few US Quaker meetings preserved the use of “thee”.

  5. Keith Humphreys says

    Have never heard in it South America. But the West Virginian in me has a better analogy for Vosotros than “thee”: You’ns (or Y’all).

  6. QB says

    So it should have been “ustedes”, or what? Help a brother out here with a little remedial North American Spanish…

  7. rachelrachel says

    Why is that such an obvious mistake?

    Is it a mistake when Brits use their habitual speech forms when visiting the States? I find some of the British locutions to be charming, as when one of my fellow programmers spoke of a “Zed-eighty” processor.

    Being understood, that’s the important thing.

    • rachelrachel says

      Oh wait, I get it. You were saying that it was Garcetti who was making the “obvious mistake,” not your colleague.

  8. Betsy says

    Hmm, I’ve not heard “vosotros” to my knowledge, but I did have some Colombian friends who called their father, when speaking to him, “su merced.” Roughly “your grace” and used in addressing senior family members or honored persons, as standard usage in that part of the country around Medellin, I believe.

  9. chris y says

    So, I ask as one whose exposure to Spanish is exclusively European, what do American Spanish speakers say where I would say vosotros?

      • Bostonian in Brooklyn says

        I do not trust language fine points given at 3:53 am. Earlier this morning I read a NY Times headline as “Countertenor” instead of “Counterterror” and that was after six.

        • Michael O'Hare says

          Bostonian, countertenorism is one of the most insidious anti-feminist movements. Don’t take it lightly.

  10. Joe says

    Not really relevant: I once had a table of colleagues from Madrid rolling with laughter by telling them things I’ve seen written on signs in my neighborhood. My Centro-American neighbors have apparently drifted quite a ways from their mother tongue.

    • NCG says

      That’s funny, because I was taught that about a third of Spanish words came from Arabic. I guess we all like to laugh at someone.

      I think if you feel a need to tell people you’re one of them, you probably aren’t. But if the audience didn’t mind, I don’t know why I should. I don’t get into that whole “authenticity” thing. If one shows an effort to be polite, it’s usually enough for me.

      • James Wimberley says

        The “one-third” looks like an urban legend, and is obvious nonsense. Wikipedia more plausibly gives 1.000 roots and 3,000 derived words, making 8% of a standard dictionary.

        • NCG says

          It may be nonsense, but it wouldn’t be obvious to me, as I know no Arabic at all, which is too bad, b/c the writing is beautiful. And my Latin is sketchy too.

          But I still think we are all prone to snobbery, and ought to stay aware of this.

          • NCG says

            Come to think of it, I also have no idea what language the Moors spoke. Ay caramba. I just assumed it would have been Arabic!

    • Richard Hershberger says

      There are, if Wikipedia is to be believed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_language#Geographical_distribution), more Spanish speakers in the United States than in Spain, nearly as many of them having it as their first language. This is before we get into Latin America proper. In what sense is the language of modern Spain the one true Spanish? I’m sure American Spanish is quite different from the Castilian of Isabella’s day, but then again I am also sure that this is true of the modern language of Spain as well. Your colleagues’ laughter was based on some combination of snobbery and ignorance.

      • Mike says

        If I remember correctly from when I was learning Spanish, both Spain-spanish and Americas-Spanish have diverged from a common ancestor. What is spoken in Spain is no closer to that ancestor than what is spoken in the Americas. “Vosotros” even developed after the divide. Before the Americas were discovered, “Vos” was used in Spain (and is still used in Argentina).

  11. Herschel says

    I don’t know Spanish much at all, but there’s a similar difference between European and Brazilian Portuguese. In Portugal, they use the familiar “tu” between friends and family (and to children and dogs, the way the Germans use “du”), but “tu” isn’t used at all any more in Brazil, where “você” is the 2nd person singular for friends, family, and people one needn’t show any deference to. “O senhor” or “a senhora” (3rd person, actually, the gentleman, the lady”) is used to show deference or respect. In Portugal, “você” (also technically 3rd person) is used to show a sort of ordinary respect, with “a senhora” etc. used for extra special deference. But interestingly, in Portugal where “tu” is the 2nd person familiar, the plural form used with familiars is “vocês”. The actual 2nd-person plural form is “vos”, but, if my Portuguese teacher was to be believed, “vos” is used only in very formal contexts, such as the President of the Republic addressing the nation, or a priest addressing his congregation.

  12. John G says

    Back to the mayor: so how did that happen? Here’s a man who spent (or just his family spent…) a lot of time in Mexico, and who is surrounded by American Hispanics. How is it that his Spanish vocabulary includes ‘vosotros’ for ‘you’ plural? Did he learn his Spanish in school from ‘Vida y Dialogos di Espa~na’ (a series I recall from the late 60s), where ‘vosotros’ was definitely the common form? or what? Where did that form come from?

  13. Jeb Blount says

    Tu has not totally disappeared in Brazil. It’s common in working class Rio and in the far south of the country, but the informal second-person pronoun is almost always used with the formerly formal third-person verb as in “tu vai?” (are you going?) .

    • Herschel says

      Thanks, that’s very interesting. I’ve spent a good bit of time in Portugal, but I’ve never been to Brazil. Some day, perhaps.

  14. Andrew J. Lazarus says

    Argentines use vos as second-person. But more to the point, according to my late Spanish teacher, political use of vosotros is correct, at least for a liberal. She said that it was one of the few places you could still hear it. It’s a marker of class solidarity. It may be that the Mexican immigrants in LA didn’t get the message, but I would not be so sure.

    • Joe says

      This. My elementary school teacher, from Latin America- from Argentina, specifically, and she taught us vosotros when appropriate.

      I’m guessing Jonathan is just parochial. There are people I haven’t talked with, I don’t know how they talk. I don’t deny they talk that way.

      It’s early yet. I could be wrong. But I’m calling this another Ich Bin Ein Berliner- a case where the speaker was perfectly understood, and some yahoo after the fact imagines it was misunderstood or laughable. Sorry, Jonathan, for implying you’re a Yahoo.

  15. Matt says

    Don’t sell yourself short. “I’m Down With Thee” would make a killer slogan. Catchy, funny, good for a bumper sticker or a debate pivot. “My opponent says he hath loweréd taxes. Yet verily, he hath cast his ballot to raise them three score and nine times. O middle class, he be not down with thee… I am down with thee!”

  16. valuethinker says

    Now

    Shouldn’t you be asking to hear from ‘thou’?

    Thee is the informal and you don’t know us, yet.

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