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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

30 thoughts on “From the Language Police Blotter: Vosotros”

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

  7. 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.

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

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

      1. 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.

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

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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!

    2. There are, if Wikipedia is to be believed (, 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.

      1. 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. 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. 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. 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?) .

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. 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. 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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