Monday, December 04, 2006

Linguistic history

If you’ve read a bit about basic grammatical structures in various languages, you may know that modern English is different from some other major languages in that we do not have different second-person pronouns to indicate different levels of familiarity with one’s interlocutor. We used to (the thou/you distinction) but if I were to start speaking to my close friends “thou” this and “thee” that, well, they might not consider themselves my friends for much longer. (We also mostly lack differentiated forms for singular and plural second-person, except for the archaic “ye” and the vernacular “y’all” in the American South. Although I was once told that y’all is, in fact, singular, with the corresponding plural of “all y’all.”)

Anyway, Spanish differentiates between your friends, whom you call , and people you don’t know as well, with whom one uses the Usted form. In Spain, one further uses vosotros for groups of friends and Ustedes for multiple strangers or people owed respect, but in Latin America, vosotros is generally not used. The rule I heard there, which made sense to me, is that if you’re on a first-name basis with the person, they’re , but if you call them Señor So-and-so, that calls for Usted.

But in Honduras, the principle seems to be that you had better be very good friends indeed — or better yet, family members — before using the form. And as a result, the forms come to me now with only great difficulty, and often when I’m speaking to people who have started calling me , I still relapse into the more formal Usted, sometimes switching back and forth in the same sentence. The literature I’ve seen says that is especially appropriate for small children, but more often than not, they’re Usted to me. In Honduras, as well as other Central American countries and Argentina, the vos form is also used, a form considered archaic in the rest of the Hispanophone world with the same usage as .

The verb forms used with Usted are the same as for the third person, which is because historically, Usted is a contraction of “vuestra merced,” which is more or less “Your Grace.” So what I’m really doing is calling every person on the street Your Grace, and when I go into the store I ask whether Your Grace has any eggs for sale. And how much do I owe Your Grace for them? I guess I shouldn’t think too hard about it, but it’s hard for me not to translate it that way every time now.

My latest adventure in exploring different levels of formality came when I was walking down the street with my friend Shannon and her puppy Eva, who was distracted by everything she saw, and was consequently slowing us down en route to our destination. So Shannon shouted out to her apparently-bilingual dog, “vengase,” a reflexive command in the Usted form. But I had to translate it to myself as “come on, your grace!” I had to draw the line there and say that cute though she is, Eva the dog does not qualify for status as “your grace.” More properly, it would be ven, vente (in the reflexive), or maybe vení to call her vos.

But happily, as I get to know more people here and better, I think I’m going to get more practice with , and won’t get so mixed up with it. Now if I could just revive “thou” back in the U.S....

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