Vosotros? Ustedes? Who, me?

For various reasons I’ve been doing statistical analyses on word frequencies in a number of languages lately, and I found a pattern that differentiates different dialects of Spanish that struck me as curious enough that I asked Gerardo, my test lead from Mexico, about it. I was working with Spanish corpora from Spain and from Mexico, and I noticed statistically significant patterns that differentiate the usage of vosotros and Ustedes across the two varieties of Spanish. The frequency of vosotros in the Spanish corpus was actually about two hundred times greater than it was in the Mexican corpus, for corpora of the same genre (i.e. corpus type difference does not account for greater/lesser presence of second person writing).

I had heard anecdotally that people don’t use vosotros in Mexico, and come to think of it I noticed this when we traveled there last spring, kinda — I mean, pretty much everyone talked to us formally anyway, so I didn’t have a lot of occasion to pay attention. Still, I had no idea that the generalization of Usted/es to informal speech patterns was so far along in Mexico. So now I’m wondering whether there is anything pragmatic associated with the use of vosotros for Mexican speakers of Spanish, apart from the obvious not-from-around-these-parts marking. I don’t have time to follow up on the corpus analysis on this point in detail, but I’d be interested in reading about it if someone else has.

Comments (3)

  1. Kevin Daly says:

    It would be interesting to note when the two diverged in this area, and what the social circumstances were at the time.

    A similar issue I find fascinating (OK, I mean "a bit interesting") is the loss of the 2nd person singular entirely from most English dialects (it still seems to have been alive and kicking at least a bit at the start of the 18th century, since diarists and early novelists used it even when reporting informal speech)

  2. KieranS says:

    For the history of the English change, you might be interested to take a look at Tony Kroch’s work (or the work of one of his students). Keep in mind that it isn’t the 2nd person singular that disappeared (we use 2nd person singular forms all the time, whenever we talk to another person!). Rather, it’s the particular -st morphology that was historically associated with the form. What was really lost was the morphological uniqueness.

    When you start to look into this kind of work, one of the really interesting things about morphosyntactic change is that all changes that are fundamentally reflexes of the same syntactic parameter occur at exactly the same rate across time.