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Review of  Desarrollo sociolingüístico del voseo en la región andina de Colombia (1555–1976) [Sociolinguistic Development of Voseo in the Andean Region of Colombia]

Reviewer: Charles A Mortensen
Book Title: Desarrollo sociolingüístico del voseo en la región andina de Colombia (1555–1976) [Sociolinguistic Development of Voseo in the Andean Region of Colombia]
Book Author: Ana María Díaz Collazos
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Latin
Issue Number: 27.1393

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The purpose of Desarrollo Sociolingüístico del Voseo en la Región Andina de Colombia (1555-1976), by Ana María Díaz Collazos, is to trace the development of the second-person singular pronoun 'vos' in the Spanish of four Andean regions of Colombia. ‘Vos’ was developed from the second-person plural form in Latin but by the 16th century it had become a prestige singular form in Spanish. Use was extended to formally address persons of any social class in the New World and for this reason it eventually lost its prestige. In areas with heavy influence from Spain, the pronoun ‘tú’ took its place for more intimate conversation, even as the new upper class in the colonies insisted on forms of address like ‘vuestra merced’ and others, which have led to the development of the modern ‘usted’. All of this meant that 'vos' fell into apparent disuse for almost 200 years except, presumably, among the lower class in isolated areas which had little contact with Spanish rule. The resurgence of 'vos' since the 19th century is attributed to national pride after independence from Spain, namely in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, most of Central America and certain regions of Colombia.

In order to trace the use of 'vos', Díaz-Collazos and her team consulted documents from three periods of Colombian history: letters and literary works from the 16th and 17th centuries, archives from the 18th century, when 'vos' is apparently absent from literary sources, and literary works from the 19th century on, when 'vos' makes a reappearance (p. 1). They evaluate how 'vos' is used in each instance and classify the use based on the social class of the interlocutors and the intent of the communication. Some of the categories are that of respect, lack of courtesy, romance, familial use, overly familiar uses, excessive social distance, or reverential use (p. 23). These classifications are used for each period and for each region of Colombia selected: Nariño/Cauca (far southwest), Cauca Valley (interior southwest), Antioquia (interior northwest) and Cundinamarca/Boyacá (central plateau), where Bogotá is located. The results are displayed clearly in tables in each chapter.

Díaz-Collazos has used a corpus-based method in order to discount popular theories, such as the belief that Colombians only recently adopted 'vos' in order to emulate Argentinian soccer players and announcers.

After introducing her method and scope in the first chapter, Díaz-Collazos presents more detail on the progression of 'vos' from a Latin plural to a Spanish ‘pluralis majestatis’ to a standard singular. The need for solidarity in the new colonies brought the pronoun from being an honorific form to a sign of egalitarianism (p. 44). At the same time, the loss of intervocalic d in certain verb forms led to conflation and confusion of ‘tú’ and 'vos' conjugations. A wide variety of divergent forms are cited from different parts of Latin America. The current conjugation of 'vos' was not generalized until the 19th century (p. 138).

In the third chapter Díaz-Collazos declares 1657 as the year of greatest extent of 'vos', as it is employed for both formal and informal situations. Then, as Spanish immigration increased both from Perú and Ecuador in the southwest as well as from the Caribbean Coast in the north, the public use of ‘tú’ increased as well (p. 85); in Colombia 'vos' became limited to private use. In colonies where Spanish vice-regnal centers were established early on, such as Lima and México, 'vos' disappeared altogether.

The fourth chapter covers the ''latent period'', that is from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. ‘Vos’ is virtually unsubstantiated in the literature of the time while ‘tú’ becomes the pronoun of choice. Citing one court document, Díaz-Collazos theorizes that ‘tú’ was the written form of 'vos', as is currently the case in Honduras (p. 136). Additionally, 'vos' could be misunderstood as an impolite form of address, so ‘tú’ was employed to remove any doubt. By this time Buenos Aires and Bogotá had become vice-regnal centers as well, but their linguistic diversity was sufficient to slow down the advance of the Spanish ‘tú’ . At any rate,‘tú’ became a more respectful form of familiar speech among the upper classes.

In the fifth chapter we enter the contemporary period of 'vos' usage. Díaz-Collazos describes 1828-1890 as a time of transition. The different republics in Latin America declared their independence from Spain early in the 19th century and Colombia solidified its position as a republic with an improved constitution in 1886. While there is only sporadic employment of 'vos' in the literature, the use of accent marks is regularized in order to denote where its verb forms differ from those of ‘tú’ . At the turn of the 20th century, Castilian Spanish is seen as the linguistic ideal in Colombia but regional variants (some of which employ 'vos'; see below) were portrayed as part of the national heritage. The rural upper class adopted 'vos' as an expression of power over the lower class (p. 168) and this became stereotyped by city dwellers, especially in Bogotá, as the way in which country people talked when they moved to the cities. Movement was accelerated in during the period known as La Violencia (1948-1960). Accordingly, stigmatization of 'vos' increased in the cities to the point where even rural speakers avoided it.

The lengthy fifth chapter also documents the varying usage of 'vos' in different parts of Colombia as well as in Argentina. The repressive Rosas regime there is described in literature as using 'vos' as a pronoun of power; 'vos' represents the ''dark side.'' It is also characterized as being bad Spanish and infantile speech and Colombian grammarians condemn it. In Cundinamarca and Boyacá, 'vos' indicates the actual status of the speaker, usually from a rural area. In Nariño/Cauca it characterizes city speech, whereas in Antioquia it indicates the speaker's status relative to someone else. It may be used there to distinguish local people from outsiders; this is Díaz-Collazos' opinion. She admits that by the 1970s, authors began to employ 'vos' for their own rhetorical purposes, so modern literature is no longer a true indicator of language use (p. 166). This is presumably why the study uses no examples from after 1976.

A different type of 'voseo' (use of 'vos') is presented in the sixth chapter, reverential 'vos'. While used in the 1500s among fellow Catholics, it was common in the 17th and 18th centuries as part of administrative titles. In spite of the independence movement from Spain, literature remained conservative and flowery to the point of its use in neoclassical poetry and drama. In at least one remake of El Cid, the archaic form ‘convusco’ (''with you'') has been updated to 'con vos' (p. 255). Since ‘tú’ and 'vos' have the opposite roles in drama versus vernacular speech (p. 246), Díaz-Collazos insists that reverential 'vos' is a distinct pronoun from the normal 'vos'. I am not sure that this is a point she needs to make.

Chapter Seven is a well-organized review of the study, methodology and results.


By ample if not exhaustive use of the Colombian corpus, Díaz-Collazos has more than disproven the myth that 'vos' is some dangerous invasion from Argentina or Spain (where it was first abandoned!) The study has adequately documented the history of the usage of 'vos' in Colombia and the social and historical reasons for changes in prestige of the available second-person pronouns.

One question that the book does not address is why the use of 'vos' was abandoned early on in Spain. Another point to ponder is the perception in Colombia that those of Antioquia (capital Medellín) speak most like the Spanish of Europe, yet maintain the use of 'vos', which is virtually unknown in Europe. An area where improvement is needed is in the editing, as there are no less than eighteen misspelled words and at least seven punctuation errors.

Finally, the prose in this volume reflects the formal academic Spanish of Bogotá, with its beautifully flowing phrases and the richest vocabulary. Those interested in the history of the Spanish language will enjoy this volume, especially if they have had any contact with Colombians or those who use 'vos' as part of their everyday speech.
Charles Mortensen is a linguist and Bible translation consultant with SIL International and has worked in Colombia, Panama and Guatemala researching indigenous languages and assisting in Bible translation projects. His interests are historical linguistics, linguistic typology and theology.