Tag Archives: pronouns

Leísmo ain’t new

Look for more red ‘ink’ below to understand the “ain’t” in this post’s title.

My Spanish students often have difficulty telling the difference between direct and indirect objects. They say things like Quiero conocerle ‘I want to meet him‘ (instead of Quiero conocerlo) or, conversely, Lo di el libro ‘I gave the book to him‘ instead of Le di el libro. I inevitably have to assign students helpful activities like this one to attune their ‘ear’ to this often subtle difference.

The first of these ‘errors’ (conocerle) is ironic because for many Spanish speakers it is perfectly normal Spanish. Leísmo — the substitution of le instead of lo for masculine direct objects that are human — is a widespread Spanish pattern, especially in Spain. In fact, leísmo is a long-established object pronoun pattern, rather than a recent development (as many native speakers assume). In this regard leísmo is akin to English ain’t, which was a widely accepted expression of negation (beginning in the 1700s) before it became stigmatized. (See David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words for details.)

I’ve recently researched the history of this transformation (for leísmo, not ain’t). Leísmo certainly goes way back: consider these leísta examples from the 13th century epic poem El poema de mío Cid:

leísmo en El Cid

What truly impressed me was the official embrace of leísmo. The first edition of the Real Academia Española’s (RAE) grammar guide, published in 1771, was exclusively leísta: it required le as both a direct and an indirect object masculine pronoun (note also the endorsement of laísmo in díganla lo que quieran):

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

The first mention of lo as a direct object masculine pronoun was in the 4th edition of the RAE grammar, published in 1796. In this edition the grammarians adopted a sarcastic tone, speculating that non-leísta writers must have had a bad copy editor, or been careless, or had “sacrificed the rules of grammar to satisfy the ear”.

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

Between 1796 and the fifth edition of the RAE grammar in 1854, the Valencian linguist Vicente Salvá and the Venezuelan linguist Andrés Bello published their own, influential grammars. Salvá proposed, and Bello adopted, the compromise position that is so widespread today: le for human masculine direct object, lo otherwise. Under the influence of these In the 1854 edition the RAE changed their posture. First, they presented both sides of the leísmo argument:

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

This sentence is a doozy! I practically had to diagram it to finally understand it as: “The most intractable controversy is between those who favor the use of le as a masculine direct object pronoun, to avoid confusing such objects with the abstract ones assigned to lo, and those who find this potential confusion less of a problem than the use of le for direct and indirect masculine objects as well as feminine indirect objects.” (By “abstract” they mean pronoun uses like Lo siento, where lo doesn’t refer to a specific object.) The grammarians went on to praise, though not explicitly endorse, the Salvá/Bello compromise, an attitude maintained today:

Diccionario Pan-Hispanico de dudas, “leísmo” entry

I have to conclude with a thank-you — from the bottom of this researcher’s heart — to the RAE, and to the various libraries that have cooperated with Google, for making these original sources available on the Internet.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to vote for spanishlinguist.us in the ongoing Top 100 Language Lovers poll! (through June 14).

Platicando sobre pronombres en el parque

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Al comienzo del mes tuve el gran placer de visitar a mi hija en California. Durante la visita jugué con mi nietecito Óscar, preparé y congelé comida como una cocinera maníaca, y, claro, hablé español. No con mi hija, quien por lástima escogió estudiar francés hace años, sino con varias abuelas, madres y niñeras que conocí en el parque adonde llevaba a Óscar todos los días. (También hablé un poco de alemán pero muy mal.)

Muchas de mis nuevas conocidas eran salvadoreñas y tuve varias conversaciones interesantes con ellas sobre el voseo en El Salvador. Una niñera me explicó con muchos detalles con quiénes se usan vos, y usted, las situaciones y las implicaciones sociológicas.

Después pensé en lo improbable que sería tener una tal conversación sobre el inglés. No solo de mi parte (la verdad es que no me interesa mucho mi propio idioma), sino porque creo que a los hispanohablantes les importa más su idioma que a los angloparlantes. El vocabulario inglés (“coke” versus “soda” versus “pop”) sí discutiríamos, pero ¿la gramática? ¿LOS PRONOMBRES? ¡Ni posibilidad!

Pero en español, sí. El idioma es una parte fundamental de la identidad hispana y apasiona a la gente normal, no solo a los lingüistas. Esto les da un elemento de emoción a mis investigaciones sobre el español y a mi enseñanza que les faltaría en inglés.


At the beginning of the month I had the great pleasure of visiting my daughter in California. During the visit I played with my little grandson Oscar, I prepared and froze food like a mad chef, and, of course, I spoke Spanish. Not with my daughter, who unfortunately chose to study French years ago, but with various grandmothers, mothers, and babysitters whom I met in the park where I took Oscar every day. (I also spoke a little German, but very badly.)

Many of my new acquaintances were from El Salvador and I had various interesting conversations with them about voseo (the informal word for “you”) in their country. One babysitter explained to me with great detail when it is appropriate to use vos, and usted, and their various sociological implications.

Afterwards, I thought of how unlikely it would be to have a similar conversation about English. Not just because of my own inclinations (I’m not that into my own language), but because I believe that Spanish speakers care more about their language than English speakers do. One might talk about English vocabulary (e.g. “coke” vs. “Soda” vs. “pop”), but — grammar? PRONOUNS? No way!

But in Spanish, yes. Language is a fundamental part of Hispanic identity that sparks passion in normal people, not just linguists. This imparts an element of emotion to my research and my teaching that would be lacking in English.

Why Spanish invented usted

In a previous post I wrote about the Spanish “invention” of the formal pronoun usted, the polite way to say “you” when talking to a stranger, a teacher, a police officer, etc. To recap: in the 1500s the polite pronoun vos had lost its formal connotation and was in the process of disappearing. The new coinage usted, derived from the polite expression vuestra merced “your mercy”, replaced it.

Why bother? English lost the informal/formal distinction between thou and you back in the 17th century, and we get along fine with a single “you” pronoun. Why not Spanish?

The simplest, yet most intriguing, explanation is that by maintaining an informal vs. polite distinction, Spanish was falling in line with a regional trend. As shown in this lovely map from the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS) Online, the two-way politeness distinction became the norm all over Europe (yellow circles) as languages achieved their modern form. English turns out to be one of the few exceptions on the continent.

polite pronouns europeThis “keeping up with the Joneses” uniformity (or should I say, with the Müllers, Smirnovs, Rossis, and Martins?) is especially impressive because the languages of Europe aren’t even all related. Most are Indo-European, but others are Finno-Ugric, Altaic, and Basque. Also, the languages used different techniques to create their polite pronouns. Some drew on plural (y’all-type) pronouns (Turkish siz, French vous); some, like Spanish, on formulaic expressions (Romanian dumneata from “your lordship”); and still others on third-person pronouns (e.g. German Sie, from “they”, and Italian Lei, from “she”).

Politeness in second person pronouns is thus an excellent example of what linguists call an “areal” feature: one that arises, as if by conspiracy, in geographical clusters of languages regardless of their genetic relationship. You can see other clusters in the map above, and also in the Americas, whose native languages are mostly politeness-free (here’s the relevant WALS map):

polite pronouns americas

As with any large-scale trend, whether in language, food, or clothing, it’s hard to reconstruct the details of how this particular feature spread across Europe. I’ve seen one account that cites Spanish as a trend-setter, and another that focuses on the key role played by Latin, while referencing other authors who assign the lead to French. It’s also possible that no one language served as an inspiration, but rather that budding polite pronoun usage in each language reinforced the same tendency in the others. But Spanish was definitely a player in this zeitgeist — and still is today.

[Update from 12 August 2013: The author of the article linked to through “one account” above has provided me with a citation for her assertion about German modeling its pronoun usage on Spanish. It comes from C. J. Wells, German: A Linguistic History to 1945.  Clarendon: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985, p. 274-5.]

Usted is a second-generation polite pronoun

I wish I had been able to think of a catchier title for this post. But if you think that pronouns are intrinsically interesting (I do! I do!), the idea of multiple generations of polite pronouns should be irresistible.

Spanish speakers and Spanish students all know about and usted, the two ways to say “you” in Spanish. is for equals (friends, family) and inferiors (babies, pets), while usted is for superiors (teachers, policemen, bosses).  comes straight from Latin, whereas usted was derived in the 1500s from the respectful phrase vuestra merced, or “your mercy.” I always picture its coinage as looking something like this:

vuestra merced

Continue reading