Tag Archives: tú and usted

Tú and usted in the Spanish Civil War

I just finished reading Spain in our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. This is the second book I’ve read by Adam Hochschild; the first is King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I strongly recommend both of them. Spain in our Hearts masterfully blends a military history of the Spanish Civil War with the personal stories of Americans who were involved in the war as soldiers, medics, writers, and advocates. The main focus is on Americans who supported the Republican (anti-Franco) cause, but a handful on the other side are profiled as well. Hochschild also describes how internal political conflicts in the United States, Soviet Russia, and other countries shaped their role in the war.

In addition to its historical insights, Spain in our Hearts includes an interesting linguistic anecdote, about the use of the informal versus formal usted (both meaning ‘you’). An ambulance driver en route to a field hospital, realizing that he might have chosen the wrong road, hailed a group of men “sitting by a fire 200 yards away, whose uniforms he could not see in the dark. When the answer came back, ‘¿Qué quieres tú?‘ he relaxed, knowing they were Republicans. ‘If I had been answered ‘Usted‘ instead of ‘Tú,’ I should have been speaking to fascists.” This anecdote especially intrigues me because it contradicts the claim, in an essay by the Spanish sociologist and language commentator Amando de Miguel, that the widespread use of  in Spain began as “una ilusión igualitarista que se impuso en la última guerra civil, en los dos bandos“, i.e. on both sides in the war. I’d be happy to hear from readers who might know something about this question. Was  a sign of a Republican, or was its use more widespread?

Spain in our Hearts came into my hands at just the right moment. As a relatively new book with rave reviews, it is in heavy demand at my local library. I added my name to my library’s wait list months ago. By the time I got to the top of the list, and was able to check out the book, my interest in the Spanish Civil War had been primed by a bundle of other factors. I had read El tiempo entre costuras, which takes place during the war, and in the early years of Franco’s regime, and three books from Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Inspector Mascarell series), which take place just before and after Franco’s conquest of Barcelona. (My blog posts referring to these books can be found here and here.) On my recent trip to Spain I spent time in Burgos, which served as Franco’s headquarters during the war, and in Madrid and Barcelona, two cities that were besieged. Seeing the turnoff for Teruel on the road from Burgos to Girona reminded me of how little I knew about the crucial battle there — the site of the tú/usted anecdote, incidentally. Now that I’ve read the book, I’ll have to go back to Spain yet again, and see these places through fresh eyes. I might even try a commercial Civil War tour of Barcelona, Madrid, or battlefields.