Tag Archives: voseo

La esclava blanca

For years I’ve intended to watch a telenovela, or Spanish-language soap opera. Like many people who learned Spanish as a second language, I find that listening is my weakest skill. I figured that sitting through hours of Spanish dialogue would help me.

A few months ago I finally took the plunge and watched La esclava blanca (‘The White Slave’) on Netflix. It was so much fun that I ended up binge-watching all sixty-two episodes.* This was bad for my physical health except for those episodes I watched while exercising. It also wasn’t as good for my listening skills as I had hoped, since I watched it with Spanish subtitles. Now that I know the plot perhaps I should rewatch it without subtitles…but I’d rather move on to a different series.

There was much to admire in La esclava blanca. The cast was terrific, especially the villain, who was played by a handsome Spanish actor with the improbable but delightful name Miguel de Miguel. His character was vile yet undeniably charming. The star-crossed lovers at the center of the plot were brave and bold. Over the course of the series the side characters became more compelling and interesting as they grew and changed, often in surprising ways. Finally, the story’s setting, in Colombia toward the end of that country’s slavery era, was engrossing. The show made it abundantly clear that slavery was a poison in Colombian society, harming not only the enslaved Blacks (obviously) but also their legal owners. As the show progressed, and the slave owners became more and more desperate to protect their way of life, they descended deeper and deeper into pure evil. The ultimate fate of Miguel de Miguel’s character illustrates this path most graphically. You’ll have to watch the show to find out more. Really, his last scene is a doozy.

The one thing that bothered me about the series is that the white heroine and the mixed-race hero, rather than the enslaved people of pure African descent, drove the movement toward liberation. This is an example of what is known as the “white savior” trope in which a white person leads or rescues a minority. Other examples are the movie Glory, which stars Matthew Broderick as the white commander of a Black regiment on the Union side in the Civil War, and Avatar, in which only a brave white human (an ex-Marine played by Sam Worthington) can rescue the blue Na’vi humanoids and their homeland on a verdant moon.

My complaint is not original. A Google search for “esclava blanca white savior” will find many other critiques along these lines.

So while I truly enjoyed this telenovela, the “white savior” issue stops me from recommending it with full enthusiasm.

Of course, I found much of linguistic interest in the series. I don’t know to what extent the features noted below are specific to Colombian Spanish.

  • First and foremost, I am convinced that I heard some instances of words whose initial h was aspirated rather than silent. Two I wrote down, both in episode 33, were Qué va, hombre (shortly after 17:00) and Hola, Jesús (after 36:30). I’ve searched but haven’t found this described anywhere as a feature of Colombian Spanish.
  • As with the n-word in English, the white and Black characters in La esclava blanca use negro/negra differently. For the whites it is an insulting noun, often followed by the adjective asqueroso ‘disgusting.’ For the Blacks it is affect-free, like man or bro in English.
  • Speaking of man, the Black characters also use hombre when talking with pals. (I don’t remember whether the white characters do this too.) At 29:20 in episode 57, Julián even calls his girlfriend hombre, which amused me.
  • The actors frequently drop the word a in sentences like Miguel va a comer ‘Miguel is going to eat,’ saying instead Miguel va comer. This makes perfect sense: the adjacent a vowels in va and a have simply blended. A is retained with other verb forms, as in Miguel y Elena van a comer.
  • At 13:20 in episode 59 a character says Usted verá que no es lejos. I noticed other uses of ser instead of estar to describe location.
  • At 43:45 in episode 61 I learned a new verb, engatusar, meaning ‘to con, deceive.’ According to Juan Corominas it has an unusual etymology that blends three roots: encantusar ‘to deceive with witchcraft,’ engatar (from gato) ‘to deceive with affection,’ and engaratusar ‘to deceive with praise.’
  • Finally, while I have yet to realize my ambition of visiting a voseísta country like Colombia (i.e. one whose speakers use the pronoun vos instead of (or along with) ), I really enjoy hearing voseo! In La esclava blanca I especially relished commands followed by pronouns, since these are identical to their equivalents except for the stressed syllable. Some examples are perdoname (instead of perdóname) and tranquilizate (instead of tranquilízate), whose te threw me for a loop until I checked the conjugation.

As always, I welcome comments. I would especially appreciate hearing from anyone who is familiar with Colombian Spanish.


*When I started watching the show I had no idea that it was so long. At first I figured that it would be fairly short because an important wedding was scheduled to take place in a few days. When the wedding kept being postponed I checked and saw that I still had dozens of episodes to go. By then it was too late to stop watching: I was thoroughly hooked.

The geography of voseo

When I was relatively new to Spanish, one of my teachers explained to our class that voseo was a special feature of Argentinian Spanish. Voseo is the use of vos, with its associated verb forms, instead of standard Spanish tú, as an informal pronoun meaning “you”. So “you speak” is vos hablás instead of tú hablas, “you are” is vos sos instead of tú eres, and so on.

Years later I learned that voseo isn’t limited to Argentina, nor to its neighboring countries in South America. It’s found in several countries in South America, and also in parts of Central America, including El Salvador. (I seem to be running into a lot of vos-using salvadoreños lately, both at home and out of town.) Below is a map showing where vos is used in Latin America.

Reproduced by Creative Commons license. Medium (or dark) blue indicates spoken (and written) voseo.  Light blue indicates tu/vos alternation. Grey indicates tú only.

By the way, this is my second-favorite voseo map. My favorite is on p. 156 of Christopher Pountain’s Exploring the Spanish Language; do a “Search inside this book” with the phrase “distribution of voseo” to find it. It’s under copyright so I can’t reproduce it here.

As you can see in either map, the distribution of voseo doesn’t tidily follow country borders, or even continental borders. The controlling factor is, rather, historical. As I explained in my very first post on this blog, travel between Spain and Latin American was restricted during the colonial period because of rampant piracy on the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, settlements close to the two colonial capitals of Mexico City and Lima, or to the major ports of call en route such as Veracruz and Portobelo, had much more exposure to the latest linguistic developments from Spain than those in the “boondocks”.

For your convenience, here is the map of colonial trade routes I included in that first post.

Colonial trade patterns

Adapted from Sagredo 2007 under the GNU Free Documentation License

Voseo is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. At the beginning of the Colonial period,  and vos were both current in Spain. Eventually, of course,  won, but only those parts of Latin American that were in regular contact with Spain followed its lead. That’s why, if you compare the two maps, the all- areas (grey on the voseo map) roughly correspond to the colonial trade routes (red on the second map). Argentina was about as boondock-y as you could get since it could only be reached by crossing the Andes, by foot and/or by mule, from Lima. That’s why its voseo is the strongest in the continent.

¿Vos entendés?

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.

The mutual intelligibility of Spanish dialects

While we were living in New Mexico, a family from Argentina moved in next door. At the time I had neglected my Spanish for a while, but I liked to think that it was still there when I needed it. And in fact, I was delighted to find that I could easily converse with our new neighbors. I actually felt pretty smug.

Until the day, that is, when the phone rang while I was visiting next door, and my neighbor launched into an intense conversation with someone from home. Her Spanish sped up, her accent became more pronounced, and I could barely follow what she was saying (not that it was any of my business).

This little anecdote has more to say about my (probable) rustiness in Spanish, and my neighbor’s politeness in accommodating her Spanish to my non-native ears, than it does about Spanish dialects. For in fact, different varieties of Spanish are just as mutually comprehensible as varieties of English. A Spanish speaker from Madrid may have initial difficulty understanding Cuban or Argentine Spanish, just as an American does Australian or Scottish English, but that’s as far as the problem goes. One’s ear adjusts pretty quickly. That’s why Spanish-language films and telenovelas don’t provide Spanish subtitles for foreign distribution any more than English-language films and TV programs do. In fact, Spanish-speaking friends I have polled insist that the range of variation is smaller than in English. 

Education plays a major factor in helping Spanish speakers around the world understand each other. Depending on where one lives, some dialectal features, like the weakening and loss of final /s/, can be associated with low socioeconomic status (not unlike ain’t in English). The speech of two educated Spanish speakers from different countries can therefore be more similar than that of two people from the same country, or even the same city, from opposite ends of the socioeconomic and educational spectrum. Moreover, educated speakers are more aware of dialectal differences and so better able to understand and/or accommodate. For example, just as a sophisticated English speaker from the United States isn’t thrown off by British vocabulary (lift for elevatorlorry for truck, and the like), a well-educated Spaniard will understand that Argentineans use vos, not , to mean “you.” At the same time, an Argentinean who is aware that his use of vos is non-standard can accommodate to the Spaniard by trying to use  instead.

Why is Spanish as consistent as it is? It’s partly because all modern dialects of Spanish stem from two varieties of Spanish spoken in Spain in the 16th century: either castellano (standard Spanish, exemplified by the speech of Madrid) or Andalucian Spanish, exemplified by the speech of Seville. This was a small range of variation to begin with. Moreover, during the four hundred years or so that Spanish has been a world language, several factors—the existence of a language standard, increasingly widespread literacy, the availability of books and the mass media, and now the Internet—have provided centralizing ballast to the centrifugal force of language change. It remains to be seen how long they can continue to do so.

[Update from 4 Aug: Here‘s a post about mutual intelligibility in English that includes a list of references about mutual intelligibility in general (search on “Subtirelu”)].