Tuesday, January 18, 2011

CULTURE SPAIN:Learning Spanish: the tu and usted of speaking Spanish!

Great article on the use of tu and usted in Spanish. More interesting than it sounds at first. How do you use the formal? I only use it to people I don't like and telesales people, the same thing really.


CULTURE SPAIN:Learning Spanish: the tu and usted of speaking Spanish!



There are three unmistakeable signs of the ageing process:

1. You can no longer get up from your favourite armchair without groaning.

2. You can’t make it through the night without at least one trip to the bathroom.

3. In Spain, shop assistants start to refer to you as usted.

The first time the last one of these happened to me I naturally assumed that there was a senior citizen standing behind me. I looked around and found, to my horror, that the usted in question was me.

Spanish, in common with French and Italian, has two ways to refer to somebody as you. (or four ways if you take into account plural forms.) English, by the way, is something of a rarity among European languages, in that we don’t make this distinction.

The old rules were that was used for family members (although not perhaps for grandparents); close personal friends, people younger than oneself and anybody with whom there was not a need for a high degree of formality.

Usted was used for one’s elders and betters – elderly and perhaps distant relatives, teachers, bank managers, state officials, police officers, doctors and most crucially of all – priests.

There was, however a socio-linguistic dark side to all this. could be used to suggest that the person on the receiving end of the pronoun was, somehow, of a lower social standing. Indeed, it can still be unwise to be overly familiar with veteran waiters in restaurants of good standing.

Usted could be used to put a frosty distance between yourself and your interlocutor. I even have a friend whose father would refer to him as usted during the course of his childhood rollockings.

This use of language as a weapon to bolster snobbery and reinforce social barriers, is, thankfully, coming to an end.

Not so many years ago I was teaching a class of eight-year-olds and a colleague asked them to see if they could have a conversation with somebody in the old fashioned way; referring to that person as usted. Most of them were completely stumped and simply peppered their speech with a slew of extra por favors and gracias. They had absolutely no idea of how to use the correct form of the verb that this formality demands.

When General Franco installed himself as Caudillo of Spain for all eternity in 1939, Spanish society was a very divided one. The lower echelons of society would never dream of using the familiar with people who were clearly above them in the social pecking order. So language was a key factor in keeping people in their rightful places. At the top of the tree were those to whom the courtesy title Don was accorded. Oxford and Cambridge may still cling on to their own dons, but it is quite rare these days for somebody to be in such awe of another person that they feel the need to address them as Don Alfonso or Doña María. That is not to say, however, that it has disappeared altogether.

It is the use of the 3rd person form of the verb that makes it so difficult to maintain a conversation with anybody who is hell bent on using usted. This is because most of the time, in Spanish there is no need to include the subject pronoun in the conversation: the verb ending tells us who is doing what.

So if you hear two old geezers speaking Spanish who are annoyed with each other, you may well hear such snippets as;

¡Es muy arrogante!

To which the reply might well be;

¡Es un tonto!”

And as English speakers we tend to fill in the gaps with the pronouns we most commonly associate with the 3rd person singular – he or she. So to our ears, what we hear is;

“He/she is arrogant!”

“He/she is a pig!”

And you look around to see who the devil they are talking about, only then does it dawn on you that the two old geezers are actually insulting one another.

I suspect it is this lack of clarity that will eventually do away with usted altogether. After all, when you are insulting somebody, you don’t want them to think that you just might be talking about somebody else entirely.

I am 51 years old and most of my Spanish friends of my generation routinely refer to both friend and stranger alike as . This is particularly the case when using the telephone and these days even people who are trying to sell you something will claim intimacy by using the familiar pronoun. Certain sectors of society, however, still cling to the old formal ways: you are unlikely to hear a hotel receptionist calling you.

Email, texting and other forms of ethereal communication have all helped to drive out formality. These days, even emails from people you don’t know often start with a cheery salutation before an immediate move to first name terms.

The internet has been credited with the democratisation of many things, from book publishing to the setting up of web-based businesses. This is, largely, a good thing and has helped to blur the boundaries that mark the frontiers between the various social strata, not just in Spain, but in most of the rest of the world too. When was the last time you saw anything labelled 3rd class?

So the days of formal letters ending with the words “Reciba un cordial saludo” may well be numbered. I don’t know how LOL translates into Spanish but I suspect it might look something like – XOX.

So, if you go to Spain or are learning Spanish then my advice is to call anybody under the age of 60, . You might get the odd frosty glare from some recalcitrant stickler for the old ways, but you are far more likely to drop into an amiable conversation…

Written by Pete Wolstencroft

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