Voseo in Chile and why it isn’t “Wrong Spanish”

As you may have seen, once a month there will be a post about Spanish language and certain pecularities that might call the attention of learners and potential ones. This time I’ll get quite personal and devote this post to my own local variety and one of its more evident features: voseo.

Sure, you might have learned that for the second person singular, Spanish makes the distinction between formal and informal register: Usted and tú (note: only Usted has capital letters). However, several dialects also have voseo partially or completely replacing tú. The two biggest regions that have replaced it in most circumstances and even use it in mainstream advertising are the River Plate one (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay) and Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras). However, there are other regions in which voseo lives along with tú due to different reasons. One of them is my country, Chile.

Despite the fact that most written things are done in tú (with the exception of advertisement targeted to younger audiences, and only recently), most people will use voseo at home, with friends or in several informal settings. Also, due that tú and vos live along, even the conjugations are different to the other voseo regions. However, the conjugation becomes quite intuitive and follows a certain logic that is easy to grasp.

The typical, regular conjugations will be, then:

Voseo (2)

Since Spanish is a pro-drop language, most people would avoid saying pronouns as much as they can. Also, Chilean Spanish is well known for aspiration of most s’s, thus you may see voseo written in many ways. And now, here comes the sad part:

For a long time, Chilean society had had a negative perception of its own variety. Many linguists and academics have blamed 19th century educational policies for this, which held that language had to be standarized at any cost, in order to create a single, national and homogenous identity (since a nation-state had to be constructed). This created a negative perception of what used to be there linguistically: loan words from indigenous languages, the development of voseo, aspiration, among other features. Despite many people would use all of these at home or with friends, in public situations with someone of a higher hierarchy nearby, people would tend to use a more standarized feature of the language. That was the mainstream perception, even when mass media arrived to Chile and it was well fostered during the 70s and 80s (whenever I watch old Chilean shows from that time, I feel the language sounds “not natural”). Since the 90s, there has been a slow, but steady process of accepting these features in media and in mainstream society, but using it well. Many adverts targeted to young people use it and it is quite frequent to use it in oral media (locally produced television or radio). To my and many fellow learners’ disgrace, it has yet to be standarized in written language due to the previous perception I have mentioned, but I am quite determined and hopeful that one day, the negative perception of voseo will be dumped and it’d be accepted and standarized in written form.

The rules of when to use voseo in Chile are summarized in these 3 points:

Voseo (1)

As I’ve said before, both due to pro-drop and a previous negative perception, people in Chile avoid to say vos as much as they can, unless in special situations, such as when they are very angry at someone or when teasing among friends. Again, the tone and context can tell you plenty of this. To avoid that and still use voseo, many people would replace the pronoun vos for tú. Thus, most people will say (tú) tenís, (tú) sentís and not (vos) tenís, (vos) sentís while using voseo, to avoid offending someone or so.

To wrap up things, I will attach a curious thing about voseo. Due to all of the previous things I’ve said, what would be your reaction if I tell you that the verb ser (to be) can have up to 5 forms in the second person singular informal variant? It is probably one of the few verbs I know that has three conjugations in voseo which can be combined up to 5 times! On the following image you’ll see how they can be conjugated and used from the most standard on the top, from the one you might want to avoid using under most circumstances on the bottom.

Voseo (3)

As a renowed Chilean linguist (Darío Rojas) would say, “to speak well means to be aware of the context you are in”.

 

What are your perceptions of voseo? Have you experienced negative perceptions of certain words and varieties in your language learning process? Share it in the comments!
And if you are interested to learn more Spanish, feel free to contact me on Italki.

 

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  • gringa

    This is a wonderful post. Misunderstandings about voseo in Chile are so rampant. There’s some book that says that “Como estai?” comes from “Como estas alli?” which is so obviously and blatantly wrong and I have met so many people that believe this, it drives me nuts. I think Chilean Spanish is so subtle and nuanced and people often mistake those nuances for “bad” Spanish.

    • Thank you! I didn’t know about the “¿cómo estás allí?”, but as you’ve said… there’s plenty of misleading information out there about voseo in Chile that I’m sometimes scared to look online about extra information 😉