Skip to main content

Changing Spanish Language Changes Common Courtesy

Hispanic linguistics professor Maria Irene Moyna discovered that Spanish speakers are moving away from the formal you, ‘usted,’ to avoid creating distance between speakers.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

In the English language, we can express formality and show politeness by addressing others as ‘ma’am,’ ‘sir,’ ‘doctor,’ or even ‘professor.’ But if we suddenly stopped using these titles, how would we be able to maintain the expected formalities while communicating with others? This is the challenge Hispanic linguistics professor Maria Irene Moyna  is researching after confirming the recent reduction in the frequency of the formal you, within some Spanish-speaking communities. 

While the English language has only one second person pronoun word (you), the Spanish language has two, one formal (usted) and one informal (tú), and some dialects have even more. The dialect of Uruguay that Moyna analyzed uses two to express informality, ‘tú’ and ‘vos.’ But when Spanish speakers refrain from using the formal you (usted), a term used between people in a professional relationship, how does this affect the culture of Spanish speaking communities?

Originally interested in distinguishing between tú and vos, Moyna created a questionnaire asking over 600 participants in Uruguay what form of address they would use in a number of different hypothetical situations. In doing so, Moyna discovered the decrease in the use of the term usted among those surveyed. Inspired by the results, Moyna embarked on a journey to discover the effects of this phenomenon and found that many Uruguayan speakers are refraining from using the Spanish formal you in order to decrease distance with each other. 

“Even in contexts where I thought usted was quite acceptable and normal, such as situations outside of the family and in professional contexts, Uruguayans needed many reasons to use usted,” Moyna shared. “For example, let’s say somebody is your boss. Traditionally you would address them as usted. But according to the survey, someone being your boss is not enough of a reason to use usted. They have to be your boss but also a different gender from you and they have to be much older than you.”

According to Moyna, when the most formal Spanish you address is no longer used, it has an interesting effect on common courtesy within the Spanish speaking community. 

“In 1987, Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson did an analysis of what politeness is and what constitutes politeness and wrote a book about it called Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage,” Moyna said. “They found there are two kinds of politeness; positive politeness and negative politeness. For example, suppose I work with other people in an office. It is polite to make new people in the office feel they belong. There’s a whole host of behaviors we do proactively to integrate people into our groups and make them feel they matter to us and that’s called positive politeness. But let’s say I’m working and somebody knocks at my door to talk to me, the conversation better be brief because it is also a polite thing to do. This is called negative politeness. Similarly, calling you tu in many contexts is the polite thing to do because I’m telling you ‘we belong and we’re part of the same group.’ The more things we have in common, the more likely we are to use tú. In other circumstances and other relationships, the polite thing to do is not to use tú but to use usted, because you perceive that relationship as being more distant and the distance is polite. However, over the history of Spanish, usted has shrunk in the contexts in which it is considered correct, necessary, and polite.”

Not only does the omission of usted affect common courtesy within Spanish-speaking societies, but it can also cause anxiety among Spanish speakers who prefer to use usted in certain situations. 

“When usted disappears or becomes more restricted, it’s like losing a color in your palette. The big question becomes, ‘If people continue to feel they need a polite form, what do they do and how will they create that particular feeling you used to create with usted,’” Moyna explained. “Something I noticed in my respondents is when their interlocutors ask not to be called usted, some people have the hardest time figuring out what to call them because they won’t use the informal vos, because they think vos is too chummy and inappropriate. To cope with this situation, people who did not want to use a term other than usted in certain situations would describe very complicated avoidance strategies. Instead of asking, ‘Have you seen the bus?,’ they would say, ‘Did the bus come?,’ using all these roundabout ways of expressing the same idea without ever addressing the second person.”

The Spanish formal you has been in retreat since the 1930s and according to Moyna, it is possible that usted will no longer be used 100 years from now. But even though we can make hypotheses on the direction of certain linguistic tendencies, like the loss of usted, Moyna said we can never be certain of what the future holds for any language.

“Not all dialects are moving in the same direction,” Moyna stated. “Usted is shrinking in the vast majority of dialects; in Spain it is hardly used anymore, in Argentina it’s very infrequent, and in Mexico it is still used with elders within rural families, but less so in big cities. But in Costa Rica, it’s the most frequent form. They are moving towards a system where usted is what people use all the time. For its part, in Colombia, usted can be used for large interpersonal distance, but it can also be used in very intimate contexts, like between husband and wife. You really cannot make a generalization about all dialects because some are going in a different direction. Language changes are very strange and it will shock you what happens sometimes. Even if we assume that usted is going to disappear, that does not mean that politeness marking is going to disappear, too.”