Monday, August 31, 2015


Watching Narcos on Netflix.  Weirdly, Pablo Escobar addresses his brother as usted, while his brother addresses Pablo as tu.  Can this possibly be Colombian usage? I find it hard in any case to believe that one brother would address another as usted, but if this sort of asymmetry were to occur, I would expect the more powerful to use tu and the less powerful to use usted. Baffled.


Mithridates said...

Don't know the answer to this, but A.) is the show any good? and B.) I am reading - and will eventually review - Roberto Saviano's Zero Zero Zero, which is about the coke trade and it's pretty good. (Escobar looks like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm next to the psychotic badasses who came after him, especially in Mexico.) Saviano's Gomorra, about the *camorra* crime network in Naples, was made into an excellent film.

Bill said...

Could it be that Wagner Moura (the actor who plays Escobar) isn’t a native Spanish speaker (he’s Brazilian) and allegedly learned to speak Spanish for this role?

Helen DeWitt said...

Mith, I liked it, but part of this might be simply from liking that so much of it was in Spanish (I think I read somewhere that it was 40% Spanish 60% English) - if that kind of bilingualism were more common it might not have had such a powerful effect.

Bill, Not sure, I'd assume he was just using lines from a script, which presumably was written by native Spanish-speakers. Was also surprised to hear his mother address him as "vos" - can't remember hearing anyone use that at all when we lived there, though admittedly it's been a long time.

Javier Moreno said...

Haven't watched it but that TÚ vs USTED between two people can happen, although it is not common nowadays. There is not real power rule behind it, it only happens, sometimes even in a two-directional friendly way. The VOS from the mother, on the other hand, is totally standard usage in the area of the country where Escobar was king (Antioquia). It is a little different than the Argentinian VOS and I have the feeling that it's being replaced these days by TÚ among the young. The same is happening with the familiar USTED, common between friends in Bogotá until not so long ago. When I was a kid I would use USTED consistently with almost everybody even if I was addressed using TÚ by the other person. Even today I still have friendships based on that setting. That type of USTED extremism doesn't exist anymore. Regarding the series, my guess is that they exaggerated those usages. Most probably all the Escobar would treat to each other using VOS with some occasional USTED here and there, never TÚ.

Helen DeWitt said...

Javier, Thanks, that's amazingly helpful. My guess is, I was unduly influenced by the way Spanish was taught in American schools, where they didn't go into that level of detail. As far as I can remember, for example, vos and vosotros were treated as Spanish usage (sorry, usage in Spain) which we didn't even really need to know. My impression was that the Colombians I knew at school in Cali used TU among each other, but frankly, this is the impression of someone who was being taught in a system which claimed that VOS and VOSOTROS were the usage of Spain, so I wouldn't claim it's reliable. The thing that puzzled me in the dialogue, though, was that one brother would address the other as usted, while the brother addressed him as tu, that the mother would address the son as vos while the son addressed her as tu - but it could well be that these are familiar subtleties which were completely lost on someone who wasn't actually living with a Colombian family. My loss, definitely.

Javier Moreno said...

Actually VOS is not usage from Spain at all. VOSOTROS (the plural) is, but VOS (as a second person singular) is right now almost exclusive of the Americas. Strangely enough, those Latin Americans who use VOS do not use VOSOTROS for the plural but USTEDES. Really complicated, I know.

Cali people use VOS too, by the way. But in a slightly different way than the people from Medellín (I wouldn't be able to precisely describe the difference, though). There is this famous book '¡Qué viva la música!' by Andrés Caicedo where you can probably find the Caleño usage of VOS all over. For the Medellín VOS you may have some really good examples in books by Fernando Vallejo (e.g., 'El desbarrancadero' or 'La virgen de los sicarios') or in the films by Víctor Gaviria ('La vendedora de rosas' or 'Rodrigo D').

As I said, those mixed up ways of addressing each other (even in familiar contexts) still happen in Colombia but today they are already considered a little weird. My feeling from what you described is that the writers of the series noticed those usages and over did it.

(USTED as a friendly-familiar treatment is still used and some couples prefer it as the by default treatment. I use it one of my sisters (only that one, the closest one -- with my other siblings I use TÚ) and with my 3-year-old daughter. My daughter, growing up in Toronto, is learning a really strange form of Colombian Spanish, I guess. Some people get all puzzled when they noticed that I use USTED with her, or they feel that it's about creating emotional distance. For me, however, it is a manifestation of closeness.)

Now I need to watch the series. I may be back with clarifications in a couple of days.

aa said...

To make things even more complicated, in Spain we use TÚ as informal second person singular and USTED as formal second person singular (with VOSOTROS/USTEDES as the respective plural forms). With the respective verbal forms - 2nd person in the case of tú haces/vosotros hacéis vs. 3rd person for usted hace/ustedes hacen).

BUT in Andalucía they use USTEDES as the informal second person plural - and also use the second person for the verb: ustedes hacéis.

There is a Spanish film, "Una hora más en Canarias", in which two of the main characters are two Colombian sisters (played by Angie Cepeda and Juana Acosta). The initial gag is that at the beginning of the film they address each other as "usted", leading Spanish viewers to assume that they are a boss and her employee (and hence the surprise when it turns out they are sisters).

aa said...

PS Originally "Usted" comes from "Vuestra Merced" - Your Mercy - used to address high-ranking people. That's why Usted and Ustedes are conjugated in the third person, not the (more obvious) second person.

Javier Moreno said...

PS. Not so long ago in Andean Colombia it was still common to address people using 'sumerced' and then using third person, as with 'usted'. My grandmother used it as her default for a lot of people. It also became trendy among 'alternative' people from Bogotá during the 90's.

Helen DeWitt said...

Well, I'm aggrieved that none of this was mentioned when I was taught Spanish at Colegio Bolívar - this is amazing!

Nicolás Rodríguez Galvis said...

I've thought about this colombian Tú & Usted issue for several years now and it's still really hard to explain. I remember when I first arrived to France from Bogotá, about ten years ago, and I met and became friends for the first time in my life other native spanish speakers – from Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Spain... – I felt like I had discovered a whole new beautiful world.

At the beginning I'd always say Usted to them until one day a spanish friend told me: Pero, tío, Nico, ya somos amigos. The same had happened when I started learning french and I treated all my french friends with Vous and they told me the same thing as my spanish pal. But, if it seemed to me normal to use the Tu instead of the Vous, in french, it was really hard to change the Usted for the Tú. I felt like I was hardwired to say Usted to every man, friend or not, that was around my age or older, as it was the way we spoke in Bogotá when I lived there. The funny thing is that I had never thought about why I said Usted to all my friends – and viceversa – before living abroad. Another weird thing is that I used – and still use – both the Tú and the Usted with my women friends from Bogotá: I guess that with my closest women friends I use the Usted and with the others the Tú – although this may vary in a single conversation –, but I can't really explain why, even if the "closeness" hypothesis that Javier mentions could be the right one.

Another bizarre example of the use of Usted, as Javier also mentioned it, is with parents. I used the Tú with both of my parents and my parents used it too with me, but I had some friends that used the Usted with their parents and their parents used the Tú with them and, as you may now guess, some friends used the Usted and the parents too with them. (In the chapter about the grandparents you can take this variables and mix them up freely.) & one more layer of unlogical complexity: When I spoke to some parents of my friends, instead of calling them Señor or Señora Gutierrez, for instance, and using the respectful form of Usted – which in France is an obligation until "they" tell you to use "tu" (this could last for months or years) –, they'd instantly ask me to call them by their first name and use Tú. Obviously this could change from parent to parent and sometimes even i'd call the Mom by her first name and ask her "Cómo estás" and I'd call the dad, standing right beside her, by his first name but ask him "Cómo está".

I have to say that all of this felt, and still feels, perfectly natural.

About the use of Vos, I've met people from Bogotá that answer to their Vos speaking friends – from Cali, Medellín, Argentina, Uruguay... – either with Tú or Usted, even if they could easily conjugate the verbs in the Vos form – mirá, vení, tomá... –, but I guess that using that form doesn't seem natural – except if we're telling jokes about argentineans, caleños or paisas, generally with a terrible accent that we always believe, of course, is spot on –.

Nicolás Rodríguez Galvis

Helen DeWitt said...

Belated apologies. Blogger has a will of its own. Why was it happy to publish comments from Mithridates and Javier sine die, while meanly consigning NRG's comment to Awaiting Moderation? Ours not to reason why, ours but to stumble into Comments Awaiting Moderation and curse what Blogger hath wrought.

I told my mother about these unsuspected depths to Tú and Usted and it turned out she had known all along. It never surfaced in the Foreign Service Spanish Language course; it never surfaced in Spanish classes at school. She may have imagined that the purpose of formal instruction was to teach people things they did not know.

William Boyd said...

This "tu" vs "usted" discussion, quite valuable for me who's been studying the language for > 60 years, brings to mind the analysis of one of my professors (for our Masters, we all were in the Spanish Linguistics track instead of the more traditional "lit" track) back at university (Ohio State). Egea told us that his Columbian Spanish employed "tu" for the informal while his wife's (also a native of Columbia but not from the same city as Esteban) used "usted." Why? Dialect.

Thank you all for this great discussion.

Bill in Virginia