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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Out of the Mouth of Babes: Solving Some Puzzles in Latin American Spanish Variation and Change



María Irene Moyna


The dialects of Latin American Spanish offer one of the most complex singular address systems in Romance (Rona 1967, Moyna & Rivera-Mills 2016). Considered collectively, they boast three singular forms (tú, vos, usted), all of which are standard over several national varieties. While usted tends to be reserved for formality and has thus remained distinct, vos and have not. Although corresponds to the etymological singular, and vos was originally plural and then polite singular, the latter eventually lost deferential value and started to compete with the former. This blurring of pragmatic and semantic values, coupled with a high number of verbal homomorphs (Lapesa 1970a,b, Cuervo 1893), entangled both address forms to such an extent that the resulting pronominal and verbal paradigms share many forms (Fontanella de Weinberg 1976, 1977) (Table 1). This leveling happened independently all over the New World, as evinced by the variability exhibited by epistolary sources from several centuries and distant locations (1, 2).

Considered at the right level of abstraction, the early variability resulted in three basic outcomes across the continent. In most dialects (e.g., Antilles, Mexico, Peru), voseo was completely eliminated quite early, resulting in an informal second person singular paradigm identical to that of Peninsular Spanish (e.g., tú hablas ‘you talk’) (Páez Urdaneta 1981: 66, Benavides 2003). In other areas, cut off from the Peninsula and from each other, such as Central America and the River Plate, non-diphthongized voseo forms prevailed (cf., vos hablás ‘id.’). In a smaller number of dialects, most of them receding, diphthongized voseo survived (vos/tú hablái(s) ‘id’) (Granda 1978).

Although the evolution of the three outcomes is of interest, here I will focus solely on the second (non-diphthongized) solution, and try to account for a number of puzzling facts. The first fact that needs accounting for is the virtually identical pronominal and verbal outcome of this non-normative pattern in Central America and the River Plate, two areas that had no direct contact throughout the colonial and postcolonial periods. The second fact to explain is why in both sets of dialects, only a handful of verbal and pronominal slots adopted voseo, while tuteo prevailed elsewhere in the paradigm. The third fact, which I will show through historical and contemporary evidence, is that in both areas the shift to voseo followed the same order (imperative ® present indicative ® present subjunctive; subject ® prepositional object).

The thesis to be presented is that, absent any evidence that some forms were more frequent in the original dialectal mix, the explanation must be based on the circumstances that were indeed similar throughout Spanish America. Those include: (a) dialectal variability among the settler contingents, resulting in no clear target forms; (b) high numbers of second language learners among the early indigenous populations and later immigrant contingents, (c) high rates of intermarriage and language contact which exposed the children acquiring Spanish to a mixed input. These conditions, I posit, resulted in a process of change led by L1 acquisition (Chambers 2004, Schreier et al. 2010, Trudgill 2010). The clearest demonstration comes from the striking similarities between the natural order of acquisition of verbal and pronominal forms in Spanish and the order of historical adoption of voseo forms (Moyna 2009).

This paper does not suggest that child acquisition is always the only or the main reason behind the process and outcome of language change. It does suggest that in the right demographic, social, and linguistic circumstances, natural child language acquisition can provide clues for cross-dialectal parallelisms that would otherwise remain unexplained. The study of the history of Spanish would do well to heed the Biblical dictum to ‘let the children come.’

  1. quel marido no era tan malo que otros mas altos que vos se holgaran […] si quieres venirte aqui a estar debaxo de mi mano trae tu mujer e hijos que yo te mantendre […] los onbres de bien an de tener otros terminos que los que vos aveis tenido el tiempo te dara el pago (Mexico City, 1574, letter from Catalina Martin to her son Francisco Marrero, CORDIAM)
    • ‘that my husband wasn’t so bad that other people more worthy than youV would despise him […] if youT want to come here to be under my wing bringT yourT wife and children and I will support youT […] Good men have to behave in ways different from those youV haveV had. Time will pay youT.’
  2. Visitalo, dadle […] y sirvelo* (Buenos Aires, 1816, Fontanella de Weinberg 1971)
    • ‘VisitV him, giveV him […] and serveT him’

Selected References

Benavides, Carlos. 2003. La distribución del voseo en Hispanoamérica. Hispania 86 (3): 612–623.

Chambers, J.K. 2004. Dynamic typology and vernacular universals. Dialectology Meets Typology: Dialect Grammar from a Cross-Linguistic Perspective, Bernd Kortmann (ed.), 127–145. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Cuervo, R. J. 1893. Las segundas personas de plural en la conjugación castellana. Romania 22: 71–86.

Fontanella de Weinberg, María Beatriz. 1976. Analogía y confluencia paradigmática en formas verbales de voseo. Thesaurus 31: 249–272.

Fontanella de Weinberg, María Beatriz. 1977. La constitución del paradigma pronominal del voseo. Thesaurus 32: 227–241.

Granda, Germán de. 1978. Las formas verbales diptongadas en el voseo hispanoamericano. Una interpretación sociohistórica de datos dialectales. Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, 27: 80–92.

Lapesa, Rafael. 1970a. Las formas verbales de segunda persona y los orígenes del ‘voseo.’ Actas del Tercer Congreso Internacional de Hispanistas, Carlos H. Magis (ed.), 519–531. México, D.F.: El Colegio de México.

Lapesa, Rafael. 1970b. Personas gramaticales y tratamientos en español. Revista de la Universidad de Madrid 19: 141–167.

Moyna, María Irene, and Susana Rivera-Mills (eds). 2016. Forms of Address in the Spanish of the Americas. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Moyna, María Irene. 2009. Child Acquisition and Language Change: Voseo Evolution in Río de la Plata Spanish. Proceedings of the 2007 Hispanic Linguistics Symposium. Joe Collentine, Barbara Lafford, MaryEllen García, and Francisco Marcos Marín (eds), 131–142. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla.

Páez Urdaneta, Iraset. 1981. Historia y geografía hispanoamericana del voseo. Caracas: La Casa de Bello.

Rona, José Pedro. 1967. Geografía y morfología del “voseo.” Porto Alegre: Pontifícia Universidade Católica.

Schreier, Daniel, Peter Trudgill, Edgar Schneider and Jeffrey P. Williams (eds). 2010. The Lesser-Known Varieties of English: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2010. Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics. Stories of colonization and contact. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

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