The many ways to say ‘you’ in Spanish


The article “Not just you: The construction of radio audiences through second-person choice in Peninsular Spanish”, by Miguel A. Aijón Oliva, has just been published in issue 60 of Language and Communication. The full text of the article can be freely accessed for a limited period here.

The study is concerned with the choice among second-person grammatical paradigms when addressing nonspecific audiences in radio discourse. Standard Peninsular Spanish has four different sets of morphematical elements allowing for a second-person characterization, which are respectively represented by the pronouns , usted, vosotros, and ustedes. These can be classified into two different persons—here labelled prototypical and displaced—and numbers—singular and plural. As is known, the displaced variants usted and ustedes result from the use of third-person forms to index addressees (see further discussion here). The prototypical plural vosotros is basically restricted to Peninsular varieties in present-day Spanish, most others having ustedes as their only plural subparadigm. It is interesting to note the difference between Spanish and a typologically close language such as English, which, at least in its standard form, has only you to explicitly address any sort of addressee or audience.

The basic hypothesis is that the four choices considered are hardly synonymous or interchangeable, as traditional approaches to variation and choice would have it; rather, each one entails the construction of a particular meaning at all possible semiotic levels, including the pragmatic and cognitive ones. When selecting some grammatical paradigm to index others, speakers will be defining a shared system of communicative rights and duties for all participants including themselves. In the specific case of radio discourse, second-person choice helps construct radio audiences, but it simultaneously affects the self-presentation of speakers themselves and the configuration of radio programs as communicative contexts. Through their particular combinations of person and number features, these choices make it possible to construct the audience in different ways—as either ‘individuals’ or ‘groups’—just as speakers themselves—as either ‘close’ or ‘distanced’ from the audience—and the very textual genres where they appear—as either ‘interaction-’ or ‘information-oriented’.

Among other significant facts, the analysis of the MEDIASA corpus shows that some persons are never used in certain radio genres, whereas they are strongly preferred in others, with ustedes reaching categoricity in news reports. Besides, two of the paradigms— and ustedes—together account for the vast majority of nonspecific audience indexations (86.8%), while the other two, and especially usted (4.2%), turn out to be exceptional choices. The quantitative and qualitative analysis of the four second persons across genres makes it posible to unveil the most significant discursive and cognitive values of each one.

In news reports, the choice of ustedes, generally encoded as a syntactic object, helps simultaneously construct the identity of the target audience as a human group receiving information, that of the broadcaster and his team as the professionals producing it, and the communicative context as a unidirectional flow of conceptual contents. Any deviations from this pattern are scarcely expectable in a genre with such a fixed structure and recurrent communicative mechanisms. Sports programs show similar results, but vosotros is introduced in the speech of a broadcaster whose program is structured as a dialogue with a fellow sports journalist. Music programs clearly differ from the rest of radio genres in the strong dominance of the prototypical singular , which...

Miguel Ángel Aijón Oliva