Why are there five words for 'you' in Spanish?

If you are a native English speaker, you might be surprised to learn that unlike modern English, which only has one word for “you”, Spanish has five different words, depending on if you are addressing one or more people, whether it is a formal or informal situation, and also in which country you are.

Singular: Tú vs Usted

The singular form of “you” in Spanish is “tú” for informal situations and “usted” for formal ones. However, what is regarded as a “formal” situation varies widely. At one extreme, you will almost exclusively hear “tú” used in Spain, with “usted” reserved for extremely formal situations such as in expensive restaurants. At the other extreme, in some parts of Latin America, such as central Colombia, “tú” is never used, and “usted” is used when addressing everyone including loved ones, family members, and even pets. One can even hear “Cállese usted” shouted at dogs in Colombia, which could be translated as “Shut up sir”. However, for most of Latin America, “tú” is generally used between friends and family, with “usted” used for strangers and in formal situations.

A general rule of thumb in Latin America is to always start with “usted” and only switch to “tú” if you hear the speaker address you that way. In Spain you can almost always use “tú”.

Plural: Ustedes vs vosotros

In Spain when addressing a group of people the word “vosotros” (or “vosotras” if the group is entirely female) is used with 2nd person plural verb conjugation, e.g. “¿Cómo estáis vosotros?”. In Latin America, the word “ustedes” is used with the 3rd person plural verb conjugation, with “vosotros” never being used. Therefore the equivalent greeting would be “¿Cómo están ustedes?”. Although “ustedes” is occasionally used in Spain, it is only in very formal situations.

Regional variations: Tú vs vos

To complicate the situation further, in Argentina, Uruguay, some parts of Central America and Western Colombia, the word “vos” is used instead of “tú”, and takes a different verb conjugation. The usage of “vos” died out in Spain centuries ago, but still continues in these areas, and is a direct replacement for “tú”. If you use “tú” in these areas it will be perfectly understood, however unless you are aware of this form of address you could be confused.

There could also be said to be a sixth form of “you”: in some parts of Central Colombia, the term “su merced” (literally “your mercy”) can be heard instead of “usted”. However, it is a direct replacement for “usted” and is often used interchangeably and takes the same verb conjugation.

Summary

Spain Argentina/Uruguay Rest of Latin America Examples (you speak,
you spoke,
speak!)
Singular forms
used in almost all situations not commonly used, but understood used in informal situations with friends/family tú hablas
tú hablaste
¡habla!
vos never used, might not be understood used in informal situations only used in a few places, e.g. Cali, Medellin in Colombia; some parts of Central America vos hablás
vos hablaste
¡hablá!
usted used only in very formal situations used in formal situations and with strangers usted habla
usted habló
¡hable!
Plural forms
vosotros used in almost all situations never used, but understood vosotros habláis
vosotros hablasteis
¡hablad!
ustedes used in only very formal situations used always when talking to a group ustedes hablan
ustedes hablaron
¡hablen!