Once a year I spend a week in Antigua, Guatemala, where I interpret for a group that does free surgeries for people for whom even the almost-free national health care system is too expensive.  I spend a lot of time in the recovery room. It’s a challenge–you’re interpreting for people who are half-asleep, and often wearing an oxygen mask–and I do like a challenge. (This use of do explained in the English notes below.)  Sometimes the challenges are unexpected ones, though.

One day last year a recovery room nurse asked me to tell a little boy to cough. That’s not unusual in a recovery room–sometimes post-operative secretions in your lungs cause a minor drop in the amount of oxygen that you’re getting, and a cough or two will clear them right up.

Tosa, I said. The kid looked at me uncomprehendingly.  Hmmm, I thought to myself–does the kid not speak Spanish?  That’s not uncommon in Guatemala, where 70% of the population is indigenous and over 20 Mayan languages are spoken.

The father looked at me and smiled. Tosá, he said. The kid coughed. So: no cough when I said tosa, but tosé elicited the desired response.

The father was using a verbal form that’s used in Guatemala and a few other places in Central and South America. Indeed, it’s probably the most distinctive thing about Guatemalan Spanish. However, although I know a few local regional nouns and usually get a happy laugh when I use them, I had never learnt this particular verbal form–Americans would rarely have an occasion to use or to hear it, as it’s used only in the context of particular social relationships, and it wouldn’t be at all typical for a foreigner to have one of those.

My “voseo” lesson at Maximo Nivel, a Spanish language school in Antigua, Guatemala. Picture source: me.

The verbal form in question is called voseo. It’s used in very close relationships–between friends of long duration is the typical one.  In Guatemala, the tu form of verbs is used in many situations in which the usted form would be used anywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world–for example, waiters in restaurants and the ubiquitous vendedores ambulantes (people who stroll constantly through the tourist areas selling stuff, primarily Mayan women of a variety of ethnicities from the surrounding pueblos) will typically address you with the formal terms señor or señora (sir or ma’am)–and then use the tu form of verbs with you, which even on my fifth time in-country sounds weird.

So, you’re wondering: how does one form this mysterious conjugation?  For starters, let’s go over the present indicative.  It’s almost entirely regular, and very easy to relate to the three classes of Spanish verbs.

Spanish verbs end with either -ar, -er, or -ir, with the -ar verbs mostly being homologous with the French -er verbs.  (Sorry–I havent even thought about the others!)  To form the voseo present indicative of almost all verbs, you keep the vowel of the infinitive, add the -s that you would expect in the tu form of the verb, and put the stress on the final syllable.  So:

  • escribir – escribís
  • decir – decís
  • venir – venís
  • tener – tenés
  • comer – comés
  • volver – volvés
  • tomar – tomás
  • buscar – buscás
  • caminar – caminás

Of course, just because Ive learnt the voseo forms doesnt mean that I have anyone with whom to use them–as I said, there are only some relationships in which its OK.  I did use them with the dog at my host familys apartment.  I listened carefully, and they use the formal usted form with him,  but he didnt seem to mind my voseo–although I was sneaking him treats, so who knows…

Enjoying these posts from Guatemala?  Why not make a small donation to Surgicorps International, the group with which I come here?  You wouldn t believe how much aspirin we can hand out for the cost of a large meal at McDonalds–click here to donate.  Us volunteers pay our own way–all of your donations go to covering the cost of surgical supplies, housing for patients’ families while their loved one is in the hospital, medications, and the like.  Scroll down for the English notes, per usual.

English notes

I do like…  This use of do emphasizes something.  As far as I can tell, the primary use, although not the only one, is to emphasize something that is contrary to expectations.  For example, in this Dashiell Hammett quote

I do like a man that tells you right out he’s looking out for himself. Don’t we all? I don’t trust a man that says he’s not. And the man that’s telling the truth when he says he’s not I distrust most of all, because he’s an ass and ass that’s going contrary to the laws of nature.

…you wouldnt expect anyone to like a person who is looking out for himself (a very Trumpian behavior, particularly if youre only looking out for yourself)–hence the do.  How I used it in the post:

It’s a challenge–you’re interpreting for people who are half-asleep, and often wearing an oxygen mask–and I do like a challenge.   Liking a challenge is presumably at least somewhat contrary to expectations–hence, the do.  

In-country: being or taking place in a country that is the focus of activity (such as military operations or scientific research) by the government or citizens of another country (Merriam-Webster)


19 thoughts on “Cough!”

  1. I never heard of this voseo form although I wandered for a while in Mexico . So when you say “tosá”it is the voseo form for the imperative, right ? Funny and strange how this very intimate form looks like the formal form in French, “vous” and even in Portuguese,”você” . Obelix was right “Those Guatemalans are crazy !”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I seriously doubt the father told his son to say “tosá”. There’s been a misunderstanding here. Under “voseo” the correct form for the verb “toser” (to cough) is “tosé”. In this case the Affirmative Imperative: “¡Tosé vos!”. Other forms are “tose tú” (informal) and of course the formal “tosa usted”. Therefore, as we travel across Latin America, we’ll find that the voseo is much common than otherwise suggested. Take a look at the map on

      Back again to the “tú/vos” informal ways to refer to the person we’re speaking to, we can summarize it as this:
      TOSER (Present of Indicative)
      yo toso
      tú toses / vos tosés (informal)
      usted tose (formal)

      Affirmative Imperative
      tose tú / tosé vos (informal)
      tosa usted (formal)

      which by the way may be verified in the Real Academia de la Lengua site, just click on the “conjugar” blue button:

      Remember that, basically, Affirmative Imperative is exactly the same, for all nouns except “tú”, as the Present of Subjunctive. The “tú” imperative form derives from the Present of Indicative for “tú” with the last “s” taken out. But watch out, because there are several irregular verbs that do not follow this rule. On the other hand, the “voseo”, regularizes the imperative affirmative all verbs, except “ir” which uses the form of another verb, “andar”. Thus, the affirmative imperative of “ir” for “vos” is “andá vos”. Also remember that, although the correct form for “let’s go” is “vayámonos”, almost 99% of Spanish speakers say “vámonos”… go figure! 🙂

      Finally, last but not least, the form “você” in brazilian Portuguese, is INFORMAL an its use matches the “vos” in Spanish. Thus, we have two informal ways of saying “you” in Portuguese (br): “tu” and “você”, the same way as he have it in Spanish ( “tu” and “vos”). Also remember that in Portuguese from Portugal – Portuguese (pt), “você” is either formal or half-formal, but not considered as informal as it is in Brazil.


      1. After you’ve watched them lick themselves and snort, it’s hard to address them formally.

        Or maybe I’m just caught up in outdated ideas about who to respect and why. I’m willing to consider that possibility.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I’ve run out of reply buttons, but I’m going to have to admit that I’ve never ended up addressing a politician in Spanish. (It’s one of the many gaps in my experience of life.) But I’m guessing it’d be usted if I was trying to convince them of something–even if it was that I should be taken seriously. With a dog, though, it’s–well, I was going to say a little less complex, but if this discussion hasn’t gotten complex I don’t know what has.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not only in addressing a politician you’ll use “usted” but to any person with you have no informal relationship. But a dog? C’mon, all Spanish speakers treat any dog as “tú” or “vos”! Never heard of a dog being trated as “usted”… But… never say never 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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