Those who have studied Spanish (or any other romance language) will recall that there are two ways of addressing a person; usted is the formal (like calling someone sir or ma'am) and tu is the informal (regular old "you"). In a handful of countries, however, including Nicaragua, instead of using tu people use vos. (1)
For the most part, conjugating vos is pretty easy. The harder part is knowing when to use it. In the south of the country and in urban areas, vos is used quite often, much the same way that tu is used in other countries - with children, with friends, and in social situations. In the rural north, however, people tend to be much more formal. I sometimes hear people call each other vos, but I also hear people use usted with friends, children, and even with animals. After having lived in my community for a year, no one calls me vos - not friends close to my age, not my host family, nobody. And being from a country where informality is the name of the game, it has started to bother me that everyone always calls me "miss". Why, I have started to wonder, after a full year in my community, does no one feel comfortable enough with me to drop the formality?
Recently I put this question to a new friend from the community. Basically, he said, it is about respect. People use usted to show me that they respect me. Vos is only for people with whom you are very close or for people for whom you have no respect. (This seems like an odd double-usage to me.) Maybe if I lived in the town for ten more years, people would have enough confianza with me to use vos, but barring a life decision to become a permanent resident, it probably won't happen. My friend also warned me that if I try to use vos with people in the community, they will probably take offense, or at the very least the word will sound weird coming out of a foreigner's mouth. I asked about tu, if that would be a more acceptable way of addressing friends and children. No, my friend said, tu sounds pretentious and stuck up. Everyone knows the word from soap operas, but it is not used in conversation unless someone is putting on airs.
Based on what he said and what I have observed, I interpret vos to mean something like dude or homey. It can also be used as an English speaker would use the expression hey you. For me, an outsider, to use it is considered too informal. But if I were to use tu instead it would be as though I were always calling people dahling.
English is a much more informal language than Spanish, and gringo culture is generally more informal than Nicaraguan culture, especially in the rural areas, where people are a bit more old-fashioned. I know that this is just the way things are, but I am frustrated with what I see as a linguistic barrier to forming close friendships. How can I make a friend if I am always calling everyone "sir" and "ma'am"? Then again, I don't want to sound weird, like a French exchange student who insists on calling everyone "homey", and dahling is obviously ridiculous. I need to get over it, and accept that friendships can form between sirs and ma'ams and misses, but to my gringa ear it all sounds much too formal.
1. Vos is different from the Spanish vosotros form, which is an informal way of addressing a group of people (kind of like y'all). Vos is easy to conjugate and only differs from tu in the present and the command tenses. The present-tense conjugation of vos is the same as the infinitive, substituting an -s for the -r at the end and adding an accent. The present tense of comer in the vos form, for example, is comés. For andar, it´s andás. The command form is even easier. You just drop the -r and add an accent on the last syllable. The command for venir is vení, for sentar it´s sentá. This difference in conjugation has the humorous (to me) but also unfortunate effect of making the name of Nicaragua´s leading brand of toothpaste, Colgate, synonymous with the command to hang oneself (cole-GAH-tay, from the verb colgar).