What happened in order for the personal pronoun "vós" to fall into disuse?

This seems to be the unique way to address a group of people directly: it's a direct equivalent of a "you" in English. E.g. "you are" would be directly translated to "vós sois".

Although nowadays "vocês são" seems to be more commonly used and has the same meaning as the "you are" in English, the verb form being used is the third-person plural, making it resemble "they are" more than "you are"...

I specially noticed this in Portuguese classes for foreigners, which there is no need to memorize any verb form starting with "vós"... This makes it a lot easier, since verbs when used with "vós" seem to be the hardest (and weirdest ones) to memorize.

By the way, are Portuguese and Brazilian children no longer required to learn the verb forms associated to "vós"?


I respectfully dissent from Armfoot's answer as to usage and I'd like to also address the "why?", which is after all the title of the question.

On Usage

First we need to distinguish two usages: (1) "vós" referring to a single person and (2) to a multiple persons.

In the first case, "vós" used to be used as a deferential or formal treatment (more on that later). That usage is all but dead, remaining mostly in:

  1. period dramatizations,
  2. to address God ("Pai nosso que estais no céu...").

As a plural, however, the situation is different. In particular, vós is not formal when addressing multiple persons. In fact, the opposite is true, it's more informal than using the 3rd person in the few regions of Portugal where it's still used. For instance, Conde provides the following paradigm for the regional Portuguese from Trás-os-montes and Beiras (simplified):

           informal   formal   very formal
2nd sing   tu         você     o senhor
2nd plural vós        vocês    os senhores

Here is an example from CETEMPúblico, which is clearly not formal:

«Ganhastes, mas a jogar assim ides mas é p'ra II Divisão»

Note that the paradigm for standard European Portuguese (that is, the one spoken by educated people from the capital) uses "vocês" for informal treatment (which, by the way, is not as dangerous as the singular "você"). I lived in Lisbon until I was 25 and, outside of classrooms, set phrases like "Falai no mau que ele aparece" or impersonations of Diácono Remédios, the first time I actually heard the 2nd person plural declinations was already in college, from a colleague who had come to study in Lisbon from the northern hinterland (in 2002).

In the regions where it's not commonly used, it still doesn't sound formal. No one in their right mind would use it in a formal letter.

It sounds at best, poetic or of a solemn style, or, at worst, provincial. In this sense, it is similar to the poetic or rhetorical use of tu. As a maxim, in Portugal people would say:

Não faças aos outros o que não que queres que te façam a ti.

Even to someone they wouldn't address with tu. Likewise:

Não vades pedir ao lavrador quebrado de trabalho os ratinhados das suas economias para regalos da capital...

is not an order to the interlocutors, but rather a general statement.

And if you present a speech to an audience and you use "vós" (like Pinto da Costa does), you're not making the speech more formal (for that you would use "os senhores" or "Vossas Excelências"). You're either making it more informal/popular sounding (especially if the audience is from the North of Portugal and has had some contact with the form) or closer to a sermon (otherwise).

On the Diachronic Aspect

The process has to be seen in the context of the highly stratified societies of the past centuries. Here, each of the upper social layers (starting with the king and the court), then the nobility and the bourgeoisie demanded distinct forms of treatment. These would then be adopted by the lower classes, to the point where new forms had to be invented to distinguish them again from the lower classes. This is a process not much unlike what is seen today with names, which go down the social ladder until they stop being used altogether.

To get into specifics, this is the timeline described in this article by Lopes and Duarte:

Up until the end of the 14th century, the system was similar to that of the French:

Cintra (1972) shows that the current system of address differs from that found in the inchoate stages of the language, where there were no forms of nominal type – or at least they can't be found in texts. The opposition was established essentially between tu/vós (intimate form of address) and vós (form of courtesy or distance), like until this day in French.

According to the same article, in 1460, "Vossa mercê" shows up as form of address to the King and stops being so in 1490. I trickles down the social ladder to the nobility and, by 16th century, Gil Vicente uses it for the bourgeoisie. "Vossa Senhoria" goes through a similar process, starting with the king and passing down to the nobility, but stays at a higher level than "Vossa mercê".

By 1597, the king Filipe II establishes in law the forms of treatment that should be used. You can find the law here, page 197 (Google Books numbering) or 287 (own text's numbering). Note that this law limits the use of "Vossa Excelência" to the duke of Bragança and to legitimate sons and daughters of infantes, "Vossa Senhoria" to members of the nobily and to top public servants. It does not regulate the usage of "Vossa mercê", which was already widespread.

With these competing forms, in the 16th century "vós" had already started its path to obsolescence. The article goes on analyzing plays and this process appears to have been already completed in the first half of the 19th century (maybe a bit earlier in Brazil).

The trajectory of the plural seems to be similar, though the article points out a faster grammaticalization of "vocês".

  • +1 for the research, but it doesn't seem you disagreed with me since your first example fits into my forth point of "vós" mockery usage. You also know that excessive formality falls into mockery pretty easily... Perhaps you're suggesting that Pinto da Costa does this on purpose, or perhaps not, but he's an exceptional case, even among northern Portuguese (check a few examples in one of his videos and he also uses "tás bom pá?" in informal speeches). D. Felippe II did ask people to use "V. Majestade" (p.287), fitting into my 3rd point. – Armfoot Oct 19 '15 at 10:31
  • @Armfoot You don't understand. The mockery doesn't come from any "excessive formality" or suggests that the person is stuck up, like you say. In fact, the opposite. It's used there as popular form, and to show less respect (note that it refers to a plural). What you're saying is that you can use it towards only one person to show mock deference, to which I wouldn't disagree. And in addition, you're confusing "formality" (what you would use in formal situations, like addressing a bishop, the President and so on) with just poetic or solemn. – Artefacto Oct 19 '15 at 11:44
  • Also, "Vossa Majestade" has as much to do with "vós" as "você" ("Vossa mercê"). Both are nominal forms that take the 3rd person. – Artefacto Oct 19 '15 at 11:53
  • In the 2nd point of my answer I also distinguished its poetic usage, so it's hard to understand where my confusion lies... However, correct me if I'm wrong, Your Highness can still be addressed in both forms: "V. Alteza quer algo?" or "V. Alteza, quereis algo?" ("vós" omitted): the latter is not less respectful than the former and, certainly, the most popular and preferred form nowadays is the former, unless you're referring to the Portuguese meaning of popular, i.e. a less refined usage by the common people in general. – Armfoot Oct 19 '15 at 14:15
  • Recalling Ciberdúvidas example once again: «peço a V. Ex.ª que faça algo» and another version «se porventura surgir oportunidade a V. Ex.ª, peço a vós que façais algo para resolver a situação». The latter can refer to a group of people or the same person being treated as Your Excellency, without compromising the formality or turning it into a less refined message. – Armfoot Oct 19 '15 at 14:27

From that wiktionary link there are a few current situations where "vós" is still used:

  • in certain areas of Portugal (inland areas particularly: these may refer to non-coastal areas or rural areas where older generations have a traditional way of speaking);
  • if you want to mimic the style of old Portuguese proses and poems;
  • in extremely formal situations, i.e. if there was a new king and you wanted to address him directly, you wouldn't use "você" or "tu", you would say "vós" or "vossa Majestade" (your highness) instead (for writing to a president or to denote a formal treatment to someone important, this is also appropriate: "Vossa Excelência" or "V. Ex.ª", meaning your excellency);
  • finally, and currently the most likely popular usage of this pronoun is when you want to mock someone for considering himself as being part of some royal lineage (or just for being a stuck-up nosed person), or when you are playing the role of a royal jerk yourself. This second-person plural verb usage is most appropriate in these situations, e.g.: [vós] quereis fazer o obséquio de me trazer algo para me refrescar?, meaning something like: ye would do the favor to bring me something to freshen up? But if you ask this in Portuguese, it is likely that the person who's being asked to, annoyed by your words, will just throw some random liquid all over you.

The term "vocês" however, according to Gramática Histórica da Língua Portuguesa (ciberduvidas) was firstly mentioned in 1921 for addressing more than one individual:

Said Ali: «dirigindo-nos a mais de um indivíduo, servimo-nos hoje de vocês como plural semântico de tu

Interestingly nowadays, in a formal situation "você" or "vocês" can be used in this way:

Vocês desejam algo? (more commonly used in Brazil)

Desejam algo? (more commonly used in Portugal)

Meaning: would you like me to give/provide you [people] something? And, with the same meaning:

[Vós] desejais algo?

Would be considered as excessively formal and not exactly appropriate... This can also be used to refer to one person exclusively, making it a bit ambiguous if you're facing a particular person in a group of people.

I believe children learning Portuguese (whether in Brazil or Portugal) are required to learn both forms, but I cannot confirm this...

  • 1
    "Sua excelência" seria o usado em Portugal. "Vossa Majestade" soa... a Shakespeare. – ANeves Jul 16 '15 at 12:46
  • 1
    @ANeves Vossa Excelência, novamente :) – Armfoot Jul 16 '15 at 12:52
  • Adding to the answer, Ciberdúvidas in another question ("moda de bem falar") actually recommends the usage of the 2nd-person plural ("vós") in order to preserve Portuguese literary culture and prevent it to fall into complete disuse. In fact, terminating a person sounds bad, no matter how it's worded... – Armfoot Oct 19 '15 at 16:39
  • I don't necessarily agree, @Armfoot... after having to learn declinations, I decided that losing some unnecessary complexity (e.g. declination; genders for substantives; gender concordance) is healthy for a language and makes it fitter for survival. – ANeves Oct 19 '15 at 22:43
  • on this process of degrammaticalisation, tell me then when expressions such as "tu fizestes" will be grammatically accepted. What do you say? 2030? – João Pimentel Ferreira Jan 30 '18 at 10:29

In Brazil, vós is all but extinct, but half a century ago, I was still required to learn it in elementary school. It is very useful nowadays when I feel the need to get infuriated with writers/translators who don't know how to use it, but feel compelled to try, and to fail miserably. I have seen things like "sejais pacientes", "não sejai tolo", and so on.

As such, it is not exactly formal, as it isn't used in modern formal situations, but archaic - and then, people will probably assume it used to be formal when it was not yet archaic.

As most Western European languages, Portuguese underwent a process of degrammaticalisation during the latter five centuries of its existence. Perhaps is is still undergoing such process. Remnants of case system were relinquished. Whole verbal tenses went archaic - who still says "ele fora" instead of "ele tinha sido", or "voltarei" instead of "vou voltar"? In the popular register, plural desinences are starting to fall away.

And among the victims of such degrammaticalisation, the second person plural pronouns, and the corresponding verbal forms, are prominent victims. In their case, as Armfoot says, it might have been helped by the competition of fancy forms such as "vossa mercê" - which is, after all, the etymological origin of the now triumphant pair você/vocês.

Now, in Brazil, it seems that we are trending to an unlikely combination - the use of você, paired with indirect forms from tu: te, ti, teu, contigo. This probably has to do with an extreme difficulty to distinguish and use the adequate third person indirect pronouns - o/a, lhe, seu/sua, si, consigo (in the latter two cases, aggravated by the fact that these words are almost exclusively reflexive in modern Brazilian Portuguese). From what I gather by interneting with Portuguese people (mostly in this very site), in Portugal, or parts of it, it seems that these, or part of these, functions are being performed by old second person plural pronouns, resulting in sentences like, "Querem que vos traga o café da manhã na vossa cama?", with an implied você as subject.

So, I would venture that the demise of vós is only part of a much wider transformation of the language. In this sense, it is not really different - only less radical - from the phenomena that cost English its case desinencies, verbal tenses, genders, and, of course, the pronoun "thou" and the verbal forms associated with it.

Regarding the problem posed by João Pimentel Ferreira, namely,

One of the pragmatical reasons why in Portuguese and Spanish, contrary to Germanic languages, one is not obliged to use the personal pronoun on the verbal tenses, is exactly because the receiver may easily deduce the person and the tense, by merely listening the verb.

Brazilian Portuguese solves this by retaining some second person forms, and by the explicit use of the pronouns você/vocês. There is no problem, actually, with firs person sentences; "vou ao café" doesn't require a pronoun, because the verbal form is clear. And we would say, depending on region, and on the formality of the context, "Você vai ao café?" or "Vais ao café", which is facilitated because we tend to retain the second person form of the imperative ("Se vais ao café, me traz um maço de cigarros." or even "Se você vai ao café, me traz um maço de cigarros"). Because of that, Pimentel Ferreira's joke would be impossible in Brazilian Portuguese: if someone says, "são umas vacas", there is no way it can be understood as "you are a bunch of cows"; it necessarily means "they are a bunch of cows". "Vocês" is required if the speaker is referring to his interlocutors.

But the problem is, the pronominal system of modern Portuguese is still inconsistent; its European and Brazilian varieties are trying to mend such inconsistencies in different ways, which is a huge part of why those variants are drifting away from each other.

  • I don't know whether is that so clear since the grammatical rules of the verbal tenses in Portuguese do not demand the use of the personal pronoun. You deduce the person and the time by merely listening the verbal conjugation. I agree on the process of degrammaticalisation, that is simply a historical fact, but in my humble opinion, such process impoverishes the language. And that is not merely a passionate nor a nostalgic issue, it’s what we call in information transmission, compactness: you can transmit more information with fewer words. Like for example "ser" is different from "estar". – João Pimentel Ferreira Jan 30 '18 at 10:14
  • @JoãoPimentelFerreira - I think the grammatical rules of the language are changing in different ways in Brazil and in Portugal. When I read an internet ad that goes "Pode interessar-se também por..." I know this is European Portuguese; the ellision of você as a subject is weird from a Brazilian point of view. (We would say "Você talvez se interesse também por...") I understand your point, but I think the problem is being avoided differently in each country - and so I would say, the grammatical rules of spoken Brazilian Portuguese do demand the pronoun, if that pronoun is você or vocês. – Luís Henrique Jan 30 '18 at 11:20
  • 1
    It's so refreshing to see spoken Brazilian portuguese treated with the same respect and rigour as the "official" standard written grammar. As a non-native speaker, sometimes trying to read about portuguese online is like reading about a different language, because so much time is spent on rarely used structures whereas really common grammatical constructions and distinctions in the spoken language are footnotes or omitted entirely. So thanks! Talvez é porque (as vezes) os Brasileiros tem o habito de desvalorizar a própria cultura popular. But maybe I'm talking out of my ass!! – Some_Guy Jun 22 '18 at 22:41

You may vote negatively since I will not reply directly to the OP, but I must stress out that the richness on the variations of the verbal tenses, serves exactly to avoid ambiguities. One of the pragmatical reasons why in Portuguese and Spanish, contrary to Germanic languages, one is not obliged to use the personal pronoun on the verbal tenses, is exactly because the receiver may easily deduce the person and the tense, by merely listening the verb.

I.e., when one says

vou ao café

the listener knows immediately the person and the verbal tense, by merely looking at the verb. You can only achieve that because the Portuguese language has several different combinatorial verbal tenses according to time and person. If one uses the same verbal conjugation for different personal tenses, such situation with time may create ambiguities, and thus in my opinion, impoverishes the language.

I give this very coloquial and eventually offensive example to my friends:

An apprehensive and agitated guy is in a night club and suddenly he sees two nice girls. He approaches them while he stares at them, and says:
- "São umas vacas"!
The girls reply:
- "Nós"?!
The guy immediately answers:
- "Não, as minhas irmãs"!

If the vós were still in use, this type of hypothetical and satirical situations would be avoided. Furthermore, nothing to add on to the very comprehensive and complete answers already given. I still use vós in the written form to address informally more than one person, and I am from Lisbon, but I admit that is not so usual, though it's grammatically perfectly correct.

There is indeed in Portuguese a process of degrammaticalisation, that is simply a historical fact, but in my humble opinion, such process impoverishes the language. And that is not merely a passionate nor a nostalgic issue, it’s what we call in information transmission, compactness: one can transmit more information with fewer packets (words). Like for example "ser" is different from "estar" being both in English merged into "to be". And when one says "estou gorda", is different from saying "sou gorda"!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.