Everyone who’s slogged through Beginning Spanish knows that there are two registers for referring to people: the informal tú (and, in some places, vos) and the formal usted. This distinction, so natural to native speakers, tends to tie English speakers into protocolar knots. When do I refer to someone with one form or the other? Will I sound too stiff and awkward if I use usted? Or worse, will the person I’m talking to think that I think they’re old? But will tú sound too chummy, too igualado (someone who dares to consider himself on the same level as the person he’s speaking to – horror). What do I do in emails that are kind of semi-formal? And hey, what about X person who began addressing with someone with usted and wound up using tú, or vice versa? And so on.
What is not often taken into account in this consideration of register is that the tú/usted distinction extends to every situation life throws at us. Not just basic, textbook greetings or emails of ambiguous formality, but also social situations of the most sensitive nature. In Spanish, for example, you can not only rip someone a new asshole, but do it with class, that is, with usted. I know, because I’ve seen it done. Although you might think the piercing aggressiveness of many insults would lend themselves by default to the use of tú, Spanish speakers, even in the most heated of disputes, take remarkable care to calibrate their register. Thus, if you wish to transmit the desire that your interlocutor engage in sexual intercourse with his or her female procreator, you can say ¡Chinga tu madre! (tú) or ¡Chingue usted a su madre! (usted). If, after getting your own back with someone who cut you off in traffic, you wish to accompany your colorful hand motion – for example, the famous Mexican “¡Huevos!” gesture – with a suitable epithet, you can choose between ¡Ten! (Take that! – tú) or ¡Tenga! (??? – usted). I was once picked up at the Querétaro bus station by a taxi that apparently was only authorized to drop off, but not pick up passengers. We were followed out of the terminal by another taxi which proceeded to draw abreast of ours at a stop light and dress our driver down with such vehemence that I started making contingency plans for when he jumped out of his vehicle with a bat. But – crucial point – at no point in this irate and expletive-filled rant did he vary from the use of usted. Perhaps tellingly, the dispute did not go beyond words.
In the semantic world of English, of course, such conjugation-driven code switching is not grammatically available. That does not mean, however, that the concept does not exist, only that we have to resort to more creative forms of register mixing to arrive at the same effect. “Would you consider fucking your mother?” “Might I suggest that you fuck your mother?” or even “Here’s an idea! How about you go and fuck your mother and then you come back and tell us all about it!” are about as close as we can hope to get to Chingue usted a su madre. The problem is, unless you’re a member of the landed aristocracy, such phrases (including delightful variants such as Fucketh Thine Self) are always used in an ironic manner, the mocking formality only adding fuel to the fire of the original insult. This is not to say that the Spanish usted insult cannot be used ironically – of course it can – but I would argue that it is much more often an expression, even in the depths of one’s rage, of the key underlying element to all social interaction in Latin countries: respeto. Respect.
Another situation that tends to scramble English-speakers’ circuits is the formal imperative: that is, the giving of orders with usted. A daughter will dump a load of dirty dishes into the sink and tell her slothful father: Lávelos. Wash them, paternal authority figure. A shopper buying flowers in the market will tell the seller: Déme una docena. Give me a dozen, person I don’t know and may very well not care to. The ability to give orders with usted opens up a nuanced social space allowing one to lay down the law and be nice about it. It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that the orderer, in his heart, really respects the person he’s ordering any more than a person whose language does not offer him the option, but does have at his disposal a protocol to follow that enables him to act as if he did. And in most everyday social interactions, let’s be honest, that’s usually enough.
This being said, Spanish is far from being the only language which distinguishes between formal and informal registers in this way. French learners struggle between tu and vous, Italian learners between tu and Lei, and, for those intrepid enough to take on German, the choice is between du and Sie. And so on. In none of these languages, however – and please correct me if I’m wrong – have I noticed such an extensive use of the formal-register insult. A angry French speaker might suggest that you cut short whatever it is you’re saying with a snappy Ferme ta guele! but I have never heard one say Fermez votre guele! (Although I admit, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came somewhat close in the 2012 presidential debate when he accused his rival François Hollande, nostrils aflaring and with the appropriately formal vous, of being a “little slanderer“). I have never heard an Italian formally recommend that one retire for the purposes of defecating, although apparently it does occur. And an irate German might spit out a Verpiss dich! but rarely, if ever, a Verpissen Sie! In the category of insulting with respect, Spanish – and more specifically, Latin American Spanish – is in a class all of its own.