In English, personal pronouns in the second person are very straightforward. There’s just one word: you. English learners of foreign languages might be surprised to find that this is actually not the case for most modern languages. In Portuguese, it can be particularly confusing, because accepted usage for Portuguese personal pronouns varies depending on where you are in the Portuguese speaking world. Fortunately, when you learn with our expert tutors, they’ll tailor your lessons on this subject to the specific type of Portuguese you want to learn.
In this post, we’ll look at why Portuguese personal pronouns in the second person have become rather confusing and explain how each one is used in the different parts of the Portuguese speaking world.
Why the Confusion?
To understand why Portuguese personal pronouns have become so complicated, we need to briefly look at the history of the language. Originally, there were only two Portuguese pronouns in the second person: tu and vós. Tu is more informal, and is used for addressing single individuals of equal or lower social status to the speaker, whereas vós is used for addressing groups of people, or individuals of higher social standing or in formal situations. This is similar to some other Romance languages: for example, in modern French we have tu and vous, which work in exactly the same way.
The word você in modern Portuguese complicates this picture. Etymologically, it is a contraction of vossa mercê (your mercy), a third-person form of address for individuals of extremely high social status—originally the monarchs of Portugal, then later for members of the aristocratic houses. Over the centuries, vossa mercê was abbreviated to você, and its use became more and more widespread.
Because it derives from a third-person form of address, você uses the same set of verb forms as the third-person pronouns ele/ela, whereas tu and vós have their own unique set of verb forms. This makes it easier to remember the verb conjugations for você, which has probably contributed to its rapid increase in popularity over the last two centuries, particularly in Brazil.
This complicated history has led to a situation where Portuguese personal pronouns are used differently depending on where you are in the Portuguese-speaking world. Below, we’ll briefly look at each of the three Portuguese personal pronouns, how they are used, and how their use varies in different locations.
If you’re learning Brazilian Portuguese, you can get by just learning how to use você; in some parts of Brazil, it is the only Portuguese personal pronoun used. In others, there is still a distinction between between the more formal and impersonal você and the more intimate tu.
In Portugal, você is less common—in some places, it is even considered demeaning to address a person with você, and you’ll receive the response “você” é linguagem de estrebaria! (“você” is the language of the stable!). Instead, when addressing people formally, it is more common to use the third person forms of address o senhor/a senhora or to use the person’s name.
Você can be pluralized as vocês when addressing multiple persons. In this case, the verb forms for the plural third-person eles/elas are used.
Wherever you are in the Portuguese-speaking world, the pronoun tu is only used for a person of equal or lower status, or with whom the speaker has a close relationship. Unlike você, which uses third-person verb forms, tu has its own set of verb forms. For instance, the verb ter (to have) is conjugated into the simple present tense as tu tens (you have). However, in some parts of Brazil, mostly in the south, tu uses third-person verb forms, and you will find ter conjugated into the simple present as tu tem. This is a colloquial usage and is considered grammatically incorrect.
Vós is much less commonly used than in the past, having been replaced in Brazil with você and vocês, and in Portugal with third-person forms of address. In Brazil, it is semi-obsolete and only found in classic literature, or sometimes in prayers. In European Portuguese, its plural use is still relatively common—that is, it is used in a similar way to vocês in Brazil. In parts of northern Portugal it is still used to address both groups of people and individuals of higher status or in a formal environment, much like the French vous.
Like tu, vós has its own set of verb forms. For example, ter (to have) is conjugated into the simple present as vós tendes (you have). If you’re learning the verb forms for vós, though, you’re in advanced Portuguese territory—even the majority of native Portuguese speakers don’t know them all!
Practice Your Pronouns
To get to grips with all aspects of using Portuguese personal pronouns—pronunciation, conjugation, as well as which one to use in a given situation—your best bet is to learn with our specialized tutors. Whatever your level or Portuguese, and whatever your specific needs, our tutors can find the lesson plan for you!