What is the word for "you" in Portuguese (2023)

This brief note is dedicated to all those who have spent a long time learning Spanish and want to add Portuguese as an easy “second” more or less in the same manner a German symphony orchestra would throw in a Strauss waltz as a “bonbon” to finish off an otherwise all-Bruckner night with a light touch.

A couple of years ago I flew to Porto Alegre. At the client’s office and after introductions, a young man asked: Voc� j� conhecia Porto Alegre? (Had you been in Porto Alegre before?), addressing me as voc�, the pronoun we use for equals and inferiors. I replied that I had lived for some time in the city, liked it very much and demonstrated my love in a few short sentences. The man started addressing me as tu, the pronoun reserved for family and friends in Rio Grande do Sul. I had been accepted.

Elsewhere in Brazil, tu is dying out. People are either voc� or o senhor.

Now, Brazilian soap operas and music are all the rage in Portugal and our ways are affecting theirs. So you already hear a lot of voc� in Lisbon.

Judges, who should be Vossa Excel�ncia, are often addressed as plain o senhor by witnesses (but not by lawyers). During press conferences, journalists address the president as o senhor, not Vossa Excel�ncia. The Pope is still His Holiness but o senhor has to do most of the time for the Archbishop and for the Chief Rabbi. We have very little time for formality. We got a big country to run.

On the rare occasions when tu is used outside Rio Grande do Sul, it usually takes a third-person verb: tu gosta? instead of tu gostas? and always assumes an intimate relationship. You don’t address a stranger as tu in Brazil. Strangers may be voc�, but never tu.

Voc� is a very interesting word. It always takes the verb in the third person: voc� gosta? and grammarians refuse to classify it as a pronoun. For all they know, voc� / voc�s are forms of treatment and the second-person pronoun is tu / v�s. From a historical standpoint, they are right: voc� is short for vossa merc� (your mercy), and that is why it takes the verb in the third person. Historically, according to grammarians, when I say voc�, I am talking to your mercy, not to you. So I should address my words to her (mercy being of the feminine gender in Portuguese) and use the verb in the third person.

The same happens in English: You know but Your Excellency knows. The habit of addressing people indirectly through their honorific titles seems to have developed in Latin and passed on to several other languages.

As I said, diachronically, voc� may be a forma de tratamento, but it now functions as any other pronoun.

Spanish Interlude

But, please, remember that the Spanish usted, through analogous to voc�, is formal, not familiar and tu is very much alive in that language. So you don’t address a Spanish-speaking person as usted just because you would call him voc� in Brazil. On second thought, you might, since they are a lot more formal than us and often use usted when we would use plain voc�. But that is another story.

Back to Portuguese, now in Portugal

This voc�-thing is more Brazilian than Portuguese. Even a few years ago, the Portuguese used voc� somewhat disparagingly to address their inferiors, but never their equals. I still remember a Portuguese merchant spitting voc�s at his employees, while he reserved o senhor for customers and tu for his partner. Tu is very much alive over there too.

Now, Brazilian soap operas and music are all the rage in Portugal and our ways are affecting theirs. So you already hear a lot of voc� in Lisbon. But they do not seem to feel very comfortable with that.

In addition, in Portugal, they use pronouns a lot less than in Brazil and things like would you like some more wine? often came out as o Danilo quer mais vinho? (Would Danilo like some more wine) as if I were somebody else. This is possible in Brazil, but extremely rare, perhaps humorous, sarcastic or used to talk to children.

At a Lisbon restaurant, a colleague was addressed as a doutora gostaria de… (would the doctor like to…) again as if she were somebody else.

In Portugal, as in Rio Grande do Sul, tu is for family and friends.

Many years ago part of my family moved from Portugal to Brazil and I was astonished to hear them addressing me as vossemec�, an intermediary form between Vossa Merc� and voc� used for young children at the time. I am not sure this usage is still alive. Maybe in rural areas. Didn’t hear it during a recent visit to Lisbon. Not that I am a child any longer either.

Back to Brazil, this time formally

Voc� is the most common form of address in Brazil. We have always been less formal than the Portuguese and are becoming more and more informal. O senhor, the corresponding formal address, is used less and less. When I was young, everybody whose age exceeded mine by more than a few years was o senhor. Today few of the youngsters I know address me as senhor.

Young children may add a tio (uncle) as a handle here and there, but it is usually tio Danilo, voc� quer… and not tio Danilo, o senhor quer….

Even professionals are often addressed as voc�. If I used anything but Denise, voc�… in talking to my dentist she would think something was wrong, but then she is young enough to be my daughter.

However, if you address someone as voc� and the addressee replies addressing you as o senhor, that can either show respect or a be a pointed remark meaning that distances should be kept.

In Brazilian mailing lists, where everybody is voc�, a message to senhor X or referring to o senhor spells trouble. As soon as the sky is bright again, people start voc�ing everybody else.

What about v�s?

V�s, the plural of tu, has died out in Brazil. The last person I heard addressing a group as v�s was president Juscelino Kubitschek, back in the late fifties. Now it is either voc�s or os senhores. Os senhores is considered too stiff and we often address a group as voc�s even if we would address individual members as o senhor.

V�s as a polite form of address to a single person has also disappeared, even in addressing God. When I learned to pray, back in the fifties, it was que estais no c�u (who art in heaven). Now it is que est�, indicating that the Lord is either voc� or o senhor?but certainly not tu or v�s.

Strangely enough, tu, which was considered too rude for use when addressing the butcher, was often used to address God. The theory behind this is that, God being our best friend, we ought to address Him as a member of the family. Not very convincing, I tell you.

Of handles and articles

If you feel you should address people as o senhor, you must add a handle to their names too. Curiously, we can add handles to first names. So, people who address me as senhor, also call me “seu” Danilo. This particular “seu” is always used between inverted commas in written Portuguese. (Spoken Portuguese does not use inverted commas…) The reason is “seu” is a shortened form of o senhor developed by slaves and it seems the quotes are useful to explain that we know it is wrong, but…

Even doctors may be addressed by their first names, with handles. If I were a doctor?which I am not?it would be Doutor Danilo, o senhor gostaria de… Also, we can freely add articles to names: o Danilo disse que … (Danilo said that…). In other countries, people may add articles before proper nouns to show contempt or scorn, but not here. Even my mother says o Danilo?and I am her only son. This is quite Southern; however, North of Rio, names do not take articles. Don’t forget that the population of Brazil is concentrated in the center and south of the country.

The President and I are on a first-name basis

Even members of government are usually known by their first names, a custom that creates some strange differences between English-language texts on Brazil and what could be their Brazilian counterparts: President Cardoso: o Fernando Henrique; President Quadros: o J�nio. My parents have always referred to the Vargas Era as o tempo do Get�lio.

As long as he is the President, the President will be addressed as Presidente, but informally referred to as o Fernando Henrique. If he were not the president, he would probably have been o Doutor Fernando. His full name is Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and his has always been Fernando or formally Fernando H. Cardoso, but he had to select two components as his political name when elected to the Senate and thought Fernando Henrique would be better.

Very few Brazilians are addressed by their family names. When a Brazilian prefers his family name it usually means that his first name is very common and he wants to be seen apart from the herd. It may also mean he hates his given name for some reason we better not discuss here.

The case with writers is even more interesting. Because we often keep our mothers’ maiden names as a middle name, most of us have double family names (My full name is Danilo Ameixeiro Nogueira, good for a great laugh, because it means Plumtree – Walnuttree). Many writers use those double family names as their pen names.

We usually know them by the first of those names, but foreigners usually prefer the last?if they know the guy at all. So Jos� Maria d’E�a de Queir�s, who signed his writings E�a de Queiroz, may be Queir�s or Queiroz to you, but is E�a to me. Same with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, (Machado de Assis) which may be Assis abroad, but is Machado in Brazil, and was always called Machado by his friends.

Dealing with females

The correct handle for a woman’s name is dona. If you ever meet my wife and decide you should address her as a senhora (which I recommend you don’t), it would be dona Vera, a senhora quer…. Better go the voc� way: Vera, voc� quer….

Never, never, never address a Brazilian woman by her husband’s family name. If you call her senhora Nogueira, my wife probably wouldn’t even notice that you were referring to her.

Ruth Cardoso, the President’s wife is Doutora Ruth (she has a degree in anthropology) or Dra. Ruth Cardoso, on formal occasions. She probably won’t mind being called just dona Ruth. But don’t call her senhora Cardoso, please. If you want to know the name of a married woman whose husband you know, ask someone como se chama a esposa do doutor Ant�nio?(What is the name of Dr. Antonio’s wife) and you will hear something like Ah, a dona M�rcia?
And, of course, senhorita has been dead for ages. The way we address a woman in these parts does not depend on her marital status.

Women still add their husband’s name to theirs when they get married. A woman that makes a professional name for herself before getting married often continues signing her maiden name at the office to avoid the trouble of telling everybody that M�rcia Antunes is now M�rcia Antunes da Silva. She will sign a check with her full name, though. In any case, she will probably go on being M�rcia. Or something like M�rcia da Contabilidade, if the company happens to employ several M�rcias and this particular one works in Accounting.

Unfortunately, American companies refuse to accept this local custom and make a point of having their e-mails as SilvaMA@br.something.com a demonstration of cultural intolerance that creates a lot of trouble locally. We most learn that M�rcia Antunes is SilvaMA, and keep an index cross-referencing such things.

Of subjects and objects

But I’m letting myself go astray, as usual. You is both object and subject, as you know. In Portuguese, as in other languages, the you in you know him is different from the you in he knows you. Here, guys, we have a real mess.
Because voc� is a form of treatment and not a darned simple second-person pronoun, it should take the same object forms as he. So it is I gave you the book yesterday should be dei-lhe o livro ontem and grammarians insist it is. Only it is not.

First, lhe is perceived by most of us as only applying to the third person or to the formal senhor. That is not what the grammar book says, I know, but this is not a grammar book and if you want one, by all means, buy one. I don’t give a hoot. I am telling it like it is, what I hear all the time and what I read, for instance, in translators’ mailing lists or in my daily paper. Not what grammarians claim I should write if I cared.

So, again, grammarians notwithstanding, dei-lhe o livro is usually felt as meaning I gave him the book. Or, at most, as another form of eu dei o livro ao senhor. Not as eu dei o livro para voc�. In addition, lhe is rarely used, because it is felt to be too stiff. If you gave him the book, please say eu dei o livro para ele, not eu lhe dei o livro.

But the object form of voc� in colloquial Brazilian Portuguese is te: Te dei o livro ontem. That makes the hair of our brothers across the Atlantic stand on end. Because te is �tono (unstressed) it cannot be placed before the verb except under special circumstances. They would say dei-te o livro ontem (notice the hyphen, please).

However, Brazilian pronunciation long ago lost the difference between stressed and unstressed words. Portuguese pronunciation distinguishes between te, the pronoun, and t�, the letter “T”, but the difference is felt very faintly or not at all in Brazil, and, in any case, the te is as stressed as the next word, so we don’t see why we should place it elsewhere.

Where do I place this little #@$%$! of a pronoun?

The rules for placing pronomes pessoais do caso obl�quo (personal pronouns in the objective case) are taught in Brazil at length and with little success.

As proof that we can place our pronouns as well as our European brethren, our grammar books and teachers often quote Machado (Assis, in English), whose pronouns are usually “correctly” placed. However, it is often said that he always let his wife Carolina correct his originals because she knew grammar a lot better than he did. Dona Carolina was Portuguese.

We place our pronouns where we damn well please and say things like Me d� o livro! using the pronoun to start a sentence, which is taboo in Portugal, even worse than using a preposition to end an English sentence with.

Mesoclitically speaking…

In addition, except in very formal style, we have abandoned mes�clise, the curious habit of inserting the pronoun inside the verb: Dar-te-ia (I would give to you), or its more serious cousin double mesoclisis, in which we insert two pronouns inside the verb: Dar-vo-lo-ia (I would give it to you

[plural]), or its even more serious cousin double mesoclisis with contraction: dar-to-ia (I would give it to you [singular]) where o (it) is merged with te to give to.
The Portuguese still use those forms a little bit more than us, but they too are getting tired of them. We say Eu daria para voc�. Only if you say you are going give someone something, please, specify what you are willing to give. Saying that you will give without saying what is to be given has sexual overtones, which may be undesirable. Yes, it’s that complicated.

Of Accusatives and Datives

There is another second-person object pronoun: ti. Technically, te is accusative, ti is dative. In practice, we use ti with prepositions and te without them: Perguntaram alguma coisa a ti? is equivalent to perguntaram-te alguma coisa? with some difference in emphasis, however. This is current in Europe, but not in Brazil. We say Te perguntaram alguma coisa? and Perguntaram alguma coisa para voc�? Ti is also disappearing in Brazil. Yes, that much simplification.
The press and the pronoun

The press is very uncomfortable with those things and they want to write right which they believe to be the way the grammar book says, and the people who write grammar books in turn think that right is what Machado (Assis, in English) wrote, and Machado thought his wife knew better. And so the Brazilian press tries to write as Dona Carolina would, which they cannot for several reasons. I’ll spare you the explanation why not.

But it is very funny. The Brazilian press edits all interviews trying to make even illiterate favela-dwellers talk as if they had studied at the University of Coimbra. Disseram-me que, where the guy obviously said me disseram que, for instance. But the operative word is trying because the journalist wouldn’t be able to place the pronouns right and would make grievous errors in the direction of hypercorrection. You often read que disseram-me, which is against the rules, since que “attracts” the pronouns to a position in front of the verb. It goes on and on.

We have entire books on the right place to put a pronoun, as if we had nothing better to do.

Of Pigs

I was forgetting that you in utterances like you pig! is seu: Seu porco! (We don’t call cops pigs, however. I call police officers senhor, because my mom told me that anyone who’s got a gun deserves to be addressed as senhor. People with a less formal education may call them many things, but never porco.)

So seu porco! is used for someone who picks his nose in public or eats with dirty hands. Seu porquinho (you little pig) ditto, if the pig under discussion is a child, spouse, or near-spouse; very endearing. Seu porc�o (you big pig!) is even more endearing and seu porcalh�o (you really big pig) may show real loving care. Or not, depending on the intonation. But that’s another story.

Seu in this case does not need quotes, because it is the possessive pronoun and adjective, not slave-talk for senhor. Curiously, the usual possessive pronoun for voc� is teu, not seu, following the rule that voc� takes the second person. This is very logical, for voc� is second person, although originally was third. Of course, you can say teu porco. But that means your pig, not you pig! However, a pig belonging to someone to whom we owe some form of respect is o seu porco, because the possessive of o senhor is seu, not teu. But many people believe seu should only be used for his, and render your pig (with respect) as o porco do senhor.

Now, perhaps, you would like to hear a bit about how we translate be or there into Portuguese. But not today, I am sure. Perhaps some other time.

This article was originally published at Translation Journal (https://accurapid.com/journal).

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