I was interviewing a philologist on Thursday (never mind what I was doing interviewing a philologist) and I thought he bore it with dignity and patience even though there was something about the way he bore himself that also made me think afterward that perhaps he was condescending to the situation.
I was for some reason feeling very confident—I had been interviewing with a lot of success, to my seeming—and it cheered me greatly to have a philologist as my subject. He had studied German, and I graded his test later and found he aced the English grammar and reading; I was proud of him. And during the interview he imparted to me some information.
He did his thesis, I found out, on the Plural Majestuoso (majestic plural) of Ocaña, Santander where he is from. It is a region of the country in the east which keeps the use of the pronoun “vos” as they do in some regions in the west. The people of Ocaña are mainly Spaniards with no intermingled Indian or Negro blood, and their language reflects the racial isolation, apparently. As we were talking about his thesis I learned that the pronoun “usted” is a corruption of vuestra merced brought about in the times of slavery (what the Real Academia shows online is that is comes from “vusted,” which makes his explanation plausible; one ought to be careful in matters like these, though otherwise I have no reason to doubt him). In other words, my philologist assured me that the so called formal pronoun has no very ancient pedigree, and I marveled.
The formal pronoun is very, very common in Colombia, is used even among family members and when I was growing up, was almost the exclusive pronoun used. The exception was that the formal pronoun was never used in addressing God, and it would still be weird for anybody to use the formal pronoun in prayer, though the endings of it are sometimes unwittingly attached to verbs by people who still find the informal cumbrous and unfamiliar.
It was very interesting that the formal pronoun should have such a pedigree, especially considering that in those regions of Colombia where it is most used—to my knowledge, which is admittedly limited— since there they also use a similar corruption: sumerce (su merced).
During my brilliant interview, my philologist was a bit reticent. So much so that I almost scored him lower than other more glib persons I had interviewed. Before I had reflected on what had happened, and before I had scored his test, he struck me as less fluent, but it was reflection that led me to conclude he was reticent and that I heard him make very few errors. Then the situation appeared to me in a better light: I realized he had been putting up with dignity and patience with a situation he must naturally have found rather absurd—in the modern way. Here he was all qualified, and because of institutional rigamarole and the folly of surface certification, chronic resume inflation and mere appearances was being thrust into a situation in which judgment might be passed on his abilities by some twenty-year-old back-packer funding his adventure.
I am myself no twenty-year-old back-packer funding his adventure, but he ran that risk. And I fell into the whole trap of it momentarily, breathing of the spirit of shallow judgment and surface appearances because he was reticent, not as forthcoming as the glib, full of no effervescent enthusiasm. O tempora, o mores!