“Leísmo” and “laísmo”: a basic introduction

I don’t often get to speak to non-native speakers of Spanish that learned the language in Spain (hi Daniel). The other day, I was speaking to a woman who learned Spanish in her teens while living for nine months in Zaragoza. In the middle of our conversation she said:

Tienes que decirla de casarte con ella ahí

Initially I thought it to be a non-native speaker mistake, since I would say decirle in that context. Moments later, though, I realized it was not a mistake, but an example of what some linguists call laísmo. This post will try to explain how it works, along with the phenomenon called leísmo.

First, let’s do a quick introduction of the pronoun system of Spanish by way of comparing it with the pronoun system of English.

In English, the subject pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they, with several variant forms for “plural you”, like you guys, you all/y’all, yous, yinz, etc.

The object pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them, with equally invariant forms of “plural you” for the equivalents mentioned above. The object pronoun forms are used for both direct and indirect objects, and also after prepositions in general.

The possessive forms are my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its, our/ours, your/yours, their/theirs, with variants for “plural you” like you guys, you guyses, y’alls, etc. Some examples:

He likes cupcakes
She called him
She gave him a cupcake
She gave a cupcake to him
He went after her
He gave her his cupcake
Now she is his and he is hers

To describe the pronoun system of Spanish, I will start with a description of the pronoun system of Rioplatense Spanish (my dialect) by comparison with the English system above.

English

Subject

Direct
Object
Indirect
Object
Possessives After
preposition
I
you
he
she
it
you
they
me
you
him
her
it
you
them
me
you
him
her
it
you
them
my
your
his
her
its
your
their
mine
yours
his
hers
its
yours
theirs
me
you
him
her
it
you
them
Rioplatense Spanish

Subject

Direct
Object
Indirect
Object
Possessives Reflexive After
preposition
yo
vos
el
ella

usted
nosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas
me
te
lo
la
lo/la
lo/la
nos
los/las
los
las
me
te
le
le
le
le
nos
les
les
les
mi
tu
su
su
su
su
nuestro
su
su
su
mío
tuyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
nuestro
suyo
suyo
suyo
me
te
se
se
se
se
nos
se
se
se
mi
vos
el
ella

usted
nosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas

Some observations:

– In Spanish, there is no subject form of “it”. When the thing in question is not alluded to specifically, or signaled with a “vague reference” demonstrative pronoun like esto, eso, aquello, it is not mentioned at all and understood as implied by the ending on the corresponding verb (Spanish being a pro-dropping language, i.e. a subject pronoun dropping language, not using any pronoun is something that can also be done with every other person; i.e. yo, vos, el, ella, etc can also be “dropped”). As an example, English it is big corresponds to Spanish es grande.
– If referring to a plural “it”, the thing in question is alluded to specifically or not mentioned at all, like in the case of singular “it”; ellos/ellas is reserved for “animate” or “humanlike” entities. Because of this, English they are too big (the boxes) corresponds to Spanish son demasiado grandes (las cajas); if ellas son demasiado grandes was used instead, it would be understood as referring to people or perhaps animals, but not objects.
– Spanish has a T/V distinction, with, in Rioplatense, vos being the T form and usted being the V form in the singular, and no distinction in the plural.
– All possessive forms inflect for plural if the possessed thing is plural (mi bota, mis botas); nuestro also inflects for gender of the possessed thing, and so do the tuyo, suyo, etc forms (nuestras cosas, nuestros trajes, la casa es tuya, los autos son suyos).
Le and les have an allomorph se in Spanish when followed by direct object pronouns (lo/la/los/las in Rioplatense). So, English I gave it to them/him/her corresponds to se lo di or se la di depending on whether the it is masculine or feminine, instead of *le lo di or *les lo di.

The pronoun system is a little different in Spain. Here is the “standard” usually found in written publications:

Subject Direct
Object
Indirect
Object
Possessives Reflexive After
preposition
yo
tu
el
ella

usted
nosotros
vosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas
me
te
le
la
lo/la
le
nos
os
les
les
las
me
te
le
le
le
le
nos
os
les
les
les
mi
tu
su
su
su
su
nuestro
vuestro
su
su
su
mío
tuyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
nuestro
vuestro
suyo
suyo
suyo
me
te
se
se
se
se
nos
os
se
se
se
mi
ti
el
ella

usted
nosotros
vosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas

As you might have noticed, there are some differences in the second and third persons. To begin with, in the second person, the singular T/V distinction has tu as the T form, and there is also a distinction in the plural with vosotros being the T form and ustedes the V form (vuestro is inflected for gender and number just like nuestro).

In the third person, le is used as both the direct and indirect object form of el, and the same applies in the plural ellos, with les used in both cases. Some examples:

entonces lo llamo a tu hermano (Rioplatense)
entonces le llamo a tu hermano (Spain)
los llamo cuando pueda (Rioplatense)
les llamo cuando pueda (Spain)

In other words, when referring to “animate” or “humanlike” entities, le and les are the object pronoun, regardless of case (whether the object is direct or indirect). You will notice I say “animate” and “humanlike” and not just “human”; it is very common to also apply this to dogs, cats and other animals who are usually pets, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it also applied to, say, horses – we can interpret “humanlike” in a very broad way here. When referring to inanimate things or “less humanlike animals” – insects, for example – lo, la, los, las is used, like in Rioplatense.

This using le and les for the animate masculine direct object, going in a different direction from the “original” system inherited from Latin (often called the “etymological” system), is called leísmo. There is nothing wrong about it, it’s just different. Of course, plenty of people will tell you otherwise, but linguists rarely give credence to value judgements like that, and for a good reason, if you ask me.

You might also have noticed in the table above that le is used for usted and les for ustedes regardless of case. This is commonly called leísmo de cortesía. It is also common in other parts of the Spanish speaking world, like for example Mexico, but it is not common in Rioplatense.

In some parts of Spain, the system is a little more conservative, and only exhibits leísmo in the singular, and not in the plural. Here is the resulting system (I am omitting the first person, as it’s no longer relevant to this post):

Subject Direct
Object
Indirect
Object
Possessives Reflexive After
preposition
tu
el
ella

usted
vosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas
te
le
la
lo/la
le
os
les
los
las
te
le
le
le
le
os
les
les
les
tu
su
su
su
su
vuestro
su
su
su
tuyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
vuestro
suyo
suyo
suyo
te
se
se
se
se
os
se
se
se
ti
el
ella

usted
vosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas

Examples:

entonces lo llamo a tu hermano (Rioplatense)
entonces le llamo a tu hermano (Spain)
los llamo cuando pueda (Rioplatense)
los llamo cuando pueda (Spain conservative)
les llamo cuando pueda (Spain)

We can analize leísmo as the beginning of a movement away from a third person pronoun system based solely on grammatical case and in the direction of a system based on gender and animacy instead. Based on the more conservative system outlined directly above, we could speculate that this began with the animate masculine singular, then spread to the plural as well (as in the standard form described prior).

In some parts of Spain, this has also spread to the animate feminine. The resulting system is:

Subject Direct
Object
Indirect
Object
Possessives Reflexive After
preposition
tu
el
ella

usted
vosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas
te
le
la
lo/la
le
os
les
les
las
te
le
la
le
le
os
les
les
las
tu
su
su
su
su
vuestro
su
su
su
tuyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
suyo
vuestro
suyo
suyo
suyo
te
se
se
se
se
os
se
se
se
ti
el
ella

usted
vosotros
ustedes
ellos
ellas

In other words, while in the standard of Spain the case distinction is lost in the animate masculine (using only le and les), in this system that case distinction is also lost in the animate feminine (using only la and las). Examples:

entonces lo llamo a tu hermano (Rioplatense)
entonces le llamo a tu hermano (Spain)
los llamo cuando pueda (Rioplatense)
les llamo cuando pueda (Spain)
le doy el sobre a tu hermana (Rioplatense, Spain)
la doy el sobre a tu hermana (Spain innovative)
les doy el sobre a tus hermanas (Rioplatense, Spain)
las doy el sobre a tus hermanas (Spain innovative)

This using la and las for the animate feminine indirect object is called laísmo. And so we come to an explanation of how and why tienes que decirla de casarte con ella ahí came about.

I’d like to conclude with some thoughts on the pronoun system of Spanish in general. While in the “more conservative” system found in places like my hometown, case is important, gender also factors in, and so does animacy. Animacy specifically matters in the “subject” and “after preposition” forms of the third person, where there is no form for subject “it” and ellos/ellas cannot be used to refer to inanimate objects. When it comes to the object forms of the third person pronouns, case matters more – and in doing so, it emphasizes case over gender and animacy. In other words, the gender and animacy distinction is only preserved in the accusative case (direct object) and not in the dative (indirect object).

The systems in Spain, on the other hand, are going in the direction of emphasizing gender and animacy over case, and in doing so, making the combination of gender and animacy (in other words, actual biological sex) more important than it was before; while preserving, in the case of inanimate objects, the distinction of grammatical gender having nothing to do with sex, which is a very basic part of the Spanish language. If you don’t believe me, just ask any native Spanish speaker Do you think of the sun and the moon as male or female?

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