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Unlike English, Spanish seems to have have commands whose form depends on both the type (affirmative/negative) and also the person (, usted, ustedes).

While the construction of the affirmative command by using the third person form essentially mirrors its construction in English (Jump! --> ¡Salta!), the negative form diverges from its English equivalent.

Whereas in English you would just add "Don't" to the beginning, in Spanish you change the conjugation by adding es/as to the end of the yo form.

So a few etymological questions:

  1. Why did the difference between affirmative/negative commands arise?
  2. Why does the negative command use the yo form as the prefix?
  3. Why does the ending seem "switched" — that is, "-ar" verbs use the "es" ending whereas "-er/-ir" verbs use the "as" ending?
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Depending on how one counts, Spanish has a great deal more than three forms for commands.

There are only three true imperative forms of each verb (I'll use the verbs hablar, comer, and vivir for my examples throughout this answer):

  • : habla, come, vive
    ( form less the -s; several irregulars: di, haz, pon, sal, sé, ten, ve, ven; estar always reflexive: estate)
  • vos: hablá, comé, viví
    (vos form less the -s; one irregular: ir is andá)
  • vosotros: hablad, comed, vivid
    (infinitive, less the -r, plus -d if non-reflexive; one irregular: irse is idos)

In older or very formal Spanish, the vos commands will be identical to the vosotros commands (they were derived from that form) and may retain the -d- in reflexive commands.

Before I get started on the rest, I'd just like to say don't oversimplify English commands. They are actually a good bit more complicated than just adding "use the bare infinitive for affirmative, add don't to create a negative." Many can take the word not after them to create the negative sans do ("fear not"); the first-person plural commands are formed with let's which creates an embedded clause ("let's play"); and when using don't or do not (for emphasis), you are actually switching to the emphatic mood which is also often used in affirmative commands ("do mind your manners"). And we don't even really have a way to give commands to people we aren't talking directly to, except by using a variety of structures using the modal verbs let ("let there be light") or may ("may they live happily ever after") which could be seen as either an impersonal command (let) or a fossilized subjunctive (may). In any case, English commands are actually really quite complex when you think about it.

Back to Spanish. Spanish could easily do third-person commands by using the subjunctive (nowadays, it's most common though not required to preface these with que; when used sans que it's called the exhortative subjunctive). Usted back in the day wasn't a true pronoun, just a third-person honorific, so it was treated as any other third-person word.

For negative forms, Latin — out of which Spanish developed — didn't have a negative imperative: like English, it used a separate verb's command to form negative commands (noli(te) — from nolo — meaning "want not"). Spanish innovated a different form, using the subjunctive (perhaps derived from (no quiero que) [verb] or similar phrases). This ended up being applied to all commands, first, second, or third person.

subject     affirmative                  negative (prefix all with "no")
---------+-----------------------------+-----------------------------
tú       |  habla     come     vive    |  *hables   *comas   *vivas
vos      |  hablá     comé     viví    | †*hablés  †*comás  †*vivás
usted    | *hable    *coma    *viva    |  *hable    *coma    *viva
nosotros | *hablemos *comamos *vivamos |  *hablemos *comamos *vivamos
vosotros |  hablad    comed    vivid   |  *habléis  *comáis  *viváis
ustedes  | *hablen   *coman   *vivan   |  *hablen   *coman   *vivan

* derived from subjunctive
† in Chile: *habléis, *comáis, *viváis with an optionally elided -s.

As to why the subjunctive form appears to be switched or is based off of the yo form verb, the reason is simply because that's how it was in Latin. As to why Latin did it, generally when asking why in linguistics the answer is simply "because that's what people said".

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  • 1
    Wow! If I had enough reputation to provide a bounty, I would; in its absence, I will have to make do with a hearty thank you! – 1110101001 Dec 10 '15 at 6:58

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