I set foot in Buenos Aires for my semester abroad at the beginning of February this year with an overwhelming sense of trepidation. Not only was it my first time in South America, I had also been constantly preempted by friends that Rioplatense Spanish, the variety spoken in areas around the Río de la Plata Basin of Argentina and Uruguay, would be difficult.
And struggle, I sure did. The first couple of weeks in Buenos Aires, I was thrown off by the locals’ (or porteños’) sheísmo —(the pronunciation of the written <y> and <ll> as [ʃ] (the ‘sh’ sound) instead of [ʝ] (in English, the ‘y’ sound in ‘your’) typical of Castilian Spanish—, the Italian-sounding rhythm of their speech, and the aspiration of the syllable-final ‘s’. Most significantly, I faced difficulties keeping up with conversations that were laced with words so foreign to my ears—lunfardo, the lexicon.
Perhaps my anxiety was a little obvious when I was waiting for my student visa at the Migrations department and expressing my concerns about getting accustomed to the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires.
“Si podés decir ‘boludo’, no tendrás ningún problema acá”, the man behind the counter said. If you can say ‘boludo’, you won’t have any problem here.
“Cómo…?” I was confused. What…?
“Decí ‘boludo’!” he insisted. Say ‘boludo’!
“Perfecto.” He laughed.
It was a steep learning curve during the subsequent months. When someone calls you boludo, it could be an insult meaning ‘stupid’. Between friends, it is an endearing way of calling you ‘dude’. To feel lazy is tener fiaca, a previa refers to pre-drinks before a night out, and a boliche, despite its original Spanish meaning as a bowling alley, bowling pin, or a small general store in rural Argentina, refers to a club. I have been referred to as a pibe (man, dude or kid), and when someone says they don’t have mango or plata, they mean that they don’t have money.
Where did all these words and expressions come from?
Origins: the language of thieves?
Lunfardo is commonly said to originate from the Buenos Aires underworld and is related to delinquent activities. According to Donald Castro (1988: 17), the first written descriptions of Lunfardo surfaced around 1879 and described porteño criminal life. The very first Lunfardo dictionary of 414 entries by Antonio Dellepiane dates back to 1894, and includes the subtitle “the language of crime”. The word lunfardo itself is thought to be derived from lombardo or lumbardo, in reference to the Lombards who commonly worked as bankers or moneylenders. Frowned upon and distrusted by the rest of society because they held big-money-making positions, lumbardo was synonymous with ‘thieves’ amongst the working class locals.
Other academics, however, believe that that is not an adequate explanation of Lunfardo’s origins. José Gobello, a 20th-century Argentinean writer, was the first to study Lunfardo seriously in his publication of Lunfardía in 1953. He also founded the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo, a non-profit institution dedicated to the study of colloquial speech in Argentina. According to Gobello, Lunfardo is a lexical repertoire that surfaced with the foreign languages accompanying waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Argentinean professor Oscar Conde adds that these words and expressions of different origins were used in alternation with those of standard Spanish. In its first decades of existence, Lunfardo was basically a system of linguistic loans which came from a single country: Italy. The lexicon of Lunfardo in the 19th century comprised mostly words and oexpressions taken from the Tuscan, Genoese, Napolitan and Sicilian varieties of Italian.
During the 20th century, more words were borrowed from popular Spanish speech and also incorporated productive wordplay, such as vesre (the practice of switching the positions of a word’s syllables, similar to verlan in colloquial French). Take the Lunfardo word telo, for example, which is the word ‘hotel’ in vesre. More specifically, however, it refers to hotels that are available by the hour throughout the day for couples’ rendezvous – secret or not. Even the word vesre, is reverse for revés! Al revés in Spanish means ‘inside out’ or ‘the other way around’.
Successive waves of internal migration within Argentina during the first half of the 20th century brought in other languages into the city of Buenos Aires and its surroundings. In his study “Estilistíca del Lunfardo” (1968: 62), José E. Clemente observes that many terms of the Lunfardo vocabulary were derived from other European languages like French and English, and indigenous languages like Quechua. For example, from English, a sandwich became sanguche and from Quechua, a pucho refers to a cigarette. When someone describes a situation with quilombo, they mean it is a mess or is chaotic. Quilombo has Brazilian roots, originally referring to places that slaves from plantations would escape to. Yet its meaning changed in Argentina and Uruguay, where quilombo first meant ‘brothel’. Nowadays, it refers to a messy or chaotic situation.
Defining the Porteño identity
The explanation of Lunfardo’s origins above does not deny that its speech developed in the underworld sectors of Buenos Aires, where immigrants were often poor. In Thon (2010), Argentine literary and cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo defines Lunfardo as “an artificial jargon of the marginalized”. Lunfardo was originally perceived as a symbol of the lower class, but later “became the “linguistic banner waved by the disenfranchised but defiant dwellers of Buenos Aires” (Washbaugh in Andre, 2017). Mariá Andre (2017) also writes about using language as a tool to “reconstruct memory and culture as a factor that shape people’s identities”. As Conde puts it, the linguistic synthesis that Lunfardo involves also serves as “a living memory of the history of Argentina”, reminding people of the social groups that shaped the country and where they came from.
By the beginning of the 20th century, not only had Lunfardo begun to lace everyday conversations, the slang was then incorporated into works of literature, journalism, and theatre as a sort of poetic or literary language. The most common literary vehicles for the use of Lunfardo were the popular theatre (sainete criollo), the naturalist novel (naturalismo), and both tango and non-tango related poetry (Andre, 2017). The incorporation of Lunfardo in works of literature was an attempt to transform and elevate its status as a slang to into an expression of lo argentino (“Argentineness”). Castro (1988) explains that “even the most erudite poet, if he was Porteño, had to demonstrate his association with the city of Buenos Aires through the use of Lunfardo”. Argentine authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Arlt, who wrote fervently of the modernisation and drastic changes that occurred around them in Buenos Aires, both incorporated Lunfardo into their literary works. It was the incorporation of Lunfardo into tango, however, that further propelled its diffusion throughout Buenos Aires.
Lunfardo and Tango
As products of immigration, Lunfardo and tango are intrinsically connected. Born approximately during the same period in the 1870s, both dance and jargon present a portrait of Buenos Aires and the Argentine social angst, and reflect the transformation of a national culture. Slang typically includes forms of expression that rebel against the laws of the language. On the other hand, tango as a dance form challenged conservative societal norms with its explicit sensuality and physicality. Both tango and Lunfardo trace their roots in a marginalised part of society, but have come to be normalised, shaping and defining the Argentine identity.
Tango helped with the diffusion of Lunfardo throughout society. Written by Pascual Contursi and popularised by Carlos Gardel, “Mi noche triste” (1917) was the first tango song which incorporated Lunfardo in its lyrics, bolded in the following verse:
Percanta que me amuraste en lo mejor de mi vida,
Dejándome el alma herida y espina en el corazón,
Sabiendo que te quería, que vos eras mi alegría
Y mi sueño abrasador,
Para mí ya no hay consuelo y por eso me encurdelo,
Pa olvidarme de tu amor.
The Lunfardo words in this are percanta (lover), amurar (abandon), and encurdelar (intoxicated). Over time, tango went from being frowned upon as a delinquent activity, and became incorporated into popular culture that transcended social classes. With the incorporation of Lunfardo into this phenomenon, the vocabulary spread amongst the people even more quickly over time, and lost its negative associations.
Lunfardo: today and beyond
Since 2000, the city of Buenos Aires has celebrated the 5th of September as ‘el día del lunfardo’, thanks to the initiative of journalist Marcelo Héctor Oliveri, who is also a member of the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo. This date commemorates the date of publication of “Lunfardía”, the book by José Gobello, whose first edition in 1953 promoted the appreciation of and linguistic interest in this popular jargon.
According to Oscar Conde in a recent interview with Argentine newspaper Pagina12, for words to be considered Lunfardo, they must have emerged in Argentina, have been in use for at least five years, or have had appearances in literature, theatre, or on television. Conde explains that there are between 6,000–7,000 words at the moment, excluding 3,000 other phrases or expressions. Over the years, words have fallen into disuse, others have resurfaced with the same or changed meanings, while new words continue to appear in colloquial speech.
For example, bondi was a popular word in the 1920s and ‘30s, and used to allude to a tram. The word itself has Anglo-Brazilian roots, as bondi was used to refer to the vehicles of English origin used in Brazil. Migration of people brought this term into Buenos Aires, but gradually fell into disuse through the ‘60s and ‘70s. The word, however, made a comeback in the 1980s, but then referred to a colectivo, or a bus. Nowadays, bondi and colectivo can be used interchangeably. Some words that arose as Lunfardo have also been incorporated into the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, such as banquina, of Genoese origin, that refers to road shoulders.
Conde credits these changes to youth under 25, saying that 99% of the world’s neologisms are invented by them, and that “it is they who renew the language from a need to give names to unknown realities for previous generations”. Of these words, some last a month or two, a year, or they might disappear. The remaining 1% of neologisms arise out of necessity due to scientific advances.
And although Lunfardo is a port and River Plate phenomenon that defines the identity of Buenos Aires, the truth is that it has spread across vast regions of Argentina and has even transcended borders. Till this date, it continues to grow and evolve. For this reason, the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo has the motto: “El pueblo agranda el idioma” The people expand the language.
André, María Claudia. “Tango y Lunfardo: Un Estudio Transatlántico Sobre La Identidad Argentina / Tango and Lunfardo: a Transtlantic Study about Argentinian Identity.” Kamchatka. Revista De Análisis Cultural., no. 9, 2017, p. 297., doi:10.7203/kam.9.9547.
Castro, Donald S. “The Lunfardo Poets: Yacaré and De La Púa.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 42, no. 1/2, 1988, pp. 29–44. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1347434.
Clemente, José E. “Estilística del lunfardo.” El lenguaje de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1968.
Schijman, Bárbara. “‘El Lunfardo Es Un Fenómeno Lingüístico Único’ | Oscar Conde, Poeta, Ensayista y Estudioso Del Habla Popular Argentina.” Página/12 Web, 2 Apr. 2018, www.pagina12.com.ar/105340-el-lunfardo-es-un-fenomeno-linguistico-unico.
Thon, Sonia. “La identidad lingüística argentina a través de Borges y Puig” ARBOR Ciencia, Pensamiento y Cultura, pp. 119-127, 2010.