Of Lunfardo

The time has finally come, dear readers, to let you in on the fascinating and ridiculously difficult phenomenon, specific to Buenos Aires, known as lunfardo. Lunfardo is the bizarro and glorious dialect of Spanish often spoken in the city. Birthed from the conventillos (tenements) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this particular language (one scholar calls it “a devilishly bastardized Spanish” and “the most widespread linguistic product of twentieth-century Buenos Aires”*) arose as immigrants to the country mixed their own languages with that of their new home: Spanish, Italian, French, Galician, Catalan, Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, French, Polish, Greek, Turkish–you name the language and you can probably find a word in lunfardo with a corresponding root. It’s fabulous and fabulously difficult to understand, particularly because (like all dialects) it continues to change. In addition to mixing these languages, lunfardo also depends upon inversions. Not unlike the French argot, verlan, lunfardo inverts syllables of common words. For example café becomes feca, mujer becomes jermu. These are the easy ones, however, because sometimes adept lunfardo speakers invert words that are already mixes of Spanish and any of the myriad other languages which help compose the dialect. When that happens, needless to say, if you aren’t a local, you’re lost.

That’s not all. Lunfardo is the best known local dialect but another, cocoliche, also fought its way into being at the turn of the century. A pidgin between Italian and Spanish, cocoliche seems to have more or less vanished by the 50s, but my bet is its influence on the spoken language of the city was strong enough to leave a lingering vocabulary in its wake. It’s nice to know, however, that these ways of speaking are so flexible, so tactical in their responses to the dominant idiom that sometimes two contemporary, life-long local speakers can misunderstand each other. Makes you feel a little less bad as an outsider.

And a final note on the porteño way of speaking: They use ‘vos’ instead of ‘tu’ in addressing the second person singular. ‘Vos’ is a sort of bastardized version of the now relatively antiquated Spanish ‘vosotros.’ The voseo porteños use means you can’t conjugate verbs in the present tense or in the command form when the subject is ‘you’ the way you would in, say, Ecuador (where I happened to learn my Spanish). Instead of “de donde eres” to ask “where are you from,” you ask “de donde sos.” Instead of “tienes algo de comer” for “do you have something to eat” you ask “tenés algo de comer.” When you want to use the command form it isn’t “ven” for “come,” it’s “vení”. This is absolutely confounding when you first arrive, but when you start to get the hang of it, you love it. It’s like a prize you win for sticking it out. At this point I switch between the more common ‘tu’ form I learned oh so many years ago and the ‘vos’ form I’m picking up here. They understand me either way, but I bet I sound pretty ridiculous.

Here’s the great thing about such linguistic mutations, though. My own weird little enunciations in all the dialects I’m trying to speak here, somewhere down the line, might do a thing or two to change the way castellano is spoken in Buenos Aires. If it weren’t for the massive waves of immigration that came some 100 plus years ago lunfardo could never have come into being. Making mistakes in a language you don’t quite yet speak might just be the way, in the end, to make it your own.


*Adriana J. Bergero, Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires, 1900-1930. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Pg. 95.

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