A lot of us took Spanish at school and thought that it would be enough to get by when we reached Buenos Aires. The more astute among us even grasped the nuance of when to smoothly place “che” (similar to the British mate, or N. American dude) and “boludo” (idiot, mate, dude) into conversation in order to sound more Argentine.
Except it doesn’t take long to realize that the lingo isn’t just limited to “che” and “boludo”, that real life doesn’t have subtitles, that those hours spent reciting Spanish tenses (cf. vos sos) at school meant nothing and that you’re screwed.
Here’s my investigated proof (‘y’ to be pronounced “sh”, of course):
Understanding the taxi driver’s accent from Ezeiza to the city center on a foreigner’s first day in Buenos Aires is a challenge. But the lunfardo he uses — the slang permeating Buenos Aires — is a whole other story.
Where does this lunfardo come from? Short answer – Buenos Aires. One of the more precise answers to the question puts its starting point in the prison cells of the city, as a way for criminals to communicate amongst themselves without being understood by the guards.
The jargon emerged in the second half of the 19th century and spread from the River Plate region to the rest of the country. Despite its origin as a dialect from saltier folk within the working classes, today it is widely spoken by porteños across the social class spectrum.
The reason why it has stuck around for so long is also due to the fact that lunfardo has always had a strong presence in tango. The lyrics to songs many still listen to today is one of the many life sources keeping this impermeable way of speaking alive.
Wait, so why is it considered porteño dialect if it’s spoken across the country? Like many things in Argentine culture, Buenos Aires gets a great deal of the credit independent of whether or not it deserves it. In this case most (porteños to be fair) identify lunfardo as having undeniable connections to Buenos Aires because it spread from there to places like Rosario, Santa Fe, Cordoba, Entre Ríos and as far as Montevideo in Uruguay. While certain words are more or less now part of Argentine lingo (an example being “boludo”), Buenos Aires is considered by many to be the epicentre, where it is used in full force.
Why do so many lunfardo words sound Italian? Most linguists believe it’s because lunfardo grew out of a pidgin that formed as a result of the forced coexistence of Italians and Spanish speaking Argentines following the first wave of Italian immigration to the country. It’s not too far off to say that it’s essentially an Italian dialect with Spanish words.
On that note, let me point out that “che” is not lunfardo, nor does it originate from Italian. It is believed to come from several indigenous languages and as well as meaning mate or dude, it is used as an exclamation (a way of saying “hey!” for example).
To add to the colloquial banter, lunfardo is also heavily spoken in versé — kind of like in France where they have verlan — which is the colloquial reversing of syllables, whereby “hotel” becomes “telo” (although its meaning isn’t quite the same, wink wink), “café” becomes “feca” and “tango” becomes “gotan”. It all makes sense now, right?
Yep, that’s the story behind everybody’s favorite Franco-Argentine band, Gotan Project.
Che! get practicing, boludos!