Sometimes when I’m in Buenos Aires, I forget that I’m 11,000 kilometers away from Italy. Sometimes when I walk around the city lost in my own thoughts, the cacophony, the hand gestures, and the Porteño (the name for who live in Buenos Aires , meaning people from the port) cadence, it almost transports me to my birthplace of Naples. Latin Americans often say that Argentinians talk like Italians who learned to speak Spanish really well but never lost their accent. That’s particularly for the inhabitants of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay, who speak with a distinct Italian intonation, use a specific type of grammar, and have a lot of Italian words mixed in with Spanish expressions.
All of this has a historical origin. Since the 1830s — immediately after Argentina declared independence from Spain — the number of Italians in Buenos Aires has been consistently high. In 1869, when the country conducted its first national census, 10 percent of Buenos Aires’ population was Italian. In 1895, that number skyrocketed to 40 percent.
“In most cases, they were adult men with a high productivity rate who worked outdoors and constantly interacted with other locals,” explains Fernando Devoto, the Research Institute director at Catholic University of Buenos Aires and an expert on the history of Italian immigration to Argentina. He concludes, “It’s logical that it led to a linguistic fusion between both languages.”
During the 20th century, a lot of Italians went back to Italy, and the influx of immigrants decreased dramatically. Meanwhile the children of Italians who stayed in the Latin American country started using Spanish. Devoto explains, “Despite the fact that Italian isn’t spoken on the streets anymore, its presence is embedded in the common vernacular.”
For example, a lot of words used in the Buenos Aires dialect are directly derived from Italian: people say birra instead of cerveza for “beer,” laburar instead of trabajar for “work,” nonno instead of abuelo for “grandpa,” bochar instead of reprobar for fail, etc. In reality, a lot of the terms are part of a dialect because most 19th century immigrants spoke a dialect instead of the standard Italian that we learn in school. Some of these dialect-specific terms include pelandrun (“bum”) which comes from Lombardian, or viejos, which is used to refer to parents which comes from the Venetian term vecchi, or “old.”
The term tano, a diminutive of napoletano which refers to someone of Italian descent is another example of the coexistence of both languages. The final result is what Argentinians call Lunfardo a word derived from Lombardian which is the slang that immigrants used on the streets and left an indelible mark on the colloquial language that Argentinians still use every day.
8 Italian Words Used In Buenos Aires
Camorra is the premeditated preparation for a fight or a generic word for a planned fight. For example, people in Buenos Aires say estás buscando camorra, or “you’re looking for a fight.” People also use the verb camorrear, meaning to fight.
This word is a transliteration of the Italian term faccia, meaning face. It’s often used to talk about someone’s appearance. For example, the expression, qué facha means “looking good.” This is also where the adjective fachero comes from. It means someone who takes extra care of their appearance or someone who takes too long to get ready. Just like in Italian, Porteños use the expression facha tosta for someone who’s shameless.
From the original Italian word fiacca meaning apathy, fiaca expresses a lack of interest, laziness or tiredness. For example if you say something te da fiaca, it means it bores or tires you. You can also say hacer fiaca in the sense of resting.
Despite gamba meaning leg in Italian, the Lunfardo expression, hacer la gamba means “to accompany someone somewhere” or “to lend someone a hand.”
The term has nothing to do with the Italian word muffa (“mold”). Its meaning is related to superstition. Mufa is used for people who bring bad luck, and the verb mufar means “to jinx.”
Pibe or Piba
The term is derived from pivello, meaning “rookie,” but in Argentina its also used to mean “guy”or “chick.” For example, Diego Armando Maradona was known in his glory days as el pibe de oro or “the golden guy.” People also use the expression estás hecho un pibe to say they look young for their age.
This is another word related to superstition. This comes from the Neapolitan term jettatura (“evil eye”) and is used to talk about bad luck or someone who brings bad luck.
Derived from the Italian term girare, meaning to travel through or wander. In the past, the word was used for the people who wandered the streets, meaning drifters, but now it’s used for sex workers who work on the streets. Yira Yira is a very famous tango piece from 1929, which was later performed by Carlos Gardel. The song talks about the world turning.
This article was originally published on the Spanish edition of Babbel Magazine.