Type to search

The melting pot of Argentina


Italian immigrants changed the culture and the language

Italian community during the opening parade of the XXXIV National Immigrant Festival in Buenos Aires.

Argentina is home to over 1 million Italians and represents the largest population of Italians outside Italy, based on 2019 statistics from the German database Statista. The Italian language is widely used and has immensely influenced the language, culture and customs of the country. Argentina is a “melting pot” of people from various nations with immigrants primarily from European countries. In the mid-19th century large numbers of Italians, primarily from the northern part of Italy, began to arrive in this large South American country.

From the end of the Napoleonic Wars until 1930, some 60 million Europeans emigrated. Of these, 71 percent went to North America, 21 percent traveled to South America (especially Argentina and Brazil) and 7 percent left for Australia. Italians surpassed the Spanish and Portuguese in emigration to South America. Of the 11 million immigrants who entered Latin America, 38 percent were Italian, 28 percent Spanish and 11 percent Portuguese. Italian did not become the official language of Argentina, even though Italians outnumbered Spaniards in the country, because when Italians arrived in Argentina in the mid-1800s, Spanish was already the country’s official language and the language of instruction. From the 1870s through the First World War, over 2 million Italians arrived in Argentina, making up about 60 percent of all immigrants received by the country. A large influx of immigrants from Spain occurred after the Second World War. By then Argentinian society, the government, health and educational system, was entrenched in the language from Spain. Settlers from Italy and other European countries were populating this immense land but had to learn Spanish to interact with the public administration.

During this period, most Italian immigrants had little familiarity with the national language as they generally spoke the dialects of their Italian region. Due to the proximity between the Italian and Spanish languages, the task was not difficult at all and within a short period of arriving Italian immigrants were able to communicate in Spanish.

The influence of Italian is felt above all in the language spoken in Buenos Aires which has been the cultural and cinematographic capital of Spanish-speaking South America. Here the concentration of Italian immigrants was stronger with 75 percent to 80 percent of the capital’s population descending from Italian grandparents. Italians living here completely replaced the Spanish accent (which was like that of the Andalusian region of Spain) with their own. Moreover, they introduced this area known as the Rio-Plateau to gesticulation and Italian vocabulary which came primarily from the dialects of northern Italy. Spanish words that have been replaced by Italianisms in this area are words such as birra, balaurdo, valija, bagayo (luggage), laburar, laburante (worker), chau (used commonly for both hello and goodbye in Italy), gamba (leg), nona (from grandmother), mina (from female), pibe (from rookie), linyera (from liggera, in Genoese dialect) and grasun. Other dialectal words woven into the Argentinian language are pelandrun (vagabond), buonyorno, feta (slice), Fainà (Genoese chickpea pie), fugassa (focaccia), escorchar (to disturb, from the Italian slang scocciare), estrilar (to holler) and festichola (an informal party). Here is an example of Rio-Plateau colloquial speech:

Los pibes ya no quieren andà a laburà. Le gusta estar todo el dia en la casa a fumà e tomà birra, en vez cuando yo era pibe ya laburaba todo el dia y cuando llegaba a la casa, me manyaba una fugassa calientita preparada por mi vieja o por la nona.

The words in italics are Italianisms. Not everyone today has the same use. “Pibe” derives from the northern Italian slang “pivel / pivello,” with the loss of the final vowel and the transformation of v into b, since colloquial Spanish does not differentiate between b and v. This word has totally replaced the Spanish “muchacho” in Argentina. “Andà,” the verb “andar” exists in Spanish so it is not considered solely Italian, but its use has been modified by the presence of the Italian community, which did not understand that in Spanish “andar” is not synonymous with our verb “to go,” but rather akin to our verb “to walk.” In Argentina, however, it has largely replaced the verb “ir” meaning to go into Spanish.

“Laburar” in the Argentine colloquial language has totally replaced the Spanish “trabajar,” which is used mostly in formal speeches. The media prefers to use the “Italian” word instead of the Spanish. “Beer” is another Italianism that is increasingly undermining the Spanish “cerveza,” especially among young people. The word “manyba” (ate), however, although almost everyone knows its meaning, has gained ground. Until the 1960s it had a moderate use, today it has morphed back to the Spanish “comer” (to eat). Fugassa (and its derivatives “fugazeta,” “fugue”) is often used and has totally replaced the Spanish “hogaza.” This term has also gained ground in other South American countries, such as Chile or Colombia.

“Nonna” is a term known to all, but its use has never become general, and is limited to families of Italian origin who feel a strong emotional bond with Italy. Most Argentinians use the Spanish term “abuela” (etymologically connected to the Italian word “avolo”).

Argentinians also suppress the endings of the infinitives as Italians do in their dialects. truncating the endings of the infinitives (e.g., “Lavorà”, “magnà” etc.). This phenomenon also takes place in the Spanish spoken in Andalusia.

Over the years the speech patterns and use of Italianisms has spread via radio, cinema and TV, even in areas not touched, or little touched, by Italian immigration. These variations also spread to Paraguay, Chile and even Lima, in distant Peru. The similarity between the two languages, as well as the greater cultural prestige of Italy, prompted a continuous influx of Italian mores in speech and customs.

Today it is common practice to use Spanish words which are similar or identical to Italian, instead of vocabulary widely used in the region of South America. The Italians who crossed the ocean for a new life in a new world brought “home” with them to share with the populace that lived a continent away. Argentina is much more diverse because of this cultural blending.

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.