“Argentinian Spanish is sort of hard to understand,” said my sister as she plugged in a fan. It was hot and still in Buenos Aires and we were drinking lemonade on her balcony.
I’d just flown into South America for the first time, and I hadn’t slept much on the plane. I was more concerned about my overpowering jet lag than mastering the local dialect. But fresh off a lengthy stay in Nicaragua, I spoke enough Spanish to get by… or so I thought.
Later that evening, my sister took me to meet her new boyfriend. Fermin, a native porteño (Buenos Aires local). He and his friends were charismatic and kind, but I could barely understand a word they said. They were speaking Spanish, but their vocabulary was filled with words I’d never heard before.
Throughout the evening, Fermin repeatedly referred to his friends as ‘los pibes’, meaning ‘the boys’ or ‘the kids’ in lunfardo, a form of popular slang in Buenos Aires. It’s one of approximately 6,000 words that make up the lunfardo lexicon. Over the course of that evening with Fermin and his pibes, I heard them use mango (rather than dinero) when discussing money and morfi (not comida) to talk about food.
The name ‘lunfardo’ hints at the history behind the slang. In the late 19th Century, Argentinian police officers noticed that thieves and other small-time criminals were using a new range of words to communicate with each other. Assuming that the slang was a sort of criminal jargon, the law enforcement officials started making lists of the words and phrases they heard. They called the lexicon ‘lunfardo’, meaning ‘thief’ in Spanish.
But according to Oscar Conde, an Argentinian professor who’s written two books on the subject, the cops were wrong.
“The birth of lunfardo is not related with criminality,” Conde writes, “but with European immigration to Argentina between 1880 and the beginning of World War I.” During those years, four million people, mostly Italians and Spaniards, arrived in Buenos Aires. The city became, as Conde puts it, “a real-life Babel”.
Read more: BBC