December 6, 2007


“Vivirás mientras siga copando la patriada
un táura arrabalero que despreció la yuta,
mientras se haga un escruche sin que salga mancada,
mientras taye la grela de la crencha aceitada,
mientras viva un poeta, un ladrón, y un puta.”
- El Entrerriano Carlos de la Púa

(“You will live as long as there is a sparkle of patriotism
a slum ladies’ man who disdains the police,
as long as he can do his assault without getting caught,
as long as that bitch with the oily hair is the boss,
as long as their lives a poet, a thief, a whore”)

In the quest to uncover a distinctly Argentine identity, a new style of slang was taking form at the turn of the century in the underworld of the Buenos Aires slums. The barrios comprised of conventillos, or tenement houses, were made up of immigrants, the poor working class, and the jobless. Those living inside the conventillos hoped to make it out, and those living outside viewed them as breeding grounds of poverty, crime, and compromised morality. Yet, it was out of these streets that a new distinctly porteño culture began to flourish, one that would eventually creep into even the highest levels of society.

Conceived from the glass shards of the shattered mirror of Argentine ethnicity, Lunfardo was formed through a fusion of distinct languages. Spanish, Italian, English, French, and Romany can be found within this dialect of the streets. Words were also created through the use of metaphor or the concealment of standard language through the rearrangement of syllables. In homage to the language’s origins, the term Lunfardo comes from the word lunfa, meaning “the criminals.”

In truth, Lunfardo is not a language at all. It is a vast collection of slang words relating to the urban environment. Rather than as a complete form of speaking, the jargon is used to compliment standard language stylistically. Most of the words refer to types of criminals or crimes and elements of everyday life. The main purpose of Lunfardo was to provide a exclusively local description of porteño characters and culture. For this reason, the style of speaking began to be viewed as the expression of the Argentine identity that so many intellectuals had been searching for. Some wanted to make Lunfardo the Argentine language, while others began to incorporate it into their literature. The slang began to appear in popular theatre, novels, and poetry, but it found its ideal partner in the music of the tango whose lyrics were meant to be heard not read.

In literary form, writers like Carlos de la Púa (pseudonym, like most Lunfardo poets used, of Carlos Raúl Muñoz del Solar) saw the language as a way to break from the heavy European influence on literature at the time. Their poetry told of the struggles and lifestyle of the popular class rather the elite, considering them to be the authentic Argentines. Through the use of common language these writers hoped to represent the spirit of lower class Buenos Aires in a way that European languages could not. Many literary critics, however, would reject Lunfardo poetry, considering it vulgar and unworthy.

In the end, the Lunfardo lexicon would reach its crescendo before the 1920s. The post WWI generation would use the speech but no new words were added and the meanings of the existing ones began to gradually shift. Though its popularity began to fade as time went on, the language lives on in the tango; the irrepressible rhythm of the porteño streets.