The Spanish Language Blog

Many of us are familiar with lunfardo words from the lyrics of the tangos so masterfully sung by Carlos Gardel,  among other great interpreters of the genre. Let's get to know a little better the origins and characteristics of this slang that originated in Argentina, which nowadays has been incorporated to a great extent in the speech of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. It is considered to have more than 6,000 words.

Origins and characteristics of lunfardo

Lunfardo is a slang or repertoire of words originating in the neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires (Argentina), which also developed in other sister cities such as Rosario (Argentina) or Montevideo (Uruguay). Originally, around the middle of the 19th century, it was a slang spoken by delinquents, which incorporated many words from Spanish, Italian and other immigrants. With these special words and expressions, which did not appear in dictionaries, the prisoners managed to avoid being understood by the guards during their stay in prison and could plan their escapes and crimes, etc. These were times of immigration and incessant port activity in the three cities mentioned above. Over time, lunfardo spread through all social classes, so that many of these words permeated the colloquial forms of Spanish speech of Argentines and many other Hispanic countries.

It should be made clear that, despite certain claims and its widespread use, lunfardo is not a language but a very specific lexicon, since it does not contain all the parts of speech. It has three important elements: the noun, the adjective and the verb, but lacks articles, pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions. It therefore lacks syntax, always using the original Spanish syntax.

The sounds of lunfardo are mainly inherited from the languages of Italy. In Argentina, Italian immigration was very important and has influenced its vocabulary. Other words come from French, Portuguese, English and even Quechua, among others. For example, a slang word such as Bacan (a very wealthy person) comes from Genovese. In the same case we find the expression Engrupir, which means to deceive. Tamango (shoe) comes from Portuguese and Cana (prison) from French, while Bichicome (vagabond) comes from English.

Lunfardo and tango

It is impossible to talk about lunfardo without also talking about tango, which has been its best ambassador all over the world. Lunfardo is the repertoire of words used in most tangos. A pioneer of tango, the musician and playwright Pascual Contursi, was the great introducer of lunfardo in this type of music. From then on, lunfardo poets and popular lyricists like Celedonio Esteban Flores further developed this way in collaboration with the singer Carlos Gardel, who recorded more than 20 songs with lyrics by this author. A good example would be the old tango "Mano a mano" (1923) with lyrics by the aforementioned Celedonio Estaban Flores and music by Gardel/Razzano.

But, is it possible to talk about a tango that has all the essence of lunfardo? It is difficult to choose among so many geniuses; but let's say that there is one that was chosen by Federico García Lorca himself. We are talking about "El Ciruja" (1926), with lyrics by Alfredo Marino and music by Ernesto de la Cruz. It is said that a porteño asked Lorca what he thought of the tango, to which the poet responded by sitting down at a nearby piano and began to play and sing the aforementioned song.

Many would have liked to have been present at that conversation. But we would go further even if we were more modest: we would have liked to compose a tango about such a story!

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