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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Who Owns the Language? Lunfardo: Linguistic Boundaries and Attitudes Among Porteño Youth

  • Author(s): Guillen, Adriana
  • Advisor(s): Miglio, Viola G.
  • et al.

The question of language status regarding use, attrition, and social dispersion is commonplace in the field of linguistics, and particularly in the study of vernaculars, informal non-standard speech. However, most research concerning substandard lexical phenomena has been dictated by varieties of English, with limited concentration in the Americas beyond its English-speaking regions. This project explores the sociolinguistic relationship of urban language and youth identities through the lens of Lunfardo—a dialectal Spanish variety of the Southern Cone’s largest conurbation of Buenos Aires. Though a term subject to multiple definitions, Lunfardo is commonly considered an Argentinian vernacular that originated in the conventillos (‘shantytowns’) of Buenos Aires during massive European immigration waves at the turn of the 20th century and the golden age of tango. Its circumstantial origins among the lower social classes and its perceived ties to taboo and criminal jargon caused Lunfardo to be heavily stigmatized and even censored in its early conception and evolution. However, as is the case for many vernaculars, Lunfardo is said to have breached social and geographic limits such that it eventually became incorporated and indistinguishable from colloquial Argentinian Spanish. Today, Lunfardo is considered by scholars to be a pillar of Argentinian identity with steadfast associations to its European immigration history, and to emblematic Argentinian cultural manifestations, such as tango. Still, major lacunae lie in research of quotidian Argentinian’s perceptions of Lunfardo, especially among young adults.

With the intent to contribute conceptual innovation to the field of sociolinguistics, this study’s primary objective is to unveil the status and language ideologies in place today of this historically disparaged language of marginalized porteño -resident of Buenos Aires- communities. The dissertation investigates and assesses young adult porteños’ comprehension levels of historical and contemporary Lunfardo tokens, and taps into their language attitudes toward the variety. The project offers a mixed methods approach for the analysis of participants’ knowledge of and attitudes towards Lunfardo, which are empirically tested through comprehension test surveys, language rating surveys, and questionnaires. As the dissertation explores the rich information contained in the quantitative and qualitative data, it argues that the contemporary porteños have extensive comprehension knowledge of the Lunfardo variety; that the concept of Lunfardo may be subdivided into several distinct prototypes that researchers cannot take for granted; and that the social boundaries of who owns the language may be surprising. This variety serves as a lens through which to examine the phenomenon of the young Argentinian generation’s sense of linguistic identity, with the greater goal of casting light on vernacular progressions in historically marginalized speech communities shaped by immigrant groups. By employing a complex mixed methods approach, this study demonstrates the methodological rigor essential to deliver rich, substantive content from the Latin American linguistic milieu to the humanities and social sciences.

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