South America is a fascinating linguistic melting pot. Today, I want to take you on a whistle stop tour of Argentina. Think of the languages spoken in Argentina and no doubt Spanish springs instantly to mind. but that's just the headline. If you want to discover more about Argentina's rich linguistic tapestry, read on.
Argentina is home to both native and imported languages. In terms of the indigenous languages spoken in Argentina, there are 15 living tongues and at least 18 that have become extinct. There are also several imported languages with sizeable speaker numbers, which I'll explore in more detail below.
First, let's talk about Spanish. Argentina doesn't have an official language, but if it did, it would no doubt be Spanish.
How many people speak Spanish in Argentina? The primary language spoken in Argentina, Spanish is used by almost the entire population of the country, either as a first language or a second tongue. Well over 40 million people speak Spanish in Argentina, out of a population of around 45 million.
Whether you're in a government office in Argentina, in school or simply reading the newspaper, it will be Spanish that you hear and read around you.
The Spanish spoken in Argentina has its own distinctive quirks. One of the most interesting is the pronunciation of the letters “ll” and “y”, which in many Spanish speaking countries are sounded out as “y”. In Spanish in Argentina, however, these are pronounced as “zh”.
There are also some really interesting regional accents in Argentinian Spanish, with influences not only from indigenous tongues but also from Italian speaking immigrants and Portuguese speaking immigrants.
While Spanish is the main language of Argentina, there are plenty of interesting indigenous languages to explore as well, so let's do that now.
The indigenous tongues spoken in Argentina fall within several different language family groupings. Altogether, Argentina's native languages have around 1.2 million speakers.
I’ll take a look at each of the language family tree branches now. If you’re after a broader look at indigenous tongues in South America, you can click the link below.
In addition to being spoken in Argentina, Aymaran languages are also spoken in Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Argentina is home to comparatively few Aymara speakers. Speaker numbers have dwindled over the years, as Spanish and Quechua have risen in prominence.
While Aymara has historically been considered a Quechuan language, it is now considered part of the Aymaran language family instead. In total, Argentina is home to around 30,000 Aymara speakers. The language there is under threat, with many youngsters adopting Spanish as their native tongue instead of Aymara.
Argentina is home to one Charruan language: Chaná (Lanték). Charruan languages were believed to be extinct for well over 100 years. However, a speaker of Chaná was found in 2005. Given the lack of other speakers, though, the future of Chaná looks incredibly bleak.
That said, much more has been done to attempt to document Chaná than is done for many other languages in the same situation. Chaná’s sole remaining speaker – Blas Wilfredo Omar Jaime (Agó Acoé Inó, ‘dog without owner’ in the Chaná language) – has worked with linguist José Pedro Viegas Barros to create a book called ‘La Lengua Chaná. Patrimonio Cultural de Entre Ríos.’ The book was published by the provincial government of Entre Ríos as part of its work to support the province’s cultural heritage.
Today, Blas Jaime, who learned Chaná from his ancestors, is referrerd to as Tató Oyendén – the ‘custodian of the ancestral memory.’
Argentina was also home to another Charruan language (Charrúa), but that language is now extinct.
Only one of Argentina's four Chonan languages survives to this day: Tehuelche, which is spoken in Patagonia. The other languages from the Chonan family that were spoken in Argentina (Teushen, Haush and Ona) are now extinct.
Sadly, Tehuelche is headed the same way. Four people spoke Tehuelche back in 2000, but by 2017 there was only one speaker remaining. Tehuelche is known by several other names, including Aoniken, Gunua-Kena, Gununa-Kena, Gününa Küne, Gününa Yajich, Inaquen and Tewelche.
Several Mataco-Guaicuru languages are spoken in Argentina, with Chorote, Maká, Nivaclé and Wichí speakers centred around the Formosa region. Wichí speakers can also be found in Gran Chaco and Salta. Gran Chaco is also home to speakers of other Mataco-Guaicuru languages, including Mocoví, Pilagá and Toba (also known as Qom).
Chorote speaker numbers are dwindling, with around 1,500 native speakers in Argentina (out of a total of 2,000 speakers). 50% of them are monolingual.
Maká, meanwhile, also has around 1,500 speakers in total, the majority of whom live in Paraguay. A handful of speakers can be found in Argentina, clustered along the border between the two nations.
Another language spoken along the border with Paraguay is Nivaclé, which is also known as Chulupí, Churupí, Choropí, Ashluslay, Ashluslé, Suhin, Sujín and Chunupí. The language is known for some rare linguistic traits – including a unique phoneme, /k͡l/ – and for its complex phonology and morphology.
Wichí, spoken in northwestern Argentina (as well as over the border in Bolivia), is also under extreme threat. Alongside Mocoví (which has around 3,000 native speakers) and Qom (31,580 speakers), it has been declared an official provincial language in the Chaco province. However, with Wichí children being educated in Spanish, their ancestral language has a very limited future ahead, as is the case with so many of Argentina’s native tongues.
Argentina’s other Mataco-Guaicuru language – Pilagá – has 4,000 native speakers remaining, located in the northeast of the country.
Quechuan languages arrived in Argentina with the expansion of the Incan Empire. Today, Argentina is home to speakers of two Quechuan languages: Santiagueño Quechua and Southern Quechua.
Santiagueño Quechua is spoken in the Santiago del Estero region. Speaker number estimates vary from 60,000 people to 100,000 people. It is also a Buenos Aires language, with its own dictionary and radio shows. Santiagueño Quechua is also taught in some schools, meaning the language has a much brighter future than most native Argentinian tongues. It is the third most spoken indigenous language in Argentina, after Southern Quechua and Mapuche.
Speakers of Southern Quechua (also known as South Bolivian Quechua, Central Bolivian Quechua and Colla) can be found in Jujuy, Salta and Tucumán. Speakers number somewhere between 2.3 million and 2.8 million, though the majority (around two million of them) are to be found over the border in Bolivia, rather than Argentina.
Argentina languages spoken in the Misiones province are mainly from the Tupian family group. These include Ava Guarani, Kaiwá and Mbyá. Other Tupian languages of Argentina include Correntino Guarani (spoken in Corrientes), Eastern Bolivian Guarani (spoken in Formosa and Salta) and Tapiete (spoken in Salta).
In addition to the languages grouped together above, Argentina is also home to several language isolates, although the majority of these are now extinct. One that is still spoken today, mainly in west central Argentina, is Mapuche.
Also called Mapudungun, Mapuche is spoken in both Argentina and Chile. The language was referred to as Araucanian for many years, having been named such by Spanish colonists. However, that name has been rejected by Mapuche speakers. Around 100,000 Mapuche speakers reside in Argentina.
Several indigenous languages of Argentina are sadly now extinct. These include tongues from the Arakawan, Huarpean and Lule-Vilela language families, as well as a number of languages that have never been classified due to a lack of observation, information and documentation. Examples of these include Cacán, Comechingon, Old Mupuche, Querandí and Sanavirón.
Another of Argentina's native languages is Argentine Sign Language (LSA). LSA has been signed by Argentina's deaf community since 1885. Many of the countries neighbouring Argentina have borrowed from LSA extensively when developing their own sign languages.
Is Argentina Spanish? It most certainly is when it comes to the country’s main language, but Spanish is far from the only imported language to have significant speaker communities in Argentina.
Some 1.5 million people in Argentina speak Italian as their first languages. That means it is more widely spoken than all of the country’s native languages put together. Economic distress in Italy, back in the 19th century, prompted many Italian families to depart their homeland in search of a better life in Argentina. A steady flow of migration continued until the 1920s, which is why Argentina is now home to so many Italian speakers.
Interestingly, Italian is so widely spoken in some regions of Argentina, that it has influenced the Spanish spoken there, creating regional Spanish accents that sound Italian.
Migration has also led to Arabic being a key language of Argentina. Argentina is home to around one million Levantine Arabic speakers, Most of whom are descended from immigrants arriving from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine between the end of the 19th century and around 1920.
Argentina is home to around half a million German speakers. German is one of the languages spoken in Buenos Aires, with speakers clustered within the city, as well as in the province of Entre Ríos. German speakers can also be found in Misiones, the Chaco and the Pampas, though most Argentinians of German descent have come to speak Spanish as their first language. In Latin America, only Brazil has more German speakers than Argentina.
Argentina has a larger Jewish population than any other country in Latin America, despite a mass immigration in the 2000s that saw over 10,000 Argentine Jews settle in Israel. Today, there are around 200,000 Yiddish speakers in Argentina, with the language spoken in Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Rosario.
Derived from Vulgar Latin, Catalan is a Western Romance language that is spoken in various parts of Spain, France and Italy, as well as in Argentina. Currently, there are around 174,000 Catalan speakers in Argentina.
A pidgin drawn from Portuguese and Spanish, which has been around since the 1960s, Portuñol is spoken mainly along Argentina’s border with Brazil.
Estimates vary when it comes to the number of people who speak English in Argentina. The language is taught there at elementary level, but this basic level of learning does not equate to fluency.
As with so many of Argentina’s imported languages, fluency varies significantly across the country, with populations in larger cities more likely to speak English than those in more rural areas.
In terms of overall English proficiency, Argentina compares well to its Latin American neighbours. The country ranked 25th globally in the EF 2020 English Proficiency Index. It was rated as having ‘high proficiency’ – the only country in South and Central America to achieve this rating (though Costa Rica, Chile, Paraguay, Cuba and Bolivia all ranked as having ‘moderate proficiency’).
No discussion of language in Argentina would be complete without a quick word about Lunfardo. Lunfardo developed as an argot – a secret language used by criminals that blended Italian, Spanish and slang words. Its purpose was to allow prison inmates to converse without being understood by the guards.
However, the use of Lunfardo spread far beyond the prison walls, in large part thanks to its use in tango lyrics. Lunfardo words and phrases seeped into the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires and Rosario, as well as into Montevideo in Uruguay. Today, Lunfardo has come to refer to a wide range of slang and jargon spoken in Buenos Aires and these other cities.
So Lunfardo isn’t really a language or a dialect in its own right, though arguments for and against its classification as such have been put forward over the years. You can read more about the differences between languages and dialects by clicking the link below.
For many native languages, the future looks bleak in Argentina. Dwindling speaker numbers due to the education of children in Spanish and a general lack of support for the country’s linguistic heritage mean that most of Argentina’s native tongues are almost certainly headed for extinction. A sad situation that we’re witnessing around the world as imported languages stamp out so many countries’ linguistic heritage.