The Languages spoken in Uruguay
Uruguay remained largely unpopulated until the establishment of Sacramento Colony (Colonia del Sacramento), one of the oldest European settlements in the country, by the Portuguese in 1680. Montevideo, the current capital of the country, was founded as a military stronghold by the Spanish in the early 18th century, signifying the competing claims over the region. Uruguay ultimately won its independence between 1811 and 1828, following a four-way struggle between Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil. The country remained subjected to foreign influence and intervention throughout the 1800s, with the military playing a habitual role in domestic politics until the late 20th century. Today, modern Uruguay is a democratic constitutional republic, with a president who serves as both head of state and head of government. It frequently ranks as one of the most developed and prosperous countries (per capita) in Latin America.[ii]
Languages Spoken in Uruguay: Introduction
Uruguay is a very homogenous country from a linguistic standpoint. Spanish, which is the official or de facto language of the country, is also the first language of over 99 percent of the population.[iii] Uruguayan Spanish, like Argentine Spanish, has been somewhat modified by the Italians who migrated in large numbers to both countries. In general, the language of Uruguay is softer than that of Castile and some words are different from those commonly used in Spain. The gauchos have influenced the language, particularly in words dealing with their way of life.
In addition to Spanish, there are a number of minority languages spoken by very small pockets of the population. Some of these include Portuguese, Portunol, Italian, German, Russian and Plautdietsch. Of these, Portunol is by far the most popular, a language that blends Portuguese and Spanish that is unique to the country of Uruguay.[iv]
The Spanish Language in Uruguay
The Spanish language in Uruguay, often referred to as Uruguayan Spanish or Uruguayan Castilian, is a variety of Spanish spoken in Uruguay and by the Uruguayan diaspora living in other countries around the world.
Spanish was introduced to Uruguay with the arrival of the Spanish at the onset of the colonial period and since that time it has served as the official language of the country, spoken by an overwhelming majority of the population.
Uruguayan Spanish is strongly influenced by the Italian language and its dialects due to the large number of Italian communities in cities such as Montevideo and Paysandú. The manner of speaking Uruguayan Spanish is quite different when compared to other countries in Latin America and in Spain because it is very similar to Italian. Many Italian words are incorporated in the Spanish of Uruguay, such as the words nona cucha, fainá, chapar, parlar, festichola; and of Italian derivation (for example: mina derived from femmina, or pibe from pivello).[v]
The Spanish spoken in Uruguay is also influenced by the Portuguese of Brazil, albeit not as strongly as it is by the Italian language. The Portuguese influence is a variant of Rocha, with bilingualism or the fusion of Spanish and Portuguese, known as Portuñol.[vi]
Another name for the Spanish language spoken in Uruguay is Rioplatense Spanish, a dialect of the Spanish language spoken primarily in the areas in and around the Rio de la Plata basin of Argentina and Uruguay, and also in Rio Grande do Sul.[vii] Certain features of this dialect are also shared with the varieties of Spanish heard in Eastern Bolivia and Chile. The usual word used to describe the Spanish language in this region is castellano (English: Castilian) and seldom español (English: Spanish).
Although the variety of Spanish known as Rioplatense is usually referred to as a single dialect, it’s important to note that there are some distinguishable differences among the varieties spoken in Argentina, Bolivia and in Uruguay.
The language of Rioplatense Spanish is largely based in the Argentine cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario in Argentina, and in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, the three most populated cities in which the dialect is used, as well as their respective suburbs and the towns in between.[viii] Rioplatense is also found in other areas that are not geographically close to, but culturally influenced by those population centers (for example, in parts of Paraguay and in all of Patagonia).[ix] The Rioplatense dialect is the standard in audiovisual media in Argentina and Uruguay. To the north, and northeast exists the hybrid language of Riverense Portuñol, a blending of Spanish and Portuguese that we will discuss in the next section.
Influences on Uruguayan (Rioplatense) Spanish
The Spanish brought their native language to Uruguay during the Spanish colonization in the region. The Rio de la Plata basin region, originally part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, later had its status lifted to Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776.[x]
Up until the large wave of immigration to the region, which commenced in the 1870s, the language used in the Rio de la Plata region had almost no influence from other world languages, varying only slightly from one town to the next. The people of Argentina and Uruguay often say that their populations, much like those of the United States and Canada in North America, comprise people of relatively recent European descent, the largest immigrant groups coming from Italy and Spain.
Several languages, and especially Italian, influenced the dialect of Spanish of the time, a fact owed to the diversity of settlers and immigrants to the greater Uruguay region. Between 1870 and 1890, the main influences on Uruguayan Spanish were the Spanish, Basque, Galician and Northern Italian settlers, and even some from France, Germany and other European countries, including several from Eastern Europe.[xi]
Between 1910 and 1945, another wave of immigration to Uruguay was experienced, as people fled their home countries in war-torn Europe to start their lives anew. People from Spain, Southern Italy and in smaller numbers from across Europe settled in the region, bringing their own linguistic influence to what would become the Rioplatense dialect. Jewish immigration, particularly from Russia and Poland, was also especially heavy between 1910 and the end of World War II.[xii]
Another influence on Uruguayan Spanish was the English speakers—mainly from Britain and Ireland. Although not as numerous as the Spanish and Italians, these English speakers were very influential in industry, business, education and agriculture. English speakers were especially influential with the upper and upper-middle classes.[xiii]
Vocabulary and Usage
The massive wave of European immigration decimated the Native American populations before 1810, and also during the expansion into Patagonia after 1870. Despite this, the frequent interactions between Spanish speakers and the native-speaking Amerindians have left visible traces on the Uruguayan Spanish of today. Words form the Guarani and Quechua Indians and others were incorporated into the local Spanish dialect.
Some of the Amerindian words that were incorporated into the Rioplatense Spanish dialect include:[xiv]
- Guacho or Guacha. These words, from the Quechua Indians, today mean a “poor person, vagabond or orphan.” The term for the native cowboys of the Pampas, gaucho, may be related.
- Pororo and Pochoclo. The word pororo means “popcorn” in Uruguay (and Paraguay), while the word pochoclo is the Argentine word for popcorn.
Vocabularies in the regions where the Rioplatense dialect is used continue to diverge from Peninsular Spanish: Rioplatense Spanish tends to borrow technical words from American English, while Peninsular Spanish tends to borrow them from British English or from French.[xvi]
To give you an example of how the Rioplatense vocabulary varies from standard Castilian Spanish, below we have listed a few common terms (in English) with their corresponding Castilian and Rioplatense words:[xvii]
- Peach. Castilian = Melocotón Rioplatense = Durazno
- Apricot. Castilian = Albaricoque Rioplatense = Damasco
- Potato. Castilian = Patata Rioplatense = Papa
- Sweater. Castilian = Jersey Rioplatense = Suéter/pullover
- Bowtie. Castilian = Pajarita Rioplatense = Moño
- Car. Castilian = Coche Rioplatense = Auto
- Cell Phone. Castilian = Móvil Rioplatense = Celular
- Computer. Castilian = Ordenador Rioplatense = Computadora
- Hot Dog. Castilian =Perrito Rioplatense= Pancho
One of the characteristic features of the Uruguayan speaking style is the voseo: the usage of the pronoun vos for the second person singular, instead of tú. Vos is used with forms of the verb that resemble those of the second person plural (vosotros) in traditional (Spain's) Peninsular Spanish.[xviii]
The second person plural pronoun, which is vosotros in Spain, is replaced with ustedes in Rioplatense, as in most other Latin American dialects. In the old times, vos was used as a respectful term. In Rioplatense, as in most other dialects which employ voseo, this pronoun has become informal, supplanting the use of tú (compare you in English, which used to be formal singular but has replaced and obliterated the former informal singular pronoun thou). It is used especially for addressing friends and family members (regardless of age), but may also include most acquaintances, such as co-workers, friends of one's friends, etc.[xix]
Languages of Uruguay: Portuñol
Portuñol or portunhol is a dialect based on code-switching between Spanish and Portuguese. This dialect in Uruguay has resulted from prolonged contact between the inhabitants of Spanish-speaking Uruguayans and Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, primarily in the country’s border areas. Emerging over time as a sort of lingua franca for those living in these regions, where speakers lacked fluency in the other group’s language, portuñol can be described as a hybrid mixture of Spanish and Portuguese with a smattering of influences from indigenous languages.[xx] Portuñol speakers are concentrated in the border areas between Argentina and Brazil, Paraguay and Brazil, and Uruguay and Brazil.
The most uniform and structured variation of portuñol, known as portuñol riverense or fronterizo, is spoken near the Uruguay-Brazil border, specifically in and around the area surrounding the twin cities of Rivera, Uruguay and Santana do Livramento, Brazil. Although most linguists consider portuñol riverense to be primarily a Portuguese-based dialect, other variants of portuñol retain more of a Spanish flavor.[xxi]
In the past few years, a number of literary works in portuñol have been produced, largely by Uruguayan and Brazilian authors. One of the most celebrated examples of portuñol literature is a novel entitled Mar Paraguayo by Wilson Bueno. The use of portuñol has also risen on the Internet, with websites, blogs and chat rooms dedicated to the dialect.[xxii]
After Brazil adopted its first constitution in 1830, Portuguese continued to be spoken in the rural northern border region with Brazil, and the introduction of Spanish language public schools in the area progressed slowly. The local importance of Portuguese was considerable due to the smuggling of cattle and importation of tropical and subtropical fruit from nearby Brazil, which supplied the region with goods more effectively and considerably more conveniently than the reach of Montevideo. [xxiii]
Over time, many lusismos (Portuguese words and expressions or their literal equivalents in Spanish) began to creep into the popular speech of Montevideo as rural migrants moved into the city from the North. Throughout the 1850s, tension remained high between Brazil and Argentina, and while both desired and even schemed to recover Uruguay for themselves, the promised support of British naval power prevented either from openly trying to challenge Uruguayan independence.[xxiv] During this tense time, Brazil obtained a number of special rights in Uruguayan affairs such as the extradition of runaway slaves and criminals, joint navigation on the Rio Uruguay and special tax exemptions for Brazilian cattle and salted meat exports.
The recently completed Atlas Lingüistico del Uruguay confirms the existence of a 25 kilometer-wide band across Northern Uruguay in which much of the population is either bilingual or speaks the local mixed Spanish-Portuguese dialect known as Portuñol.[xxv] The proximity of the border region to Brazilian television stations has contributed to the tendency of the local population to maintain the dialect and some degree of literacy in Brazilian Portuguese. An additional reason for the growing mixed dialect is that traditionally, educational opportunities for Uruguayan residents have always been greater on the Brazilian side of the border.
The continued existence of Portuñol may also be seen as an attempt by Uruguayans to reinforce a sense of national identity, particularly among young people, a sense of rebellion against the government’s policy of “correct Spanish speech” and as a way to feel separate from their powerful Argentine neighbors.[xxvi]
Several Uruguayan Ministers of Education have declared Portuñol to be a “vulgar” or “lower class dialect” and that the policy of the Ministry must be to ensure that both “standard" Spanish and Portuguese are taught and spoken well, whereas Uruguayan linguist Graciela Barrios, defends the use of the dialect and the language spoken by the younger generation in Montevideo. She has commented that “Behind the policies of managing the language, there are discriminatory attitudes. When the government accuses young people of 'deforming' the language, it is a sly way of saying - We don’t like young people. The language of the frontier region is our cultural patrimony and must not disappear.”[xxvii]
The linguist Steven Fischer has predicted that Brazil will eventually cease to be a Portuguese-speaking country, but will rather speak only Portuñol, something that of course offends many in Brazil’s literary and intellectual establishment. There has also been a significant literary production in portuñol as well as regional comic book production, mostly in Uruguay and Brazil.
Nevertheless, as late as the military junta of the 1970’s, Uruguayan linguistic and educational policy had reached such negative attitudes toward the Portunol dialect that huge signs were placed in the border area calling upon parents to…”Speak Spanish = If you Love Your Children. Remember – they imitate you!”[xxviii]
Uruguayan resentment against Argentina’s assumption that it speaks for the entire Rioplatense region is strong. Uruguayans are unhappy being taken for granted, but sometimes engage in self-pity and irony while at the same time mock the general ignorance abroad of their country. A popular patriotic song speaks of Uruguay as the country that “por el mapa no se ve” (that is not seen on the map).
As with any other language, the Uruguayan-Brazilian Portuñol is very dynamic and heterogeneous, and there is a continuum of dialects which range from Rioplatense Spanish to the standard Brazilian Portuguese. Nevertheless, it has one variant which is the most used, and could be taken as a case study: this variant is geographically located on the area having the cities of Rivera and Sant'Ana do Livramento as its center, and expanding over a strip of several kilometers parallel to the border, including territory of both nations.[xxix]
Most language experts classify Portuñol as a variety of Portuguese, but there is no total consensus. Despite the lack of consensus, it can be safely said that Portuñol is a very rich language, in the sense that it has a great amount of synonyms and more precise words to express specific meanings, besides having a larger phonetic richness. However, it's wrong to say that Riverense Portunol is merely a mix between two languages which doesn't follow strict grammatical rules.
The origins of Portuñol can be traced back to the time of the dominion of the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. In those times, the ownerships of those lands were not very well defined, passing back and forth from the hands of one crown to the other. Portuñol was not only influenced by Portuguese and Spanish, but also, in a few cases, the native languages as well.
In terms of phonology, the Portunol language does not possess a formally defined orthography. It should also be noted here that not all Portuñol-speaking persons use the same pronunciation for the same words (as is the case with most languages).
As mentioned previously, Both Argentina and Uruguay attracted many immigrants from Spain, Italy, the Canary Islands, and Central and Eastern Europe. Uruguay, although much smaller, was more successful in establishing free institutions, achieving a high level of education for many of its citizens, preserving essential liberties, promoting social welfare and serving as a haven for refugees.[xxx] Winning the world cup in soccer several times, and defeating its arch rivals on the playing field, has helped cement a strong sense of national identity in Uruguay, and a way to set them apart from their much larger “nemesis,” Argentina. Although only spoken by a minority of the population, Portuñol is one additional element that makes Uruguay a distinctive nation in its own right with a long and proud history.
[xxiii] Berdichevsky, Norman. “Uruguay’s Bilingual Heritage and Portuñol.” newenglishreview.org. Retrieved 1 June 2014.
[xxiv] “Uruguay: Maps, History, Geography, Government, Culture and Facts.” Infoplease.com. Retrieved 1 June 2014.
[xxvii] Berdichevsky, Norman. “Uruguay’s Bilingual Heritage and Portuñol.” newenglishreview.org. Retrieved 1 June 2014.
[xxviii] Berdichevsky, Norman. “Uruguay’s Bilingual Heritage and Portuñol.” newenglishreview.org. Retrieved 1 June 2014.
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