Latin American is often thought of as being Spanish centric, both in terms of language and cultural influences. This is definitely true, with Spanish being the official language for pretty much all of South America, but what about Italian in the region? How widely spoken is Italian in the Latin American countries?
Italian is actually quite prevalent in some South American countries, most notably Argentina, which has roughly 1.5 million Italian speakers. Other Latin American countries like Uruguay and Chile also have a reasonable number of Italian speakers, and in some cases the local Spanish dialects in these countries do have a distinct Italian inflection to them.
South American culture and language does definitely have some Italian influence, largely driven by immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, it is South America (and not North America or anywhere else to some people’s surprise) where you will find the greatest concentration of Italian culture and language outside of Italy.
This is not surprising when we realise a few contributing factors:
- The political and economic instability that characterized Italy for large parts of the late 19th and early 20th century, with various economic crises and the rise of Fascism leading many Italians to migrate.
- Some South American governments actually encouraged immigration to their country, promising good prospects, a better life and in some cases even free transport for migrants.
- The South American countries were, and still are, largely Roman Catholic, which created another cultural match in terms of the Italians, making it easier for them to blend into Latin American societies without being looked down upon or judged.
- Italian is quite closely related to the dominant Latin American language of Spanish, hence it is not a great leap for Italians to blend into Spanish speaking societies. Italian and Spanish speakers can quite easily converse across their languages, as we have covered in our article comparing the two.
Let’s look at some of the main South American countries in turn to examine the presence of Italian language and culture in each.
The Italian Language in Argentina
Argentina is definitely the most notable country in South America for Italian language influences, with roughly one and a half million Italian speakers out of a population of around 40 million, and well over half the population with some form of Italian heritage. Indeed between the 19th and mid 20th centuries, Argentina received more Italian immigrants then even Spanish immigrants, leaving strong Italian influences in the culture which remain to this day.
Although Spanish is the official language there, the particular dialect spoken in Argentina and also neighboring Uruguay – known as Rioplatense Spanish – does have distinct Italian inflections and influences to it, to the point some people at times mistake it for Italian. Much of the intonations and tone of Rioplatense, as well as the gesticulations that often accompanies daily conversation, has many Italian characteristics to it.
However, full on standard Italian did not spread to the extent Spanish eventually did, since many Italian immigrants either reverted to specific local dialects, which were often a mix of Italian and Spanish, or just went straight to Spanish, since the similarities between Spanish and Italian are actually quite large.
Argentine and Uruguayan Spanish also retain a strong influence from a slang dialect of Italian known as Lunfardo, which originates from inhabitants of Lombarby in Italy and came across with some of the immigrants. It became especially prevalent in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires and in time. spread to other parts of the country and also Uruguay.
Lunfardo used to carry with it a connotation of a criminal or lower class language, but nowadays in simply a form of slang which is inserted into informal conversations in daily life. See here for some examples of Lunfardo words that are used within the flow of normal Rioplatense Spanish.
The Italian Language in Brazil
Brazil also has a notable Italian influence among it’s population, with many of them settling in Sao Paolo especially in the early 1900s. The Portuguese dialect spoken there does have some Italian influences, and Italians remain the third largest immigrant community in the country. Sao Paolo based former Brazilian F1 driver Felipe Massa is one of many well known past and present public figures with strong Italian heritage.
Sao Paolo is undoubtedly the hotbed of Italian culture within Brazil, with an estimated enclave of around 50,000 Italian speakers, and around 50-60% of the population having some Italian heritage in the city. Some travellers in the early 20th century have reported that the Sao Paolo dialect of Portuguese was basically a modified form of Italian, though this influence has lessened over time.
In Brazil as a whole, around 4 millions people or around 2% of the population can speak Italian. In addition, Italian is taught in some schools in the more southern parts of Brazil, and continues to retain in influence, both in terms of certain words used and in intonation and dialect, in certain rural parts of Brazil.
The Italian Language in Uruguay
Uruguay is second to Argentina in South America in terms of the prevalence of Italians and the Italian language, with around one third of the population estimated to be of Italian descent. Migration started in the 1830s, picked up speed in the 1860s and really took off in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Italians sought a more peaceful environment.
As a result many people within Uruguay can speak or at least understand a little Italian. Italian is also a mandatory subject in schools, sharing de facto official status alongside the main language of Spanish, very unusual for any country. Italians and the Italian language are held in high esteem in Uruguay, with many important politicians, sportspeople and other public figures having strong Italian roots.
In additional, much like Argentina, the dialect of Spanish spoken there does have a very strong Italian aspect to it, in terms of the pronunciation and the inflection and flow of speech. Some people refer to the tone as “sing-songy” – see the video below – but it is not a massive leap for an Italian to understand the Uruguayan version of Spanish, since it shares so many characteristics with Italian anyway.
A former missionary in Uruguay explains the Italian influences on Uruguayan Spanish
Italian Ancestry and Language in Other Latin American Countries
We have covered the main South American countries where Italian is really most prevalent above, but let’s quickly summarize the Italian presence in other countries in Latin America at a glance:
Mexico – Received around 13,000 Italian immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, now estimated to have several million Italian descended citizens. Several Italian Mexican communities in parts of Mexico, and Italian influenced dialects such as Venetian, Lombard, Trentino, Piedmontese and Sicilian present in areas like Chipilo, Tijuana, Baja California, Veracruz, Meixco City and Monterrey. Precise stats on Italian speakers hard to find but significant Italian influences remain in the country.
Venezuela – Also developed a significant Italian community, particularly post World War 2. Around 2 million Venezualans have some Italian heritage, with around 200,000 Italian speakers in the country.
Paraguay – Italians are a prominent ethnic minority here, with around 40% of the population having Italian ancestry. Helped to rebuild the population there after the devastating Chaco War 1865-1870. Several Paraguayan presidents have also had Italian ancestry. Exact figures on Italian speakers hard to find.
Chile – Received around 8,000 Italians in the early 20th century. Anything between 150,000 and 800,000 Chileans today with Italian ancestry; stats on Italian speakers hard to find. Still retains some strong Italian links, with some smaller towns Italian dominated, and some Italian schools also in parts of Chile.
Peru – Received a large number of Italians, particularly during World War 2. Around a quarter of the population has Italian ancestry.
Costa Rica – Has the largest Italian community in Central America, especially in San Vito and San Jose. Spanish is the offical language but Italian also taught in some schools. Has the largest Italian speaking community in Central America.
Colombia – Again received some Italian immigration in the 1800s, though strained diplomatic relations stemmed this in the latter part of the century. Italian immigration picked up again after the Second World War. Spanish the dominant language, though around a quarter of the population can still speak or understand Italian.
More on Historical Italian Influences
The vast majority of these Italian language influences in South America come from what is known as the so called Italian diaspora or mass migration of Italians from Italy, particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Between the late 1800s and late 1900s, it is estimated that as many as 15 million Italians left their home country permanently and settled in overseas countries, including South American ones.
This was largely driven by political and economic changes taking place in Italy, particularly the rise of Fascism in the early 1900s. There was some migration in the 1700s but it really picked up between 1880 and 1920, when many Italians simply became fed up with the political and cultural changes which were happening and chose to build a new life somewhere else instead.
Many went to North America – the Italian influences in the form of food, music, film, and crime in America is now well known – but even more also went to South America, and the cultural and linguistic influences of these migrants still remain in South American countries today.
Argentina especially received a large number of Italian and Spanish migrants, with well over half of the 40 million population of Argentina estimated to have full or partial Italian ancestry. As well as the 1.5 million native Italian speakers there, the Spanish spoken in Argentina also has some distinct Italian characteristics as we mentioned.
Neighboring Uruguay also received enough Italian migrants to make noticeable cultural impacts; the dialect of Spanish spoken in Uruguay is very similar to the Argentine dialect and retains many of the same Italian flairs. Brazil also received many Italians and as we mentioned strong Italian enclaves still exist in Sao Paolo especially.
So it was a sense of Italians of that era wanting to find and build a better life for themselves with greater prospects and stability that led to the influx. Italy has been well known for having volatile periods both politically and economically, and has struggled at times with poor economic growth and development, lagging behind some European neighbors.
The rise of Fascism also made the country harder and more authoritarian politically, yet the general population of Italians is renowned for being gentle and not seeking out conflict naturally. This stereotype largely holds true, so it is not hard to see why many became fed up with the enviromment in their home land and sought a more peaceful life elsewhere.