Mamihlapinatapai: A lost languages untranslatable legacy

It was spring when I reached the end of the world. On that mid-September day it was cold and raining in the city of Ushuaia, Argentina, but the sky cleared as I trekked nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, allowing the sun to reflect off crisp glacial waters and snow-covered mountains.

In 1520, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan would have seen a similar view as he led his Spanish fleet into the region. He travelled along a strait (later named after him) between mainland South America and a windswept archipelago he called Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) for the small fires he spotted along the shore. For thousands of years, the indigenous community here, the Yaghan, lit fires to keep warm and to communicate with each other. The flames burned in their forests, amid mountains, valleys and rivers, and atop the long canoes they steered over chilly waters.

Sixteen years ago, Cristina Calderon – one of the estimated 1,600 Yaghan descendants still living around their ancestral grounds – started the annual tradition of lighting three fires on Playa Larga in Ushuaia, a beach where ancient Yaghans gathered. Taking place every 25 November, the act recalls the Yaghan custom of lighting three fires to announce the arrival of a whale or a banquet of fish that everyone would eat. Releasing smoke signals was a way to convene the entire tribe, and it was common for them to share food and eat communally along the coast.

“The importance of the fire is more than something that brings us warmth in such a hostile place,” Victor Vargas Filgueira, a Yaghan guide at the Museo del Fin del Mundo (End of the World Museum) in Ushuaia told me. “It served as an inspiration for many things.”

That inspiration can be seen in a word that has garnered rapturous admirers and inspired many flights of the imagination. Mamihlapinatapai comes from the near-extinct Yaghan language. According to Vargas’ own interpretation, “It is the moment of meditation around the pusakí [fire in Yaghan] when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.”

But since the 19th Century, the word has held a different meaning – one to which people all over the world relate.

Read more: BBC

How Italians influenced a South American dialect

“Argentinian Spanish is sort of hard to understand,” said my sister as she plugged in a fan. It was hot and still in Buenos Aires and we were drinking lemonade on her balcony.

I’d just flown into South America for the first time, and I hadn’t slept much on the plane. I was more concerned about my overpowering jet lag than mastering the local dialect. But fresh off a lengthy stay in Nicaragua, I spoke enough Spanish to get by… or so I thought.

Later that evening, my sister took me to meet her new boyfriend. Fermin, a native porteño (Buenos Aires local). He and his friends were charismatic and kind, but I could barely understand a word they said. They were speaking Spanish, but their vocabulary was filled with words I’d never heard before.

Throughout the evening, Fermin repeatedly referred to his friends as ‘los pibes’, meaning ‘the boys’ or ‘the kids’ in lunfardo, a form of popular slang in Buenos Aires. It’s one of approximately 6,000 words that make up the lunfardo lexicon. Over the course of that evening with Fermin and his pibes, I heard them use mango (rather than dinero) when discussing money and morfi (not comida) to talk about food.

The name ‘lunfardo’ hints at the history behind the slang. In the late 19th Century, Argentinian police officers noticed that thieves and other small-time criminals were using a new range of words to communicate with each other. Assuming that the slang was a sort of criminal jargon, the law enforcement officials started making lists of the words and phrases they heard. They called the lexicon ‘lunfardo’, meaning ‘thief’ in Spanish.

But according to Oscar Conde, an Argentinian professor who’s written two books on the subject, the cops were wrong.

“The birth of lunfardo is not related with criminality,” Conde writes, “but with European immigration to Argentina between 1880 and the beginning of World War I.” During those years, four million people, mostly Italians and Spaniards, arrived in Buenos Aires. The city became, as Conde puts it, “a real-life Babel”.

Read more: BBC