Uruguay’s Bilingual Heritage and Portuñol

by Norman Berdichevsky (November 2011)

Like Belgium, Uruguay was established as a buffer state between two major nations (Brazil and Argentina), near the strategic mouth of the La Plata River, where the Rio Parana and the Rio Uruguay join. At the beginning of Uruguayan independence in 1828, the country had a scarce population of only 75,000. Only one major city, the capitol, Montevideo existed. The rest of the population was scattered in a northwestern, Portuguese speaking region and Spanish speaking South.

Today, Uruguay is recognized as a monolingual Spanish speaking country but a closer look reveals a more nuanced dual heritage and development of national identity almost by an accident of history as a “lost province” of both its powerful neighbors and then as a neutral buffer state. Uruguayan historians have even cast the original Charrua Indians that killed the first Spanish settlers on the ‘Left’ (Eastern) Bank of the Parana as “founders of the nation.” The Charrúas delayed the settlement of the east bank for another hundred and fifty years allowing Buenos Aires on the opposite bank to become the major port and settlement center of the Rioplatense region and leaving Montevideo in its shadow.

In Uruguay, the national language was determined by the policy of the central government to favor one language – Spanish – over its competitor, Portuguese. Like the great dispute between English and French in Canada,  the centuries-old rivalry between Spain and Portugal was transferred to the New World. The poorly defined and contested border between the Spanish and the Portuguese empires had been in dispute since the “Division of the World” agreed to between the two Iberian powers with the support of the Pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

It is Montevideo that had the original advantage and better natural harbor suitable for large, ocean-going vessels. This geographical advantage over Buenos Aires should have made its side of the great estuary of the Rio de la Plata, the major harbor and center of Spain’s mid-latitude, South American Atlantic coast colony. The settlement of the eastern side of the bay was delayed by the fierce resistance of the local Charrúa Indians so that by 1680, the Portuguese, from their possessions in Southern Brazil, seeking to expand their empire established Colonia del Sacramento, near the mouth of the Uruguay River. Forty years later, the Spanish colonial regime, based in Buenos Aires, sent an expedition across the river and bypassed the Portuguese settlement to construct a military fort at Fuerte de San Jose, at the site of present day Montevideo in order to exploit the natural bay and resist further Portuguese expansion.

Montevideo lagged far behind Buenos Aires which had been selected as the capital of Viceroyalty of La Plata and was used primarily as a port in Spain’s African slave trade to supply labor for the Cuban sugar fields, resulting in the presence of a small Black population settling permanently in the city that contributed a distinctive sound to Uruguayan folk music (absent in Argentina) known as condombé.

Cattle introduced by the Europeans soon ran wild over the Pampa and surrounding areas along the rivers where large herds provided a source of wealth in leather, hides, tinned beef and fresh and frozen meat with the advent of the railroad and refrigerated ships. This enormous resource was exploited by the gauchos, herders who owed little or no political allegiance to a central government or the ideal of a new nationality. They resisted the control of central governments and often fought among themselves. Only gradually, did all the gauchos find it necessary to restrict the movement of the great cattle herds to make easier and cheaper slaughter and packing possible.

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain became involved in the South American political puzzle and captured both Buenos Aires and Montevideo temporarily after Napoleon had imprisoned the Spanish King Ferdinand VII and invaded Spain in 1808. Local patriots in Argentina rejected the authority of the puppet Viceroy and established a caretaker government to rule over the colony in the name of the authentic King Ferdinand but secretly aspired to independence from Spanish rule. The Buenos Aires authorities could not however establish effective control over the east bank and outlying territories.

When the puppet Viceroy in Buenos Aires moved his court to Montevideo following the British occupation, his presence provoked independence sentiments among inhabitants on the east bank. They joined in a rebel movement believing that they would enjoy substantial autonomy in an independent Argentina. When their dissatisfaction with rule from the new capital of the independent Argentine Republic reached a critical point, Argentina insisted on loyalty to Buenos Aires and insisted on preventing the right of the East Bank to secede.

The issue of Uruguay’s status remained unsettled when, in 1818, Imperial Brazil, still under Portuguese rule, invaded Uruguay. Great Britain had formed close links with the Portuguese from which they helped evict the French forces from Spain. By 1821, a now independent Brazil annexed Uruguay as its “Cisalpine Province.” This infuriated Argentina and immediately provoked a “rescue” attempt to win back Uruguay. In spite of earlier having labeled the Local Uruguayan leaders as “separatists,” “gaucho rebels” and “anarchists,” Argentine forces intervened to protect the territory from “Brazilian subjugation.” By 1828, both sides were exhausted and accepted a British proposal by Lord John Ponsonby of the British Foreign Office to make the “Banda Oriental” an independent state. The name still figures in the official designation of Uruguay as La República Oriental del Uruguay.

The first constitution was adopted in 1830 and both the official name of the country and its flag were designed to closely resemble Argentina’s. The flag with a radiant sun on a field of blue and white stripes was a reminder that the two states had once been closely linked. Argentina and Brazil retained the right to intervene in Uruguay in the event of civil war and to approve the new constitution. For a time, two rival factions, the Colorados and the Blancos attempted to steer the country in a pro-Brazilian and pro-Argentinian course respectively until finally agreeing to maintain a strictly neutral course.

Portuñol and the Language Controversy along the Border

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 than the reach of Montevideo. Many lusismos (Portuguese words and expressions or their literal equivalents in Spanish) crept 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 both schemed to recover Uruguay but the promised support of British naval power prevented either from openly trying to challenge Uruguayan independence. 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 km. wide band across Northern Uruguay in which much of the population is either bilingual or speaks a local mixed Spanish-Portuguese dialect called Portuñol. 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 has been that traditionally, educational opportunities for residents have always been greater on the Brazilian side of the border. The continued existence of Portuñol may also be seen 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 in order to feel separate from their powerful Argentine neighbors.

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.”

The linguist Steven Fischer has predicted that Brazil will eventually cease to be a Portuguese-speaking country, but will rather speak only Portuñol, (Brazilian journal Veja, April 5, 2000), 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 but also including a serious novel Mar Paraguayo by the Brazilian author Wilson Bueno (1992).

Nevertheless, as late as the military junta of the 1970’s, Uruguayan linguistic and educational policy had reached such negative attitudes toward the 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!”

Uruguayan resentment against Argentine assumption that it speaks for all of the Rioplatense region, as if Uruguay were still a forgotten “eastern bank” province, 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). A joke common among Uruguayan Jews who have emigrated to Israel goes as follows….

Several Black Ethiopian, Russian and Latin American Jewish Immigrants are chatting in Israel and complaining about the bad treatment they receive from veteran Israelis. An Ethiopian proclaims that “In Ethiopia they called us…”You Damn Jews” but here in Israel they call us…”You Miserable Niggers.” A Russian joins in and says …Yes, In Russia, they called us Damn Jews but here we are just …”You Cursed Russians.” One of the South Americans nods his heads and says, Yes, in Uruguay they called us “You Damned Jews” and here they all say …”You God Damn Argentinians!”

Many Uruguayans are convinced that Carlos Gardel, the greatest figure in the entertainment world of the tango who was elevated into a national Argentine icon, was actually born in Uruguay, but that the truth has been hidden by a falsified birth certificate and immigration papers that show he was born in France and arrived in Argentina at age 2.  Gardel was the most famous but not the only artist, poet, writer, musician or actor who crossed over to the “West Bank” of Buenos Aires to find fame and fortune in the much larger economic and cultural market.

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. Winning the world cup in soccer several times, and defeating its arch rivals on the playing field helped cement a strong sense of national identity. Although spoken by a minority of the population, Portuñol is one additional element in making Uruguay a distinctive nation with a proud history. 

(Spanish and Portuguese language versions of this article appeared in PortVitoria, Issue 3, July-December, 2011 as “Portuñol y Otros Problemas en la Identidad Uruguaya” and “Portunhol e Outros Percalços da Identidade Uruguaia.”)

To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting and informative articles such as this one, please click here.  

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more by Norman Berdichevsky, click here.

Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend