Does Messi speak Spanish or ‘Argentine’?

Photo by Marc Puig i Perez/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This article by Dante Liano was originally published by Prensa Comunitaria and an edited version is republished on Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

An old stupor makes me relapse into reading texts that I should avoid. Many times I have restrained the impulse to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper, for several reasons, such as the fact that these letters are usually treated with arrogance. One of these avoidable texts, which tries to make a psychological analysis of the Argentine player Lionel Messi, has been published by a major Italian newspaper. The piece interests me because it is on linguistics and because it touches on a point that I have always struggled with. At the outset, it reads:

Chiunque abbia conversato con Messi sa che non parla spagnolo, ma argentino, anzi rosarino. Il suo aggettivo preferito è «espectacular», che però lui pronuncia petacular, mangiandosi tre lettere. Anziché «trabajar» dice laburar. A chi gli chiede notizie del primogenito Thiago risponde, tutto fiero: «Le gusta el fulbo », che significa «gli piace il calcio» ma non in castigliano, in un dialetto sudamericano.

Anyone who has spoken with Messi knows that he does not speak Spanish, but Argentine, or rather Rosarino. His favorite adjective is “espectacular”, which he pronounces “petacular”, consuming three letters. Instead of ‘trabajar’ he says ‘laburar’. When asked about his eldest son, Thiago, he answers proudly: “Le gusta el fúlbo”, which means “he likes soccer”, but not in Spanish, but in a South American dialect.

To paraphrase the novelist Cervantes: “We have stumbled upon ignorance, Sancho.” Ignorance spread even at “cultured” levels, because until recently Italian publishers used to write, in the translation of Argentine authors, that the text had been “translated from Argentine,” as if such a phantom existed. The originality of our journalist lies in the fact that he invents the “South American dialect,” a contradiction belonging to fantasy literature. Indeed, if the basis for speaking of a “dialect” is to speak of a variant of a language, then there would have to be a dialect for each country in South America: Colombian, Venezuelan, Peruvian, etc. So, Messi could not speak in “South American,” simply because that abstraction does not exist.

I remember, from my now distant childhood, that those of us from Chimaltenango, in Guatemala, used to make fun of the cousins from San Andrés Itzapa, a town four kilometers from the departmental capital. The Itzapecos would elongate their vowels, lazily, when speaking, and say “Bueeeenos díaaaas, Tía Tereeeeeeeesa.” Could it be that the “itzapeco” dialect exists and I am only now discovering it? Another gem from our journalist, analyzer of the depths of the soul and language, is that he digs into the error, and points out that Argentines call Messi “Lío” instead of “Leo.” One need only go to the Barcelona Fútbol Club website to learn that the soccer player is called “Lionel” and that “Lio” is the natural nickname for his proper name, just as “San” is for “Santo.” It would be enough to know just a bit of the Spanish language.

Let us return to the statement that our hero speaks “Argentinian” or, rather, “Rosarino.” The Spanish language, indeed, resembles the Amazon River, an immense stream with many streams and many bifurcations. At first, it was the language of the Kingdom of Castile, the language of Queen Isabella, who married Ferdinand, the Aragonese. The language of the land of the castles built by Catholic feudal lords and warriors, who spoke with strong and concise words, spread not only to America and its immense distances, but also to Europe and its endless tribal wars (which continue to this day). In doing so, it was called “Spanish,” because it became the language of an empire born in Spain, and, as a currency for communication throughout the world, it was enriched and changed in its tireless travels. At the same time, it retained features specific to each region: it is not spoken in the same way in Galicia, Asturias or Andalusia. But that does not mean it ceases to be “Spanish.” Similarly, it is not spoken in the same way in Mexico or Colombia or Argentina, but it does not cease to be Spanish for that reason. The inhabitants of Buenos Aires have one accent; the inhabitants of Rosario have another, very marked, but they speak the same language. The same thing happens with the inhabitants of Milan and Rome, when they speak Italian.

The examples referred to by the journalist belong to naïve linguistics, that which is used by people to make fun of neighbors because they speak differently. He informs us that Messi pronounces “pectacular” instead of “spectacular”; that he says “laburar,” instead of “trabajar,” and that he pronounces “fúlbo” when he means “soccer.” Is it too much arrogance to explain to the educated and the layman that each of us has our own way of pronouncing the language? And that no general rule can be derived from the pronunciation of a single individual? Each of these examples has its explanation, in the Spanish language, but I dare to propose the simplest one: the poor hearing of our journalist. It would be more credible if he had written that Messi says: ‘ehpettacular,” or “fúbbo,” phonetic features found throughout the Hispanic world. But that would be too much to ask for a text written for the purpose of filling a Sunday slot.

As is often the case, perhaps the explanation does not lie in the text as it appears in the newspaper, but in what the text hides. Let's try to turn the tables: what would happen if a “South American” journalist said that Umberto Eco spoke “Bolognese,” Pier Paolo Pasolini spoke “Friulian,” Alberto Moravia spoke “Roman” when they thought they spoke Italian? I imagine that no one would dream of making such a bold assertion.

On the other hand, doesn't spouting a series of rambling assertions about the way “South Americans” speak, focusing on a “stammering” Lionel Messi, return Americans to the colonial condition as children, to the ideological justification that allowed their subjugation, that is, to the claim that there was no culture there, that they were tabula rasa, blank minds where the West could write the foundations of civilization? Perhaps, Sancho, we have not encountered ignorance, but something worse.


  • Great article, excellent reading!
    I couldn’t agree more, I have witnessed the same kind of speeches from my former European colleagues in my previous job up to the point where I coined the neologism Eurosplaining to refer to their behavior.
    Is it really that hard understand this phenomenon where we don’t consider another language just because it sounds a bit different? I think part of the explanation comes from the older Europe, where languages and even accents distinguished a friend from an enemy, a fellow from a foreigner, yours from the others. Times have changed, and this kind of purism is more impossible than ever. Italian governmental steps go, however, in the opposite direction.

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