The Hybridity of Language: Italian in Argentina and Japanese in Brazil

Brazil speaks Portuguese and Argentina speaks Spanish, but they are distinctive from every other country that speaks these same languages, because Brazil speaks Brazilian Portuguese and Argentina speaks Argentine Spanish. The individuality of these languages were formulated through a linguistic history that has been influenced or shifted by four major factors. To provide a concise understanding of the history and language shift within Argentina and Brazil, this article will address the following: the history of Spanish and Portuguese empire, the history of Italian immigration and language shift in Argentina, and the history of Japanese immigration and language shift in Brazil. Whereas the beginning sections will cover the domination of world powers through force and violence, the latter sections will cover how the influence of immigrants, as well as their need to assimilate, have created new linguistic varieties that arose through the foreign dialectical and cultural influences of immigrants.

Part I: Spanish and Portuguese Colonialism to the Americas and the Rest of the World

Christopher Columbus, with the support of the Spanish Crown, sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the Americas in 1492. Upon realizing all of the potential agricultural and natural production benefits, as well as the relatively little effort needed to conquer the land, the Spanish established themselves in the new world. Seeing themselves as elites compared to the native people, The Spanish took control of their fertile land, forced them into labor, brought slaves into places such as the Caribbean, and enforced the Spanish language as a necessary tool for survival and success.

At the time, the Spanish and Portuguese empires were unparalleled in their global power and influence, and both had an interest in expanding to different areas of the world. The Portuguese had already conquered South Asia (Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India) and were focusing on discovering more of the East, while the Spanish wanted to uncover more of the Americas. The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 was a safeguarded decision to split the world between Spain and Portugal. The Pope drew a line down the Atlantic Ocean, but Portugal wanted to move the line to give themselves what is now present-day Brazil. Brazil had become prosperous from its sugar extractions, as well as from the Brazilwood Tree (what Brazil was named after), which produced yellow and purple dye that the Portuguese found valuable.

Although Spain and Portugal both had an insatiable desire to expand their empire, the two countries had different objectives. Spain wanted to accumulate power and assert it to the new land through military force, whereas Portugal already had established empires and were more interested in establishing trading systems. Thus, the Portuguese were more accepting of already existing languages and cultures, as well as intermarriage between the Europeans and indigenous people.

Part II: Italian Influence in Argentine Spanish and Culture

Argentina experienced occupation multiple times, with indigenous groups fighting against colonial powers and succeeding thrice, until finally the Spanish empire conquered them. The first recorded visit of Europeans to Argentina was in 1516. Juan Diaz de Solis, a navigator and explorer, entered Rio de la Plata and claimed the territory for Spain, but he and his men were killed. The few who survived brought back silver, which instigated further curiosity on the area. In 1562, Sebastian Cabot, an Italian explorer for Spain, established the first temporary European settlement near Rosario. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro conquered the northern part of Argentina, home to the Incans. He then established a settlement in Buenos Aires but was attacked by the Querandi Indians. In 1580, Juan de Garay became the first Spanish explorer to establish permanence in Buenos Aires (Velez). From then on, Argentina slowly became internationally renowned for its economic prosperity and stability.

The Spanish established a more dominant presence in South America by killing most of the indigenous people and exerting the Spanish language as a mechanism for survival. This language shift occurred because the ability to speak Spanish translated to a higher social status and more economic prosperity. Thus, the surviving indigenous people had no choice but to adapt and learn. In the case of Argentina, however, Spain was not as focused on this region because of the superior richness of natural goods in other areas such as Mexico, but rather for its landmass. So, there was less interaction between the people of Argentina and the Spanish empire. This disconnection traces to the differences in Argentine Spanish compared to the Spanish found in most parts of South America. For example, Argentina still uses voseo, a pronoun that remains only in places that were historically and geographically isolated from Spain.

With the formation of the free trade policy in 1778, Buenos Aires began to grow rapidly. More and more immigrants began to arrive, attracted to the promises of capitalist modernization, demographic expansion, liberalism, agricultural commercialization, industrialization, advances in transportation, and better wages (Velez). For Italian immigrants in particular, Coercion – one of the four proponents of language shift – played an active role in their linguistic assimilation to Buenos Aires. There were two social spaces that contributed to the endeavor: conventillos and mutual aid societies. Conventillos were housing spaces occupied by immigrants, which served as a linguistic market due to their housing Italians in close proximity to immigrants of other nationalities (Italiano-McGreevy, xii).

The Italian immigrants spoke a version of Spanish that became known as cocoliche, which is a hybrid of Italian and Spanish spoken by many Italian immigrants in Argentina. Cocoliche was used as a transitional language until Italian immigrants shifted to speaking Spanish almost exclusively. In addition to the conventillos, Mutual Aid Societies also assisted in the assimilation of Italians to Argentina. These societies were defenders of the Italian language, specifically of children maintaining their knowledge of Italian, and strongly encouraged schools to teach Italian in addition to Spanish (Italian-McGreevy, 72). The societies also provided memberships in order to create a network of support that propelled social mobility for the Italian community. The majority of Italians were especially motivated to learn Spanish in order to make enough money to move out of the conventillos, an act that would establish them as a more integrated part of society.

Part III: Japanese Influence in Brazilian Portuguese and Culture

The Japanese began to immigrate to Brazil in 1908, when they sought to escape the poverty and high unemployment rate of their home country. Brazil welcomed 240,000 Japanese immigrants, growing their Japanese population to 1.5 million, which was the largest Japanese community outside of Japan at the time (Sakuma, 20). Most of the immigrants came from Kumamoto, Hokkaido, Kagoshima, and Okinawa, and they all had very little knowledge about Brazil and the Portuguese language.

And as little as the Japanese knew about Brazil, Brazilians knew even less about Japan and the Japanese (Sakurai). But, at the time, Brazil needed laborers to work in the coffee farms, as the abolition of slavery in 1888 occurred at the same time that Brazil was becoming a lead producer of coffee globally (Veselinovic). So, Japanese immigrants were the perfect solution to their problem. Nonetheless, for the majority of these immigrants, the original plan was to reside temporarily, make money, and then move back to Japan. They quickly realized, however, that economic prosperity would not come as fast as they had anticipated – upon this realization, many families decided to stay, become laborers, and begin their lives in Brazil.

Between 1925 to 1934, mass Japanese immigration to Brazil took place following the ban on Japanese immigration to the United States (Sakurai). As even more Japanese immigrants began to move to Brazil, many acquired cheap land concentrated in Sao Paulo, which was called shokuminchi in Japanese, or colônia in Portuguese. And with this rapid expansion of the Japanese community came the formation of Japanese language schools and media in Brazil (Sakuma, 20). In response, the government began to implement laws in an attempt to reinforce Brazilian nationalism and the necessity of Portuguese. In 1933, the Brazilian government prohibited teachers from teaching foreign languages, especially Japanese, to students under under the age of ten who were not literate in Portuguese. Additionally, only government-approved textbooks were allowed in classrooms (Sakuma, 22). In 1938, President Getulia Vargas took this a step forward, establishing the Immigration Law of 1938, which prohibited the operation of any ethnic schools by aliens (Adachi, 456). Thus, 476 schools – 294 of which were in Sao Paulo – were shut down.

The Brazilian government also suppressed Japanese media channels when it decided that Portuguese was the only language allowed for public use (Sakuma, 23). Because of this  “whitening policy,” use of the Japanese language in Brazil became weaker by the generation. Although Japanese media channels and schools eventually found their way back to Brazil after the war in 1946, by that time, there had been a major language shift that prevented Japanese from ever becoming as prevalent as it was before (Sakuma, 24). By this time, the Japanese spoken in Brazil had transformed into a Japanese-Portuguese fusion known as koronia-go, which translates to “language of the community.”

Parting Thoughts

The evolutions of Brazilian Portuguese and Argentinian Spanish outline the massive impact of foreign introduction in these particular areas. From the invasion of Western powers to the influences of immigrant communities, these countries’ native languages underwent major cultural shifts in order to accommodate for the mass migration of people who became permanent, integral parts of the population. According to our lexicon, each language only has a single name, but we must acknowledge the various nuances hidden within each language, which have developed in accordance to a country’s history and culture. Ultimately, we must begin to consider language beyond its face value: the ways in which we communicate can reveal to us the very interconnections between our own cultures and histories.

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