Guarani is a very special language. It is one of the most widely spoken indigenous languages of the Americas. It is the only indigenous language spoken by a majority of the population of an American country (Paraguay). And it is the only indigenous American language commonly used among non-indigenous people.
Within Paraguay it is difficult to judge how much influence Guarani has had on Spanish, as most people speak both languages, and frequently mix them together. However, over the border in Argentina, it is possible to identify words that have truly been adopted by Spanish speakers. Some have gone even further than Argentina, and some have gone even further than Spanish! Which is why I’ve broken down these words into three categories – Guarani words used in North-Eastern Argentina, Guarani words used throughout Argentina, and Guarani words used outside Argentina.
Guarani words used in North-East Argentina
There are native speakers of Guarani in the provinces of Corrientes, Misiones, Formosa and Chaco. However, the following words are commonly used among people in this area who aren’t able to speak Guarani.
Pororo is the most common way to refer to popcorn in Northeast Argentina. It is a Spanish version of the guarani pururu which means ‘to pop‘. In most other places in Argentina pochoclo is more common.
In many parts of the Spanish speaking world, people say pobrecito to say ‘poor thing!’. In the northern provinces of Argentina, you may hear people say ‘angau’, which is the Guarani equivalent.
As is common with languages that get slowly lost, some of the words that are remembered are the insults! Katinga means smelly person, tepoti means useless, or ‘excrement‘ if the final ‘i’ is pronounced more nasally, and aña memby means ‘son of the devil‘!
Luckily, there are some equally pleasant words that have drifted into Northern Argentinian Spanish too, such as che memby which is a sweet way for a mother to call her child, kunumi which is similar, but literally means ‘carress‘, and kate which means ‘elegant‘. This may be used by one woman to another, about her clothes; ‘que kate!’.
Allaite is a common way for people to say ‘far‘ which seems to be a mix of the Spanish ‘there‘ (alla) and ‘ite‘, ‘far‘ in Guarani. A friend of mine from Chaco has told me her Grandmother often says ‘piko?’ at the end of sentences, in the same way that is generally done in questions in Guarani.
Lastly, there is a common sound that many people in Northern Argentina make, without knowing that they are actually speaking Guarani. The sound he (read /ji/ in English) is a commonly used informal alternative to saying ‘yes‘ (si) throughout the normal provinces. Indeed it is so common, that I have even found myself saying it from time to time. I wouldn’t do that in Buenos Aires!
Guarani words used in all Argentina
These words are reasonably common to hear in many places in Argentina and Uruguay. Indeed the word Uruguay (originally the name of the river) itself comes from Guarani, although its meaning is unknown.
Chipa is a small baked food, made of mandioca flour and cheese. It is originally from Paraguay and surrounding areas, but can now be found throughout Argentina. Variants often use their original guarani names, such as chipaso’o (with meat) and chipa guasu (big chipa). The term chipa m’boca originates from ‘rifle’ or ‘weapon’, either because it is cooked on a long stick resembling a rifle, or because the fat which drops from it while cooking makes an exploding sound upon hitting the coal underneath! Another food which can be found throughout Argentina is mbeyú, which has similar ingredients to chipa, but is cooked more similarly to a pancake.
Moving from food to drink, anyone who has been to Argentina will have realised the absolute obsession with mate, a hot drink using the yerba mate plant. The word mate is believed to come from the Quechua word for tea or infusion as in Bolivia and Peru, mate still refers to all kinds of hot drinks. However, its cold cousin tereré is very much Guarani. Particularly popular in Paraguay but also drunk in Argentina on very hot days, tereré uses yerba mate but is drunk with ice cold water (or juice) and often other herbs.
‘Che’ is a common Argentinian interjection – generally referring to the other person, at the beginning of a sentence. Ernesto Guevara was given his nickname because of his common use of this word. It isn’t clear how Argentinians began to use che, however, in guarani, it means ‘I‘, and therefore often starts many sentences! In Quechua and some other indigenous languages, it is used to call attention, like ‘hey!’.
Guarani words in English
Just as some other indigenous American words that have left the continent to influence English, there are a couple of examples of this from Guarani.
One, I have actually already used in this article, and that is mandioca, which, although not very common in the diets of English-speaking people, is becoming more popular with globalization.
Another example is the terrifying fish piranha, which originates from the the guarani term pira-aña, evil fish.
Perhaps the most famous example is jaguar. This word, which as well as being the name of the animal, is also the name of one of the most popular sports car brands, originates from the guarani word jaguarete which means ‘true animal’
Do you know any more examples?
Do you say any Guarani words? Or have you heard some terms that you think might come from Guarani? If so, let us know!
Thanks to Bettiana Haurat for help in writing this article.