Bozal Spanish and Other African Language Variations Thrive in Latin America

By Maura Mulholland

Latin America prides itself on being an ethnic melting pot. Since the days of the transatlantic trade triangle, people of all backgrounds have been drawn to Latin America and the Caribbean Islands because of their significance as hubs of business and culture. One particularly influential group in this region were the enslaved Africans kidnapped as a source of forced labor in Brazil and the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans brought with them a distinct and irreplaceable culture that has contributed greatly to Latin American. One of their greatest contributions has been to the dialect and languages of the region. 

Due to its colonization by Spain, Spanish is the predominant language in Latin American. As African people were kidnapped across the Atlantic, however, they brought with them thousands of their native languages, including; Kikondo, Yoruba, and Igbo. As Africans learned Spanish, they injected the language with words they had carried from their homeland and created many distinct phrases that combined the linguistic traditions of both continents. 

The adaptation of European languages by Africans is a process called “pidginization”, the process by which one language is simplified into an intermediate language when it comes into contact with another. Soon, “creole” offshoots began to emerge from the pidginized language, the collection of which is now referred to as “Africanized Spanish.” 

A “creole” language develops when a second generation grows up speaking the combined pidgin language, and that new generation develops grammar rules of its own. The most famous example of a creole language is Creole French, but the most notable one to emerge from the African diaspora in Latin America was Bozal Spanish. Bozal Spanish was a mixture of Spanish and Kikongo, with Portuguese influences. It emerged in the seventeenth century and was spoken all over Latin America, but mostly concentrated in Cuba and Uruguay. 

The topic of Bozal Spanish is controversial for linguistics experts. Some argue that it is a catch-all term for any Afro-Spanish pidgin, while others argue that it is its own distinct creole language. Others point to the remains of the language in Cuban folk practices and even the “afro” Cuban music movement of the mid-twentieth century as proof of its relevance. Whatever the case, African sounds are still detectable in Spanish dialects of the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico’s term “chévere”, which means “cool” or ”special”, and in the names of regional dishes like gandules (pigeon peas) and ñame (mashed yams). Just another example of the many contributions of the African diaspora to Latin American culture.  

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