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How are the Spanish Language and the Culture of Spain Connected?

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Spanish > The Link Between Spanish Language and Culture

When we talk about culture, we often refer to the art, literature, food, music, and customs of a place, region, or country.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, what language you are speaking, or the culture that you are experiencing; the language and culture of that place are intrinsically linked. Language is the fundamental cornerstone in expressing and exploring the aspects of culture listed above.

If you think about it, a new born baby has no exposure to anything cultural. It is only through a gradual learning of the language and coming into contact with their surroundings that a child begins to understand the customs, arts, and achievements of the nation or social group to which they belong. And the way that these things influence the child, forms the way that they will view the world around them.

Culture is all about these shared customs and characteristics of a group of people which gives them a sense of common identity. And the first thing that unites people is their language, which makes it crucial for all other aspects of culture. At the end of the day, how can we discover whether we share more common aspects of our identity without being able to communicate with each other?

So if you go abroad anywhere, an understanding of the native language when you arrive will stand you in better stead to experience and understand the local culture. An introduction to the Spanish language will therefore show its importance in doing this in Spain.

Spanish is a language that is spoken far and wide. It is a language that is spoken in an official capacity in 20 different countries and numerous international organisations (such the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization amongst others), and it is the second most spoken language in the world by the number of native speakers after only Mandarin Chinese.

Spanish is spoken far beyond the borders of Spain Spanish is spoken in many different parts of the world (Image Source: CC0 1.0, GDJ, Pixabay)

However, this widespread geographical distribution of Spanish speaking doesn’t mean that these places all share the same culture. Each country has its own distinct and proud culture, and regions within these countries boast these same things.

Each individual country has given the world important figures who have contributed to popular thinking about culture and identity, as well as many amazing Spanish quotes!

In this article, we are going to focus on the connection between the Spanish language and the culture of Spain, and why learning Spanish will allow you to understand this connection better.

The History of the Spanish Language

What a community or nation goes through collectively strongly shapes their individual culture, as they define their attitudes and values. We are therefore going to start by looking at a brief history of the Spanish language to better understand the context in which it is connected to the culture of Spain.

With the arrival of the Romans to the Iberian peninsula in the 2nd century BC, came the arrival of the Latin language. Over hundreds of years Latin changed many of the regional dialects, and even wiped some of them out. The languages that we find on the Iberian peninsula today are all romance languages that developed out of vulgar Latin which was brought to the peninsula when the Romans invaded.

This means that most of the languages in this area started by evolving from the same roots, but they went on to develop in different ways. So, for example, Spanish and Portuguese share some similarities and some differences, due to their initial sprouting off from vulgar Latin, but the different evolutionary paths that each language took.

All except one; Basque. Basque is surrounded by romance languages, but it shares no linguistic characteristics with any of them. This suggests that it was present before the Romans conquered modern day Spain and Portugal.

Up until the 15th century, the Iberian peninsula was a mixture of different Christian kingdoms, each with its own language. These kingdoms faced a common threat from Arab invaders coming in from Northern Africa, and who gradually moved north, conquering territory as they went.

The marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469 had brought the two most important christian kingdoms together, and when Isabella took over the throne of Castile following her half-brother’s death in 1474, the union of the two set laid the foundations for the creation of the Kingdom of Spain.

The composition of Spain has changed a lot over the years Spain didn’t always look like it does today (Source: Pexels)

The Kingdom of Castile which included northern and central parts of the Iberian peninsula, is where the Spanish language that we have today began to develop. This is why it is called Castilian Spanish.

This is important because the two monarchs led the charge against the Arabs to push them out of the Iberian peninsula, and therefore the lands that the conquered were placed under Spanish speaking control.

It was Isabella and Ferdinand who authorised Christopher Columbus’ 1492 expedition to the new world. This led to an influx of wealth into Spain, and started Spanish dominance in Latin America.

Christopher Columbus was a highly controversial figure, with many people believing he committed atrocities in the lands that he conquered. This article is not written to pass judgement on this, but his inclusion here serves to show how the Spanish language came to be so widespread in the world today.

Spanish Culture and Traditions

Spanish culture is rich and vibrant, and it has given a lot to the world.

The Spanish language and culture has been exported to many countries which has led to a wide range of different Spanish accents appearing around the world, particularly in Latin America.

But within the border of Spain itself we can see this rich and vibrant culture through things such as the country having the third highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (sites with internationally protected status due to their cultural, historical, scientific, or other importance) after only China and Italy.

What’s more, aside from being exported to other countries, the Spanish language has also given a lot to other languages. The Golden Age for the Spanish Empire which came about due to the voyages of the conquistadors made Spanish the dominant language in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Spanish therefore influenced other languages, including English. Parts of the vocabulary used in the English language actually come directly from Spanish, or have been adapted from a Spanish word:

  • Tobacco
  • Rodeo
  • Hammock
  • Siesta
  • Bodega
  • Renegade
  • Plus many more

    Did you know that we use a lot of Spanish words in English? Spanish has given birth to many words found in the English language. Source: Pixabay – StockSnap

Spanish culture has also offered a lot more, and the language has been integral at every step.

Art, Literature, and Cinema

We could write a whole blog on what Spanish has given to the world in the realms of art, literature and cinema. However, for our purposes we will keep it short to illustrate out point.

When it comes to art, a name that is well known around the world is Pablo Picasso. He was a Spanish painter and sculptor who is widely credited as one of the founders of the cubism movement. One of his most famous works, Guernica, depicts a German bombing raid on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

In the world of literature, we don’t need to look further than Miguel de Cervantes‘ novel, Don Quixote. This novel is one of the basis of modern Western literature, and is a regular feature on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever produced. It helped spread the Spanish language during the Spanish Golden Age.

Another figure who has been crucial in spread awareness of the Spanish language and culture is Pedro Almódovar. The Spanish filmmaker and director has won two Oscars for his work, and he is widely renowned as being one of the world’s best directors.

Spanish Cuisine

The history of Spain that we illustrated before has meant each region of Spain maintains a strong identity which backdates the uniting of the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. This in particular means that Spanish cuisine varies from region to region.

But regardless of the region, food originating from Spain is famous all around the world. In restaurants in most cities in the world you will find dishes such as:

  • Patatas Bravas
  • Paella
  • Gazpacho
  • Tortilla Española
  • Jamón Ibérico

As you can see, the Spanish language is the vehicle through which these dishes are named, and the culture of eating tapas (small portions of any dish) is something that Spanish cuisine has given to the world.

Spanish cuisine is famous around the world Paella is one of Spain’s most famous cultural exports. Photo credit: SodexoUSA on Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Traditions and Customs

Spain is full of rich cultural experiences that are very traditional to the country. Each region tends to be slightly different in terms of its own traditions, so we will mention a few generic things here.

One of the first things that people associate with Spain is Flamenco. It is a style of music that is often accompanied by dancing, and you will often hear the music and see people dancing to it across the country. If you are heading to Spain, then you can even take some lessons to give it a go for yourself!

Another very typical Spanish endeavour is eating later at night than in most other countries. It is traditional to go out for some tapas with friends at around 9 o’clock, but you usually won’t sit down to eat your main meal until half past 10. Spandiards are typically night owls, so if you are planning on going out after you have eaten, your night may night finish until the next morning.

One more thing to mention are the siestas. Although the fast-paced world that we now live have rendered long afternoon breaks difficult to take, a lot of Spanish people still like to take a nap during the hottest part of the day which has long been a tradition in the country.

Remember, in order to get the most out of the cultural experiences on your trip to Spain, it is best to learn beginners Spanish before travelling.

Learning Spanish to Experience Spanish Culture

The link between languages and cultures is undeniable. In fact, you can’t really learn one without learning the other, just as you need one to understand the other. When it comes to Spanish, improving your proficiency and language skills will give you a deeper appreciation of the other qualities of Spanish culture, and how Spanish people identify with their nationality.

This is why any Spanish course or Spanish classes that you take will give you an insight into Spanish culture. Separating the language and the culture is almost an impossible feat. For one thing, language and culture develop at the same time, and under the same conditions.

For example, when Francisco Franco outlawed all other regional languages apart from Spanish after the Spanish civil war, he also impinged on certain aspects of Spanish culture. When Spain returned to a democracy in 1975, and these laws were overturned, but the strong sentiments that people felt about having their linguistic and cultural rights curtailed in certain regions still remained.

What’s more, how can we be expected to understand Don Quixote or one of Pedro Almóovar’s films, if we can’t speak the language. Studying Spanish teaches about Spanish grammar, but applying this outside of the classroom gives us an understanding of the culture in a way that an exam cannot.

Spanish literature is world famous Don Quixote is one of the foundations for modern western literature

Spanish courses (e.g. spanish courses london) or a Spanish program at university will give you ample opportunity to study this cultural heavyweights, which is another illustration of how the language and culture of Spain go hand in hand.

One last thing to note in this section is the way that culture can provide us context for the language. If you speak a foreign language, you might think that a particular way that the local express something is rude or impolite. For example, Spanish people tend to use please and thank you less than we do in English. They are also more to the point with questions, and don’t even have a word for “may” which English speakers tend to use regularly to make a question sound more polite.

But this isn’t rude. Far from it. An understanding of Spanish culture will tell you that this is normal behaviour, and that people read a lot more from your body language to assess whether you are being polite or impolite.

So having some Spanish instruction or tuition is crucial to understanding these cultural differences. You don’t even need an intermediate or advanced level to start picking them up, either. From just a few interactions with a Spanish teacher, or picking up a conversational level, you will start to understand the differences.

Untranslatable Spanish Words

Untranslatable Spanish words are the ultimate proof that the Spanish language and its culture are intertwined. Words that can’t be translated into English often occur because they are culturally not needed in English.

We can learn a lot about Spanish culture from how Spanish speakers interact, and each conversation isn’t just a test of our listening skills, but our interpretation of Spanish cultural practices. Here are some of our top Spanish words and phrases that have no direct English translation:

  • Vergüenza ajena – the act of feeling embarrassed on somebody’s behalf, even if they feel no embarrassment themselves
  • Aturdir – being so overwhelmed by something that you are unable to think clearly
  • Consuegros – a word to describe how two sets of in-laws are related
  • Tocayo – a person who has the same first name as you
  • Sobremesa – the time spent after finishing a meal when everyone is talking to each other whilst still being sat at the table
  • Friolento – someone who gets cold very quickly
  • Entrecejo – the small space between your two eyebrows

Entrecejo is the space between your eyebrows How would you translate ‘entrecejo’ into English? (Source: Visual Hunt)

Fun Spanish Culture Facts

Learning Spanish as a second language has obvious merits for utility and future employment. What we have tried to do in this article is to show you that you don’t need complete fluency to be able to appreciate Spanish culture. If you learn Spanish with a tutor, you will learn more about the culture anyway, but any Spanish level that you have prior to a trip to Spain will allow you to appreciate the culture even more.

To end, we thought it would be nice to bring you our top 10 fun facts about Spanish culture.

  1. The Spanish national anthen, Marcha Real, has no words
  2. On New Year’s Eve, Spanish people traditionally eat 12 grapes and make 12 wishes, one for each month of the following year. You have to start and finish eating whilst the bells of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol clock tower are chiming for the stroke of midnight.
  3. About 150,000 tomatoes are thrown in the one hour food fight at La Tomatina festival in the Valencian town of Buñol.
  4. Spain produces 45% of the world’s olive oil supply
  5. The running of the bulls in Pamplona has been going since 1592
  6. Spain is responsible for bringing tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, tobacco, and chocolate to Europe
  7. Spain is the third most visited country in the world after France and the U.S.A.
  8. Spain is a football crazy country, and it has two of the most successful clubs on the planet. But the national team only won the world cup for the first time in 2010
  9. Traditionally, you have two surnames in Spain – the first one is your father’s, and the second one is your mother’s.
  10. Spain is split into 17 autonomous regions, and has four co-official languages apart from Spanish; Basque, Catalan, Galician, and Occitan. Each of these is a language in its own right, and so Spanish and Catalan are very different, for example.
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