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What are the Origins of the Spanish Language?

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Spanish > The Wonderful History of the Spanish Language

If you have read an introduction to the Spanish language, you will know that Spanish is spoken well beyond the borders of Spain. It is a language that is spoken by 440 million native speakers, and it is used as an official language by 20 different countries across 3 continents.

In fact, it is spoken to widely that there are a number of different Spanish accents across the world.

When you think of Spanish, you probably think of grammar, vocabulary, and linguistics, not to mention the difficulties you had in learning the language at school.

But did you know that this foreign language has a rich and passionate history? Its roots can be traced back all the way to the 8th century, but since then it has gone through many changes, notably as the number of Spanish speaking countries has grown.

If you are interested in the Spanish language and culture, then you have come to the right place. In this article, we will chart the history of the Spanish language from its earliest conception, all the way to the present day.

The Roots of the Spanish Language

There have been some amazing Spanish speaking thinkers who have contributed to our world, and they have given some interesting quotes in Spanish. But how did they come to be speaking this language? Let’s begin our history lesson on the Spanish language by going back more than 2,000 years to the age of the Romans.

It’s the 3rd century BC, and the Spanish language has still not come to be.

Between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century BC, the Romans set out to conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula. In doing so, they managed to make several languages that had been spoken on the peninsula up until their arrival, extinct in their original forms. In fact, of those languages, only Basque still remains today.

Indeed, history tells us that numerous groups of people were living in the region at the time, such as the Celts, the Iberians, and the Basques. This is not to mention the people who arrived to trade with these groups, such as the Greeks, the Phoenicians, and the Carthaginians.

After the conquest of the region, the Romans began to impose Latin on the existing populations. There were two Latin languages in that time: written Latin and vernacular Latin (or spoken Latin).

Due to the considerable distance of modern day Spain and Portugal from the centre of the Roman empire in present day Italy, linguistic innovations were slow in arriving. Due to the large territorial area of the empire, the Latin developed differently in different areas.

It is also for this reason that Portuguese and Spanish share similarities and differences, as the relative geographical isolation allowed them to develop in tandem, but equally to diverge in their own ways, and thus making them distinct languages.

But going back to the times of the Romans, and it was the soldiers, settlers, and traders who brought linguistic changes from Rome to the Iberian peninsula, but these mixed with the local languages to form Vulgar Latin. Over time, the original languages had mixed so much with Latin that they had all, apart from Basque, been rendered unrecognisable. Although some still exist today in very different forms to their originals, they all had a hand in shaping the language that we recognise today as Spanish.

Fast forward to the 5th century AD, and the power of Roman Empire was fading. Germanic tribes who were living at the borders of the empire saw their chance and settled on the Iberian peninsula.

The Swabians moved in to establish their own kingdom, but they were eventually conquered by the Visigoths, who went on to rule most of the peninsula.

In the 8th century, it was the Moors (Arabs from North Africa) who invaded the region. Coming from Mauritius and Morocco, these Arab-Muslim populations ruled over Spain until the 15th century.

Spanish has a strong historical Arabic influence Different cultures and languages have impacted on modern day Spain over the years

The story of all of this invasions and changes my seem far removed from our aim of establishing the history of the Spanish language, but it is essential to understanding the linguistic changes that occurred in each point in history.

Each invading force brought with it its own language. When the Arabs arrived in Spain, the lexicon of the time witnessed numerous evolutions drawn from the Arabic language.

And it was at the time of the Arab’s arrival from North Africa that Castilian, from which Spanish is derived, started to take shape.

Castilian was the language of the Asturians, a group of people who were occupied by Muslim invaders before fighting back to from the first Christian political entity in the 8th century. Around two hundred years later, the Kingdom of the Asturias transitioned into the Kingdom of León.

The kingdom became one of the most important on the Iberian peninsula, and it expanded south and east during the 10th century under the watchful eye of Alfonso IV.

When King Ferdinand I of Castile inherited the Kingdom of León in 1037, he was able to unite this kingdom with that of Castile, forming the first Spanish monarchy.

In the centuries that followed, the Castilian language expanded more and more.

Although in the 10th century Castilian still wasn’t very widespread (it was only spoken in the north of the peninsula and in the center), it increased in importance thanks to the Basques, who integrated the Kingdom of Castile between 1200 and 1370.

Thus, the north of Spain began to unify in anticipation of an attempt to reconquer the large swathes of land taken previous by the North African Arabs. The Christian reconquest (Reconquista) began in 1212, under the reign of Alphonso VIII of Castile. All of the cities that the Muslims had occupied fell one after another. Only Grenada resisted until 1492.

Modern day Spain hasn't always been as it is now The Iberian peninsula has changed over the centuries

After the reconquest, Spain was split into several kingdoms: the Kingdom of Castile (with the Castilian language), the Kingdom of Aragon (with the Catalan language), the Kingdom of Navarre (with the Basque language), the principality of Andorra (with the Catalan language) and the Kingdom of Portugal (with the Portuguese language).

In 1469, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were unified. This allowed the Castilian language to spread—to the detriment of Catalan. It wasn’t until 1512, with the incorporation of Navarre, that Spain as we know it today was completely unified.

Although these languages all developed at the same time, Spanish and Catalan are markedly different. The dominance of the Spanish language at this time is the reason that it is spoken so widely today.

Thanks to the economic and political power of Castile, the Castilian language naturally spread throughout the territory. This was, once again, to the detriment of Catalan and Basque.

During this period, the Spanish language witnessed numerous changes thanks to the different populations that lived there, including the Basque people and the Arab-Muslims. Arabic enriched the Castilian language with thousands of words, further differentiating it from Basque, whose contributions were reduced.

The Golden Age of the Spanish Language

When we talk about the golden age of Spain, we talk about the apogee the country experienced during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Under the guidance of Charles I of Spain who ruled the Spanish empire from 1516, a lot of expeditions to the Americas were launched in order to further expand the territory. The Aztec Empire was conquered in 1521 and the Inca Empire in 1533.

In 1550, Spain was in control of the South-American continent, the Philippines, Cuba, Florida, and Central America. Subsequently, the Spanish language which had been shaped from Castilian over many years was suddenly taken to far away lands with the conquistadors.

The Spanish empire expanded rapidly in the 16th century Charles I of Spain oversaw large scale expansion of the Spanish empire

In 1700, there were 6 million Spanish-speakers in the world. This was thanks to the Bourbon dynasty (in the 18th century) and the great politics of centralisation put in place in order to force populations to speak Spanish.

Although numerous languages (including Basque, Asturian, Andalusian, Aragonese, and Catalan) were still spoken in their respective regions, Castilian became the official language throughout the Spanish kingdom.

Where Does Spanish Come From?: The Contemporary and Modern History of the Castilian Language

The Collapse of the Spanish Empire

By the early 1800s, Castilian Spanish already resembled what we can recognise as Spanish today.

However, this was a time of great upheaval for Spain. Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and put his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne.

Napoleon’s invasion led to the abdication of Ferdinand VII, and a political crisis in Spain. In the face of this, Spanish Americans rejected absolutism, and Juntas were formed to provide an alternative to European rule. This was the beginning of the end for Spanish rule in the Americas, and Spain lost control over all mainland colonies by 1825 (retaining only Cuba and Puerto Rico).

Between 1833 and 1839, the different Spanish governments imposed the utilisation of only the Castilian language in all the regions of Spain. The administrations also become monolingual. This brought about a renaissance of the Catalan language, nourished by the resentments of the Catalan people towards the government’s decision.

In 1898, the war between Spain and America obliged the Spanish to offer to the Americans the islands of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. After this defeat, Spain was only left with Spanish Guinea (today known as Equatorial Guinea), a set of colonies controlled by Spanish from 1778.

In that time, Spain began to weaken politically as well as economically.

This culminated in the end of the monarchy and a military dictatorship that ended in 1930. In 1931, the Spanish Constitution was changed in order to allow the various regions of Spain to utilise their regional language as well as Castilian.

The Spanish Language During the Franco Dictatorship

In 1936, a civil war broke out. The army that had remained faithful to the monarchy and that was beginning to weaken now wanted to overthrow the Republican government which had replaced it. In 1939, General Franco‘s nationalist forces won the civil war and overthrew the democratic Second Spanish Republic which had existed since 1931.

A powerful linguistic repression followed.

The Spanish Civil War was won by Franco's nationalists Republican fugitives under the control of Francoist troops.

Franco wanted to return Spain to the great power that it had been during the Golden Age.

For him, that meant Castilian (a symbol of Spain’s great power) had to be the only language.

Because of this, all regional languages (and especially Basque and Catalan) were forbidden, and books in those languages were burned.

In the same vein, he got rid of all Basque names.

The Spanish Language as We Know it Today

In 1975, following the death of Franco, Juan Carlos I became king of Spain. Much more democratic than his predecessor, he radically changed the country and the way of speaking the Spanish language.

Today, Spain is divided into 17 autonomous communities, led by their local governments. All are autonomous and speak Castilian. People in Catalonia, parts of the Valencian Community , and the Balearic islands speak Catalan, the people of Val d’Aran speak Aranese, those in the Communidad de Foral in Navarre and Basque Country speak Basque, and those in Galicia speak Galician.

There is also Aragonese in Aragon, Andalusian in Adalusia, Leonais in Castille-et-León, the Cantabrian dialect in Cantabria, the Canarian dialect in the Canary Islands, the Extramaduran dialect in Extramadura, Asturian in the Asturias, and Murcian Spanish in Murcia.

That being said, although Spain allows these regions to speak their desired language, only Castilian Spanish remains an official language. The other regional languages are still not fully recognised.

Now you have an in-depth knowledge of the Spanish language. Castilian Spanish is the language spoken throughout Spain, and large parts of Central and South America. Thus, if you learn Castilian, people will be able to understand you in many countries throughout the world.

If you are preparing to learn Spanish from square one, why not take a lesson with a Spanish professor? The Spanish language and culture are connected in many ways, so choose someone passionate about both, they will be able to teach you about the links between the two, as well as about the history of Spain.

Today, the language of Cervantes compromises dozens of different Spanish dialects, each with their own unique accent. So what are you waiting for? You’ll find something that is perfect what you are looking for, and you’ll be able to learn Spanish before travelling to a Spanish speaking country in no time!

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