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A History of the Spanish Language from Its Origins to Now

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

The Spanish language has a rich and passionate history.

It began in the 8th century and still continues today.  Need a little intro?

The language as it is spoken today is a result of numerous invasions and interior changes over the centuries.

If you like history with a capital H, and Spanish culture, this article is for you.

The Ancient History of the Spanish language

Let’s begin our history lesson on the Spanish language by going back in time to a few centuries ago, to the age of the Romans.

We are in the 3rd century BC…

Before the appearance of Castile and the Spanish language.

Between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century BC, the Romans set out to conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula, bringing with them the extinction of several languages spoken up until then. Only Basque still remains today.

Indeed, history tells us that numerous peoples were living then in that region. For example, the Celts, the Iberians, and Basques. Not to mention the people they traded with, 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).

In addition, because the region was particularly far away from the nerve center of the (Roman) Empire, linguistic innovations were slower. That’s why the spoken Latin language developed more rapidly in a larger territory.

It was, in fact, the language spoken by the masses, by the soldiers, by the settlers, and by the traders in the region.

Towards the 5th century, The Western Roman Empire was subject to barbarian invasions from Germany. Those invasions parceled out the region into different Germanic kingdoms. As for Spain, the Visigoths occupied it and infused the spoken Latin with various Germanic terms.

In the 8th century, it was the Moors who invaded the region. Come from Mauritius and Morocco, these Arabo-Muslim populations ruled over Spain until the 15th century.

origins of Spanish The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba.

Worth noting: although the population continued to speak its mother tongue, the lexicon of the time witnessed numerous evolutions drawn from the Arabic language.

This was the beginning of Castilian as the official Spanish language.

Castilian began to appear around the year 800.

Right in the middle of the Arabo-Muslim occupation, a county called “Condado de Castilla,” a vassal of the kingdom of the Asturias, was won by the Castilians and populated by a majority Basque population. In 1035, this county transformed into a kingdom (Reino de Castilla).

In its turn, the kingdom of the Asturias expanded under the reign of Alphonso III, also known as Alphonso the Great (between 838 and 910). It integrated Galicia and León. In 1037, King Ferdinand I of Castile inherited the kingdom of León.

Thus, 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 this dialect was still not very widespread (it was only spoken in the north of the peninsula and in the center), it became more important thanks to the Basques, who would integrate the kingdom of Castile between 1200 and 1370.

Thus, the north of Spain began to unify, the time of the reconquest of the South was approaching. The Christian reconquest (Reconquista) began in 1212, under the reign of Alphonso VIII of Castile. All those cities of Muslim occupation fell one after another. Only Grenada resisted until 1492.

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). Speaking of which, have you thought of learning Portuguese?

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.

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 evolutions thanks to the different populations that lived there, including the Basque people and the Arabo-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.

It was under the influence of Charles Quint (who inherited an immense empire) that the 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 at the head of the South-American continent, the Philippines, Cuba, Florida, and Central America. Then came a Spanish linguistic politics that allowed the Castilian language to spread still more.

Spanish political history language “Allegory of Charles V as Ruler of the World” by Peter Paul Rubens; Residenzgalerie, Salzburg, Austria

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 centralization put in place in order to force the population to speak Castilian.

Because of this, 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.

The Contemporary and Modern History of the Castilian Language

We are now in the 18th century, at the moment when the Castilian Spanish language begins to resemble the one we know today. Let’s continue.

The Spanish Language at the End of the Spanish Colonial Empire

The French Revolution in 1789, incited Spain to enter into war with France in 1793. Napoleon invaded Spain and allowed Joseph Bonaparte, his brother, to sit on the throne of Spain.

That brought about a great desire for independence of the Spanish colonies in America that didn’t recognize this king. Thus, in 1826, Cuba and Puerto Rico aside, the Spanish Empire in America disappeared.

Between 1833 and 1839, the different Spanish governments imposed the utilization 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 decided to continue its colonial politics in Africa and took the direction of Spanish Guinea (today known as Equatorial Guinea).

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

Several autonomist movements followed. Thus, the country saw 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 utilize their regional language as well as Castilian.

The Spanish Language During the Franco Dictatorship

We are now in 1936, at the moment when a new civil war has broken out. The army that had remained faithful to the monarchy and that was beginning to weaken now wanted to overthrow the government in place.

Spain then lived through 40 years of fascist military dictatorship, with Franco at the helm, aided by Mussolini and Hitler.

A powerful linguistic repression followed.

franco spanish language Republican fugitives under the control of Francoist troops.

Franco wanted to return Spain to the status of great power that it had known in 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 the 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. Only the people of Catalonia, the Valencian Community and the Balearic Islands still 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 totally recognized.

Now you have an in-depth knowledge of the Spanish language. Castilian Spanish is the language spoken throughout Spain. Thus, if you learn Castilian, people will be able to understand you throughout the country.

If you are preparing to learn Spanish from square one, why not take a lesson with a Spanish professor? Choose someone passionate about Spanish culture so that you can ask them questions about the history of Spain and the Spanish language.  Check out some basic Spanish pointers here.

The language of Cervantes, today, compromises dozens of different Spanish dialects with their own unique accents.

Read some famous Spanish quotes!

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