A Brief History of the Spanish Language
The evolution of the Spanish language is closely linked to the history of the world, Europe, and of course especially the Iberian Peninsula. While it is easy to take modern languages as immutable features of countries and regions, they keep evolving and are shaped by their history in fascinating ways.
The history of the Spanish language spans at least 22 centuries, from the Roman conquest of Hispania (modern day Spain and Portugal) to the use of modern Spanish around the world.
Where Did Spanish Originate
Spanish originated in the Iberian Peninsula and developed out of spoken Latin, also known as Vulgar Latin. Castilian Spanish was established as the dominant Spanish dialect at the height of the Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain from Muslim rule, and spread around the world thereafter.
The Origin of the Spanish Language
Beginning in 218 BC with the second Punic War against Carthage, Rome’s Mediterranean rival, the Roman Republic conquered the Iberian Peninsula and brought with them the Latin language.
The Romans built roads and settlement, cultivated olive oil and wine, and, in a foreshadowing of Spain’s later actions in Latin America, exploited minerals including large quantities of silver.
Spain After the Roman Empire
With the decline of the Roman Empire in the first half of the first millennium AD, Roman control of Hispania weakened, and invading Germanic tribes filled the vacuum of power. This ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Visigothic Kingdom in the 5th Century. The Visigoths continued Christian traditions which had been established during the later part of the Roman Empire but left only small marks on Spain’s culture and language.
In 711 AD, coming from northern Africa, the Umayyad Caliphate started the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Within a few years, Muslims controlled almost the entirety of Portugal and Spain. However, the length of Muslim control differed greatly across Spain and ranged from less than 30 years in Galicia in the north to almost 781 years around Granada in the South.
During this time, the Arabic language mixed with the vernacular Latin spoken in Spain especially in the south.
The almost 800-year-long effort to reconquer Spain from Muslim rule is known as the Reconquista. Varying Christian Kingdoms expanded their territories from the north of Spain southwards.
Finally, in 1491, Granada, the last holdout of Muslim rule in Spain, surrendered to the Castilian-Aragonese forces, concluding the Reconquista.
Who Invented the Spanish Language?
Evolving from spoken Latin, the Spanish language was invented by Christian Kingdoms as they reconquered the Iberian Peninsula. The Kingdom of Castile emerged as the dominant force and Old Castilian Spanish emerged as the official language of the united Spain.
Languages in the Iberian Peninsula
Each of the kingdoms participating in the Reconquista spoke various dialects of spoken Latin, a descendent of the formal Latin of the Roman Empire. The various languages and dialects in the Iberian Peninsula today, such as Castilian (Spanish), Catalan, Portuguese, and Galician, can be traced back to these competing kingdoms.
Over time, these kingdoms reconquered the Iberian Peninsula parallel to each other from the north into the south. Consequently, the languages in the Iberian Peninsula show a striking east-west patterns, like a layered cake.
Portuguese is spoken in a strip of land in the west of the Iberian Peninsula from Galicia southwards. It is not surprising that Old Portuguese is also known as Galician-Portuguese or Medieval Galician, as these languages are closely related.
Similarly, Catalan is primarily spoken on a thin strip on the east coast of Spain while the center of the Peninsula was occupied by Leonese, Castilian, and Aragonese.
Where Did the Spanish Language Come From
Modern Spanish derived from Old Castilian Spanish which emerged during the Reconquista as the dominant of various spoken Latin dialects that expanded from the north of Spain as Christian kingdoms expanded their influence southwards.
When Was Spanish Invented?
Castilian Spanish was established in a standard written form in the 13th century in Toledo, after the conquest of the city by the Kingdom of Castile. This can be considered as the point when Spanish became a language of its own.
Toledo had been a cultural center before and now became a center for translations of Arabic and Hebrew texts into Castilian and Latin. Consequently, Castilian Spanish further increased in importance as a source of ancient knowledge. One reason why we have some of the ancient Greek classics today, is this translation work in Toledo.
Following the establishment of the unified Spanish Kingdom, Castilian Spanish further evolved into Early Modern Spanish in Spain’s Golden Age which brought the world classic Spanish literature like Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
How Old Is the Spanish Language?
Castilian Spanish evolved in the 13th century, so the Spanish language is now just over 700 years old, approximately as long as the Muslim rule in the south of Spain lasted.
The Spread of the Spanish Language
With the ultimate success of the Reconquista, Spain’s monarchs focused on the world beyond the Iberian Peninsula and financed exploratory sea voyages across the world. The Spanish conquerors, missionaries, and explorers brought with them the Spanish language, spreading it to the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Asia.
The “Conquista” in Latin America
Just one year after the fall of the last Muslim bastion on the Iberian Peninsula in 1491, Christopher Columbus reached the Americas and began the conquest of Latin America, known as the Conquista.
Spanish conquerors and missionaries brought the Spanish language to North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean, mirroring the introduction of Latin in the Iberian Peninsula 17 centuries before.
Because this happened primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was Early Modern Spanish that spread through Spain’s colonies in the new world.
How Did the Spanish Language Change Over Time?
Modern Spanish is the product of its seven-hundred-year history since it emerged from spoken Latin. Nowadays, Spanish shows substantial Arabic influences and notable differences in grammar and vocabulary between various Spanish speaking regions.
Arabic Influences in Spanish
It may be surprising to hear that many Spanish words and names of places have Arabic origin. In fact, Andalusia, the southern-most region of Spain is derived from its Arabic name al-andalus.
Other examples of Arabic influences are:
- Ojalá – meaning hopefully, is derived from the Arabic law sha allah (so God wishes)
- Hasta – meaning until, is derived from the Arabic word hata with a similar meaning
- Barrio – meaning neighborhood, is derived from the Arabic word barri (outside)
Differences in Spanish Dialects
As you may know, Spanish spoken in Spain (still often referred to as Castilian Spanish) is quite different from what is spoken in Argentina or Mexico.
Early Modern Spanish was introduced to the Spanish colonies in Latin America in the 16th and 17th century. Since then, the Spanish Language in each country has evolved to what we now know as Modern Spanish, but the evolution has not been identical everywhere.
In order to keep Spanish somewhat consistent, Spain’s king Philipp V founded the Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española) in 1713. Together with 22 Spanish language Academies in other countries, the Royal Spanish Academy forms the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language.
While these institutes attempt to maintain consistency and document the evolution of Spanish, the varieties of the Spanish language across countries and regions are still abundant. It is this variety that explains some of the fascination of the Spanish language.
While differences between various Spanish dialects in Spain and around the world deserve their own article, the below gives some examples of how differences in Spanish dialects are shaped by their history.
Latin American Spanish
Latin American Spanish, while not a monolith, differs from European Spanish in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.
Mexican Spanish, for example, has been heavily influenced by indigenous languages as well as its closeness to the United States.
The influence of American English is especially present in vocabulary about technology, for example.
Like the difference between the cell phone in American English and mobile phone in British English, the Atlantic separates the Mexican teléfono celular from the Spanish teléfono móvil. Other examples are:
- While your computer is el ordenador in Spain, Mexicans refer to la computadora
- While the remote control is el mando a distancia in Spain, Mexicans speak of el control remoto
In contrast, we see the indigenous influences in Mexican Spanish when we turn towards the kitchen. As Spanish colonists settled in Mexico, they relied on local cuisine and these words for food items are still visible today:
- A turkey in Spain is un pavo, while it is un guajolote in Mexico
- Peas are guisantes in Spain, but chícharos in Mexico
A second big difference between Castilian and Latin American dialects is the pronunciation. The most notable difference may be the so-called Spanish lisp.
Some regions in Spain have a characteristic way of pronouncing sibilants, s-related sounds like s, z, and th in English, which has been mistaken as a lisp.
Old Spanish used to have many more sibilants, which, depending on the dialect, merged into one or two sibilants as the language evolved. In most of Spain, particularly central and northern Spain, there are two sibilants, including what is referred to as the Spanish lisp.
Dialects in the south in contrast have only one silibant, though to make things more complicated, different parts of the south have different pronunciations of the sibilants. These are known as seseo and ceseo.
In Latin America, the southern sibilant pronunciation known as seseo is used.
Ustedes and Vosotros
The third big difference is the use of ustedes and vosotros/vosotras for plural you, or y’all.
In most of Spain, vosotros and vosotras are used as an informal plural you, while ustedes is more formal. While this is true for most of Spain, there are regions, such as the Canary Islands, which do not use vosotros and vosotras and follow instead the Latin American model.
Importantly, the conjugation of ustedes is different from vosotros:
- Ustedes son vosotros sois.
- Ustedes estan vosotros estaís
In Latin America, ustedes is used as the informal plural you. Latin American Spanish uses the same conjugation as Castilian Spanish for verbs using ustedes.
So why does Latin America not use vosotros? Originally, vosotros was also used across Latin America, but over time ustedes was no longer considered as formal and vosotros fell out of fashion.
While Latin American Spanish may seem easier in this regard, there are some linguistical traps in the Americas. Argentinian Spanish (together with some other Latin American countries) does not use tú as the singular you but uses vos. This voseo comes with its own conjugation:
- Tú llamas vos llamás
- Tú bebes vos bebés
- Tú sales vos salís
The use of vos was quite common in the rest of the Spanish speaking world but decreased in popularity over time. While most of Latin America followed the Spanish fashion of no longer using vos, areas like Argentina, which were less closely linked to Spain resisted this trend.
Spanish originated in vulgar Latin; a spoken version of Latin introduced to Spain by the Romans. Spanish can be considered a separate language starting in the 13th century when Christian Kingdoms, most notably the Kingdom of Castile reconquered Spain from Muslim rule.
The Spanish language was greatly influenced by the Arabic language and the Reconquista, and regional differences within the Iberian Peninsula still illustrate its complex history.
Following the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish spread through the rapidly expanding Spanish Empire. Over the next centuries, various differences developed not only between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish, but also between regions in Latin America.
The complexity of modern Spanish bears witnesses to its complex history of conquests, fractures, expansion, and influence by other cultures.
Nick is an English teacher who has taught English as a Foreign Language in China, Italy and France. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Modern Languages), majoring in French, from the University of New South Wales. He loves travel, reading and football and, of course, learning languages. Four years ago, Nick and his wife co-founded an online English language school targeted at the Chinese market (since sold to Chinese investors). He has also ghost-written the autobiography of a well-known Australian horse trainer.