Spain’s Complicated Language Landscape, Part I: What is “Spanish?”

Sam Quillen
4 min readSep 5, 2022
Just because the name of a street is almost exactly the same in Castilian and Catalan is no reason not to plaster Ibiza with redundant signage.

It is a popular quip in linguistics that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Around the world, this is generally true. But what if, for example, the dialect used to have an army and navy 500 years ago, and it wants to have one again? What if a linguistic community has a nation-state now, but some members of that community live just outside of its borders? The world is a complicated place, and perhaps no country better illustrates many heated issues in linguistics and politics than Spain.

Let us get our tour off to a straightforward start: to Spanish people, Spanish is not Spanish. What we call the Spanish language, Spaniards call castellano, “Castilian,” from the medieval kingdom of Castile in what is now central Spain. (Latin Americans sometimes call it that as well, though the distinction is not really relevant there because standard español is the only language.) Castile was the dominant Spanish kingdom from the late Middle Ages, and its dialect became the standard across the central plains and the southern regions reconquered from the Arabic-speaking Moors (moor on them later).

Castilian conquered most of Spain as other dialects merged with the standard register of the unified kingdom (observe the analogous processes in southern France and Sardinia).

Spanish is a pretty standard Romance language. According to the landmark study by Italian linguist Mario Pei, comparing modern Romance languages to their mother tongue, Spanish differs from Latin by only 20%. Only Italian and Sardinian are closer.

It does, however, have some unique features. Castilian features only five vowels, where almost all of her sisters (including Catalan) have seven. In many words, Latin’s F became a silent H, giving rise to confusing pairs of older and newer versions of the same word. For example, the Old Spanish facer, “to do” (compare Portuguese fazer and French faire), became hacer, but the F was fossilised in the compound verb satisfacer, “to satisfy.” Likewise, Fernando and Hernando should be the same name.

These simplifications trace back to Spain’s troubled early history. For most of the Middle Ages, the Iberian Peninsula was a battleground between Latin Christians and Arabic-speaking Moors. Political instability and the constant movement of knights and refugees up and down the peninsula helped erode the rough edges of local dialects, just as the onslaught of Norse-speaking Vikings simplified English. Arabic’s enduring impact on Spanish can be overstated, but to this day, 8% of Castilian vocabulary comes from Arabic. My favourite is ojalá, “may God grant,” a popular phrase that has millions of devout Catholics (including my grandmother) unwittingly invoking Allah.

The Alhambra palace in Granada is one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture anywhere in the world.

The Spanish language was also shaped by conquests farther from home. The most famous difference between Spanish back in the motherland and the accents of Latin America is the Castilian lisp, which any Briton or American who visits Barthelona or Ibitha knows to emphasise. The most perplexing issue for Latin Americans is often the second person familiar plural vosotros, which has disappeared in Latin America, but is very much alive in Spain.

A particularly interesting trend is yeísmo, eliding the subtle difference in pronunciation between the Y and the double LL. Traditionally, any Spanish speaker would have known the difference, but the vast majority of Latin Americans today pronounce the opening sounds in “Yo me llamo…” exactly the same. (An interesting exception arises in Argentina, where it sounds more like “Zho me zhamo…”). Spaniards held strong for centuries, but today, yeísmo is even catching on in Spain. As British English speakers well know, in linguistics, the empire often strikes back.

The triumph of Castilian over other Spanish languages was nowhere near as dramatic as those of Castilian speakers over Granada or Mexico or Peru. But it was almost as total. When Spain became a unified kingdom in 1492, Castilian became the standard for the whole realm. Many Spanish languages, which had been languages when they were the official languages of independent medieval kingdoms, were similar enough to Castilian that people started to think of them as mere dialects of “Spanish.” Over generations, their speakers merged into the Castilian mainstream.

By the 20th Century, you could get around most anywhere in Spain speaking standard Spanish. When General Francisco Franco seized power in 1936, a key tenet of his campaign to unify the nation was to root out all of the useless “dialects” his subjects spoke. Most had been on the decline for centuries already, so when the government extirpated them from schools and even imposed criminal penalties for using them in public, it was a death blow. A few, however, would not go gently into the good Castilian night.

Continued in Part II

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Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets