The Spanish language is categorized as being one of the Romance languages. It is named for its origins as the primary language used by the people of Spain, though it also goes by other names depending on the locale. Coming only behind Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is the largest native language in the world. Mexico has the largest population of native speakers of the language. It is approximated that between the large figure of native speakers and those that use Spanish as their secondary language there are currently around 500 million speakers of the language around the world.
It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and is listed as an official language for Mercosur and the European Union. This language developed into a member of the Ibero-Romance group from the several spoken dialects of Latin that were used in northern Iberia into the 9th century and then spread throughout the rest of the area during the Middle Ages in response to the expansion of Castile.
The Spanish language has been, and continues to be, a very fluid language. The early development of its vocabulary took large influences from Arabic and Basque and continues to find influences from many languages from around the world as well as developing its own additions to its vocabulary.
The most notable expansion of the language was its move to the Americas, as well as to Asia and Africa, where it became important between the 15th and 19th centuries for its role in trade and government. Its contemporary presence in the United States, with a particularly large concentration in the states designated as the “Sun Belt”, the language has become the most popular foreign language learned by those that have American English as their native language.
The first pieces of text that are considered identifiable precursors of the contemporary Spanish language date to the 9th century. The dialects in which the text is written were derived from Vulgar Latin, an ancestor of the Romance languages. The written standard of the language was first developed in the 13th century in the city of Toledo. It was during this developmental period that Castilian Spanish created a strongly differentiated identity apart from its close language relative Leonese. Much of the distinction was caused by the heavy Basque influences that modified the dialect that was eventually taken south and continued to grow according the cultural influences that it encountered.
Spanish is a very rewarding language to learn, and there are many reasons to begin. Wether you’re looking to participate in the some of the fastest growing economies in the world, to study abroad in one of the premier universities in Latin America or Spain, or to experience one of the numerous cultures of the Spanish speaking world, you’ll be surprised how far a little Spanish will go.
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Spanish is a Romance language, derived from Latin, which belongs to the Italic subfamily within the Indo-European group. With around 400 million speakers, it is the language of Spain and the Hispanic American nations, except Brazil, Haiti and Guiana.
This language is also called “castellano” (Castilian), which was the name of the linguistic community that spoke this Romance form in Medieval times: Castilla (Castile). There is a dispute over the name of the language, as the term “español” (Spanish) is relatively new and is not accepted by many of the bilingual speakers of the Spanish state, for they understand “español” (Spanish) to include “valenciano” (Valencian), “gallego” (Galician), “catalán” (Catalonian) and “vasco” (Basque). And we must remember that these languages are considered official within the territories of their respective autonomous communities. These are the speakers who propose the name “castellano” (Castilian) be used, understood as the language of Castile. Hispanic American countries have preserved the name “castellano” (Castilian), though this is often used interchangeably with “español” (Spanish), the two being understood as synonymous.
The Spanish language is based on Vulgar Latin, a language which was imposed on the Iberian and Basque languages and spread throughout what is now Spain, towards the end of the third century. The plentiful documents remaining from Latin come from Literary and Legal texts, yet if we want to know from where the origins of Spanish come, we must imagine how inhabitants of the Empire spoke. Remember, the word “Vulgar” here means the language of plebeians, as opposed to the Classical Latin spoken by officials. In this way, the Romance Languages, of which Spanish is a part, did not derive from the written Latin of Literature, but from the spoken Latin of people without rank. This is visible in the phonetic (relating to sound) and morphological (relating to the formation) aspects of Latin and how it was adapted in the Vulgate.
In the phonetic aspect, Classical Latin differentiated ten vowel sounds (five long and five short) and this length of the vowel could modify the meaning of a word. Oral Latin replaced such distinction with an accent of intensity, which persists as the definitive feature of the Spanish language. In terms of the morphology, nouns and adjectives of Classical Latin had declensions, which means that the endings of these words changed in order to show their function in a given context. This characteristic of Classical Latin was replaced by an increase of prepositions in Spanish, which can still be seen today.
Before the arrival of the Romans, the Iberian Penninsula was populated by different communities. On both sides of the Pyrenees, diverse towns grouped together and shared a common language, that is, Basque. In the south, natives established commercial relationships with the Phoenicians. Towards the seventh century, the Celts, coming from the south of Germany, invaded the peninsula and established Galicia and Portugal. Fused with the Iberians they formed a group called the “Celtiberians”. Even though each of these communities possessed their own language, one can suppose that they influenced each other.
In the year 409, the Visigoths invaded Spain from the north, entering the peninsula via the Pyrenees. Though, there were not many of them, they established themselves mainly on the Castilian plateau. At first, they did not unite with the Hispanic-Romans, but over time the Hispanic-Romans as much as the Visigoths were ‘romanized’, however they maintained their language, even though they did receive influences that, in the Castilian case, became visible for the most part in the written language.
Along with these linguistic elements, the Basque influence must also be taken into account; a language with an unknown origin, even though numerous theories have been proposed. Some of its articulatory habits and certain grammatical particularities exercised a powerful influence over the structure of Castilian for two reasons: the county of Castile was founded on a territory under Basque influence, between Cantabria and the north of León; and along with this, the lands that the Castilians were gaining on the Arabs were repopulated with Basques, who logically brought with them their own linguistic habits and, moreover, who occupied preeminent posts in the Castilian Court on through the fourteenth century. From the Basque influence came two phonetic phenomena that were to become characteristic of Castilian. This Basque inheritance has to do with the impossibility of pronouncing an ‘f’ at the beginning of a word. The letter ‘f’ that began many Latin words was replaced by an aspirant ‘h’, which over time was lost altogether. Examples of this substitution remain in words like “facere” (to do) in the Latin and “hacer” (to do) in the Spanish, or “fabularsi” (to tell a tale) in the Latin and “hablar” (to speak) in the Spanish.
In the year 711, there was an Arab invasion of Spain. The Muslims carried on the conquest with an unimaginable force. Thus, they managed to cover the entire peninsula, from south to north. The Arab invasion had a religious goal, for which reason the struggle between the Hispanic-Roman and the Arab world was transformed into a fight between two civilizations: the Christian and the Muslim. The prolonged preeminence of the Arabs in Spain and the intimate contact between the two peoples generated a new culture that covered not only linguistics, but also literature, architecture, art and customs as well. With regards to the language, the Mozarabs spoke an archaic Romance with a great number of Arabisms. While some continued professing Christianity, they tended to write with Arab characters. As for the literature, they produced a poetic composition in hybrid meter and language: the “zéjel” (Hispano-Arabic stanza). The coexistence of these two cultures allowed for two Spains to be recognized: Muslim Spain, flourishing and luxurious and Christian Spain, impoverished and ravaging from the wars.
The formation of the Spanish language can be divided into three main periods: Medieval, also know as Old Spanish, from the tenth to fifteenth centuries; Modern Spanish, which evolved from the sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century; and Contemporary Spanish, from the foundation of the Real Academia Española to the present day.
“Castellano” (Castilian), the name of the language, comes from the lang of castles which made up Castile, and before the tenth century it could not be spoken of. Back then, but four large linguistic areas existed on the Peninsula. Castilian was as innovative in the evolution of Latin as were the inhabitants of Castile in politics. In the south, under Arab command, the Hispanic communities spoke Mozarabic; people who lived in this territory and preserved their inherited language from previous times. They kept it without any great alterations, either as a cultural affirmation that marked the difference between the Arab and Jewish communities, or because of the lack of contact with the evolutions that were occurring in Christian territories. It was in this language that some of the first Romance language lyrical poems were to be written: the “jarchas” (Mozarabic stanzas), were written compositions in the Arabic or Hebrew alphabet and, when transcribed, correspond to an Arabian-Andalusian language.
The first step toward converting “castellano” (Castilian) to the official language of the kingdom of Castilla y León was taken in the thirteenth century by Alfonso X, who ordered the great historical, Astronomical and Legal works to be composed in Romance, and not in Latin. Medieval Castilian developed a series a phonemes that have since disappeared.
From a grammatical point of view, the Latin declensions had already disappeared, and now it was the prepositions which designated the function of words in the sentence. Possessive adjectives were preceded by an article. The Spanish of the twelfth century was the language of notarial documents and that of the Bible, which Alfonso X ordered to be translated.
The publication of the first Castilian grammar by Elio Antonio de Nebrija en 1492 established the initial date of the second stage of structure and consolidation of the language. The change of consonants that alter and definitively consolidate the phonological system of Spanish belong to this period.
From the lexical point of view, the language acquired a large amount of neologisms, for the expansion of Castile corresponds to these times as well as does its contact with other cultures. It managed to consolidate itself as a dominant language in the face of peninsular dialects, upon carrying out the political unity of Castile and Aragon; Castilian being the language of legal documents, of foreign politics and that which reached America in the hand of the enterprise exercised by the Castilian Crown, then set by the normative grammar of Nebrija.
In France, Italy and England, grammars and dictionaries were edited for the purpose of teaching and learning Spanish, which was the language of diplomacy until the first half of the eighteenth century. In that phase, the literary splendor of the Golden age authors arrived. The lexicon incorporated words that originated from as many languages as political contacts made by the empire. From Italian, the names of meters and literary terms enter the Spanish from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth.
Americanisms, which began to enter the language in the sixteenth century, offered a list referring to the realities that were unknown in Europe. The Quechua and Guaraní were incorporated into the Castilian spoken in the Americas, a vocabulary which is still vibrant and visible today. The oldest terms come from the Arawak.
In the year 1713, the Real Academia Española was founded. Its first task was to set the language and sanction the changes that had been made by its speakers over the course of the centuries. In this stage, the phonetic and morphological change had come to an end, and the verbal system of simple and compound tenses was the same as it has been up through the middle of the twentieth century.
The unstressed pronouns were no longer combined with the participial forms and, thanks to the morphological variation, the elements of the sentence could be arranged in very diverse forms with a great variety of literary styles.
In 1847, Andrés Bello, an Argentine educated in France, wrote a groundbreaking grammar entitled “Gramática de la lengua castellana destinada al uso de los americanos” (Grammar of the Castilian Language for the Use of Americans). It is so remarkable because it provides the first scholarly account of American Spanish grammar, covering a great number of American dialects and idiomatic usages based on the fusion of Castilian with Quechua, Guaraní and other native languages of the Americas.
Up until the eruption of radio and television in the second half of the twentieth century, it was relatively easy to distinguish the origin of a given speaker of Spanish, based on his or her phonetic habits and intonation. Today, while these differences continue to be noticeable, the influence of these media have made such differences between linguistic communities less distinguishable.
In particular, the dialects of Hispanic America have acquired a curious sense of distinction; among these is the River Plate, spoken in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. The Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia have adopted a great number of Quechua and Aymara words from the native people, and many of these have been imported into the Spanish morphological system, though, maintaining their original root. In the case of Peru, the influence of Chinese is also visible, particularly in words describing foods used in Chinese cuisine. That is, a Chinese word, like “kion”, is often preferred there, as opposed to the Castilian “jengibre” (from the Latin “zinziber”). The Caribbean dialects, especially Puerto Rican, takes on some of the phonetic influence of Portuguese as a result of the presence of Portugal during the conquest. In countries with high populations of West African immigrants, like Cuba for example, vocabularies from their native countries have also found their way into the Spanish spoken today.
In short, the history of Spanish or Castilian, whichever you may prefer, is long and complex. It shows the vivaciousness of language in general and makes clear that there is no such thing as a pure language; rather, language, as one poet has said, is nothing but a dialect with a gun. It continues to develop with the increase of speakers throughout the world, forming new and interesting dialects, which, as can be seen in the development of Spanish from Vulgar Latin, renews the language.