History of the Spanish language

History of the Spanish language

The Spanish language developed from vulgar Latin, with loan-words from Basque in the north and Arabic in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula (see Iberian Romance languages). Typical features of Spanish diachronic phonology include lenition (Latin "vita", Spanish "vida"; Latin "lupus", Spanish "lobo"), palatalization (Latin "annum", Spanish "año") and diphthongation of short E/O from vulgar Latin (Latin "terra", Spanish "tierra"; Latin "novus", Spanish "nuevo"; Latin "tempus", Spanish "tiempo"; Latin "ferrum", Old Spanish "fierro" and modern "hierro"). Similar phenomena can be found in many other Romance languages as well, especially after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD reduced cultural contact with Rome.

External history

The standard Spanish language is also called Castilian. In its earliest documented form, and up through approximately the fifteenth century, the language is customarily called Old Spanish. From approximately the sixteenth century on, it is called Modern Spanish. Spanish of the 16th and 17th centuries is sometimes called "classical" Spanish, referring to the literary accomplishments of that period. Unlike English and French, it is not customary to speak of a "middle" stage in the development of Spanish. Castilian Spanish originated, after the decline of the Roman Empire, as a continuation of spoken Latin in the Cantabrian Mountains, in northern Spain, in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, according to most authorities; but others claim it came from "Franco-Navarrese" and Gothic-Castilian dialects in the 11th century AD. With the "Reconquista", this northern dialect spread to the south, where it almost entirely replaced or absorbed the provincial dialects, at the same time as it borrowed massively from the vocabulary of Moorish Arabic and was influenced by "Mozarabes" (the Romance speech of Christians living in Moorish territory) and medieval Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). These languages all but vanished in the Iberian peninsula by the late 16th century.

The prestige of Old Castile and its language was propagated partly by the exploits of Castilian heroes in the battles of the Reconquista — among them Fernán González and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid) — and by the narrative poems about them that were recited in Castilian even outside the original territory of that dialect.

The "first written Spanish" is traditionally considered to have appeared in the Glosas Emilianenses. These are "glosses" (translations of isolated words and phrases in a form more like Spanish than Latin) added between the lines of a manuscript that was written earlier in Latin. Their date, derived by various means, is often estimated as AD 978.

The first steps toward standardization of written Castilian were taken in the thirteenth century by King Alfonso X of Castile, known as Alfonso el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise). He assembled scribes at his court and supervised their writing, in Castilian, of extensive works on history, astronomy, law, and other fields of knowledge.

Antonio de Nebrija wrote the first grammar of Spanish and presented it, in 1492, to Queen Isabella, who is said to have had an early appreciation of the usefulness of the language as a tool of hegemony, as if anticipating the empire that was about to be founded with the voyages of Columbus.

The Spanish language, like Icelandic, Arabic, and many languages with a classical age, can be read with little help as far back as documents written in the 1100s and before.

The Spanish Royal Academy was founded in 1713, largely with the purpose of preserving the "purity" of the language. The Academy published its first dictionary in six volumes over the period 1726–1739, and its first grammar in 1771, and it continues to produce new editions of both from time to time. Each of the Spanish-speaking countries has an analogous language academy, and an Association of Spanish Language Academies was created in 1951.

The language was brought to the Americas (Latin America, especially Mexico, Central America, and western South America), and to the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Marianas, Palau, and the Philippines, by the Spanish colonization which began in the 16th century. The Spanish failed to exercise land claims over the Solomon Islands and Micronesia, where a map reader can find some geographic place names in Spanish, but no major Spanish cultural influence is felt in distant, often isolated islands in the three centuries of Spanish administrative rule in these areas later acquired by the Germans and Americans by 1900.

After failing to teach many natives Spanish, the Catholic church preached Christianity to the natives in local languages such as Mayan, Aztecan, Guaraní, Quechua and Aymará in the Americas, and Tagalog in the Philippines for ease of conversion and to separate them from the direct influence of the non-missionary Spaniards, held by the church to be "evil", uncivilized and unfavorable for the natives, and to further expand assimilation of natives to the introduced Spanish culture.

In the Americas its usage was continued by the descendants of the Spaniards, whether by the large population of Spanish "criollos" or by what had then become the mixed Spanish-Amerindian ("mestizos") majority. After the wars of independence fought by these colonies in the 19th century, the new ruling elites extended their Spanish to the whole population to strengthen national unity, and the encouragement of all natives to become fluent in Spanish has had a certain amount of success, except in very isolated parts of the former Spanish colonies.

The still Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico encouraged more immigrants from Spain in the late 19th century, and similarly other Latin American countries such as Argentina, nearby Uruguay and to a lesser extent Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, attracted waves of European Spanish and non-Spanish, Caucasian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There, the countries' large (or sizable minority) population groups of second- and third-generation descendants adopted the Spanish language as part of their governments' official assimilation policies to include Europeans who were Catholics and agreed to take an oath of allegiance to their chosen nation's government.

In the Philippines, this process did not occur for several reasons. It was isolated as the only Spanish colony in Asia, far removed from all of Spain's colonies in the Americas. Rather than being a direct colony of Spain, the Philippines was in fact a colony of another Spanish colony, New Spain, and was administered from Mexico City, thereby lessening the ties and interest of Spain proper, and disabling the large scale Spanish migration experienced across the Americas. From the Spanish claim on these islands in 1535 to the late 1800s, the Philippines was the only "direct" European colony in terms of cultural influences in Southeast Asia.

In comparison to its counterparts in Spanish America, the Philippine population was, and still is, almost exclusively native, and mixed Spanish-Filipinos (Filipino mestizos) were few in number, while Spaniards (of which a great many were actually Mexican "Criollos") accounted for even fewer than the "Mestizos". Following the Spanish-American War the small number of Spaniards and Latin Americans present in the country eventually returned to New Spain (Mexico) and Spain, or a smaller wave of "Hispano-Filipinos" had settled in United States–annexed Hawaii and the western U.S. in the early 1900s (see Filipino Americans).

Ultimately, at the culmination of the Philippine-American War many of the already minuscule "Mestizo" population was decimated as casualties of war. English was then declared an official language. Spanish finally ceased to be an official language of the Philippines in 1973. A creole language called Chabacano developed as a lingua franca in the south when the Spaniards built forts to combat the Muslims and imported workers from all over the country. The local languages, then and now, are not mutually intelligible. However, Spanish like English (but more preferable) is still studied by educated Filipinos and professionals who might emigrate to Mexico.

Unlike the Philippines, when Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States as consequence of the same Spanish-American War, its population was by then almost entirely of Spanish and mixed Afro-Caribbean Spanish ("mulatto" and "mestizo") descent, thereby enabling the retention of their inherited Spanish language as a mother tongue while co-existing with the American imposed English as co-official. Puerto Rico has received immigration from Europe, when Spanish colonial officials invited farmers and island fishers from Corsica, the Canary Islands, the Azores, Greece, Malta, Italy and Ireland, while millions of Puerto Ricans went to the mainland U.S. in the 20th century. (see Puerto Rican people and Puerto Ricans in the United States).

A similar situation occurred in the American Southwest including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where Spaniards, then Californios (Spanish criollos in California) followed by Chicanos (Mexican Americans) and later Mexican immigrants, maintained Spanish alive before, during and after the American appropriation of those territories, since the 1500s. Spanish continues to be used by millions of citizens and immigrants from Latin America to the United States (for example, many Cuban Americans arrived in Miami, Florida beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, and followed by other Latin American groups. The local majority is now Spanish-speaking). Spanish is now treated as the country's "second language," and over 5 percent of the U.S. population are Spanish-speaking, but most Latino/Hispanic Americans are bilingual or also regularly speak English.

In the 20th century, Spanish was introduced in Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara after periods of Spanish colonial rule, and it is also studied and spoken in former French and Portuguese colonies in Africa and Asia, but it is not the main languages of these areas. It is also spoken in parts of the United States that had not been part of the Spanish Empire, such as Spanish Harlem in New York City, at first by immigrants from Puerto Rico, and later by other Latin American immigrants who arrived there in the late 20th century.

In the Marianas, the Spanish language was retained until the Pacific War, but native inhabitants may speak Chamorro an Austronesian language, some German and later English, Japanese and Korean introduced in the early 20th century, and some languages introduced by immigrants from the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Language politics in Francoist Spain declared Spanish as the only official language in Spain, and to this day it is the most preferred language in government, business, public education, work place, cultural arts, and the media. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the Spanish parliament agreed to allow provinces to use, speak, and print official documents in three other languages: Catalan for Catalonia, Basque, a non Indo-European language for the Basque provinces, and Galician, akin to Portuguese, for Galicia. Since the early 1980s after Spain became a multi-party democracy, these regional and minority languages have rebounded in common usage as secondary languages, but Spanish remains the universal language of the Spanish people.


Many Castilians who took part in the reconquista and later repopulation campaigns were of Basque lineage and this is evidenced by many place names throughout Spain. According to the explanations which negate or downplay Basque influence, the change occurred in the affected dialects wholly independent of each other as the result of internal change (i.e. linguistic factors, not outside influence). It is also possible that the two forces worked in concert and reinforced each other.

Although Germanic languages by most accounts affected the phonological development very little, many Spanish words of Germanic origin are very common in all varieties of everyday Spanish. The words for cardinal directions (norte, este, sur, oeste) are all taken from Germanic words (north, east, south and west in Modern English) after the contact with Atlantic sailors, although in old spanish east and west, este y oeste, didn't exist and oriente and occidente, still in use, were used instead.

Spain was invaded by Islamic forces in 711, which brought the Arabic language to the Peninsula. Over the course of the following centuries, Spanish borrowed words from Arabic.

Internal history

At first just one of many dialects of Iberian Romance spoken in Iberia, the dialect of Castile eventually became identified as "the" Spanish language (called español or castellano in Spanish). This is due in large part to the cultural hegemony of the Castilians during and after the Reconquista. Modern Spanish is strikingly different from Latin, its main source language, in many ways, but determining exactly "when" these changes took place is often problematic. The main reason for this lack of hard evidence is the fact that the system of orthography used by speakers of Iberian Romance in the Middle Ages was extremely similar to if not identical to that of Classical Latin. While there were undoubtedly phonological and morphemic differences between Iberian Romance and Latin (and later, between Castilian and Iberian Romance), most of these differences were not reflected in writing until after the Reconquista and even later.

Abandonment of phonological length

At a very early time in the development of Romance, the distinction between Latin long vowels and short vowels was very slight and the number of minimal pairs based on vowel length is much smaller than in Latin.


One of the most common and predictable changes from Latin to Spanish is the voicing of voiceless consonants. The three voiceless consonants affected most often were p, t and c (where c was pronounced [k] , as in cake). The voiced equivalents of these three unvoiced consonants are b, d and g (where g was pronounced [g] , as in g in girl). The initial and final consonants are rarely affected, but consonants (between two vowels) were affected more often than not.


Some syllable-final consonants, regardless of whether they were already syllable-final in Latin or brought into that position by syncope, became glides. Labials ("b", "p") yielded the rounded glide [w] (which was in turn absorbed by a preceding round vowel), while the velar "c" ( [k] ) produced the palatal glide [j] (which could palatalize a following [t] and be absorbed by the resulting palatal affricate). (The forms "debda", "cobdo", and "dubdar" are documented in Old Spanish; but the hypothetical form *"oito" had already given way to "ocho" by the time Castilian became a written language.)


Diphthongization in Spanish typically happens to Latin short mid vowels (e, o) that are stressed, as the conjugation of Modern Spanish verbs can attest: yo quiero, nosotros queremos; yo puedo, vosotros podéis; etc.

Most of these words have modern forms which more closely resemble Latin than Old Spanish. In Old Spanish, the simplified forms were acceptable forms which were in coexistenece (and sometimes competition) with the learned forms. The Spanish educational system, and later the Real Academia Española, with their demand that all consonants of a word be pronounced, steadily drove most simplified forms from existence. Many of the simplified forms were used in literary works in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (sometimes intentionally as an archaism), but have since been relegated mostly to popular and uneducated speech. Occasionally, both forms exist in Modern Spanish with different nuances of meaning or in idiomatic usage. Afición is a 'fondness of' or 'taste for' while afección is 'illness.' Modern Spanish respeto is 'respect' while con respecto a means 'with regard to.'

Modern sound changes

By the 16th century the consonantal system of "Castilian" Spanish underwent the following important changes that differentiated it from such related Romance languages as Portuguese, Ladino and Catalan:
*The initial IPA| [f] , which had evolved into a vacillating IPA| [h] , was lost in most words (although the "h-" has been preserved in spelling).
*The voiced bilabial fricative IPA| [β] (written "u" or "v") merged with the bilabial plosive IPA| [b] (written "b"). Contemporary Spanish letters "b" and "v" do not correspond to different phonemes, as the spelling has been modified to reflect the etymological distribution of "b" and "v" in Latin.
*The voiced alveolar fricative IPA| [z] (written "s" between vowels) merged with the voiceless IPA| [s] (written "s", or "ss" between vowels), now written "s" everywhere.
*Voiced dental affricate IPA| [ʣ] (written "z") merged with the voiceless IPA| [ʦ] (written "ç", or "c" before "e" and "i"), and then IPA| [ʦ] evolved into the interdental IPA| [θ] , now written "z", or "c" before "e" and "i". But in Andalusia, the Canary Islands and the Americas these sounds merged with IPA| [s] as well. Notice that the "ç" ("c" with "cedilla") was in its origin a Spanish letter. In the Andalusian merger of IPA| [s] with IPA| [θ] , the resulting unitary phoneme could be either. Coastal regions preferred IPA| [θ] , and that pronunciation is called "ceceo". More inland regions preferred IPA| [s] , and are called "seseo" dialects. The "seseo" region included Seville, the major Spanish port at that time (on the river Guadalquivir); and hence most of those who were destined to settle the new worlds stayed for a while in Seville before heading off, and nearby locals supplied many of the seamen and other hands on ship. It should not be surprising, then, that the entire Spanish-speaking new world speaks a language derived, essentially, from the language of Seville. See also "Ceceo" and "seseo".
*The voiced postalveolar fricative IPA| [ʒ] (written "j", or "g" before "e" and "i") merged with the voiceless IPA| [ʃ] (written "x", as in "Quixote"), and then IPA| [ʃ] evolved by the 17th century into the modern velar sound IPA| [x] , now written "j", or "g" before "e" and "i". In much of Latin America, especially in coastal areas of Central America and northern South America, the same letters correspond to a glottal fricative, IPA| [h] . In the highlands of Mexico and generally in the southern part of the continent (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) "j/g" correspond to a velar fricative IPA| [x] , as in standard European Spanish, but this phoneme has a palatalized allophone IPA| [ç] (German "ich" sound) in front of front vowels IPA|/i/ and /e/: general IPA| [çeneˈral] , gitano IPA| [çiˈtano] .

Later is the merger, in most dialects, of the palatal lateral and non-lateral consonants IPA| [ʎ] and (historical) IPA| [j] into a single non-lateral consonant, generally a palatal fricative (but also postalveolar and/or affricate in some dialects). This merger is called "yeísmo" (from the name of the letter "y") (Hammond 2001).

ee also

*Cantar de Mio Cid
*Eurolinguistics - Advanced study of Spanish as a European language.
*Iberian language
*Influences on the Spanish language
*List of English words of Spanish origin
*Romance languages
*Spanish dialects and varieties
*Spanish phonology
*Spanish vocabulary
*Old Spanish language
*Vulgar Latin
*Rafael Lapesa


*"From Latin to Spanish" by Paul M. Lloyd (ISBN 0-87169-173-6)
*"The University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary" by Carlos Castillo and Otto F. Bond (ISBN 0-671-74348-1)
*"Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española" by Guido Gómez de Silva (ISBN 968-16-2812-8)
*"The Bantam New College Latin & English Dictionary" by John C. Traupman (ISBN 0-553-57301-2)
*"Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition" (ISBN 0-02-863474-8)

External links

* [http://www.trustedtranslations.com/castilian_spanish.asp The history of Spanish language] Castilian Spanish and the history of Spanish language.
* [http://kluna.bol.ucla.edu/Development%20of%20Medieval%20Spanish%20Sibilants.html An explanation of the development of Medieval Spanish sibilants in Castile and Andalusia.]
* [http://www.humnet.ucla.edu/santiago/osppron.html A recording of the sibilants, as they would have been pronounced in medieval Spanish.]
* [http://assets.cambridge.org/052180/5872/sample/0521805872ws.pdf "A History of the Spanish language"] (sample from the second edition, 2002), by Ralph Penny

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