The Ultimate Guide to the Spanish Language: History, Evolution, and Dialects
Spanish has 496 million native speakers and 595 million total speakers. This means that over 6 percent of the world’s population speak this language, which, somehow, still manages to keep some secrets about its origin and evolution worldwide.
What mosaic of cultures and civilisations have contributed to what we know today as Spanish? Keep on reading, we are about to go on a round-the-world-tour in a single language with as many variations as speakers there are. Hop on!
- How it all began
- How other languages have influenced Spanish
- Spanish dialects: How many and which Spanish varieties exist?
- Spanish is as alive as ever
When and where does the historical evolution of the Spanish language start?
Located in a strategic territory between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the Iberian Peninsula has always been a meeting point for different civilisations that gradually left their mark and shaped what we know today as the Spanish language. Starting from the Iberian language, about which we still know too little, we will dwell on the Latin origins of the Spanish language and the main events that define its history.
The Latin origin of Spanish
In tracing the history of the Spanish language, first and foremost we must talk about the Romans. But what have the Romans ever done for us? They invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 206 b.C. and, along with the aqueducts and roads and great wines too, they introduced Latin.
It goes without saying that a bunch of civilisations already lived there. Over time, those Indo-European languages disappeared progressively but left some particular traces in the peninsular Latin. Some of the main ones were:
Since soldiers and merchants were the first to set foot in that old bull’s skin that is the map of Spain, the locals learned Vulgar Latin – somewhat different from Classical Latin, which could be read in literature or heard in intellectual circles. That same vulgar Latin fathered other variations that became Romance languages such as French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese as well as Galician and Catalan, with which Spanish shares some territories.
Then, the previously called Iberia became Hispania, which later derived into España (Spain). However, all roads lead to Rome — and back, so in the 5th century the Roman Empire collapsed and some new visitors were knocking on the Pyrenees. Alea iacta est!
Which events marked the evolution of the Spanish language?
Latin is considered the base of the Spanish language, though a long succession of cultures contributed to enrich the language. However, over the centuries, Spanish or Castilian was a spoken language while Latin remained the official one. Little by little, people used Spanish to write literature genres named cantares de gesta and jarchas.
The breaking point for the Spanish language happened in the 13th century, when Alfonso X the Wise used Castilian along with Latin as an official language in the court. There we could find the Toledo School of Translators, where scribes translated extensive works in different fields of knowledge into Spanish. A language had been (officially) born.
Later on, in 1492, Antonio de Nebrija presented the first grammar of Spanish to the Catholic Kings, which could not have arrived at a better moment to unify both kingdoms, that is, Castile and Aragon. Another key moment happened in 1713, when The Spanish Royal Academy was founded with the purpose of standardising the language.
How did other languages influence Spanish vocabulary and grammar?
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Spanish kept evolving. Let’s break it down.
The North remembers its Germanic and Celtic traces
When the Roman Empire fell, some out-of-towners came to say hi. The Visigoths spoke a Germanic language (related to English and German). Nonetheless, since they had lived with Romans they spoke Latin as well. That is why, they had but little influence in the Castilian of the time. Hooray for bilingualism!
However, they left some traces that live until today. For instance, the fact that most Spanish surnames end in -ez added to the father’s name is owed to the Visigoths. That is: Lopez used to be the son of Lope, while Martínez of Martín and so on.
Regarding the Celtic people. They had first arrived by sea from today’s France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, disembarking in Galicia. There they left cultural traces, together with a list of words that are still used today. For instance, Spanish owes them plurals ending in ‘-s’.
Guitar, sugar and flamenco: the Arab influence
What comes to mind when you hear ‘Olé’? This is one of the many words that belong to the great cultural heritage of Arabs. In 711 CE, Arabic-speaking people from North Africa arrived in the peninsula and advanced from south to north taking control of the territory previously ruled by the Visigoths. Then, 700 years of Arabic influence started, leaving about 4,000 words of Arabic origin in Spanish, mainly related to their many contributions such as culture, design, art, architecture and agriculture.
The Moors changed Iberia into Al-Andalus which would prevail in the south, where Castilian developed differently. Since they tolerated other cultures and religions, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together rather peacefully. Besides the vocabulary, we can still find similarities in phonetics. One of the most resounding is a strong ‘j’ and a rolled ‘r’. For example: guitarra (guitar) comes from classic Arabic: qīṯārah.
Influence of indigenous languages
To no one’s surprise, 1492 was a quite eventful year. The so-called Reconquista (reconquest) by the Catholic Kings put an end to Al-Andalus and Arabs had to flee or convert.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus set foot in America, a recently discovered land (from the European point of view), which shed light on radically different civilizations, cultures and languages. After years of colonisation hundreds of them disappeared, and yet today there are over 800 living languages in Latin America. The most spoken ones clearly left an indelible mark on the Spanish language.
● In Mexico, some words adopted from Nahuatl are most familiar to everyone: tomato, potato, avocado and chocolate.
● In the Andes, Quechua was widely spoken in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Some words like cancha (pitch) and poncho were learned there.
Establishing and expanding Spanish in Latin America also became a turning point in the language. Since then, the Spanish language developed differently in each region giving way to a great linguistic diversity.
French and Italian borrowings: it’s all in the Romance family
The cultural exchange between these neighbouring countries takes place in the contemporary era. Interestingly, most of the borrowings from French and Italian are related to culture, fashion and gastronomy. While in French we can hear boutique, leotardo, chófer or bombón, Italians gave away words like adagio, a capella, cappuccino or pizza. Th
English makes the world go round
New discoveries bring new words. It so happens that in our globalised world, many new words come from English, mainly related to fields such as sports, marketing or technology. Those neologisms arrive with such strength that people do not come up with an adequate translation and when they do, well, it’s usually late.
Over time, some are included in the dictionary by adapting the spelling to make them sound Spanish. For instance: whisky became güisqui, while Twitter became Tuiter.
Who else has a word to say?
There are countless languages that have influenced Spanish, due to its long imperial history. However, it is quite curious to notice that some are from its closest neighbours:
● Basque or Euskera
The only remaining Iberian language before the Romans arrived is known as Basque or Euskera, which still survives until today in the region known as Basque Country. It is one of the oldest languages in Europe, with unknown origins. Many words from Basque origin have been adopted by the Spanish language and accepted by the RAE (Royal Spanish Academy).
Catalan shares Romance roots with Spanish and territory with Spain since it is spoken in the region of Catalonia. Given the constant cultural exchange, some Catalan words have found their way in daily Spanish vocabulary.
This language derives from Romani, an Indo-Aryan macrolanguage and is spoken by the gypsy community in Spain. Interestingly, the majority of the words adopted in Spanish are rather casual and laid-back.
Spanish dialects: How many and which Spanish varieties exist?
Across the length and breadth of Spain, different linguistic variants evolve. Apart from the peninsula, we must not forget about the archipelagos and autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla. On top of that, outside those borders, Spanish develops and mixes with other languages and rather different cultures.
Often considered as ‘standard Spanish’ but that would sound quite snobbish — if you ask me. It is, however, the dominant dialect in the peninsula from Castile and León to Madrid and Castile-La Mancha. Yet these Spanish dialects can sound different: while the first one is closer to the northern dialects such as Asturian, Galician or Basque, the second one is closer to Andalusian, Valencian and Murcian Spanish, with which they share frontiers and a stronger Arabic influence.
The land once known as Al-Andalus presents linguistic variations that differ in every city. It also includes Gibraltar since it is geographically close to Andalusia, so English is spoken there with Andalusian accent resulting in an interesting mix known as ‘llanito’.
Due to migration to the colonies, Andalusian is father to some Latin American dialects, so they share features such as the use of ‘usted’ instead of ‘tú’ and seseo. On the other hand, the common feature is ‘eating up’ certain letters and reducing phonemes while keeping the whole meaning in the process. That is why, we may say it is the most evolved Spanish dialect.
Just like their Andalusian neighbours, Murcians ‘eat up’ some letters and use open vowels. If one wanted to imagine this sound, they pronounce the last syllable of words ending in ‘s’ preceded by a vowel, removing the ‘s’ and pronouncing the vowel just like English schwa. For instance, coches verdes (green cars) would sound like /cochə verdə/. The unique version of this small region also boasts a particular vocabulary is called panocho.
The tropical archipelago of Canary Islands displays a very particular dialect. The islands were conquered by Spain in the 15th Century, mainly by Andalusians, with whom they share many linguistic features. The islands became a strategic stop in the journeys from Spain to America and due to migration, so the accent is closely related to those of Venezuela, Cuba or Puerto Rico.
Canarian aborigines called guanches spoke a variety of Berber, though only few words survived until today. The most curious language that remains from those times isn’t exactly spoken – we are talking about Silbo gomero (Gomeran whistle). In order to reach people in far mountains and valleys, people communicate through oral phonemes reaching a distance of 5 kilometres.
Just as Spaniards arrived in South America, so they did in today’s US, being Florida the first European settlement there. Over the years, Spanish dialects were spoken in many current US states while controlled by Spain or Mexico, although English prevailed as the official language. All the same, given the massive migration, Spanish stands as the second most spoken language in the US with over 40 million speakers.
Perhaps the main hodge-podge of languages is found in the Caribbean. Indigenous languages such as Taino were influenced in the 15th century by Spanish but also English, Portuguese, Dutch, French and West African languages, like Bantu, inherited by enslaved people, which resulted in Creole languages. Caribbean Spanish is currently spoken in islands such as Cuba, Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico and shares many phonetic features with Andalusian and Canarian Spanish.
It is often said that Argentinians and Uruguayans speak Spanish with an Italian accent. In fact, the dialect spoken around the River Plate has a wide influence by both Romance languages due to migration in the 19th and 20th century. Besides, we can find loanwords from English, French, German and even Russian due to the European migration during WWII.
Some of the most recognisable features in this Spanish dialect are voseo (using ‘vos’ instead of ‘tú’ or ‘usted’) and sheísmo that reads ‘ll’ and ‘y’ as a voiced postalveolar fricative. Shall we go to la /plaʒa/?
Next stop, Africa! Upon their independence in the 18th century, Spanish became the official language in Equatorial Guinea. Shortly after, French became the official language as well, so there we can hear a mix of both Romance languages. But wait, because in 2007, Portuguese joined the family.
Indigenous languages are still spoken there such as Fang, Bube or Batanga, although they didn’t blend with Spanish like in the Caribbean. Therefore, today it still sounds similar to European Spanish except for some aspects like the lack of ‘rr’ which becomes ‘r’. Apart from that country, we find another Spanish dialect in Western Sahara, which remained a colony until the 1970s.
At this point, we can understand why some Spanish speakers sometimes don’t understand each other. This collection of dialects, accents and lexicons advances as the world advances.
Spanish is as alive as ever
As speakers, we are only left with the option of embracing change and loving every version of each language. After all, only dead languages stop evolving, and Spanish is as alive as ever.
Author: Rosario Parreño
Rosario is an English-to-Spanish translator specialised in marketing, literature, travel & tourism, culture and environmental science. She has worked as a copywriter, transcreator, and proofreader in Spain, Latvia, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. On top of that, she has experience in digital marketing as a creative account manager. Rosario holds a master’s degree in Literary Translation and has given lectures on Spanish literature and translation theory for the University of Latvia. Her work includes volunteering for environmental NGOs as a translator as well as for cultural and artistic events. Contact her here.