Language: Spoken Languages
The official language of Spain, Castilian Spanish, is spoken by 74 percent of the population. A number of minority languages hold co-official status in their respective regions: Catalan in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia; Aranese in the northwest corner of Catalonia; Basque in Basque Country and the Basque-speaking area of Navarre; and Galician in Galicia. Additionally, several regional languages are recognized: Asturian in Asturias, Aragonese in Aragon, Leonese in Castile and Léon, and Caló among the Spanish Romani.
The most widely spoken immigrant language is Arabic. Other immigrant groups speak Farsi, Chinese, Kabuverdianu, Vlax Romani, Fa d’Ambu, Portuguese, and Tarifit.
Spanish / Español
History and Evolution
Spanish is a major world language that belongs to the Ibero-Romance group of the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family.
Spanish emerged from the dialects of Late Vulgar Latin spoken in the Iberian Peninsula after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE.
Muslim Moors arrived in Spain in 711 CE and conquered the southern territory, bringing with them the Arabic language. In these areas, Christians were largely bilingual, speaking a now-extinct Spanish-Arabic creole called Mozarabic.
In the 9th century, the Kingdom of Castille spearheaded the Reconquest, a campaign to regain territory lost to the Moors. Over the next centuries, reconquistadores spread their Castilian Spanish dialect throughout the peninsula as they advanced from the north, retaking the central and southern regions.
The year 1492 was a turning point for the Spanish language. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella successfully expelled the Moors, ending the Reconquest, and commissioned Columbus’s voyage of discovery to the New World, making Spain a world power and Spanish the language of international diplomacy and trade. That year, Antonio de Nebrija presented his Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian Language), the first grammar of a modern European language, to Queen Isabella. When she asked him about the purpose of the text, he replied that it would be an instrument of empire.
Indeed, beginning in the early 16th century, the Spanish Empire rapidly expanded throughout the New World, bringing the Spanish language to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and into the Pacific, including the Philippines. Contact with indigenous languages, such as Nahuatl, brought new words into the Spanish lexicon.
Spanish literature and letters flourished during the apogee of Spanish political power from the 16th to 17th centuries. In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published the first volume of Don Quixote, which is widely considered a foundational text in modern European literature and the most important work written in the Spanish language.
In 1713, a royal Charter founded La Real Academia Española (The Royal Spanish Academy) to help standardize the language and its orthography (spelling), publishing an authoritative dictionary in 1780. Their efforts helped to establish Castilian Spanish as the prestige dialect and the standard for administration and literature throughout the colonies.
During the wars of independence throughout the Americas in the 19th century, the Spanish-speaking elites encouraged the use of Spanish among indigenous peoples and new immigrant populations in order to facilitate national unity.
Spanish is spoken by approximately 400 million native speakers, making it the second most commonly spoken native language in the world, after Mandarin. It is the official language of 21 countries in Europe, North and South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. It is also widely used in Brazil, Belize, Andorra, Gibraltar, and Trinidad and Tobago. With almost 50 million native speakers, the United States has the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world; Spanish is widely spoken in the south and west.
While all Spanish dialects use the same written standard, pronunciation and lexicon vary by geographical area, though all dialects are mutually intelligible.
Spanish is divided into Peninsular (European) Spanish and Hispanic American Spanish. The Castilian dialect remains the prestige variety of Peninsular Spanish and is used as the standard language of governance, media, and business. Other dialects include Andalusian, Canarian, Catalan, and Galician. In Latin America, major Spanish dialect groups are divided by geographical region, including Mexican, Central American, Caribbean, Andean-Pacific, Rioplatense (Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay), and Chilean Spanish.
Spanish creoles are still spoken in the former Pacific colonies of the Philippines, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, along with Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao in the Caribbean.
In 1492, Spain expelled not only the Moors, but also the Jews, who brought Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) to their new homes in Israel, Turkey, and Greece, where it is still spoken in small communities.
Prominence in Society
Spanish is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. It is also an official language of the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the Union of South American Nations, and the Organization of American States, among other international organizations.
Spanish literature enjoys worldwide prominence; 11 Spanish-speaking authors have won Nobel Prizes in Literature. It is also the third most commonly used language on the internet, after English and Mandarin.
Spanish is the most commonly taught foreign language in the United States; in Europe, it is second only to English.
Spanish is a phonetic language, meaning that its orthography (spelling) closely mirrors its pronunciation. It is an inflected, gendered language—nouns and adjectives must agree in both gender and number. Sentences typically follow the subject-verb-object sequence and adjectives are placed after nouns, e.g. España expulsó a los moros árabes en 1492 (Spain/expelled/the/Moors/Arabic/in/1492).
Spanish is considered a “null-subject” language, meaning that the subject can often be omitted because it is reflected in the verb’s conjugation: Yo hablo español and Hablo español (I speak Spanish) contain the same information, regardless of whether the subject yo (I) is used.
In most varieties, the formal usted and ustedes (plural) are used as a marker of respect for the second-personal singular tu (you). The second-person plural vosotros (you all) is used in Peninsular Spanish, rarely in Latin American varieties.
Loanwords in English
The Spanish language has given English hundreds of loanwords.
- mesa (“table”; high plains)
- sierra (mountain range)
- armadillo (“little armored one”; a nocturnal mammal covered in bony plates)
- bronco (wild or untamed horse)
- llama (a pack animal with a furry fleece)
- mosquito (a bloodsucking insect)
- aficionado (a person who is enthusiastic about a sport, activity, or subject)
- fiesta (a religious festival, a party)
- macho (being aggresively masculine)
- tango (a ballroom dance with dramatic postures and pauses)
- vigilante (watchman, guard)
- guerrilla (literally, “small war”; a clandestine soldier)
- armada (a fleet of warships)
- conquistador (conqueror)
The Spanish language also had a strong influence on place names in the United States. The state names “Arizona,” “California,” “Colorado,” “Florida,” “Montana,” “Nevada,” “New Mexico,” “Texas,” and “Utah” all derive from Spanish words or names.
When Carthaginians settled the Iberian peninsula around 300 BCE, they named it Ispania, “Land of the Rabbits,” referencing the large native rabbit population. Ispania was Latinized to Hispania, which later became España.
Contrary to popular belief, the prestigious Castilian accent, which is characterized by lisped pronunciation of some consonants, does not stem from medieval Spaniard subjects imitating their king. The only Spanish king known to have a lisp was Pedro of Castile, who reigned 200 years before this unique pronunciation emerged in the 16th century.
As a vowel-heavy language, there are an estimated 40,000 words and verb conjugations that use all 5 vowels in the Spanish alphabet, such as murciélago (bat).
Although English and Spanish share many similar words due to shared Latin influence, there are some humorous “false friends,” such as Estoy embarazada, which means “I’m pregnant,” not “I’m embarrassed.”
Writer: Carly Ottenbreit
|Spanish Quick Facts
Castile region of Spain
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
Trinidad and Tobago
Real Academia Española
ISO 639-1 (es)
ISO 639-2 (spa)
ISO 639-3 (spa)
Catalan / Català
History and Evolution
Catalan originated during the 9th century from the form of Vulgar Latin spoken in the Pyrenees Mountains. It spread southward along the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula as Christian Catalan leaders displaced Muslim Moors. By the 11th century, Catalan had emerged as a unique cultural and linguistic identity, with numerous religious, philosophical, and legal documents appearing in the Catalan language.
During the Middle Ages, Catalan was widely used throughout the western Mediterranean and was considered one of Europe’s great medieval languages. The first text printed with moveable type in the Iberian Peninsula appeared in Catalan. The language’s prominence came to an end with the War of Spanish Succession in 1715, when Philip V purged the Catalonian government and suppressed Catalonian language and culture.
In the 19th century, however, Catalan re-emerged as a national and linguistic identity in the Renaixença (Renaissance). The Institut d'Estudis Catalans (Institute of Catalan Studies) was founded in 1907 to establish a standard orthography, and the first decades of the 20th century witnessed growing Catalan political power, culminating in the 1930s with the Generalitat (Government of Catalonia), which made Catalan its official language.
During the Franco dictatorship, however, Catalan was again prohibited, with strict penalties imposed for both official and private use. With Spain’s return to democracy in the 1980s, Catalan was restored as a co-official language, and is a vibrant language widely used in business, education, and mass media.
Catalan is the sole official language of the Principality of Andorra, and is a co-official language with Castilian Spanish in the autonomous communities of Catalonia and Valencia in Spain, and in the Balearic Islands. It is also spoken to a lesser extent in Spain—in the regions of La Franja in Aragon and Carche in Murcia—as well as in the westernmost port city of Alghero on the Italian island of Sardinia. Referencing its shared linguistic and cultural heritage, the entire territory where Catalan is spoken is sometimes called Països Catalans (Catalan countries), though this is not an official designation. Approximately 9.5 million people speak Catalan, and about half of those are native speakers.
Catalan is divided into two major dialect groups, Eastern and Western Catalan, which are spoken roughly to the east and west of Barcelona, respectively. The major difference between these two dialect groups is the pronunciation of the unstressed vowels “a” and “e.” The dialects vary widely in terms of pronunciation, accentuation, and vocabulary, but they are all mutually intelligible. The Central Catalan dialect spoken in Barcelona is considered the standard pronunciation of the language and has the most speakers.
Prominence in Society
Catalan is the second most commonly spoken native language in Spain, after Castilian Spanish.
Since the 1980s, Catalan has been the sole vehicular language in Catalonian public schools, guaranteeing that students who have graduated in recent decades have a strong command of the language. Although most Catalan speakers are fully bilingual in Spanish or French, today Catalan enjoys widespread use at all levels of society in Catalonia, including in education, business, and government, as well as in print and digital media.
As a Romance language, Catalan is closely related to Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and French. It does, however, differ significantly in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary as compared to Spanish and Portuguese, and is closest to Occitan, a Romance language spoken in southern France. About 75 percent of Catalan’s vocabulary is shared with Spanish and Portuguese, and more than 85 percent is shared with Italian.
Catalan’s grammar is characterized by the subject-verb-object word order, the use of definite and indefinite articles, and gender inflection for nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles.
Loanwords in English
Most loanwords from Catalan have entered English through Occitan or Middle French. These include:
- surge (to arise, via Middle French)
- cul-de-sac (with no exit, via Middle French and Occitan)
During La Renaixença (the Renaissance), a medieval tradition called Jocs Florales (floral games) was revived. The winners of these Catalan poetry contests would win flowers.
During Franco’s rule, all Catalan streets and monuments were renamed, Catalan music was outlawed, and new parents were not legally allowed to give their children Catalan names.
Catalan poet Salvador Espriu, who continued to publish work in the Catalan language despite Franco’s ban, was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971 and 1983.
Writer: Carly Ottenbreit
|Catalan Quick Facts
Principality of Catalonia
Balearic Islands (Spain)
Valencian Community (Spain)
Institut d'Estudis Catalans
Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua
ISO 639-1 (ca)
ISO 639-2 (cat)
ISO 639-3 (cat)
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