A Crash Course in the Gripping History of the Spanish Language
The history of the Spanish language is a harrowing tale of thirst for power, territory, and domination among various factions around the world. It helped build the Spanish empire while it adopted foreign words and adapted to new regions under siege.
¡Vamos a aprender la fascinante historia del idioma español!
Español is a member of the broad family of Indo-European language, and it falls into the subcategory of Ibero Romance Languages. The Romance languages—which include Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese—share more words in common than any other languages in the world.
The names Español and Castellano overlap; Castellano refers specifically to the Spanish language as it’s spoken in Spain, while Español is a more general term covering all types of Spanish (including all the Latin American varieties).
Today, the United States has the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world (after Mexico), if including second-language speakers in the count—a total of over 50 million. In comparison, Spain is currently home to 46 million Spanish speakers.
History of Spanish Language: Roots
Beginning in 218 BC, the Romans brought an original version of the Spanish language to the Iberian Peninsula during a conflict known as the Hannibalic War. From its earliest documented form until approximately the 15th century, the language goes by the name of Old Spanish.
Spanish initially developed from spoken Latin and evolved into regional dialects which eventually became separate languages (for example, Castilian, Galician, and Catalán).
In the 13th century, King Alfonso X of Castile, also known as Alfonso el Sabio (“Alfonso the Wise”) began to standardize written Castilian. He beckoned scholars and scribes to his court and supervised the writing of extensive works on various academic subjects in Castilian. This wise move is what set the stage for Castellano to eventually become the Spanish we know and love today.
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History of Spanish Language: Arabic Influence
In 711, an Islamic people called the Moors invaded Spain and brought the Arabic language to the Peninsula. From 711 to 1492, the Moors ruled over the territory that is now Spain.
Although they have different alphabets and scripts, roughly four thousand Spanish words originate from Arabic. That’s 8% of the language! Some of these words include:
- hasta (until)
- ojalá (god willing)
- aceite (oil)
- aceituna (olive)
- arroz (rice)
- zanahoria (carrot)
Interestingly, lots of words in Spanish begin with al- because it is the article in Arabic (as in al jazeera, “the peninsula”):
- alcalde (mayor)
- alcachofa (artichoke)
- algodón (cotton)
History of Spanish Language: Spread to the Americas
In 1469, Prince Ferdinand of Aragon married Princess Isabella of Castile. As heirs to the thrones of the two biggest kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula, their union laid the foundation for the dominance of the Castilian/Spanish language. In 1492, the Spanish monarchs not only expelled the Moors from Spain (or forcefully converted them to Roman Catholicism), they also sent Christopher Columbus on his fateful voyage to the New World.
The history of the Spanish language experienced a major turning point when it was exported to Spain’s vast new empire in the Americas. There, it mixed and mingled with hundreds of indigenous languages.
Spanish gained many new words, especially vocabulary dealing with flora, fauna, and cultural concepts unique to the Americas. The table below displays just a handful of the words added to Spanish as a result of this interaction.
|Spanish||Indigenous Language||English Translation|
|El aguacate||Nahuatl: awakatl||avocado|
|La canoa||Taíno: canoa||canoe|
|El choclo||Quechua: chuqllu||corn|
|El chocolate||Nahuatl: xokolatl||chocolate|
|El coyote||Nahuatl: koyotl||coyote|
|El elote||Nahuatl: elotl||corn|
|El guacamole||Nahuatl: awakamolli||guacamole|
|El mapache||Nahuatl: mapachtli||raccoon|
|La milpa||Nahuatl: milpan||cornfield|
|El mole||Nahuatl: molli||sauce|
|La nana||Quechua: ñaña||grandmother|
|La puma||Quechua: puma||puma, mountain lion|
|La quinua, quinoa||Quechua: kinwa||quinoa|
|El tomate||Nahuatl: tómatl||tomato|
Descendants of the Spaniards continued the use of the Spanish in the Americas. After these colonies won their independence in the early 19th century, the new rulers extended Spanish to the whole population, including the indigenous majority, as a way to strengthen national unity. Today, it remains the first official language of the resulting nations.
History of Spanish Language: 16th, 17th, & 18th Centuries
The Spanish of the 16th and 17th centuries is sometimes called classical Spanish, referring to the literary accomplishments of that period by various authors, the foremost of whom was Miguel de Cervantes (who penned Don Quixote).
Since approximately the 16th century, the language has been called Modern Spanish. Because Old Spanish resembles the modern written language to a relatively high degree, a reader of Modern Spanish can learn to read medieval documents without much difficulty.
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The Royal Spanish Academy
The Royal Spanish Academy (or Real Academia Española; RAE) was founded in 1713 with the intention of standardizing the language. The Academy had published its first dictionary in six volumes by 1739, and its first grammar in 1771. It occasionally continues to produce updated editions of both.
Accent marks in Spanish came into use sporadically in the 15th century and massively in the 16th century. Their use, as well as that of the inverted question mark, began to be standardized with the advent of the Academy.
Today, each Spanish-speaking nation has an analogous language academy. Thus, the RAE created the Association of Spanish Language Academies in 1951.
History of Spanish Language in Africa
The presence of Spanish in Equatorial Guinea began in the late 18th century. The country adopted it as the official language when it gained its independence in 1968. Spanish is also widely spoken in Western Sahara, as it was a colony of Spain from the 1880s to the 1970s.
Contemporary History of Spanish Language
When the United Nations emerged in 1945, it designated Spanish as one of its official languages (along with Chinese, English, French, and Russian; whereas Arabic joined later in 1973).
Spanish boasts the second-largest number of native speakers, totaling over 500 million (and expected to reach 600 million by 2050). What’s more, you’re in good company as a Spanish student—approximately 80 million people around the world speak Spanish as a second language.
Today, Spanish is the official language of 20 countries—21 if you count Puerto Rico (a territory of the US). It’s also the third most popular language on the internet.
How Spanish Continues to Evolve
Each Spanish-speaking country has its own unique accent and dialect that varies by region, city, or even neighborhood. Certain words mean slightly (or completely) distinct things in different countries.
Due to prolonged contact with other languages, the Spanish lexicon contains loanwords from Basque, Hispano-Celtic, Iberian, Germanic, Arabic, and indigenous languages of the Americas. Beginning in the 20th century, borrowing common words from English became the norm. Check out the following Spanish loanwords from English.
- Tenis – tennis
- Gol – goal
- Esnob – snob
- Líder – leader
- Breikdans – breakdance
- Boicot – boycott
- Bol – bowl
Start Speaking Spanish
Now that you’ve learned a little about the long and dramatic history of the Spanish language, are you inspired to start speaking it? Having a conversation with a native speaker is a fun and fast way to increase your fluency. Sign up for a free trial class today with our friendly, professional teachers at Homeschool Spanish Academy to discuss the Spanish language, and any other topics that interest you while you polish your Spanish skills!