The ‘Vulgar’ History and Origin of the Spanish Language
The history of the Spanish is longer than you think. How much do you already know about its history?
Consider these questions…
How long has Spanish been around?
Where did Spanish come from?
Did Spanish originate in Spain?
If not, which country did Spanish originate from?
How old is Spanish? Is it older than English?
If some people say that Shakespeare “invented” English, then who invented Spanish? Cervantes? Do you know who brought the Spanish language to America? And how did the Spanish spread to other places on the globe?
And nowadays, how many countries speak Spanish?
Curious, huh? Let’s see the answers.
Join more than 559 million people on the planet who speak Spanish!
Sign up for your free trial Spanish class today. ➡️
The History of the Spanish Language – Timeline
If Spanish history were a book, it would have a prequel.
Yes, before I take you to the official “day 1,” when the “vulgar history” of Spanish originated from “vulgar Latin,” I need to provide more historical and geographical context.
Let’s go back to prehistory and far away from the Iberian peninsula.
Let’s go to Africa!
The History of the Spanish Language – Before the Romans
All the languages have their beginning in Africa, in prehistory. Linguists can go back as far as 200,000 years BC for the first Nilo-Saharan languages.
The Ibero Language originated and traveled to the Iberian peninsula, hence the name!
The Iberians came from Africa around 300 BC. Strangely enough, linguists today agree that the Spanish language does not derive from Iberian. In fact, their language had almost no influence on how modern Spanish looks and sounds today.
Later, tribes with separate languages inhabited the peninsula: Basques, Ligurians, Celts, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians. They all affected the speech; we can see their influence in some suffixes, Spanish last names, and even some words.
Still, it’s not enough.
We cannot say that the Spanish language proceeds directly from them either.
The Greeks had contributed a bit to the Spanish language around 600 BCE when they came to Spain. But linguists claim that the words of Greek origin, such as academia (academy), Biblia (book), carta (letter), diamante (diamond), and many others, were adopted through Arabic and Latin later on and not during this period.
Since I’m talking about Latin, let’s go straight to the point and talk about what’s considered the real beginning of the Spanish language.
The History of the Spanish Language – The Romans
The Romans reached the Iberian Peninsula in 218 BC when they officially conquered the Carthaginians. This part of Europe was interesting for the Roman Empire, as it was the most civilized due to Greek influence.
The Romans organized the area, divided it into provincias (provinces) and municipalidades (municipalities), and established Latin as the official language.
However, the Latin the soldiers spoke differed from the Roman foros, and neither were avid readers or classical Latin writers. So the linguists later baptized this Latin as the “vulgar Latin,” the one that the vulgus, the people, the mob, spoke.
And this is the real beginning of the Spanish language as you know it today.
So if you were wondering, “what language is Spanish derived from”?
You have an answer: Latin. Vulgar Latin.
Most Spanish vocabulary comes from Latin, its phonetics, and most of the grammar. I suffered a bit in my historical grammar classes, as the relations are a bit more complex.
But believe me, there is no place for doubt here.
Now, what happened later?
Spanish is not the only Romance language. There are others that proceed from Latin, too, such as Italian, French, Portuguese, and some more.
Why are they all similar but different?
How did Spanish move from Latin to being Spanish and not Italian, let’s say?
The History of the Spanish Language – After The Romans
The Romans fought for control with the Visigoths, who finally won sometime in the 4th century. They established a monarchy and made Toledo the capital.
The Visigoths spoke Latin with a strong Germanic influence, and their time on the Iberian Peninsula is considered a cultural depression.
The Vulgar Latin evolved in isolation until the Moors came at the beginning of the 8th century. The Moors stayed on the peninsula until 1492, strongly influencing the Spanish language and culture.
Apart from the Arabic numbers, many modern words originate from Arabic: alcohol (alcohol), almohada (pillow), azucar (sugar), and even the famous ojalá that triggers the subjunctive mood in Spanish.
At the same time as the Moors, the Kingdom of Castile slowly gained importance, and the rulers embarked on a long journey of achieving total control over the Peninsula to take it away from the Arabs. The so-called Reconquista period.
The Castilian Spanish, which derived from Latin, played an important role in opposition to the Arabic language of the Moors.
Then, in the 13th century, scribes gathered by the King Alfonso el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise) were used to document the region’s progress in different areas and to translate classical Latin literature into Spanish.
The King was wise, as he understood the importance of the written language.
This fact was later crucial for overseas expansion.
So if you ask yourself when Spanish was created? You could point to this period as it was the first moment of language consciousness.
In 1469, A Prince from Aragón, Ferdinand, and a Queen of Castille, Isabel, got married and officially established Castilian as the official language of the two united kingdoms.
The doom of the Moors was close.
During their reign in 1492, Antonio Nebrija published the “bible” of Spanish philologists—Gramática de la Lengua Castellana (The Grammar of the Castilian Language).
The History of the Spanish Language – Across the Ocean
Let’s leave the Iberian Peninsula and move to the Americas.
The year? 1492. The year Nebrija’s book came marks a new beginning for the world.
In 1492 Spanish boats sailed across the sea, and Spanish soldiers took Spanish with them and changed history.
Though Spaniards strongly and violently imposed their culture, religion, and the relatively new imperial language, the influence of the indigenous vocabulary on modern Spanish can still be felt today.
Even you know and use some Quechúa and Nahuatl words such as aguacate (avocado), tomato (tomato), chocolate (chocolate), puma (mountain lion), and others.
The history of the Spanish Language in the Americas is another story.
The language evolved differently in each country of the region and was influenced by local languages, invaders, and other visitors.
Transition from Old Spanish to Modern Spanish
Back to Spain again.
Also, in 1492 people saw the fall of Granada, which provoked the expulsion of the Moors.
Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries was already a well-established language, although it was still evolving.
Some Italian and French influence was added in this period.
The forms known by many from Don Quijote—Vuestra Merced and Vuestras Mercedes switched to much shorter Usted and Ustedes.
Also, the “theta” [θ] sound was introduced to distinguish homophones, such as casar (to marry) and cazar (to hunt). This is why this distinction does not exist in the Latin American version of Spanish, as it was introduced on the peninsula when the Spanish in the Americas already had their own life.
The Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española) first appeared in 1713 and dedicated its efforts to standardizing the language and establishing rules.
Accents not only indicated stress in words but also began to be used to differentiate between identical forms.
- Si (if)
- Sí (yes)
The first American Academy of Spanish Language was Established in Colombia in 1871.
The most recent one on the American continent is the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (North American Academy of the Spanish Language).
According to the latest edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, the Spanish language has 93,000 words and is in 6th place according to the number of words in a dictionary.
Obviously, it continues to evolve.
After the Franco dictatorship ended in the eighties, Spanish people started to use acronyms such as la UE (EU) or la OTAN (NATO). They also fell in love with abbreviations: profe/profesor (teacher), boli/bolígrafo (pen), uni/universidad (university).
Compound words such as la teleraña (spiderweb), el rascacielos (skyscraper), and el tocadiscos (turntable) also became popular.
A strong influence of English that floods languages worldwide is also prominent in modern Spanish. This is especially true in Mexico, which shares the border with the US.
Let’s see how many words that come from English you can find in this text.
Tuve que escanear el documento y guardarlo en la computadora antes de crear un link y mandarlo por internet a mi bestie. Ahora comeré el sándwich e iré al club a jugar al golf, es mi hobby. Por la noche veré un trailer de la nueva serie e iré al bar de la esquina a tomar un cóctel.
I had to scan the document and save it on the computer before creating a link and sending it over the internet to my bestie. Now I will eat a sandwich and go to the club to play golf, it’s my hobby. In the evening I will watch a trailer for the new series and go to the corner bar for a cocktail.
Sounds intelligible even if you are not fluent in Spanish, doesn’t it?
Speak Spanish Like a Native Speaker
Now that you’re an expert on the history of the Spanish language let’s leave the theory behind and move to the practical part.
Do you want to see how easy it would be for you to learn Spanish?
Sign up for a free trial class at Homeschool Spanish Academy. You’ll love it.
No payments or credit card details are required. It’s an expert-certified curriculum provided by native teachers. I guarantee that you’ll speak Spanish in your first class.
Ready to learn Spanish? Check out these free lessons:
- Spanish Words with Multiple Meanings in Latin America
- World Mental Health Day: A Vocabulary Guide for Mental Health Workers
- Expressing Appreciation in Spanish on World Teachers’ Day
- Art and Painting Vocabulary in Spanish
- Fall En Español: Exploring Autumn Activities for Kids
- Words You Need to Know: Common Spanish Vocabulary
- Blueprints en Español: Construction Spanish Made Simple
- Mastering Hard Words in Spanish
- Home Sweet Classroom: Creating Engaging Spanish Lessons at Home - October 13, 2023
- Expressing Appreciation in Spanish on World Teachers’ Day - October 5, 2023
- Adapting Education: Spanish Lessons for All Learning Styles - September 25, 2023