Languages in Spain: How Many Languages Are Spoken in Spain?
Have you ever wondered about the languages in Spain? You may be surprised to learn that people in Spain speak more than just Spanish.
People in Spain speak mainly four languages, and they’re all available in various parts of the country: Castilian (commonly referred to as Spanish), Euskera, Galician, and Catalan.
So, let’s learn about the origins of these languages, where they’re spoken, how many people speak them today, and much more.
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The Main Languages of Spain
Before diving into these unique languages, let’s get one thing straight. These languages are, in fact, official languages and not dialects.
Simply put, languages are the official ways that people in a country or community talk to each other. Dialects, on the other hand, are smaller parts of a language that are spoken by a certain group of people or in a certain area. Accents are often a good way to tell a dialect apart.
We can think of language as the broader umbrella term under which various dialects of a language fall.
Here’s an example. Language: English. Dialect: British English.
Now that we got that out, let’s dive into some points of interest about the four official languages spoken in Spain.
Castilian or Spanish
No surprise here. Spain’s primary language is Castilian Spanish.
99% of Spaniards speak Spanish. It’s commonly used in schools, media, TV, entertainment, music, and government websites.
If you know Spanish, you can survive and even thrive in Spain!
Today, there are over 43.64 million Spanish speakers in Spain.
History of Castilian Spanish:
The term “Castilian Spanish” refers to the Spanish spoken on the Iberian peninsula. It is the oldest form of the Spanish language.
You may know that there are over 450 million native Spanish speakers worldwide, but did you know that Castilian Spanish actually began as a dialect in the northern part of Spain?
In the 13th century, King Alfonso X ruled the regions of Castile, Leon, and Galicia in Spain.
He held most of his political power in the region of Castile and decided to make Castilian the official language of the court and state.
Also, there was another push for Castilian Spanish during The Reconquista period.
After the Moors from Northern Africa were driven out of Spain, Castilian Spanish gained momentum through literature. For example, King Alfonso X established academic scribes in Castilian, cementing the language’s place in the region and, dare we say, the world.
The Castilian Spanish Language
Spanish speakers can interact and understand each other worldwide. But Castilian Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Latin America are not the same in a lot of important ways. The most notable distinction is the ceceo.
Let’s take a look.
The letters “c” and “z” are pronounced the same as the letter “s” in Latin American Spanish. In Spain, however, they are pronounced similarly to how English speakers pronounce the “th” sound.
This is how the Spanish “lisp,” which is not truly a lisp, came to be.
In Spain, it’s also more common to use the informal plural “vosotros” rather than the formal “ustedes.”
A Castilian Spanish speaker may say, “¿Qué quereis comer?” instead of “¿Qué quieren comer?”
Castilian Spanish also has quite a few colloquial expressions. You may have heard some of them, like “Vale” which means “Okay,” or “Guay” which people in Spain use to describe something “Cool.”
Catalonia is another popular region in Spain. But did you know the locals have had their own language for centuries?
There are roughly 9 million Catalan speakers across regions of Spain, France, and even Italy.
In Spain, you can find over 8 million of them in Aragon, the Balearic Islands, Catalonia, Murcia, and Valencia.
But let’s look at its history.
History of Catalan
Catalan is a Romance language that, like Spanish, has its roots in Vulgar Latin.
It comes from the Pyrenees Mountains, which are between France and Spain. It was first written down in the 12th century.
So, yeah, it’s even older than Castilian Spanish!
Catalan was the official language of the Catalonia region until Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand, and Isabella, united Aragón and Castile and made Castilian the official language.
Although Catalan has existed since the dawn of Spain, native speakers haven’t always been free to use it.
Catalan was banned in schools, books, newspapers, and magazines during the Spanish Civil War, the late 1930s, and Franco’s rule. People weren’t even allowed to use it in public, with friends or family.
Can you believe it? Just imagine going out with your children and being punished for speaking in your mother tongue!
But that’s not all!
Road signs and advertisements in Catalan were all changed to Spanish, and any judicial documents in Catalan were declared invalid.
After Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975, Catalan-speaking areas regained their right to speak Catalan and kept it alive for future generations.
The Catalan Language
A common misconception is that Catalan is a dialect of Spanish. This could not be more wrong, as Catalan is an official language that, in some ways, is more similar to French than Spanish.
Let’s look at a couple of common phrases.
- Hello – Bon dia
- How are you – Com estàs
- I’m well – Estic bé
- Thank you – Gràcies
- Goodbye – Adèu
Euskera, A Basque Language
You might be surprised to learn that the oldest living language in Europe is still spoken in the north of Spain and that it’s even older than Castilian Spanish!
Approximately 37% of the Basque people still speak Euskera, which rounds up to one million speakers. They live on both sides of the Pyrenees, and most Euskera speakers live on the Spanish side.
Despite estimates that claim that 60% of Basque citizens will speak Euskera in 2036, in 2010, UNESCO gave the language official “vulnerable” status.
History of Euskera
Euskera is distinct from other Spanish-speaking languages in that it has no linguistic relatives. It is a language on its own, with no known Indo-European roots or ties to any other language groups. Cool, huh?
There are, however, theories regarding the origins of the language.
Some linguists believe Euskera and Iberian (now a dead language) were once the same or evolved from the same language. Others point to cave drawings discovered in the Basque Country around 14,000 years ago as proof that the language has existed since then.
Much like Catalan, and other minority languages in Spain, Euskera was heavily persecuted during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship.
Euskera speakers today have memories of attending secret church services in the Basque language.
Others recall when family members were arrested for speaking Euskera during the war.
Even though people tried to kill off the Basque language, it kept going on as it had for thousands of years.
The Euskera Language
If you travel north of the Basque Country, you’ll come across cities like San Sebastian and Bilbao, where you might hear a strange language that sounds nothing like anything you’ve ever heard before.
Such is Euskera.
The Basque language has a quirky pronunciation. For example, the letters “tx” make the “ch” sound, while “tt” is similar to the “c” sound in Spanish, and “x” sounds like “sh.”
Here are some common phrases you’ll hear up north:
- Hello – Kaixo
- Goodbye – Agur
- Thank you – Eskerrik asko
- How are you? – Zer moduz?
Finally, we bring our attention to Portuguese’s sister language: Galician.
In the northwestern region of Spain, you can find beautiful fishing towns, lots of octopus, and nearly four million locals chatting in Galician.
If you know any Portuguese, you’ll likely have a relatively easy time understanding Galician, as there is a lot of overlap in its sounds and word structures.
History of Galician
Galician, like Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan, belongs to the Western Ibero-Romance language family. It originated in the Roman province of Gallaecia and was the official language of the Kingdom of Galicia until the 15th century when Castilian Spanish replaced it.
Galician stayed in the back seat until around the 19th century, when there was a revival, and Galician speakers tried to spread the language once more. During this period, intellectuals published literature, research papers, and journalistic articles in Galician.
This resurgence lasted until the 20th century when the language was also outlawed during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. Yes, yet another banned language.
However, unlike many languages, Galician prevailed through its years of persecution.
There are a lot of things going on today to help younger people appreciate Galician.
The Galician Language
Galician writers like lvaro Cunqueiro, whose gravestone reads, “Here lies someone who, with his work, made Galicia last a thousand more springs,” would be pleased to know that Galician is now taught at home and in schools.
Here are some Galician phrases people might want to know:
- Welcome – Benvido/Benvida
- How are you? – Que tal estás?
- I’m well, thank you – Moi ben, grazas
- What’s your name? – Como te chamas?
- I’m from … – Eu son de …
Learn Spanish Today
Remember what we said earlier? If you know Spanish, you can survive and even thrive in Spain! Do you want to go to the La Tomatina Festival? Perhaps you’re a soccer fan and want to go see El Clásico. Well, in that case, you might need some Spanish lessons.
But again, there are over 450 million Spanish speakers worldwide. So, if you know Spanish, you can also travel across Latin America!
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