The Origins and Importance of the Spanish Language

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The Spanish language or Castilian, as native speakers sometimes refer to it, has become one of the most popular languages used in the world today. Its history is vast and it has spread and developed steadily throughout the centuries.

The name Castilian originates from the Castile region in the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain where Latin mixed with indigenous dialects was spoken after the decline of the Roman Empire. As the kingdom of Castile spread, so did the so-called Vulgar Latin commonly spoken in this region. With the conquest of the southern regions, this northern dialect, by then known as Castilian, spread south, replacing other provincial dialects.

As Castilian became more widespread it adopted vocabulary from Moorish Arabic and was influenced by medieval Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) and Mozarabes (the Romance speech of Christians living in Moorish territory). Sadly, these languages died out in the late 16th century as Spanish took over the peninsula.

The Written Word

The first written examples of Castilian are thought to have appeared as glosses in the codex known as Aemilianensis. A manuscript written in Latin (estimated date of the document is 978AD). Glosses are notes or phrases made in the margins or between the lines of a book explaining the meaning of the text in its original language.

In the thirteenth century King Alfonso X of Castile (Alfonso the Wise) began the standardisation of written Castilian when he brought in scribes to his court. By supporting their writing in history, astronomy, law and other fields of knowledge he helped Castilian become the standard for educated and administrative use of the language.

In 1492, Antonio de Nebrija presented the first Spanish grammar to Queen Isabella, who is said to have had an early appreciation of the usefulness of language as a tool for maintaining power over her country. The Spanish language, like Icelandic, Arabic, and many languages with a classical age, can be easily read without much help as far back as documents written in the 1100s and before.

In 1713 The Spanish Royal Academy was set up mostly to help preserve the purity of the language. The first Academy dictionary was published in six volumes between 1726 and 1739 and in 1771 the first book of grammar was produced. The SRA regularly continue to publish new editions of both. Each of the Spanish-speaking countries has an analogous language academy, and in 1951 an Association of Spanish Language Academies was created.

Spoken Spanish

It is very important to understand that spoken Spanish varies from region to region. The pronunciation of the same words may also vary from place to place both within Spain and other Spanish speaking countries.

The Real Academia de la Lengua Espanola is the organisation which guarantees a unified, standard, version of the Spanish language in its spoken and written form. It sets rules to follow in order to speak and write Spanish in a way that is accepted by the various different Spanish speakers.

Spanish in the United States

After English, Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the United States. There are more Spanish speakers in the U.S. than there are speakers of French, Hawaiian, and the Native American Languages combined.

According to the 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the United States Census Bureau, Spanish is the primary language spoken at home by over 34 million people aged 5 or older.

Top 5 Spanish Speaking States in the US (By Number of people) are:

  • California (12.4 million)
  • Texas (7.9 million)
  • Florida (3.3 million)
  • New York (3 million)
  • Illinois (1.8 million)

How Spanish became so Popular

In the 16th Century, Spanish colonisation brought the language to Latin America (specifically Mexico, Central America and western South America), to the Federal States of Micronesia, Guam, Marianas, Palau and the Philippines.

Spanish continues today to be used by the descendants of Spaniards in the Americas, both by the large population of Spanish and the mixed Spanish-Amerindian majority. After the wars of independence fought by the colonies in the 19th century, the new ruling elites provided Spanish to the whole population to strengthen national unity and encouraged all natives to become fluent in the language.

The Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico encouraged more immigrants from Spain in the late 19th century. Other Latin American countries, such as Argentina and nearby Uruguay followed suit. Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, attracted waves of European Spanish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although to a lesser extent.

There, the countries’ large population groups of second- and third-generation descendants adopted the Spanish language as part of their Governments’ official assimilation policies to include Europeans who were Catholics and agreed to take an oath of allegiance to their chosen Nation’s Government.

A similar situation occurred in the American Southwest including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where Spaniards, then Californios (Spanish criollos in California) followed by Chicanos (Mexican Americans) and later Mexican immigrants, kept the Spanish language alive before, during and after the American appropriation of those territories, since the 1500s.

In the 20th century, after periods of Spanish colonial rule, Spanish was introduced in Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara. It also has been studied and spoken in former French and Portuguese colonies in Africa and Asia, but not as the main language of these areas. Spanish is also spoken in parts of the United States which had not been part of the Spanish Empire, such as Spanish Harlem in New York City, first by immigrants from Puerto Rico, and later by other Latin American immigrants who arrived there in the late 20th century.

Language politics in Francoist Spain declared Spanish as the only official language in Spain, and to this day it is the most preferred language in government, business, public education, workplace, cultural arts, and the media.

The Other Languages of Spain

Even with the popularity of Spanish other languages are still used in Spain. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Spanish parliament agreed to allow provinces to use, speak, and print official documents in three other languages: Catalan for Catalonia, Basque (a non Indo-European language for the Basque provinces), and Galician, akin to Portuguese, for Galicia.

Since the early 1980s after Spain became a multi-party democracy, these regional and minority languages have rebounded in common usage as secondary languages, but Spanish remains the universal language of the Spanish people.

Spanish Today

Today, Spanish is an official language of Spain as well as Latin America and Equatorial Guinea. In total there are 21 nations which speak Spanish as their primary language.

The top 5 Spanish Speaking Nations (in terms of population) are:

  • Mexico
  • Colombia
  • Spain
  • Argentina
  • USA

Spanish is a great consideration to translate your content into as it will open up a market of half a billion people.