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An Interesting Look at the Origins of the Spanish Language

Updated on June 14, 2019
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Marma has been a teacher for over seven years. She holds degrees from San Jose State, Santa Clara University, and Stanford University.

A basic map of modern Spain, where Spanish is the official language.
A basic map of modern Spain, where Spanish is the official language.

Where Does Spanish Come From?

As a former Spanish teacher I always thought it important to provide my students with a brief introduction on the history of the Spanish language. Though Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world not everyone learning it is aware of its origins and influences. And I think it is definitely worth taking a look.

The modern Spanish spoken today is a derivative of Vulgar Latin, the language of the early Romans. Yes, the Romans! Back in the day, the Roman Empire had colonized much of Europe, including Spain by 220 B.C. The Romans called their Spanish colony, Hispaña.

There were inhabitants in Spain before the Romans arrived such as the Iberians and Celts, but the Romans eventually conquered these groups and subjugated them under Roman rule.

The Romans

With the Roman colonization of Spain or Hispaña, the Romans brought their architecture, religion, laws and language to the land. The official language of Rome and the Roman Empire was Vulgar Latin and would be the language of Hispaña for the next 700 years as well. Today, the descendants of the Romans speak Italian, at least the ones in Italy do. Italian is also an offshoot of Vulgar Latin. Other linguistical offshoots of Vulgar Latin include French, Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese.

The purple areas represent the Roman Empire around 100 A.D.
The purple areas represent the Roman Empire around 100 A.D.

Other Linguistic Influences in Spanish

Until about the 400s, the Romans ruled Hispaña. In the 400s a Germanic tribe from Northern Europe called the Visigoths conquered Spain. However, their language and culture did not intermingle much with that of the Roman Spanish. The Visigoths maintained much of the traditions of Roman Spain.

In the 700s the Moors, an Arabic group coming from Northern Africa, invaded and conquered Hispaña, renaming the land, Al-Andalus. The Moors ruled most of Spain for many centuries, until about the late 1490s. As a result their language, religion, culture, food, and architecture intermixed with that of the Roman Spanish. Today, about 8% of Spanish words are Arabic in origin. Words such as almendra, alfombra, adiós, are Arabic in origin.

The northern kingdoms in Spain remained Christian and Roman Spanish speaking. These northern kingdoms eventually drove out the Moors (by 1492). This did several things: it unified the different kingdoms in Spain, it Catholicized the nation, and made Castilian Spanish (a derivative of Roman Vulgar Latin) or castellano the official language of the country.

This Castilian Spanish (from the central Castile state of Spain) eventually spread overseas via colonization and has evolved and is spoken in 20 different countries today. Of course, Spanish sounds different depending on which part of the world it is spoken (Latin American vs. European Spanish) due to social and linguistic changes over time. However, the formal Spanish or castellano was the Spanish brought to the new world by the conquistadores such as Colombus and Cortes. And Castilian Spanish is the formal, purest form of Spanish. It is taught in most language schools and in Spain.

The path of the Moors from North Africa through the conquest of Spain.  Cerca 790 AD.  The capital of Moorish Spain was Cordoba, which at one point became one of the most advanced cities in Europe.
The path of the Moors from North Africa through the conquest of Spain. Cerca 790 AD. The capital of Moorish Spain was Cordoba, which at one point became one of the most advanced cities in Europe.

Different Languages within Spain

Though castellano or Castilian is the official dialect of Spanish in Spain, Spain contains speakers of additional languages. Why is this? Well, Spain consists of several different regions, many of which have their own ethnicity, history, and language different from castellano.

In the northern Basque region (El País Vasco), people speak Basque. This consists of only 2% of Spain's population. In the state of Cataluña (home to the famous city of Barcelona) people also speak Catalán, a romantic language different from Castilian Spanish. There is also Galician or gallego spoken in the northwestern region of Galicia. Madrid, the capital of Spain, is in the Spanish state of Castile or Castilla in Spanish. This is the region of Spain where castellano or Castilian Spanish originated and was later formalized.

Andalucía is the southern region of Spain and contains much of the architectural and cultural influence of Moorish rule. Spanish is spoken in Andalucía. This is the area where the famous actor Antonio Banderas hails from.

So really, we can conclude that the bulk of the Spanish language came to us from the early Romans though more linguistic influences penetrated the language over time and through travel across the seas.

If you are interested in more resources about the history of Spanish and that of Spain, feel free to check out one of the resources I created in my TeachersPayTeachers store. You can find the link for the resource at the bottom of the page.

I hope you have found this article interesting and informative.

The different states in Spain. The blue region of Castile is where formal Spanish comes from.  The northeast state of Cataluña in yellow is home to Barcelona, where many speak Catalán.
The different states in Spain. The blue region of Castile is where formal Spanish comes from. The northeast state of Cataluña in yellow is home to Barcelona, where many speak Catalán.

© 2019 Marma

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