History of the Spanish Language

Spanish is a great-grandchild of the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman troops and their entourages during their occupation of Iberia. Added to this base is a layer of Gothic influence from the fourth century when the Visigoths, who had settled near Toulouse in France, rose up again against the Romans and invaded Spain. They defeated not only the Romans but also the Vandals and Alans who had previously conquered parts of Iberia. Then the Visigoths set up their own occupation, which lasted for nearly three centuries. In 711, the Visigoths fell to the invading Moors, and then, for nearly 800 years, Spanish also absorbed this Arabic influence. Though the Moors were ultimately expelled from Toledo in the 11th century and from Cordoba in the 13th century, they maintained a foothold in Andalucí­a until 1492.

Origin of the Name Spanish

The origin of "Spanish" is "Hispania," the Roman designation for part of the Iberian Peninsula. No one really knows for sure what the derivation of "Hispania" really is. Scholars have advanced several disparate theories. Some Roman writers referred to it as "Hesperia Ultima" - the last western land. Others believe it is a Punic word, created in Phoenicia or in its ancient colony of Carthage. Still others suppose that it derives from an ancient name of modern day Seville, which was Hispa in Iberian Celtic language; or perhaps it derives from the Basque word, Ezpanna, meaning "border."

Even though the Iberian Peninsula was largely unified under Roman rule, the enormous ethnic diversity of its inhabitants kept the territory from having a single, integrated national culture for many centuries. Even today, many different languages are spoken natively in what was once Rome's Iberian Province. Only one of them, now called "Spanish," is official in all of Spain.


Every region developed its own dialect, of course, and the dialect that was to become "Spanish" grew up in the northern and central regions of Spain - Cantabria, Burgos, Soria and La Rioja - with a bit of vestigial influence from Basque and Iberian Celtic. Castilian was considered very similar to its neighboring dialect from Leon, and eventually the political integration of these two provinces made for the emergence of the Castilian dialect that became the lingua franca of Christian Spain.

Curiously, in the 13th century, the language of the monarchy was not the colloquial Castilian or Leonese, but rather a dialect closer to Portuguese or Galician. The church and the court together regarded the heavily Arab-influenced Castilian patois to be less of a "Christian" tongue than Portuguese (or Galician) which were considered more faithful to Latin, and hence to the Cross.

Phonetic Evolution

Notable changes from Vulgar Latin to Castilian included lenition (the softening of certain consonants). The "t" often became a "d" as in vita becoming vida. Palatization occurred, making the word for "year" (anno) have a palatal "i" in the middle (año). Open accented vowels, like the "o" in "bono" or the "e" in "ferro" became diphthongs ("bueno" or "fierro"). Suffixes were shortened, as in "voluntatis" to "voluntad." Third declension feminine nouns (in the ablative) were foreshortened to the familiar "-ción" ending from "-tione." Not all Iberian languages underwent the same transformations. Portuguese, for example, still does not convert open "o" to "ue" or open "e" to "ie."

Unlike other Iberian languages apart from Gascon, Castilian also eventually softened the initial "f" to an "h," when the next vowel was not a diphthong. Then the "h" became mute. As a result, "filium" in Latin became "hijo" in Spanish, but remained with the "f" in Portuguese, Italian, and French. "Fabulare" became "falar" in Portugues and "hablar" in Spanish. Selectively, "cl" and "pl" became "ll" in Spanish, as in "clamar." which became "llamar" and "pleno." which became "lleno." The "ct" sound became a "ch" sound, as in "nocte" becoming "noche" and "lactus" becoming "leche." As late as the 14th century the "f" could still be found in Spanish writing instead of the "h" (as in "falcón" instead of "halcón"), so the change was relatively late in the development of the language.

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