If we want to understand the history of the Spanish language, we need to examine the history of the Iberian peninsula and the Americas. Spanish developed from many intertwining influences coming together — each adding new layers to its form.
In the end, this process made Spanish the second-most widely spoken language in the world with more than 550 million speakers. Let’s drive into the history of this rich language.
Spanish: A Language Of Diverse Elements
During pre-Roman times, the Iberian peninsula was inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups. The Iberos occupied the Ebro Basin, Andalusia and the provinces of Alicante, Castellón, Murcia and Valencia. The Celts, who likely originated from Central Europe, lived along the Atlantic coast and on the interior meseta (plateau). The Phoenicians settled on the Andalusian coast and founded Cádiz, Málaga, Almuñécar and Adra. The Carthaginians, originally from Africa, held the Balearic Islands, Ibiza and Cartagena. Greeks and Tartessians also lived on the peninsula.
Each of these ethnic groups originally had their own language. This diverse setting created the foundation for the history of the Spanish language. So how did these elements start fusing together?
Latin, The Language Of The Conquerors
When the Roman Empire conquered the Mediterranean region, they imposed Latin on their territories. This process is called latinization, and it describes the gradual deterioration of local languages and how they gave way to Latin — the language of the invaders. During the 400 years of the Roman occupation of Spain, Vulgar Latin, the language used by the people, spread to the entire population.
Although Latin entered Hispania (modern-day Spain) in full force, we shouldn’t forget that Latin also evolved by mingling with the local languages. During this period, Latin transformed itself from the language of the empire into the foundation of the Romance languages.
More Invasions, More Influences
When the Roman Empire encountered social and economic difficulties, it didn’t take long for other groups to take advantage of the situation. The Visigoths, who had successfully invaded the Roman Empire and looted Rome in the past, established themselves in a large part of Spain for 300 years. Latin and its many variations, however, didn’t undergo many changes, except for incorporating some Germanic vocabulary.
One final invasion took place that had a massive impact on the history of the Spanish language. In 711, Hispania was rapidly taken by Muslim forces and converted into the New Caliphate of Cordoba. They conquered almost all of Spain, except for some regions in the north, such as the Kingdom of Castile. The Arab influence on Spanish was extensive, and now over 4,000 words in modern Spanish are from Arabic.
The Muslim occupation lasted for eight centuries before Castile and the other Christian kingdoms unified their forces to take control of the Spanish territory.
Establishing The Official Language
After the expulsion of the Arabs from the peninsula, the victorious kingdoms established an official language for the new Spain. The Catholic king and queen, Fernando II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile, married in order to unite the two largest kingdoms. This also ensured that Spanish gained the greatest territory compared to the other languages, including Catalan, Basque, and Leonese.
From that point on, Spanish was declared the official language and its use expanded across the entire kingdom.
Other Contributions To Spanish
More than 65% of the Spanish language is derived from Latin — the rest is comprised of other languages such as pre-Roman languages, Arabic, Gothic (an East Germanic language) and Greek, just to name a few.
Of the pre-Roman languages, the Celts contributed cerveza (beer), camisa (shirt) and gancho (hook). Barro (clay), manteca (fat) and barranco (ravine) are Iberian. Other Barbarian invaders added words like yelmo (helmet), guerra (war), bigote (mustache), galardón (award), blandir (to wave) and espía (spy).
Meanwhile, Arabic via the Moors had one of the most significant contributions. It was also their influence that led to the use of the article al in expressions like almeja (clam), alpiste (birdseed), almohada (pillow), almanaque (almanac) and alcohol. Similarly, they added the suffix í to the Spanish language, as used in words like jabalí (wild boar), marroquí (Morrocan) and yemení (Yemeni).
Spanish In The Americas
With the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas, Hispanization led to the Spanish language establishing itself as the principal language in the region. Although the Spanish conquerors tried to force indigenous peoples to adopt their language, the indigenous languages also ended up having a large influence on Spanish.
The Aztecs contributed words like tomate (tomato), aguacate (avocado), tiza (chalk), coyote and chocolate. Cóndor and vicuña come from the Incas. Barbacoa (barbecue), hamaca (hammock), and huracán (hurricane) are Arawak words. Other varieties of Spanish, such as those in some Latin American countries, retain even more influences from the local indigenous languages.
Conquests, invasions and expeditions led some languages to emerge and others to disappear into the more dominant language. This is the case with Spanish, and while it can be difficult to wrap your head around at first, this linguistic cross-pollination certainly makes for an interesting language learning experience.