Galician Language

General Overview

Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Galician is spoken in the Spanish province of Galicia (3,173,400 speakers in 1986), Northern Portugal (15,000 in Entre-Minho-e-Douro and Tras Os Montes in 1994) and in various communities in Western Europe and America. Nowadays more than 4 million people all over the world speak Galician as their first language, and it is an official language in Galicia.

Origin and History

By the 3rd century BC the Celtic tribes had already crossed the Pyrenees and settled in the northern part of the Iberian peninsula. The tribe of the Gallaeci established themselves in the north-western corner of Iberia. The legions of Rome conquered this territory in about 137 BC and established there the province of Gallaecia (Galicia). In the following period the Roman soldiers and colonists spread their colloquial language, the Vulgar Latin (see also Latin language), in the region. Gradually, under the influence of the tongues of the older Celtic inhabitants and the later Germanic invaders, this language evolved into what is technically called Galaico-Portuguese language (or Galician-Portuguese). The first written texts in it are dated in the 12th century.

In Roman and Visigothic times (see Visigoths) Galicia stretched south to the Duero River and eastward to beyond the city of León and formed part of the archdiocese of Bracara Augusta (Braga). From about 410 it was an independent kingdom under the Suebi, who were finally destroyed by the Visigoths in 585.

Nevertheless Galicia enjoyed for centuries a considerable political autonomy in the boundaries of the later Hispanic kingdoms, till in 1495, after the unification of Castile and Aragon in 1479, it fell under the administration of the royal Junta del Reino de Galicia and was firmly incorporated into Spain. The southern portion of the Galaico-Portuguese linguistic territory, however, was consolidated in the independent kingdom of Portugal (1139), which extended its borders over the ancient Roman province of Lusitania. In the subsequent period the speach of Galicia and Portugal was gradually differentiated (see Portuguese). In official spheres in Galicia Spanish (Castilian) was spreading very fast, and Galician could be used only in private life.

The cultural revival of Galician as a literary language in the mid-19th century pointed to a growing regional consciousness. The plebiscite of 1936 registered overwhelming support for Galician autonomy but was nullified by the strongly centralized government established by General Francisco Franco. Finally, in 1981, Galicia was proclaimed an autonomous community with a Xunta de Galicia (a council headed by a president) and a unicameral assembly.

Phonology and Grammar

The official Galician uses the Spanish version of the Latin alphabet. The official pronunciation resembles Spanish Castilian much: the sounds for b and v are the same, the ancient nasals are banished, the phoneme [z] is absent, and the voiceless [] is established under Castilian influence.

But the grammar structure differs from Spanish and still has much in common with Portuguese. Both Portuguese and Galician have specific personal forms of infinitive. Galician, however, lack the compound verbal tenses (this feature is observed in Asturian also, the language of the former kingdom of León).

In the last decennies in Galicia appeared the so called reintegrationist movement. It professes an orthographic reform according to the ancient traditions, which is to make Galician closer to the modern Portuguese, with the ultimate aim to restore the medieval linguistic unity of Galicia and Portugal.

Galician and Portuguese are mutually almost completely intelligible.

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© Zdravko Batzarov