Spanish Language

General Overview

Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Spanish (Español) is spoken by nearly 400,000,000 persons in Spain, all of Central and South America except Brazil (where the closely related Portuguese language is spoken), as well as in the Canary Islands, parts of Morocco, and the Philippines. In the United States Spanish is used amongst numerous Hispanic communities in California, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, in New York and Chicago, in the free state of Puerto Rico etc. The media in Spanish language are developping very dynamcally in the USA.

Spanish is one of the five official languages of the United Nations.

Origin and History

Spanish dialects developped from the Vulgar Latin which was brought to the Iberian peninsula after the Roman conquest in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC. The earliest written materials, in the form of glosses on Latin texts, date from the mid 11th century (see Glossae Aemilianensae), and works of literature in Spanish first appeared c. 1150.

Spanish is also known (particularly in Latin America) as Castilian, after the dialect from which modern standard Spanish developed. That dialect arose in the 9th century around the town of Burgos, in north central Spain (Old Castile), and, as Spain was reconquered from the Moors, spread southward to central Spain (New Castile) around Madrid and Toledo by the 11th century. In the late 15th century the kingdoms of Castile and Leon merged with that of Aragon, and Castilian became the official language of all Spain. The regional dialects of Aragon, Navarre, Leon, Asturias, and Santander were crowded out gradually and today survive only in secluded rural areas. Galician, a Portuguese dialect spoken in northwestern Spain, was also much reduced.

An archaic form of Castilian Spanish, known as Ladino or Judesmo, was preserved among the descendents of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492.

The dialect of Spanish used in Arab-occupied Spain prior to the 12th century was called Mozarabic (see Mozarabic language). A remarkably archaic form of Spanish with many borrowings from Arabic, it is known primarily from Mozarabic refrains (called kharjahs) added to Arabic and Hebrew poems.


Spanish has simplified the Vulgar Latin vocal system to only 5 open vowels (as in Classic Latin) -- a. e, i, o, u -- that are pronounced clearly and without reduction in both stressed and unstressed positions. The vowels, that are short in Classic Latin, diphthongate when stressed in Spanish (see the Occurrence of Diphthongs Replacing Stressed Short Vowels in Romance Languages), except for a, cf.:

CL porta door -> Sp. puerta;
CL herba grass -> Sp. hierba.
The long stressed vowels e, o are replaced by i, u and the short unstressed vowels i, u -- by e, o, cf.:
CL fêci (I) did -> Sp. hice.
The accent may fall on the ultimate, penultimate or antepenultimate syllable. Its place is recognizable from orthography. As compared with the accent of Classical Latin, it shows a tendency to move towards a syllable containing -r, cf.:
CL tenebrae darkness -> Sp. tinieblas.
The Latin consonants p, t, c between vowels are voiced to b, d, g in Spanish, cf.:
CL apotheca (th=t) store-room -> Sp. bodega.
See also the Development of Latin Intervocalic p and t in Romance Languages.

The intervocalic -d- disappears, cf.:

CL cadere to fall -> Sp. caer
and the intervocalic -g- may disappear or become a glide sound [j] written y, cf.
CL legere to read -> Sp. leer
CL reges kings -> Sp. reyes,
while the intervocalic -b- is preserved, but tends to become aspirated as v, cf.
CL habere to have -> Sp. haber.
The initial f- is replaced by a mute h-, cf.
CL facere to do -> Sp. hacer.
The consonant clusters ct, lt are transformed to ch (act to ech), cf.:
CL octo eight -> Sp. ocho,
CL multu(m) much, many -> Sp. mucho,
CL lactuca lettuce -> Sp. lechuga.
See also the Results of Palatalization of Consonant Clusters.

The clusters cl, fl, pl are palatalized to ll, cf.:

CL clamo (I) call -> Sp. llamo,
CL flama flame -> Sp. llama,
CL ploro (I) weep -> Sp. lloro.
The clusters ali, eli, ili, oli, uli are transformed to aj, ej, ij, oj, uj, cf.:
CL alium garlic -> Sp. ajo,
CL filius son -> Sp. hijo,
CL mulier woman -> Sp. mujer etc.
The clusters lr, mr, nr are divided by epenthetic -b- or -d- and become ldr, mbr, ndr, as in:
venir to come + he (I) have -> vendré (I) will come.
The words beginning with s- followed by a consonant (s impure) receive a prothetic e-, cf.:
CL stare to stand -> Sp. estar.

In Spanish the case system of Latin has been completely lost except for subject and object forms for pronouns.

Nouns are marked for masculine or feminine gender, and plurals are marked by the addition of -s or -es; adjectives change endings to agree with nouns. The Latin neuter gender survives in a few instances:

  1. in the singular of the definite article lo,
  2. in the demonstrative words esto, eso, and aquello,
  3. and in the third-person objective pronoun lo.
These neuter forms occur only in indefinite and general constructions and in those in which the neuter article, accompanied by an adjective or adverb, forms abstract expressions; thus, lo bueno, lit. the good, means goodness.

The verb system is complex but by and large regular. The four conjugations of Latin have been reduced in Spanish to three; furthermore, regular verbs of the Spanish second and third conjugations differ in only four forms.

Spanish uses indicative, imperative, and subjunctive moods, preterite, imperfect, present, future, conditional, and a variety of perfect and progressive tenses, and passive and reflexive constructions.

The subjunctive mood persists in Spanish with much greater vigor than in most modern Romance languages, having, besides the customary present and imperfect tenses, a second imperfect form derived from the Latin pluperfect indicative.

Auxiliaries are used to form the compound tenses, as in the other Romance languages; for the perfect tenses, the auxiliary in Spanish is always a form of haber to have.

Spanish far exceeds most of the other Romance languages in its idiomatic use of reflexive verbs with special meanings.

As in the other Romance tongues, the Spanish future and conditional indicative are really compounds formed by adding to the entire infinitive (used as a stem) the present and imperfect indicative endings, respectively, of haber.

A peculiar feature of Spanish grammar is the use of the preposition a to before the direct object of a verb if that object is a person; cf.:

Veo a mi padre. I see my father.

The most essential part of the Spanish vocabulary is derived from Vulgar Latin. Thousands of words from classical Latin were included in the Spanish vocabulary with the development of the literary language.

Some words were borrowed from the languages of the pro-Roman inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula (the Iberians and the Celtiberians). The invasion of the Visigoths early in the 5th century AD introduced a few Germanic words; those of them which were beginning with w- received a prothetic g-, cf. Gmc. werra war -> Sp. guerra.

The Muslim conquest in the 8th century later brought in a large number of Arabic words, many of which are easily detected by their polysyllabic structure (cf. berenjena aubergine) or by the prefixed Arabic article al- (cf. alcalde mayor, alfil officer, almohada pillow etc.). See a far from being exhaustive List of the Arabic loan-words in Spanish.

Under the influence, beginning in the 11th century, of French ecclesiastics and pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, the Spanish vocabulary was appreciably augmented by words and phrases from French. During the 15th and 16th centuries an infusion of elements from the Italian occurred because of Aragonese domination in Italy and the great vogue of Italian poetry in Spain. Relations between Spain and its colonies and possessions have led to the introduction of terms from Native American languages and other sources, and scholarly activities have constantly increased the stock of borrowed words.

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