Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ever Wonder What Spanish Is?


Spanish or Castilian (castellano) is a Romance language originally from the northern area of Spain. It is the official language of Spain, most Latin American countries, and the official language of Equatorial Guinea, in Africa. In total, twenty-five nations and territories use Spanish as their primary language. It is one of six official languages of the United Nations.

Spanish originated as a dialect of Latin along the remote cross road strips among the Cantabria, Burgos, Soria and La Rioja provinces of Northern Spain. From there, its use gradually spread inside the Kingdom of Castile, where it evolved and eventually became the principal language of the government and trade. It was later taken to the Americas and other parts of the world in the last five centuries by Spanish explorers and colonists. The language is spoken by between 322 and 400 million people natively, making Spanish the most spoken Romance language and possibly the second most spoken language by number of native speakers. It is estimated that the combined total of native and non-native Spanish speakers is approximately 500 million, likely making it the fourth most spoken language by total number of speakers. Spanish is also considered to be among the fastest growing languages in the globe at the native level, largely due to higher than average birth rates in much of Latin America.

The language is spoken most extensively in the Americas, Spain and in Africa and Asia Pacific. It is also the second most widely spoken language in the United States] and by far the most popular studied foreign language in U.S. schools and Universities. Due to many linguistic similarities and close territorial ties, Spanish is also a very popular second langauge in Brazil, Portugal, Italy, and France where these countries together form a considerable proportion of the langauges non-native or secondary speakers.

Naming and origin

Spaniards tend to call this language español (Spanish) when contrasting it with languages of foreign states, such as French and English, but call it castellano (Castilian), that is, the language of the Castile region, when contrasting it with other languages spoken in Spain such as Galician, Basque, and Catalan. This reasoning also holds true for the language's preferred name in some Hispanic American countries. In this manner, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 uses the term castellano to define the official language of the whole Spanish State, as opposed to las demás lenguas españolas (lit. the other Spanish languages). Article III reads as follows:

El castellano es la lengua española oficial del Estado. (…) Las demás lenguas españolas serán también oficiales en las respectivas Comunidades Autónomas…

Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. (…) The other Spanish languages shall also be official in their respective Autonomous Communities…

The name castellano is however widely used for the language as a whole in Latin America. Some Spanish speakers consider castellano a generic term with no political or ideological links, much as "Spanish" is in English. Often Latin Americans use it to differentiate their own variety of Spanish as opposed to the variety of Spanish spoken in Spain, or vice-versa, to refer to that variety of Spanish which is considered as standard in this one.

Classification and related languages

Castilian Spanish has closest affinity to the other West Iberian Romance languages: Asturian (asturianu), Galician (galego), Ladino (dzhudezmo/spanyol/kasteyano), and Portuguese (português), as well as, in some ways, to Aragonese (aragonés) and Catalan (català).

Catalan, an East Iberian language which exhibits many Gallo-Romance traits, is more similar to the neighbouring Occitan language (occitan) than Spanish and Portuguese are to each other. In fact, it wasn't until the earliest years of the 20th century that Catalan was considered a variant of the Occitan language. Spanish and Portuguese share similar grammars and a majority of vocabulary as well as a common history of Arabic influence while a great part of the peninsula was under Islamic rule (both languages expanded over Islamic territories). Their lexical similarity has been estimated as 89%.[19] See Differences between Spanish and Portuguese, for further information.


Ladino, which is essentially medieval Castilian and closer to modern Spanish than any other language, is spoken by many descendants of the Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. In many ways it is not a separate language but a parallel dialect of Castilian. Ladino lacks Native American vocabulary which was influential during the Spanish colonial period, and it retains many archaic features which have since been lost in standard Castilian. It does, however, contain other vocabulary which is not found in standard Castilian, including vocabulary from Hebrew as well as Turkish and other languages spoken wherever the Sephardim settled.

Vocabulary comparison

Spanish and Italian share a very similar phonological system and do not differ very much in grammar. At present, the lexical similarity with Italian is estimated at 82%. As a result, Spanish and Italian are mutually intelligible to various degrees. Mutual intelligibility with French and Romanian is lower (lexical similarity is respectively 75% and 71%) and for French "understanding" of Spanish from French speakers (with no knowledge of the language) falls at an estimated 45% - as much as English. The common features of the writing systems of the Romance languages allow for a greater amount of interlingual reading comprehension than oral communication would.


One defining characteristic of Spanish was the diphthongization of the Latin short vowels e and o into ie and ue, respectively, when they were stressed. Similar sound changes can be found in other Romance languages, but in Spanish they were particularly significant. Some examples:

  • Lat. petra > Sp. piedra, It. pietra, Fr. pierre, Port./Gal. pedra "stone".
  • Lat. moritur > Sp. muere, It. muore, Fr. meurt / muert, Rom. moare, Port./Gal. morre "he dies".

More peculiar to early Spanish (as in the Gascon dialect of Occitan, and possibly due to a Basque substratum) was the mutation of Latin initial f- into h- whenever it was followed by a vowel which did not diphthongate. Compare for instance:

  • Lat. filium > It. figlio, Port. filho, Fr. fils, Occitan filh (but Gascon hilh) Sp. hijo (but Ladino fijo);
  • late Lat. *fabulare > Lad. favlar, Port. falar, Sp. hablar;
  • but Lat. focum > It. fuoco, Port. fogo, Sp./Lad. fuego.

Some consonant clusters of Latin also produced characteristically different results in these languages, for example:

  • Lat. clamare, acc. flammam, plenum > Lad. lyamar, flama, pleno; Sp. llamar, llama, lleno. However, in Spanish there are also the forms clamar, flama, pleno; Port. chamar, chama, cheio.
  • Lat. acc. octo, noctem, multum > Lad. ocho, noche, muncho; Sp. ocho, noche, mucho; Port. oito, noite, muito.


The Spanish language developed from Vulgar Latin, with influences from Basque, and to some minor extent Celtiberian and Arabic, in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, between Biscay and current Cantabria's corners, partly as strongly innovative and differing variant from its nearest cousin, Leonese speech, with a higher degree of Basque influence (see Iberian Romance languages). Typical features of Spanish diachronical phonology include lenition (Latin vita, Spanish vida), palatalization (Latin annum, Spanish año, and Latin anellum, Spanish anillo) and diphthongation (stem-changing) of short e and o from Vulgar Latin (Latin terra, Spanish tierra; Latin novus, Spanish nuevo). Similar phenomena can be found in other Romance languages as well.

During the Reconquista, this northern dialect from Cantabria was carried south, and indeed is still a minority language in the northern coastal regions of Morocco.

The first Latin to Spanish grammar (Gramática de la Lengua Castellana) was written in Salamanca, Spain, in 1492 by Elio Antonio de Nebrija. When Isabel de Castilla was presented with the book, she asked, "What do I want a work like this for, if I already know the language?," to which he replied, "Your highness, the language is the instrument of the Empire." [citation needed]

From the 16th century onwards, the language was brought to the Americas and Spanish East Indies by Spanish colonization. Also in this epoch, Spanish became the main language of Politics and Art across the major part of Europe. In the 18th century, French took its place.

In the 20th century, Spanish was introduced in Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara and parts of the United States, such as Spanish Harlem in New York City, that had not been part of the Spanish Empire.

Geographic distribution

Spanish is one of the official languages of the Organization of American States, the United Nations, the Union of South American Nations, and the European Union.

The Americas

The vast majority of the world's Spanish speakers are located in the Americas. Of those countries with the largest numbers of Spanish speakers, only Spain is situated outside of the Americas. Mexico boasts the world's largest number of native speakers. At the national level, Spanish is the official language of Argentina, Bolivia (co-official Quechua and Aymara), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama , Paraguay (co-official Guaraní), Peru (co-official Quechua and, in some regions, Aymara), Uruguay, and Venezuela. Spanish is also the official language (co-official language English) in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The non-Spanish speaking Americas

Spanish holds no official recognition in the former British colony of Belize. However, according to the 2000 census, 52.1% of the population speaks the language "very well."[20] [21] It is mainly spoken by Hispanic descendants who have remained in the region since the 17th century. However, English remains the sole official language.[22]

Spanish has become increasingly important in Brazil due to proximity and increased trade with its Spanish-speaking neighbours, for example, as a member of the Mercosur trading bloc.[23] In 2005, the National Congress of Brazil approved a bill, signed into law by the President, that makes Spanish available as a foreign language in the country's secondary schools.[24] In many border towns and villages (especially along the Uruguayan-Brazilian border) a mixed language commonly known as Portuñol is also spoken.[25]

In the United States, 42.7 million people were of Hispanic heritage according to the 2005 census. Some 32 million people, or 12% of the whole population aged 5 years or older speak Spanish at home.[26] The Spanish language has a long history in the United States (many states from the south used to be part of Mexico) and has recently been revitalised by heavy immigration from Spanish-speaking Latin America. Spanish, moreover, is also the most widely taught foreign language in the United States.[27] Though the United States has no formally designated "official languages," Spanish is formally recognized at the state level, alongside English, in the U.S. state of New Mexico, where it is spoken by almost 30% of the population. In total, the U.S. contains the world's fifth-largest Spanish speaking population.[28]


Spanish is official in Spain, the country for which it is named and from which it originated. It is also spoken widely in Gibraltar, although English is used for official purposes.[29] Likewise, it is spoken in Andorra though Catalan is the official language.[30][31] It is also spoken by small communities in other European countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.[32] Spanish is an official language of the European Union. In Switzerland, Spanish is the mother tongue of 1.7% of the population, representing the first minority after the 4 official languages of the country [33]


Although Spanish was an official language in the Philippines, it was never spoken by a majority of the population. Its importance fell in the first half of the 20th century following the US occupation and administration of the islands. The introduction of the English language in the Filipino government system put an end to use of Spanish as the official language. The language lost its status in 1987, during the Corazon Aquino administration. According to the 1990 census, there were 2,658 native speakers of Spanish.[34] The number of Spanish speakers, however, are not available in the ensuing 1995 and 2000 censuses. Additionally, according to the 2000 census, there are over 600,000 native speakers of Chavacano, a Spanish based creole spoken in Cavite and Zamboanga. Many Philippine languages have numerous Spanish loanwords. See also: Spanish language in the Philippines


In Africa, Spanish is official in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon (only Cocobeach). It is also spoken in the territories of Peñón de Alhucemas, Ceuta, the Chafarinas Islands, Melilla, Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, and in the autonomous community of Canary Islands. In Morocco, a former Franco-Spanish protectorate that is also geographically close to Spain, approximately 20,000 people speak Spanish.[35]


Among the countries and territories in Oceania, Spanish is also spoken in Easter Island, a territorial possession of Chile. According to the 2001 census, there are approximately 95,000 speakers of Spanish in Australia, 44,000 of which live in Greater Sydney.

The island nations of Guam, Palau, Northern Marianas, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia all once had Spanish speakers, since Marianas and Caroline Islands were Spanish colonial possessions until late 19th century (see Spanish-American War), but Spanish has since been forgotten. It now only exists as an influence on the local native languages.


There are important variations among the regions of Spain and throughout Spanish-speaking America. In Spain the Castilian dialect pronunciation is commonly regarded as the national standard, although a use of slightly different pronouns called laísmo of this dialect is deprecated. More accurately, for nearly everyone in Spain, "standard Spanish" means "pronouncing everything exactly as it is written",[citation needed] an ideal which does not correspond to any real dialect, though the northern dialects get the closest to it. In practice, the standard way of speaking Spanish in the media is "written Spanish" for formal speech, "Madrid dialect" (one of the transitional variants between Castilian and Andalusian) for informal speech.[citation needed]

Spanish has three second-person singular pronouns: , usted, and in some parts of Latin America, vos (the use of this form is called voseo). Generally speaking, and vos are informal and used with friends (though in Spain vos is considered an archaic form for address of exalted personages, its use now mainly confined to the liturgy). Usted is universally regarded as the formal address (derived from vuestra merced, "your grace"), and is used as a mark of respect, as when addressing one's elders or strangers.

Vos is used extensively as the primary spoken form of the second-person singular pronoun in many countries of Latin America, including Argentina, Costa Rica, the central mountain region of Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, the Antioquia and Valle del Cauca states of Colombia and the State of Zulia in Venezuela. In Argentina, Uruguay, and increasingly in Paraguay, it is also the standard form used in the media, but the media in other countries with voseo generally continue to use usted or except in advertisements, for instance. Vos may also be used regionally in other countries. Depending on country or region, usage may be considered standard or (by better educated speakers) to be unrefined. Interpersonal situations in which the use of vos is acceptable may also differ considerably between regions.

Spanish forms also differ regarding second-person plural pronouns. The Spanish dialects of Latin America have only one form of the second-person plural for daily use, ustedes (formal or familiar, as the case may be, though vosotros non-formal usage can sometimes appear in poetry and rhetorical or literary style). In Spain there are two forms — ustedes (formal) and vosotros (familiar). The pronoun vosotros is the plural form of in most of Spain, but in the Americas (and certain southern Spanish cities such as Cádiz or Seville, and in the Canary Islands) it is replaced with ustedes. It is remarkable that the use of ustedes for the informal plural "you" in southern Spain does not follow the usual rule for pronoun-verb agreement; e.g., while the formal form for "you go", ustedes van, uses the third-person plural form of the verb, in Cádiz or Seville the informal form is constructed as ustedes vais, using the second-person plural of the verb. In the Canary Islands, though, the usual pronoun-verb agreement is preserved in most cases.

Some words can be different, even embarrassingly so, in different Hispanophone countries. Most Spanish speakers can recognize other Spanish forms, even in places where they are not commonly used, but Spaniards generally do not recognise specifically American usages. For example, Spanish mantequilla, aguacate and albaricoque (respectively, "butter", "avocado", "apricot") correspond to manteca, palta, and damasco, respectively, in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. The everyday Spanish words coger (to catch, get, or pick up), pisar (to step on) and concha (seashell) are considered extremely rude in parts of Latin America, where the meaning of coger and pisar is also "to have sex" and concha means "vulva". The Puerto Rican word for "bobby pin" (pinche) is an obscenity in Mexico, and in Nicaragua simply means stingy. Other examples include taco, which means "swearword" in Spain but is known to the rest of the world as the Mexican foodstuff. Pija in many countries of Latin America is an obscene slang word for penis, while in Spain the word signifies "posh girl" or "snobby". Coche, which means car in Spain, means pig in Guatemala[citation needed] while carro means "car" in some Latin American countries and "cart" in others as well as in Spain.

The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), together with the 21 other national ones (see Association of Spanish Language Academies), exercises a standardizing influence through its publication of dictionaries and widely respected grammar and style guides. Due to this influence and for other sociohistorical reasons, a standardized form of the language (Standard Spanish) is widely acknowledged for use in literature, academic contexts and the media.

Writing system

Spanish is written using the Latin alphabet, with the addition of the character ñ (eñe), which represents the phoneme /ɲ/ and is regarded as a letter of its own distinct from n, despite being typographically an n with a tilde. The digraphs ch (che) and ll (elle) are considered single letters, with their own names and places in the alphabet, because each represents a single phoneme (/tʃ/ and /ʎ/, respectively). However, the digraph rr (erre doble, "double r", or simply erre as opposed to ere), which also represents a single phoneme /r/, was not similarly regarded as a single letter. Thus, the traditional Spanish alphabet had 28 letters (29 if one counted w, which is only used in foreign names and loanwords):

a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, ll, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z.

Since 1994, the two digraphs are to be treated as letter pairs for collation purposes. Words with ch are now alphabetically sorted between those with ce and ci, instead of following cz as they used to, and similarly for ll. Nevertheless, the names che and elle are still used colloquially.

With the exclusion of a very small number of regional terms such as México (see Mexico: Toponymy), pronunciation can be entirely determined from spelling. A typical Spanish word is stressed on the syllable before the last if it ends with a vowel (not including y) or with a vowel followed by n or s; it is stressed on the last syllable otherwise. Exceptions to this rule are indicated by placing an acute accent on the stressed vowel.

The acute accent is used, in addition, to distinguish between certain homophones, especially when one of them is a stressed word and the other one is a clitic: compare el ("the", masculine singular definite article) with él ("he" or "it"), or te ("you", object pronoun), de (preposition "of" or "from"), and se (reflexive pronoun) with ("tea"), ("give") and ("I know", or imperative "be").

The interrogative pronouns (qué, cuál, dónde, quién, etc.) also receive accents in direct or indirect questions, and some demonstratives (ése, éste, aquél, etc.) can be accented when used as pronouns. The conjunction o ("or") is written with an accent between numerals so as not to be confused with a zero: e.g., 10 ó 20 should be read as diez o veinte rather than diez mil veinte ("10,020"). Accent marks are frequently omitted in capital letters (a widespread practice in the early days of computers where only lowercase vowels were available with accents), although the RAE advises against this.

In rare cases, u is written with a diaeresis (ü) when it comes between g and a front vowel (e or i), to indicate that it should be pronounced, rather than silent as usual (e.g., cigüeña, "stork", is pronounced /θ̟ɰweɲa/, /s̟ɰweɲa/; if it were written cigueña, it would be pronounced /θ̟ɰeɲa/, /s̟ɰeɲa/).

Interrogative and exclamatory clauses are introduced with inverted question ( ¿ ) and exclamation marks ( ¡ ).


By the 16th century, the consonant system of Spanish underwent the following important changes that differentiated it from neighboring Romance languages such as Portuguese and Catalan:

  • Initial /f/, when it had evolved into a vacillating /h/, was lost in most words (although this etymological h- is preserved in spelling and in some Andalusian dialects is still aspirated).
  • The bilabial approximant /β̞/ (which was written u or v) merged with the bilabial oclusive /b/ (written b). There is no difference between the pronunciation of orthographic b and v in contemporary Spanish, excepting specific areas in Spain (particularly the ones influenced by Catalan) and Latin America.
  • The voiced alveolar fricative /z/ which existed as a separate phoneme in medieval Spanish merged with its voiceless counterpart /s/. The phoneme which resulted from this merger is currently spelled s.
  • The voiced postalveolar fricative /ʒ/ merged with its voiceless counterpart /ʃ/, which evolved into the modern velar sound /x/ by the 17th century, now written with j, or g before e, i. Nevertheless, in most parts of Argentina and in Uruguay, y and ll have both evolved to /ʒ/ or /ʃ/.
  • The voiced alveolar affricate /dz/ merged with its voiceless counterpart /ts/, which then developed into the interdental /θ/, now written z, or c before e, i. But in Andalusia, the Canary Islands and the Americas this sound merged with /s/ as well. See Ceceo, for further information.

The consonant system of Medieval Spanish has been better preserved in Ladino and in Portuguese, neither of which underwent these shifts.

Lexical stress

Spanish has a phonemic stress system — stress is fixed, and different stress patterns of the same word can result in separate meanings for one and the same word. Spanish makes abundant use of this feature, especially in distinguishing verb conjugation forms. For example, the word camino (with penultimate stress) means "road" or "I walk" whereas caminó (with final stress) means "you (formal)/he/she/it walked". Another example is the word práctico (first-syllable stress) "practical", which is different from practico (second-syllable stress) "I practice," and practicó (last-syllable stress) "you (formal)/he/she/it practiced." Also, since Spanish syllables are all pronounced at a more or less constant tempo, the language is said to be syllable-timed.

As mentioned above, stress can always be predicted from the written form of a word. An amusing example of the significance of stress and intonation in Spanish is the riddle como como como como como como, to be punctuated and accented so that it makes sense. The answer is ¿Cómo "cómo como"? ¡Como como como! ("What do you mean / 'how / do I eat'? / I eat / the way / I eat!").


Spanish is a relatively inflected language, with a two-gender system and about fifty conjugated forms per verb, but limited inflection of nouns, adjectives, and determiners. (For a detailed overview of verbs, see Spanish verbs and Spanish irregular verbs.)

It is right-branching, uses prepositions, and usually (though not always) places adjectives after nouns. Its syntax is generally Subject Verb Object, though variations are common. It is a pro-drop language (allows the deletion of pronouns when pragmatically unnecessary) and verb-framed.

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