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Coalition, Conquest, and Conversion

The History of the Spanish Language

Today, the Spanish language is used by approximately 332 million speakers, and it is second only to Chinese as the most commonly spoken language in the world. In the Americas, Spanish is the most widespread first language, and native Spanish speakers can also be found throughout Europe, the United States, the Pacific Islands, and even Africa (Ostler 2005). Spanish is also one of the most frequently spoken second languages, and people throughout the world have learned it for its usefulness in personal and professional communication. Yet, Spanish was not always the dominant mode of communication that it is today. Less than 600 years ago, Spanish was nothing more than a native dialect spoken in the Castilian region of Spain. However, through years of exploration, conquest, and forcible conversion, the residents of that tiny region managed to build their language from a little-known dialect to a worldwide vernacular.

Latin Roots

Spanish is a member of the Indo-European family of languages, which originated approximately 5,000 years ago in the Black Sea region (McWhorter 2003). As farming and the sedentary lifestyle it demanded spread throughout Europe and Central Asia, Indo-European gradually spread as well. While speakers of Indo-European migrated throughout the two continents, they naturally lost contact with one another, and new innovations in language splintered Indo-European into several distinct language branches. Of these branches, Latin (the language of the Roman Empire) was one of the most prominent. As the Roman Empire gained power during the fourth century B.C., Latin gradually began to spread throughout the Italian peninsula and then throughout the Mediterranean region. Varying development in the different areas Latin touched eventually resulted in several distinct but related regional dialects, commonly known as the Romance languages. And Spanish is a member of this Romance language family (McWhorter 2003).

Latin came to be used in the Spanish peninsula during the third century B.C. as the result of Roman conquest and settlement in the region. While the use of Latin was not forced upon the local residents, the native population learned it as a matter of convenience and prestige. As is generally the case with the spread of any second language, bilingualism occurred as a rule throughout many of the regions of the Spanish peninsula, and the Latin spoken in these regions began to take on its own local characteristics. Eventually, several dialects of Latin were spoken throughout the peninsula, and these dialects came to be known collectively as Hispanic Latin (Penny 2003).

Rise of Castilian

By the end of the fourth century A.D., Roman power in the Spanish peninsula had greatly declined. Indeed, by the fifth century, the territory was largely ruled by the conquering Visigoths. Although the Visigoths spoke a German vernacular, Latin remained as the primary language in the peninsula, and the Visigoth presence had little impact on the language of its residents (Penny 2003). However, the Islamic invasion of Spain in A.D. 711 would serve to greatly influence Hispanic Latin as well as bring about the rise of Castilian throughout the peninsula.

When the Islamic Moors reached the southern coast of Spain, they brought with them a culture and language (Arabic) that would soon be considered more developed and prestigious than those of Christian Europe. Residents of the conquered territories soon began borrowing greatly from Arabic, and the semantics and lexicon of Hispanic Latin were substantially changed. However, the effects of Moorish conquest were never able to spread entirely throughout Spain, and a small Christian minority remained in the northwestern region of the peninsula. This region, known as Castile, was only slightly impacted by Islamic culture, and the language of its residents remained largely intact.

By the eleventh century A.D., the separate region of Castile had gained sufficient power to declare itself a kingdom and begin the Christian Reconquest of the Spanish peninsula. When the Castilians succeeded in capturing Toledo in 1085, their culture and their language gained a great amount of prestige (Penny 2002). For the next four centuries, Castilians would continue to spread south and east throughout the peninsula, driving out the Islamic and Arabic presence. As the Castilians moved southward throughout the peninsula, their language was adopted not only by the conquered territories but by surrounding territories as well. Castilian was considered a prestigious language, and it was often adopted well before the Castilians arrived to officially induct a territory into the kingdom. By the end of the fifteenth century, Islamic influence remained only in the southeastern region of Granada; this area was then captured by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492, and the Christian reconquest of Spain by the Castilians was complete (Penny 2002). Castile and the language of its people now ruled a territory stretching across the peninsula, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Castilian thus became a synonym for the Spanish language, and it remains so today.

Standard Spanish

In its early development, the language of the Castilians included a wide variety of dialects and was, by no means, a standardized language. The creation of early standard Spanish was largely the work of Alfonso X, the king of Castile from A.D. 1252-1284 (Penny 2002). Prior to his reign, a spelling system had been created to allow for written forms of Spanish, but the language continued to show characteristic features of the writers’ native regions rather than a standard quality. Alfonso was greatly interested in the correctness of the language and required all scientific, historical, literary, and administrative writing during his reign to prescribe to a standard form of Castilian (generally the speech of the upper classes of Toledo). By the end of his reign, regional differences in the writing of Castilians had almost entirely disappeared, and the standard Spanish language was born.

Spanish Spreads

In 1492, the same year that the last Islamic stronghold in Granada fell, Christopher Columbus began his famous westward voyage from the coast of Spain to seek a new route to Asia. When he landed in the Americas instead, his unintended discovery would lead to the spread of the Spanish language throughout the New World. In the following century, as Spanish conquistadors arrived on American coasts to subdue the native populations and bring wealth back to their home kingdom, they brought their language with them. Missionaries also traveled to the newly discovered land, bringing with them Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. It was generally believed that Latin should be used for conversion purposes, but many missionaries found that it was easier to spread understanding and faith in one or more of the native languages. Thus, Latin, Spanish, and native languages were all used simultaneously during the Spanish conquest of most of South and Central America (Ostler 2005). This mix of languages gradually brought about new forms of Spanish that were unique to the speakers in the Americas. By the time the conquered populations had liberated themselves from Spanish rule in the decades of the nineteenth century, these dialectical versions of Spanish had become the official languages of the population.

Over the years, through a combination of conquest, coalition, and conversion, the Spanish language has spread from Europe to the Americas and now to Asia and even Africa. Once the language of only a small, unconquered region of the Iberian peninsula, Spanish has become a worldwide language spoken by millions.

-- Posted October 9, 2007

References

McWhorter, John H. 2003. The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. New York: Perennial.

Ostler, Nicholas. 2005. Empires of the World: A Language History of the World. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Penny, Ralph. 2002. A History of the Spanish Language, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.