UF Logo CLAS Logo

Knol: A Unit of Knowledge

History of the Spanish Language
by David Pharies


Spanish is Latin
Language Change
Genealogy of Spanish
External History
Internal History
Varieties of Spanish
Spanish Language Myths
Works Cited
Suggested Readings

Spanish is Latin

Normally it is said that Spanish derives from Latin, but this formulation masks the very important fact that Spanish is the same linguistic entity that Latin was, only two millennia later. To be more precise, Spanish (Sp. español) is the most widely used name of the current form of the Latin that developed in the north-central part of the Iberian Peninsula historically called Castile (whence the language’s other name, Castilian, Sp. castellano).  The fact that Spanish is Latin is complicated by the fact that several other languages also developed from local forms of Latin, such that it is also true that French, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, and Romanian are Latin. Together, these languages are known as the Romance languages, where the term Romance derives in from the spoken Latin phrase fabulāre (or parlāre) romānicē ‘to speak in the manner of the Romans’, i.e., speak Latin.

It is possible to trace the linguistic genealogy of Spanish backward in
time to the Latin stage, but in order to understand the significance of each step in this process, it is necessary to know about the nature and mechanisms of language change.

Language Change

All aspects of human culture are engaged in an implacable process of change. This is easily observable in most areas of human endeavor, including fashion, politics, media, technology, and human relations. This explains, for example, why today’s grandparents dress differently from their grandchildren, have different political opinions, are slow in accepting modern digital technology and new means of communication, and are baffled by modern-day sexual mores and child-rearing practices. Inevitably, by the time today’s children are grandparents, they will be similarly out-of-step with their grandchildren’s world. Language, as a central aspect of human culture, is equally susceptible to this inexorable process of change. Some language change – especially the coining of new words – is in response to changes in other cultural spheres, but even the most abstract and fundamental components of a language – its sounds, grammatical forms, syntactic rules, and the meanings of words – are involved in a process that will eventually render the current form of today’s languages all but unintelligible to future speakers.

A cursory examination of the new Diccionario panhispánico de dudas (2005), a book whose purpose is to identify changes in progress and either regulate them or try to stop them, provides an abundance of examples of language change in several categories.

In terms of the lexicon, Spanish is constantly adding new words, many of which are Anglicisms, i.e., borrowings from English, cf. the following list, culled from only two pages (96-97) of the Diccionario: bísquet ‘biscuit’, bistec ‘steak’, bit ‘bit, binary unit of information’, bíter ‘bitter, type of ale’, bléiser ‘blazer’, blíster ‘blister pack’ (type of packaging), bloc ‘unit of stationery’, blues ‘musical form’, and bluf ‘bluff’. New words also enter the vocabulary from other languages, e.g., bonsái, from Japanese, bufé ‘buffet’, from French. Changes in meaning in pre-existing words are also extremely common, c.f. the examples canguro ‘kangaroo’ → ‘baby-sitter’, pareja ‘couple’ →  ‘domestic partner’, busca ‘search’ → ‘beeper’.

In noun morphology, vast changes are taking place in the set of words used to name female workers and professionals, cf. jueza ‘woman judge’ (beside traditional la juez), sastra ‘woman tailor’ (sastre), presidenta ‘woman president’ (presidente). The special rules that dictate the usage of the articles el and un with certain singular feminine nouns (e.g., el águila ‘the eagle’, un águila ‘an eagle’) are generating confusion about the true gender of these nouns, resulting in forms such as este águila and pocos águilas, which are incorrect but gaining in frequency. In the verbal system there is a tendency to replace historically irregular past participles with regularized forms, cf. freído for frito ‘fried’, proveído for provisto ‘provided’, imprimido for impreso ‘printed’, and this tendency toward regularization sometimes affects whole paradigms, as in the case of satisfacer ‘to satisfy’, in whose usage we find such innovative forms as satisfací, satisfaciera, satisfaceré for traditional satisfice ‘I satisfied’, satisficiera ‘he/she/I might satisfy’, satisfaré ‘I will satisfy’.

In terms of syntax, the language is undergoing changes in a number of areas. The pronoun cuyo ‘whose’ is being replaced in many dialects by que ‘that’ plus a possessive adjective, e.g., es el hombre cuya casa se vendió es el hombre que su casa se vendió ‘it’s the man whose house was sold’. The impersonal verbs haber ‘to have’ is increasingly being interpreted as personal, cf. habían tres personas en el cuarto ‘there were three people in the room’, and even habemos tres personas en el cuarto ‘there were three of us in the room’. In traditional Spanish, these utterances would be rendered as había tres personas en el cuarto and somos tres personas en el cuarto.

Finally, the pronunciation of Spanish is changing in subtle ways as well. In most of Spanish America, for example, the consonants [b], [g], and especially [d] are becoming ever more weakened in intervocalic position, such that a word such as Navidades ‘Christmas’ is tending toward a pronunciation [naiáes]. In Spain a very noticeable change is the depalatalization of [tš] to [ts], such that mucho is pronounced [mútso].

Of course Spanish is not the only language that is undergoing changes in progress. In fact, a good test of whether or not a language can be considered a living form of communication is the presence of changes in progress. American English is a good example. Phonologically, the vowels of this language are extremely volatile: it is becoming increasingly common to hear desk pronounced as dusk, amazing as ameezing, thank you as think you, and kids as keds.  In English verbal morphology, there is confusion as to the correct form of many past participles: awoke/awoken, beat/beaten, bitten/bit, forgotten/forgot, hidden/hid, and there is a corollary development whereby past participles are replaced with past tense forms: I have already drank one; I have already swam four laps; he had already went four times. As for syntax, distinguishing between subject and object case is becoming increasingly difficult for English speakers, who say, one the one hand, him and me are going to the movies (should be: he and I), and on the other, she gave it to he and I (should be: him and me). The English lexicon, meanwhile, is changing at the same dizzying speed as the world around us, witness the new words faux-hawk, e-mail, blog, prion, freaking, and homophobic, and the new meanings of gay ‘homosexual’, ecstasy ‘drug that produces euphoria’, rag ‘complain’, and go down ‘happen’.

Genealogy of Spanish

In light of what we have just learned about language changes in progress, i.e., changes that are taking place before our very eyes (or ears), it is possible to conceptualize the process whereby the language of ancient Rome undergoes so many changes, over a period of centuries, that its original form eventually becomes unintelligible to present-day speakers of the many forms of what might be called neo-Latin. The fact that neo-Latin is now a family of languages (the Romance family) is also instructive, since it shows that when two or more communities that speak the same language become isolated from each other, the different trajectories of their local linguistic changes will eventually produce mutually unintelligible languages.

The history of the originally Latin-speaking populations over the last two millennia is such that there has been ample opportunity for independent evolution of local linguistic forms. By tracing this evolution, we are essentially describing the genealogy of the Spanish language.

Roman civilization and the Latin language appear on the Italian Peninsula beginning in the sixth century BCE, and by the first century BCE Latin is experiencing its Classic period, as defined by the literary production of such authors as Cicero, Sallust, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. Two centuries later, both the Empire and the literary language have entered a period of decline whose most important linguistic effect is the development of a diglossic situation, whereby written and spoken Latin become increasingly divergent. Eventually, perhaps by the sixth or seventh century CE, written Latin largely stagnates, while spoken Latin continues to evolve and to differentiate on a local basis, resulting in the rise of the vernacular languages of the Romance family. Classical or written Latin, in the meantime, becomes increasingly artificial until it reaches a point where it can properly be called a “dead” language. Its demise is guaranteed when, in the earliest centuries of the second millennium, the previously unthinkable practice of using the vernacular languages for writing becomes prevalent.

It is customary to refer to the spoken Latin of the mid-to-late first millennium as Proto-Romance, where the prefix proto- denotes a language for which there is no written evidence. An early division separates eastern from western Proto-Romance. In the east we see the eventual development of Rumanian, some southern Italian dialects, and the now-extinct language called Dalmatian. Western Proto-Romance undergoes further internal division into Proto-Gallo-Romance (from which eventually French and Occitan arise), Proto-Italo-Romance (the ancestor of standard Italian and northern Italian dialects), and Proto-Ibero-Romance, a language that arises on the Iberian Peninsula and eventually – perhaps by the beginning of the second millennium – differentiates into the ancestors of Galician-Portuguese in the west, Hispano-Romance (including Asturian, Leonese, Castilian, Navarrese, and Aragonese) in the center, and Catalan in the east.

External History

From a linguistic point of view, the two most important events in the external history of the Iberian Peninsula are the Roman invasion, which results in the imposition of Latin as the predominant language of the region, and the Reconquest of the Penisula after the Moorish invasion of 711, which eventually results in the establishment of Castilian – one of many competing dialects of Ibero- and Hispano-Romance – as the standard language of Spain. Below I describe these two events in more detail.

The Romans enter the Iberian Peninsula for the first time in 218 BCE during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE) against the Carthaginians, a Phoenician people who had established their capital city, Carthage, in what is now Tunisia. As an outcome of this conflict, Carthage cedes all claims on the Iberian Peninsula to the Romans, who launch a protracted military campaign to wrest control of the territory from its inhabitants (primarily Iberians, Celts, and the mixed Celtiberians), culminating in final victory some 199 years later (in 19 BCE). The replacement of the conquered peoples’ languages by Latin occurs over a long period as a result of the settlement of the area by Roman soldiers, administrators, and colonists and the accompanying imposition of Roman law and customs. The resulting economic and demographic environment makes the advantages of becoming bilingual in Latin, and eventually shifting entirely to Latin, irresistible to succeeding generations of non-Romans.

The ties between the Iberian Peninsula and Rome become steadily more tenuous until the fall of the Empire in 476 CE. Rome is able to rid the Peninsula of the first wave of barbarian invasions (by the Vandals and Swabians in 409), but only by enlisting the aid of yet another group of barbarians, the Visigoths, who eventually settle in southern Gaul. When in 507 the Visigoths come under pressure from the Franks invading from the north, they re-enter the Peninsula and establish military and political control. For cartographic illustrations of this and subsequent periods of Iberian history, see the WHKMLA website at http://www.zum.de/whkmla/histatlas/spain/haxspain.html.

The Visigoths at first hold themselves aloof from Ibero-Roman society, then allow themselves to be quickly absorbed by it, such that they leave little lasting legacy in Iberian culture. Their contribution to spoken Ibero-Latin, in particular, is limited to a small number of lexical borrowings: names such as Ramiro and Alfonso, common nouns such as ganso ‘goose’ and ropa ‘clothes’, and the patronymic suffix -engo.

Shortly after their absorption by Ibero-Roman society, the Visigoths’ control over the Peninsula is ended by the Moorish invasion of 711. The consequences of this invasion are much more far-reaching than those occasioned by the Visigothic invasion, both because the Moors’ control of the territory lasts much longer, and because they maintain their language, Islamic religion, and culture during this entire period. This explains why the Arabic language has a much more significant effect on Ibero-Latin than Visigothic did. The influence is still only lexical, but Arabic loanwords in Ibero-Latin number in the thousands. The great majority of these are nouns, adopted in such semantic fields as administration (alcalde ‘mayor), military life (almirante ‘admiral’), housing (alquiler ‘rent’), agriculture (acequia ‘ditch’), and crafts (alfarero ‘potter’). Place names of Arabic origin are also common (Madrid, Guadalquivir).

The Iberian Peninsula might today be culturally aligned with northern Africa were it not for the fact that the Moors do not quite complete the task of removing all traces of Visigothic rule. In practice, their control never reaches the northernmost parts of the Peninsula, which allows remnants of the Visigothic court to become established in Asturias. This region then become a base from which a campaign to reconquer the lost territories is launched. The resulting struggle lasts for almost eight centuries. By the year 1000 the Christian kingdoms in the north (Galicia, León, Navarre) have managed to retake approximately one-third of the lost lands, and the year 1080 sees the reconquest of the former Visigothic capital Toledo by a kingdom comprising León and its former dependent Castile. Muslim power suffers a decisive setback in 1212 with the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (Jaén), and thereafter the now dominant Kingdom of Castile quickly conquers all the most important cities in the southwest part of the Peninsula, including Cordoba, Seville, and Jerez. The Moorish Kingdom of Granada is allowed to continue to exist in southeast Spain as a tributary of Castile for another two centuries (until 1492) due to the slow pace of repopulation of reconquered areas and nagging political instability in Castile.

As I hinted above, the region that eventually seizes political power in the central part of the Iberian Peninsula – Castile – has humble beginnings. Originally a county under the kingdom of Leon, Castile (whose name derives from Lat. castella ‘military emcampments’) becomes coequal with Leon by 1004, and very soon attains political and military domination. Ironically, Castile is originally among the most uncultured and backward parts of the Peninsula, having been only partially Romanized (as shown by the continuing nearby existence of Basque, a language that may have been spoken by many Castilian bilinguals at one time), only partially controlled by the Visigoths, and overlooked entirely by the Moors. Nevertheless, when the Castilians become the dominant force in the Reconquest, their language and culture experience a steady gain in prestige that eventually establishes them as the cultural and political center of the emerging nation-state known as Spain. Without the Moorish invasion and the resultant Christian Reconquest, Castilian language and culture might have remained on the periphery of Iberian society.

The year 1492 is of special significance to the history of Spain and especially to the history of the Spanish language, because of the following events: (1) the completion of the Reconquest under the Reyes Católicos (Ferdinand and Isabella), with the capitulation of Granada, (2) the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus on an expedition sponsored by the Spanish crown, (3) the tragic expulsion of Spanish Jews who refuse to convert to Catholicism (an event whose consequences include the development of an archaic Jewish dialect of Spanish called Sefardí, still spoken today), (4) the publication of a grammar of Spanish – the first grammar ever of a European language – and of a Latin-Spanish dictionary, both by Antonio de Nebrija.

After the Middle Ages and up to the present, several additional events have been of special importance in driving the evolution of the Spanish language.  One very important event is Spain’s participation in the Renaissance, a cultural revolution originating in 14th-century Italy that replaces the theological preoccupations of the Middle Ages with humanism inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity.  As a result, the greatest authors of this period – including Juan de Mena and Fernando de Rojas – enrich the Spanish language with words and stylistic cues taken directly from Latin and Greek.  This movement reaches its culmination in Spain with the so-called Siglo de Oro, which stretches from 1517 to 1665 and includes the works of some of Spain’s greatest authors, including Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Francisco de Quevedo.  Ironically, this period of unparalleled literary creativity coincides with a period of grave economic and political crisis in Spain, the fundamental problem being that Spain’s economy, in spite of the large amounts of gold and silver imported from the American colonies, is unable to sustain the very costly and prolonged wars against Protestantism waged by Felipe II (1556-98) and his successors.  Political and economic instability continue to plague Spain throughout subsequent centuries.  Among the linguistic highlights of this period are the publication in 1611 of the first monolingual dictionary of Spanish, by Sebastián de Covarrubias; the establishment in 1713 of the Royal Spanish Academy of the Language, whose authoritative dictionary is now in its 23rd edition (2005); and the establishment in 1813 of Spanish (rather than Latin) as the language of instruction in Spanish universities.

Internal history

The history of the Spanish language since its beginnings as the spoken Latin of the Iberian Peninsula has been characterized by the kinds of changes outlined above in the discussion of language change. No aspect or component of the language has escaped this process. By comparing medieval Castilian with written Latin we can deduce to a large degree what changes took place during the first millennium CE; thereafter, we have a steady stream of Castilian texts, produced over a number of centuries, that chronicle changes as they are happening. The existence of Latin and Castilian texts are extremely helpful in understanding the changes that have taken place, but they are also less than ideal in several ways, in particular in that (1) written texts cannot be expected to reflect actual pronunciation (although Spanish orthography is considerably more phonetic than that of English), and (2) the kinds of texts likely to survive for centuries necessarily reflect only the most formal registers of speech.

Below I trace some of the major changes that take place in the morphology, syntax, phonology, and lexicon of the language over the last two millennia. Since a KNOL article is meant to be minimally complex and maximally interesting, I will not attempt a systematic description of the changes in each component, but will instead limit myself to the presentation and analysis of examples. For readers who find that they want to know more about specific types of change, I have listed more complete sources of information at the end of this article.

Morphology. The term “morphology” refers to the component parts of words and their grammatical functions. While words in functional categories such as adverb (pronto ‘soon’), preposition (para ‘for’), and conjunction (aunque ‘although’) tend to be invariable, i.e., to lack morphological variation, this cannot be said of words in the verbal and nominal categories. As we shall see, while the verbal morphology of Latin changed comparatively little in its evolution toward Spanish, the Latin nominal system (a category that includes nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles) has undergone a fundamental transformation.

The essential similarity between the Latin and Spanish verbal systems can be appreciated in a comparison of the present-tense (active, indicative) conjugations of their respective verbs meaning ‘to love’, i.e., amāre and amar.

Latin Spanish
First person, singular amō amo
Second person, singular amās amas
Third person, singular amat ama
First person, plural amāmus amamos
Second person, plural amātis amáis
Third person, plural amant aman

Here we see that the Spanish verbal system has preserved the categories of person (first, second, third) and number (singular, plural), such that the two conjugations retain an astonishing similarity. Also surviving the long process of evolution are the categories of mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative), tense (present, past, future), aspect (perfect, imperfect), and voice (active, passive).

Conversely, the evolution of the verbal system is very much affected by a general tendency, in the more modern forms of the language, to express certain verbal categories through means more analytical (with more than one word) than synthetic (word plus inflectional ending). For example, while the forms of the Latin passive consist, in most tenses, of a single verb form accompanied by a passive inflection (amātur ‘he/she is loved’), in Castilian this is expressed through a phrase consisting of an auxiliary verb and a participle (es amado). Another example: while the Latin future is formed by adding an inflectional ending (amābit ‘he/she will love’), Medieval Castilian utilizes a paraphrase based on the infinitive plus a form of the auxiliary verb auer ‘to have’ (amar e – a structure which, ironically, has become synthetic again in Modern Spanish as amaré ). The use of auer (Mod. Sp. haber) as an auxiliary verb with participles also makes possible the creation of perfect tenses that did not exist in Latin, such as the present perfect indicative (Med. Cast. e amado ‘I have loved’) and subjunctive (aya amado ‘I may have loved’).

Latin noun morphology is just as complex as its verbal counterpart, such that nouns, pronouns, and adjectives must be described in terms of paradigms – called declensions – that are in every respect parallel to verb conjugations. As the comparison below of the Latin and Spanish words for ‘friend’ shows, these paradigms are essentially absent in Spanish.

Latin Spanish
Nominative singular amīcus  
Genitive singular amīcī  
Dative singular amīcō  
Accusative singular amīcum amigo
Ablative singular amīcō  
Vocative singular amīce  
Nominative plural amīcī  
Genitive plural amīcōrum  
Dative plural amīcīs  
Accusative plural amīcōs amigos
Ablative plural amīcīs  
Vocative plural amīcī  

Here we see that while Spanish retains the distinction between singular and plural, it has lost any reference to case. Case refers to grammatical categories such as subject (nominative), indirect object (dative), and direct object (accusative), expressed in Latin nouns through inflectional endings. Thus, a Latin sentence indicates subject and object case primarily through case endings (cf. amīcus videt and videt amīcus, both of which mean ‘the friend sees’ as against amīcum videt and videt amīcum, both ‘he/she sees the friend’), while Spanish communicates this information primarily through word order (el amigo ve ‘the friend sees’ vs. ve al amigo ‘he/she sees the friend’).

Other important changes in the nominal system of Latin: (1) the reduction in genders from three (masculine, feminine, neuter) to two (masculine, feminine), whereby most but not all neuter nouns switch to masculine gender; (2) the expansion of the second person pronoun paradigm to include a distinction between familiar and formal, so that Lat. ‘you (sg.)’ corresponds in Medieval Castilian to both tu (familiar) and uos (formal) (Mod. Sp. and usted); (3) the creation of two new nominal categories on the basis of the Latin demonstrative pronoun ille (fem. illa), viz., third-person pronouns (Sp. él, ella), and definite articles (Sp. el, la).

Syntax. I have already mentioned the fact that word-order is much less flexible in Spanish than in Latin, due to the loss of the case system. There is a loose tendency toward subject-object-verb (SOV) word order in Latin, which has been replaced by a somewhat more fixed tendency toward subject-verb-object (SVO) order in Spanish. Objects do occasionally precede verbs in Spanish, especially in subordinate clauses (quiero que me sigas tú ‘I want you to follow me’ (lit. ‘I want that me follow you’). Since SVO order is assumed (unmarked) in independent clauses, the language has developed special ways of clarifying syntactic functions where objects precede verbs, for example, by requiring the duplication of the pre-posed object through a clitic pronoun, as in la ropa la vamos a comprar mañana ‘we are going to buy the clothes tomorrow’ (lit. ‘the clothes them we are going to buy tomorrow’). Where the direct object is a person, it must be preceded, additionally, by the preposition a, whether or not it occurs before the verb: a Juan lo vio María en la calle, María vio a Juan en la calle ‘Mary saw John in the street’.

Another notable syntactic development is the so-called passive reflexive, a structure that, as its name suggests, expresses a passive meaning through a reflexive construction. Thus, although in theory it is possible in Spanish to say aquí coches son vendidos ‘here cars are sold’, in practice this would be expressed as aquí se venden coches, lit. ‘here cars sell themselves’. The actual passive is reserved for utterances in which the agent of the action is important, e.g., la carta fue firmada por el jefe ‘the letter was signed by the boss’.

Phonology. In examining the principal phonological changes that take place in the transformation of Latin into the neo-Latin called Spanish, we must limit our purview to the comparatively small number of Spanish words that have direct antecedents in Latin. These words, termed “patrimonial”, are passed orally from generation to generation over the two thousand years of intervening history. On this criterion, we exclude from this analysis the many learnèd words brought into Spanish during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and thereafter, such as frígido ‘frigid’ and estricto ‘strict’ (from Latin), and epilepsia ‘epilepsy’ and fonética ‘phonetics’ (from Greek). Since these words are not present in the vocabulary of the Ibero-Latin of the first millennium CE, they do not participate in the phonetic changes I will be describing.

In this very brief portrayal of 2000 years of phonological evolution, I will concentrate on four principal changes or groups of changes, two affecting vowel development, and two affecting consonants. One very early vocalic development is a series of mergers through which the Latin inventory of ten vowels (/aeiou/, long and short) and three diphthongs (/aj, oj, aw/) is reduced according to their accentual environment. For example, in tonic or stressed position, the outcome is seven vowels (/aeèiòou/), while in final unstressed position, it is three (/aeo/). Given these changes, a word like Lat. auricula ‘ear(lobe)’ comes to be pronounced [orékla] at an early stage of its development, while asinu ‘ass’ is reduced to [ásno]. Both of these examples illustrate a corollary change, whereby vowels in extremely weak accentual position are lost completely. Somewhat later, probably near the end of the first millennium CE, a second important vowel phenomenon occurs, when the two open vowels /è/ and /ò/ diphthongize in tonic position, such that bene [bène] ‘fine’ becomes [bjéne] (whose final -e is lost subsequently) and bono [bòno] ‘good’ becomes [bwéno].

The two most significant consonantal developments are palatalization and weakening. The first of these, which begins in the early stages of Ibero-Romance and ends shortly before the appearance of written Castilian, is the tendency to pronounce consonants with the tongue located near the palate. Most of the products of this tendency were later depalatalized, but we still have /ñ/, /j/ or /λ/, and /tš/, as in Sp. otoño ‘autumn’, from Lat. autumnu, Sp. llano ‘flat’ (pronounced [jáno] or [λáno]), from Lat. planu, and Sp. mucho ‘much’, ‘many’, from Lat. multu. The second tendency, called weakening, begins in late Ibero-Romance and continues through Old Castilian. Lat. mūtāre [mu:ta:re], for example, is pronounced [mudár] for a time and finally [muδár] (Sp. mudar). Sometimes the weakening leads to consonantal loss, as in Lat. sedēre’ to sit’ > OCast. seer ‘to be’ (Mod. Sp. ser).

Some words have undergone repeated modification through the centuries. The Latin word fīlia [fi:lia] ‘daughter’, for example, is pronounced [fíλa] in preliterary Castilian, [híža] in Medieval Castilian, [íša] in the 16th century, and [íxa] or [íha] in contemporary Spanish, with the spelling hija. Equally complex is the evolution of Lat. corticea ‘tree bark’, pronounced [kortétša] and subsequently [kortétsa] in preliterary Castilian, [kortédza] in Medieval Castilian, [kortéşa] (with a dental sibilant) in the 16th century, and either [kortéθa] (interdental) or [kortésa] (alveolar) today.

One very important aspect of phonological changes is that their applicability has a set duration, i.e., their validity has a beginning and an end. We saw above, for example, that the nasal consonant cluster [mn] in autumnu ‘autumn’ becomes palatal [ñ] in Sp. otoño. It is therefore suprising to see that, when Lat. homine becomes omne in Medieval Castilian, the newly created [mn] cluster is not palatalized (to produce **óñe) but instead undergoes a complex process of dissimilation of nasal consonants ([mn] > [mr]) and epenthesis ([mr] > [mbr]) to produce Modern Spanish hombre [ómbre]). We conclude that, by the time Medieval Castilian omne arose, the change [mn] > [ñ] that produced otoño was no longer in effect.

Lexis. I have already made reference to two of the most important sources of words in the lexicon (vocabulary) of Spanish. In terms of frequency of use, by far the most common category of words in Spanish is that of patrimonial words, i.e., those that were passed normally from Latin to Spanish, undergoing all applicable changes in pronunciation, form, and meaning. The one hundred most frequent words in the language are all patrimonial, and include function words such as adverbs (más ‘more’, ya ‘already’, cuando ‘when’), prepositions (de ‘from, of’, en ‘in’, por ‘for), and conjunctions (y ‘and’, que ‘that’, como ‘how’), as well as the most common nouns (hombre ‘man’, vez ‘time’, vida ‘life’), pronouns (él ‘he’, yo ‘I’, ella ‘she’), adjectives (su ‘his/her’, este ‘this’, todo ‘all’), articles (el, la ‘the’, un ‘a’), and verbs (ser ‘to be’, haber ‘to have’ (auxiliary), tener ‘to have’). A small number of patrimonial words were not originally Latin (e.g., barro ‘mud’, perro ‘dog’, both probably Iberian; baño ‘bath’, cuchara ‘spoon’, both Greek), but entered the basic vocabulary at an early date.

In terms of sheer numbers, patrimonial words are far outnumbered by those whose presence in the vocabulary is due to borrowing and internal generation. The term “borrowing” refers (somewhat imprecisely, since the “lending” language does not have to give up its word) to the adoption of a word from another language, either through direct contact with speakers of the language, or through written texts. The manner of transmission and the semantic nature of the words borrowed depend on the historical context in which the contact occurs. Thus, words borrowed from Amerindian languages entered through direct contact between indigenous Americans and Spaniards, and tend to refer to aspects of nature such as plants (maguey, papa ‘potato’, mandioca ‘cassava’) and animals (iguana, jaguar, ocelote ‘ocelot’). In contrast, words borrowed from Italian tend to enter the language through the written medium, and refer to aspects of high culture, such as literature (novela ‘novel’), painting (miniatura ‘miniature’), music (soprano), and architecture (balcón ‘balcony’). Ironically, the most numerous borrowings in Spanish are from the Latin language: Since for many years Latin was the written language par excellence in Iberia, it was only natural that, when the vernacular languages became acceptable for the written medium, writers would find it irresistible to supplement the somewhat meager set of patrimonial words with the Latin vocabulary they already knew so well. In some cases it happened that a Latin word entered the vocabulary twice – once as a patrimonial word and once as a learnèd borrowing. In these pairs, called etymological doublets, it is typical for the patrimonial word to have a concrete meaning, while the Latin borrowing has a more abstract sense, as can be seen in the doublets artejo ‘knuckle’ / artículo ‘article’, caldo ‘broth’ / cálido ‘warm’, and lidiar ‘to fight’ / litigar ‘to litigate’.

All languages have internal resources for creating new lexical items, and Spanish is no exception. In Spanish, by far the most common internal recourse is affixation, i.e., the attachment of a prefix or suffix to a word. The most common Spanish prefixes are patrimonial, and have functional meanings, as in des-, which may indicate reversal (abotonar ‘to button up’ → desabotonar ‘to unbutton’) or opposite (honesto ‘honest’ deshonesto ‘dishonest’); re-, which indicates repetition (hacer ‘to do’ → rehacer ‘to redo’) or intensity (bien ‘well’ → rebién ‘very well’); and sobre-, which indicates position (poner ‘to put, place’ → sobreponer ‘to superimpose’). Spanish also has a large number of learned prefixes, i.e., prefixes borrowed from Latin (ambidiestro ‘ambidextrous’, bianual ‘biannual’, centilitro ‘centiliter’) or Greek (afónico ‘hoarse’, antiamericano ‘anti-American’, di-crónico ‘diachronic’). Unlike prefixes, which alter the meanings but not the grammatical categories of words, the very numerous set of Spanish suffixes includes examples that can do both, as in hallazgo ‘finding’, a noun derived from the verb hallar ‘to find’, and the verb españolizar ‘to make Spanish’, derived from the adjective español ‘Spanish’. As in the case of prefixes, we find suffixes of both patrimonial and learned origin fulfilling a number of functions, including intensity (grande ‘large’ → grandísimo ‘extremely large’), size (mesa ‘table’ → mesita ‘small table’), characteristic activity (payaso ‘clown’ → payasada ‘clowning around’), passive possibility (soportar ‘to tolerate’ → soportable ‘tolerable’), and similiarity (sufijo ‘suffix’ → sufijoide ‘suffixoid’).

There are a number of less productive recourses for making new words. Compounding, the process whereby two independent words are combined to form a new one, is relatively rare in Spanish in comparison to languages such as English and German. Examples include actor-director, which implies that the referent plays two roles at the same time; hombre-lobo ‘werewolf’ (from hombre and lobo ‘wolf’), which designates a type of man; and sacapuntas ‘pencil sharpener’ (from sacar ‘to pull out’ + punta ‘point’), designating an object that performs a function. Other procedures occur even less frequently, cf. clips (divertido ‘fun’ → diver ‘fun’), blends (burro ‘ass’ + burocracia ‘bureaucracy’ →  burrocracia ‘stubborn bureaucracy’), acronyms (Organización del Tratado del Atlántico Norte  OTAN  ‘NATO’), reduplications (lamer ‘to lick’ →  lame-lame ‘brown-noser’), and onomatopoeias (zas ‘whoosh’, ‘bang’).

Varieties of Spanish

In our portrayal of the genealogy of Spanish, we showed that early Castilian is one of several varieties that develop from the Ibero-Romance variety called Hispano-Romance. Traces of these ancient varieties – Asturian and Leonese in the northwest, Navarrese and Aragonese in the northeast – still exist in rural areas, and they are sometimes erroneously referred to as dialects or varieties of Castilian. In reality, they are “sister” varieties rather than “daughter” varieties.

As I mentioned above, language varieties come about whenever language communities divide into isolated subgroups. During and after the final phases of the Reconquest, this situation arises in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, in the area called Andalusia (Sp. Andalucía). Several factors work together to allow the Castilian spoken in this region to develop a highly idiosyncratic character. First, the mountain range known as the Sierra Morena represents a geographical barrier to communication between Andalusia and the rest of Spain. Second, due to preoccupations with its internal political situation, Castile remains indifferent to Andalusia for several centuries. Third, the newly conquered territory of Andalusia attracts settlers not only from Castile but from all other parts of the Peninsula and even from foreign lands. From this mixture of spoken varieties a new local standard is negotiated, in a process referred to as “leveling”.

As the term implies, leveling typically entails a process of simplification, whereby phonological and morphological distinctions may be lost, and indeed, the Andalusian variety is perhaps most clearly defined by simplifications in phonology (e.g., seseo, the convergence of the /θ/ and /s/ phonemes in favor of the latter) and morphology (the replacement of the second-person plural familiar pronoun vosotros by its formal counterpart ustedes). Andalusian phonology is also characterized generally by (1) a tendency to aspirate (pronounce as [h]) the phoneme /s/ in syllable-final position (cf. estas moscas [éhtah móhcah] ‘these flies’), (2) the replacement of the Castilian velar [x] or uvular [X] fricative with the glottal [h] (gesto japonés [hésto haponéh] ‘Japanese gesture’), (3) yeísmo, the replacement of the palatal lateral phoneme /λ/ by the non-lateral /j/ (hallé llaves [ajé jáβeh] ‘I found keys’), and (4) a predorsal, convex articulation of /s/ (akin to the /s/ of standard American English) as opposed to the apico-alveolar (i.e., tip-of-the-tongue) articulation characteristic of Castilian.

The overwhelming majority of today’s Spanish speakers do not live in Spain but in Spanish America. Due to a historical coincidence of epic proportions, the war of Reconquest in Spain ends at the same time that Christopher Columbus encounters the New World, which he mistakes for India. Consequently, the Spaniards are able to transfer their domestic military campaigns seamlessly to a new continent, where their immense technological superiority enables them, in a short time, to seize large tracts of land, usurp local political power, enslave whole peoples, and take large amounts of precious metals back to Spain. After the initial waves of armed conquistadors at the beginning of the 16th century, a stream of Spanish colonizers that continues unabated until well into the 19th century brings Spanish language, laws, and customs to the New World. Their influence is such that Spanish is now an official language in nineteen Central and South American Countries and is spoken by well over 90% of their combined populations.

The same leveling process that results in the birth of the Andalusian variety is also a major factor in the formation of the many local speech varieties in Spanish America. The majority of conquistadors and settlers are Castilians, Andalusians, or Canary Islanders (whose dialect is very much akin to that of western Andalusia), but immigrants from Galicia and the entire eastern half of Spain are also common. Here, the leveling process leads to the universal adoption of the Andalusian seseo and replacement of vosotros. Two additional factors are decisive in the determination of local speech characteristics in America. First is the intensity and nature of contact with Spain t hat applied in each area. Lowland areas, i.e., coastal areas and the islands of the Caribbean, for example, maintain strong contact with the evolving language of Andalusia through that region’s dominance in transatlantic transportation. This factor explains the fact that American lowlands varieties share additional significant traits with Andalusian, including all four of those listed above. The Spanish that arises in areas far from the coasts is less subject to this influence since, in administrative centers far from the sea – such as Bogotá and Mexico City – the prestige of Castilian remains paramount, though not to such a degree as to impede the leveling process. The second factor is patterns of immigration to Spanish America, especially in the nineteenth century. Records show that Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela received so many Andalusians and especially Canary Islanders through this century that their speech had a decisive effect on local speech patterns. Indeed, to an outsider’s ear the Spanish of the Caribbean, Canary Islands, and Andalusia are strikingly similar.

Readers can experience regional accents from around the Spanish-speaking world by access a database created by Prof. Terrell A. Morgan of Ohio State University at the following URL: http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/morgan3/catalog.html.

Spanish Language Myths

The lack of accurate knowledge about the history of the Spanish language has contributed to the origination of a series of myths about Spanish phonology and morphology. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that the primary transmitters of these myths are teachers of Spanish, whose authority may explain why some of these misguided explanations have achieved the status of accepted fact. Below I address some of the more common myths.

Myth #1: The zeta sound (unvoiced interdental fricative /θ/) entered Peninsular Spanish when the defective speech of a lisping king was imitated by the court – either because of his prestige or to avoid offending him – whence it spread to the general population. This myth is widespread among Spanish teachers in the United States and I have seen reference to it on Spanish American websites as well. Since American varieties of Spanish do not have the unvoiced interdental fricative /θ/ in their speech, its presence in Peninsular varieties is viewed as an eccentricity in need of explanation.

The myth is easy to disprove. First of all, if /θ/ arose in imitation of a lisp, how to explain that Peninsular Spanish has an /s/ phoneme? Clearly, a lisping king would not pronounce las cinco cebras ‘the five zebras’ as [las θíηko θébras], as most Spaniards do, but as [laθ θíηko θébraθ]. Second, historical information shows that whereas modern Spanish /s/ corresponds to Latin /s/ (sex > seis ‘six’, septem > siete ‘seven’), Spanish /θ/ corresponds to a number of Latin consonant/vowel combinations, often involving /k/ (Spoken Lat. cīnque [ki:ηkwe] > cinco ‘five’, undecim [undekim] > once [ónθe] ‘eleven’).

English also has a /θ/ phoneme, and yet no one suggests that English speakers lisp, so the question arises as to why it is seen as aberrant in Peninsular Spanish. The answer is that it occurs in Peninsular Spanish where American Spanish speakers and English speakers expect /s/. This is obvious in the case of American Spanish, since these varieties have /s/ for /θ/ in all cases. In English, it is unexpected because Peninsular Spanish speakers use /θ/ in a number of words spelled ci- and ce- whose English equivalents are pronounced with /s/, cf. Eng. cease, cell, cement, cipher, circle, circuit, cite, and city, corresponding to Sp. cesar, célula, cifra, círculo, circuito, citar and ciudad. The cited English words are all loanwords from Old French, a language in which /s/ and the products of /ke/ and /ki/ merged as /s/.

Myth #2: The article el is used with feminine words such as agua and hacha because Spanish does not tolerate atonic (unaccented) /a/ followed by tonic (accented) /a/.  This myth is easily disproven, since Spanish has many examples of this sequence: mucha agua, la baja y la alta, esa turca y esta árabe, la tónica y la átona, aquella indiferente y esta ávida. Note that we also do this in saying the names of the letters a and h: la a and la hache.

A corollary myth is the apparent belief (mentioned above) among some speakers that words such as agua, águila, hacha, alma, and hambre are masculine, as in the erroneous forms este águila and pocos águilas. In actuality, these words are all feminine, as shown by phrases such as el águila blanca, las águilas hermosas, la primera de las tres águilas. The historical explanation of this usage is that the peculiar phonetic evolution of the feminine Latin demonstrative adjective illa – the precursor of the Spanish article – produces not one but two equivalents. Where the following word begins with a consonant, illa loses its initial syllable and becomes la: la casa, la catedral, la cabeça, whereas when the following word begins with a vowel – any vowel – illa evolves differently, producing at first ela and finally el, as in el espada, el esquila, el ora, el otra parte and el alabança, el águila, el agua and el hacha. In other words, technically speaking, el is a feminine definite article in Spanish. The real mystery in this story is why, beginning in the sixteenth century, this system was only semi-abandoned. It would have been easier for everyone either to retain the medieval system, or else to replace it with a more logical system, abandoning the feminine el allomorph altogether and imposing *la águila, *la agua and *la hacha along with la espada, la esquila, la hora and la otra parte. We can probably attribute the partial retention of the archaic system to the inherent conservatism of grammar and grammarians: the impulse behind the retention of this somewhat artificial system was most likely the desire to protect the integrity of both forms of the feminine definite article. It was an aspect of the old language that speakers of 16th-century Spanish were simply not prepared to part with.

Myth #3: The Spanish orthographic system is completely phonetic. Although this is a myth, there is no disputing that Spanish orthography reflects pronunciation with a great deal of accuracy, especially as compared with the orthography of English, which has six different ways or representing the consonant /s/ (sap, psychology, pass, peace, scissors, fasten) and eleven ways of representing the vowel /i/ (beet, beat, we, receive, key, believe, amoeba, people, Caesar, vaseline, lily). To clarify, when people say the Spanish alphabet is phonetic, they actually mean “phonemic”, and it is not unreasonable to expect an orthographical system to distinguish between phonemes, which are defined as the sounds capable of distinguishing minimal pairs or pairs of words that have different meanings and differ in only one sound, like vale vs. dale, tal vs. tan, come vs. corre and mano vs. mono.

Now, in a completely phonemic orthographic system, each phoneme would correspond to one and only one graphic representation. Analyzed from this perspective, the Spanish orthographic system fails on a number of counts. On the one hand, some phonemes are represented by more than one graphic representation: /b/ (vaca, bala, wáter), /k/ (cama, quiero, kilo), /rr/ (rey, carro), /X/ (gime, jota, xico), /θ/ (cero, alza) and /s/ (soy, taxi, and in seseo dialects, cero and alza). In yeísta dialects, the sound /j/ is written as yeso and llamo. On the other hand, there are graphic representations that correspond to more than one phoneme, e.g., c (cama [káma], cero [θéro] or [séro]), g (gato [gáto], gime [Xíme] or [híme]), w (wáter [báter], whisky [wíski]). There are additional complications as well. Some phonemes are written with two letters: /tš/ (leche), /λ/ (calle), /rr/ (carro). As for the letter h, besides being a component of /tš /, it very often represents no sound at all (honor).

In practice, of course, the Spanish orthographic systems works very well, in the sense that knowing how to spell a word is almost always sufficient information to know how the word is pronounced. The corollary is not true, however: Knowing how a word is pronounced is not always sufficient to know how it is spelled, given that, for example, the letters g, j, and x may all represent /x/, b and v represent /b/, y and /λ/ represent /j/, and, in many dialects, s, c, and z represent /s/.  These account for misspellings such as jemir for gemir ‘to whine’, berde for verde ‘green’, yave for llave ‘key’, and sinco or zinco for cinco ‘five’.

Myth #4. The letter v should be pronounced as a voiced labiodental fricative. It is easy to undertand why some people would believe this myth, given what I have just said about the desirability of phonemic orthographic systems.  Many Spanish speakers would find it satisfying to assign a labiodental pronunciation to the sound represented by the letter v, but the fact is that this letter is normally pronounced [b] or [β] (i.e., as a bilabial stop or fricative, according to environment) in all varieties of Spanish.

Modern day dialectologists have found occurrences of the labiodental pronunciation of the letter v in isolated areas, including the Spanish provinces of Valencia, and in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Paraguay. According to Juan M. Lope Blanch (1988), almost without exception these instances can be attributed to interference of neighboring languages that happen to have the voiced labiodental phoneme, i.e., Valenciano in Valencia; English in New Mexico, Arizona and California; and Guaraní in Paraguay.

When [v] occurs outside of these areas, it is evidence that this myth owes its existence primarily to Spanish teachers who want to infuse their idiolects and those of their students with the added feature of a phonetic distinction between the two letters b and v. In doing so they hope to resolve one of the thorniest orthographical difficulties in the language, thus obviating the need to refer to them with colorful names such as b larga ‘long b’ and v corta ‘short v’ or b de burrob as in burro’ and v de vacav as in vaca’.

Analysis of this phenomenon from both phonetic and sociolinguistic points of view shows that, in all these areas, the use of the voiced labiodental is in essence a hypercorrection. According to Tomás Navarro (1957), the articulation can be observed only in “personas demiasiado influidas por prejuicios ortográficos o particularmente propensas a afectación” (persons too much influenced by orthographic prejudices or particularly prone to affectation). This assessment is second by both Lope Blanch, who labels this usage “v pedante” (pedantic v) and Malmberg (1950), who identifies it as a trait of “la pronunciación escolar” (school pronunciation).

Myth #5. The pronoun sequence le lo is cacophonous. Spanish grammar stipulates that the third-person indirect object clitic pronouns le and les change to se when followed by the third-person direct object clitic pronouns lo, los, la, las. Since all other pronominal changes in form are triggered by changes in function – e.g., él (subject), le (indirect object), lo (direct object) – rather than environment, this change is perceived as aberrant and thus in need of an explanation. A tradition has arisen whereby the impermissibility of the sequences le lo and les lo is attributed to a stylistic factor, i.e., the supposed cacophony of these pronouns when pronounced in sequence.

This assertion is demonstrably false, since these syllable sequences occur frequently in Spanish. First, le lo and le la occur contiguously in lexical words such as lelo (fem. lela) ‘silly’ and paralelo (paralela) ‘parallel’. Second, both le and les precede lo occur in the sequence “indirect object pronoun + neuter article”, as in dile lo que piensas ‘tell him what you think’, dile lo mucho que lo quieres ‘tell him how much you love him’, and diles lo antes posible ‘tell them as soon as possible’. These two categories are combined in my favorite example, dile lo lelo que es ‘tell him how silly he is’. There is nothing remotely unusual or cacophonic about these sentences.

The historical explanation for the substitution of le and les by se is somewhat technical, and it is unreasonable to expect laypersons to understand its intricacies. Essentially, the Latin pronominal sequence from which se lo evolved – illī illu – underwent a series of regular phonetic changes that eventually produced ge lo ([že lo] in medieval Castilian. This form was standard until the sixteenth century, when ge lo, presumably because of its isolation (ge could not be used alone) was confused with the sequence se lo, composed of a reflexive pronoun plus a clitic pronoun, as in se lo lleva ‘he/she takes it’, se lo lava ‘he/she washes it’. This confusion can be seen from our perspective as having added insult to injury, because the logical thing would have been to fix the ge problem by returning to an etymological solution, saying le lo, le la, etc.

I will briefly mention two other myths. The first is the idea that certain varieties of Spanish are more correct than others. In the Spanish-speaking world, this judgment is usually based on two factors: the degree to which the Spanish spoken in an area reflects orthography, and the prestige of the city in which it is spoken (where capital cities are almost always most prestigious). From another, sociolinguistic, point of view, however, it is clear that each Spanish variety is more appropriate than all others in the place where it is spoken: No matter how elegant Castilian Spanish may sound, a Cuban would be ill advised to use this variety in daily life. The second myth is the idea that Spanish is easy to learn for speakers of Western European languages. It is true that the simple noun morphology of Spanish (easy plurals, easy determination of gender) and the plethora of cognates present in most European languages make for quick progress in the early stages of learning Spanish, but our experience shows that the attainment of true mastery of Spanish is just as difficult as it is for any comparable language.

Works Cited

Academia Española. Diccionario panhispánico de dudas. Madrid: Asociación de Academias de Lengua Española, 2005.

Diccionario de la lengua española. 23ª edición. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 2005.

Sebastián de Covarrubias. Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, edición integral e ilustrada de Ignacio Arellano y Rafael Zafra. Madrid: Universidad de Navarra, 2006.

Juan M. Lope Blanch, “La labiodental sonora en el español de México” NRFH 36: (1988): 153-70.

B. Malmberg. Études sur la phonétique de l’espagnol parlé en Argentine. Lund: Gleerup, 1950.

Tomás Navarro Tomás. Manual de pronunciación española, 5ª edición, New York: Hafner, 1957.

Suggested Readings

Introduction to Spanish Linguistics
        Milton M. Azevedo. Introducción a la lingüística española. 2nd ed.
        Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.
This book is clearer and more attentive to questions of historical linguistics than its competitors.

Introduction to Spanish Phonetics
        Armin Schwegler and Richard Barrutia. Fonética y fonología españolas: Teoría y praáctica. 2nd ed.
        Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 1994.
Takes readers step by step through the phonological system of Spanish, with interesting additions on American varieties of Spanish.

Introduction to the History of Spanish
        David A. Pharies. Breve historia de la lengua española. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
        Simultaneously published in English under the title A Brief History of the Spanish Language.
This book, the only true introduction to the history of Spanish available today, provides a more detailed discussion of all the topics covered above. Moreover, it is structured in such a way as to provide a more than superficial acquaintance with the Medieval Castilian of the thirteenth century. Its appendices include maps, indices of words and topics, works cited, a glossary of linguistic terms, and an introduction to the rudiments of Spanish phonology.

Historical Grammar
        Ralph Penny. A History of the Spanish Language. Second edition. Cambridge: University Press, 2002.
        The first edition (1991) also appeared in Spanish translation as Gramática histó rica del español, Barcelona: Ariel, 1993.
This is the clearest and most comprehensive description of the development of Spanish phonology, morphology, and lexis. It does not address syntax, and includes very little information on external history.

External History
        Simon Barton. A History of Spain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Like other books on the topic, this one tends to provide more details than most readers are likely to need. It is, however, an authoritative and complete alternative to the many impressionistic histories that can be found on the internet.

Spanish-American Dialectology
        John M. Lipski. Latin American Spanish. London: Longman, 1994.
The most comprehensive source of information about Spanish-American dialects, including important information on the origins and American Spanish, including indigenous and African elements.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Valid CSS!

Last updated 15 June 2015