The History of Spanish Language: 3 Amazing Facts

The Spanish language history throughout the times:

the Spanish flag to illustrate the history of Spanish language

Who invented the Spanish Language?

Before understanding the history of Spanish Language, we need to go back the very beginning:

Evolving from spoken Latin, the Spanish language was invented by Christian Kingdoms as they reconquered the Iberian Peninsula. 

In fact:

The Kingdom of Castile emerged as the dominant force and Old Castilian Spanish emerged as the official language of the united Spain.

Today,

The Spanish language is the world’s second-most spoken native language and is used by people in all corners of the globe to express themselves. This fact makes Spanish a popular choice to learn, as native Spanish speakers are never too far away!

Ready to begin with the history of Spanish language?

Where did Spanish come from?

The peninsula where it all started to illustrate the history of Spanish language

Modern Spanish derived from Old Castilian Spanish which emerged during the Reconquista as the dominant of various spoken Latin dialects that expanded from the north of Spain as Christian kingdoms expanded their influence southwards.

In fact:

During the Roman Empire, the Latin language was the official language on the peninsula (called “Hispania”). Still, it mixed with the local languages of the inhabitants, including Celts and Iberians, and began to take on its unique flavor.

The History of Spanish Languages

As mentioned before beginning in 218 BC with the Second Punic War against Carthage, Rome’s Mediterranean rival, the Roman Republic conquered the Iberian Peninsula and brought with them the Latin language. 

The Romans built roads and settlements, cultivated olive oil and wine, and, in a foreshadowing of Spain’s later actions in Latin America, exploited minerals including large quantities of silver.

The germination of this uniqueness was accelerated by the Visigoths, a Germanic group that conquered areas of the peninsula in the 4th century during the demise of the Roman Empire.

Why?

The Visigoths spoke Latin at this time, and rather than a Germanic influence on the language, their main influence was cultural depression on the peninsula, causing the form of Vulgar Latin spoken to develop in isolation in the 5th century.

This is where historians and linguists pinpoint the origins of the history of Spanish language as we know it today.

Spanish after the Roman Empire

In 711 AD, coming from northern Africa, the Umayyad Caliphate started the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.  Within a few years, Muslims controlled almost the entirety of Portugal and Spain. 

However,

The length of Muslim control differed greatly across Spain and ranged from less than 30 years in Galicia in the north to almost 781 years around Granada in the South.

During this time, the Arabic language mixed with the vernacular Latin spoken in Spain, especially in the south.

The Reconquista

The Reconquista period (between 711 and 1492) refers to the slow reconquering of present-day Spain from the Moors by the Kingdom of Castile (with the help of other allied kingdoms).

Case in point:

Castilian Spanish was further popularized by the narrative poems spread orally about Castilian heroes in battle. These were recited even in areas that did not speak this dialect (people were short on entertainment back then) and influenced the history of Spanish language exponentially.

The Languages in the Iberian Peninsula

If you really want to get an understanding of the history of the Spanish language, take a trip to the Iberian Peninsula off the coast of Spain.

To understand the history of Spanish language we need to look at the various languages and dialects in the Iberian Peninsula today, such as Castilian (Spanish), Catalan, Portuguese, and Galician, which can be traced back to these competing kingdoms.

By the way:

Over time, these kingdoms reconquered the Iberian Peninsula parallel to each other from the north into the south.  Consequently, the languages in the Iberian Peninsula show a striking east-west pattern, like a layered cake.

Similarly, Catalan is primarily spoken on a thin strip on the east coast of Spain while Leonese, Castilian, and Aragonese occupied the center of the Peninsula.

The spread of the Spanish Language

The history of Spanish language wouldn’t be complete without the ultimate success of the Reconquista, Spain’s monarchs focused on the world beyond the Iberian Peninsula and financed exploratory sea voyages across the world. 

In other words:

The Spanish conquerors, missionaries, and explorers brought the Spanish language to the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Asia.

The “Conquista” in Latin America

Spanish colonization brought the Spanish language to the Americas beginning in 1492.

Here’s the deal:

“Latin America” refers to countries that were subject to Spanish, French, and Portuguese imperialism and therefore still speak a Latin-based language.

As a result of Spanish colonialism in Latin America and a few other areas of the globe, Spanish is the official language of 20 countries today (plus one territory: Puerto Rico) and is spoken by 400 million native speakers worldwide.

Not only that:

Spanish colonies fought for their independence from Spain throughout the 18th century but maintained Spanish as their official language.

How did the Spanish Language evolve?

As you can see the history of Spanish Language has changed quite a bit since its beginning.

In fact:

It may be surprising to hear that many Spanish words and names of places in the Spanish language have Arabic origin.  

Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain is derived from its Arabic name al-Andalus

Simply put:

Modern Spanish is the product of its seven-hundred-year history since it emerged from spoken Latin.  Nowadays, Spanish shows substantial Arabic influences and notable differences in grammar and vocabulary.

Differences in Spanish Dialects

Spanish lady holding a sing to illustrate a word in Spanish that is related to the history of Spanish language

Early Modern Spanish was introduced to the Spanish colonies in Latin America in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

In fact:

The history of Spanish Language in each country has evolved to what we now know as Modern Spanish, but the evolution has not been identical everywhere.

To keep Spanish somewhat consistent, Spain’s king Philipp V founded the Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española) in 1713. 

Not only that:

Together with 22 Spanish language Academies in other countries, the Royal Spanish Academy forms the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language.

While these institutes attempt to maintain consistency and document the evolution of Spanish, the varieties of the Spanish language across countries and regions are still abundant.  It is this variety that explains some of the fascination with the history of Spanish language.

Latin American Spanish

Latina lady beauty illustrating the history of Spanish language

The Spanish language is so broad and diverse that every country you visit has its own set of words.

For example:

Mexican Spanish, for example, has been heavily influenced by indigenous languages as well as its closeness to the United States.

The influence of American English is especially present in vocabulary about technology, for example.

Like the difference between the cell phone in American English and mobile phone in British English, the Atlantic separates the Mexican teléfono celular from the Spanish teléfono móvil

In contrast,

We see the indigenous influences in Mexican Spanish when we turn towards the kitchen.  As Spanish colonists settled in Mexico, they relied on local cuisine and these words for food items are still visible today:

  • A turkey in Spain is un pavo, while it is un guajolote in Mexico
  • Peas are guisantes in Spain, but chícharos in Mexico

Pronunciation

A second big difference between Castilian and Latin American dialects is the pronunciation.  The most notable difference may be the so-called Spanish lisp.

Some regions in Spain have a characteristic way of pronouncing sibilants, s-related sounds like s, z, and th in English, which has been mistaken as a lisp.

Old Spanish used to have many more sibilants, which, depending on the dialect, merged into one or two sibilants as the language evolved.  In most of Spain, particularly central and northern Spain, there are two sibilants, including what is referred to as the Spanish lisp. 

Dialects in the south in contrast have only one silibant, though to make things more complicated, different parts of the south have different pronunciations of the sibilants.  These are known as seseo and ceseo.

In Latin America, the southern sibilant pronunciation known as seseo is used.

Old Spanish vs Modern Spanish

It may surprise you to know that Shakespeare’s English was considered Modern English – that’s how much a language can change over the years! Unlike Old English or Middle English, Old Spanish is relatively easy for a Modern Spanish (from the 16th century on) speaker to interpret.

Not only that:

The possibility to read original medieval artifacts and ancient texts is a rare opportunity for language learners, which is usually complex even for native speakers.

Keep in mind:

For many, Spanish is the language of love. You can find it as a common topic in music, books or movies. A classic book, considered the first modern novel in Spanish, is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, a story full of adventure and love.

Spanish in the United States

The first European settlement in the present-day United States was established by Spain in what is now Florida. Spanish was the historical language of many current US states while controlled by the Spanish or Mexican governments.

The gradual annexation of southwestern states changed the official language to English, but Spanish is still spoken by large portions of the populations in these areas today.

Researcher Rosino Lozano, author of An American Language: The History of Spanish in the United States, discusses how the transition from Spanish as an official language of territories in the American southwest stirred political tumult with the insinuation by many in power that these new territories couldn’t be both Spanish-speaking and American.

Language rights are still a complicated issue in the United States and continue to be a subject of debate. Although English is the only official language of the United States, government documents are still provided in Spanish in several states, such as in New Mexico and California.

In fact:

Spanish is also the most widely taught second language in the United States. In the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Spanish retains its status as the official language.

Ustedes and Vosotros

In most of Spain, vosotros and vosotras are used as an informal plural you, while ustedes is more formal.  While this is true for most of Spain, there are regions, such as the Canary Islands, which do not use vosotros and vosotras and follow instead the Latin American model. 

Importantly, the conjugation of ustedes is different from vosotros

  • Ustedes son vosotros sois.
  • Ustedes estan vosotros estaís

In Latin America, ustedes is used as the informal plural you.  Latin American Spanish uses the same conjugation as Castilian Spanish for verbs using ustedes.

While Latin American Spanish may seem easier in this regard, there are some linguistic traps in the Americas.  Argentinian Spanish (together with some other Latin American countries) does not use as the singular you but uses vos.  This vos comes with its own conjugation:

  • Tú llamas vos llamás
  • Tú bebes vos bebés
  • Tú sales vos salís

The use of vos was quite common in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world but decreased in popularity over time.  While most of Latin America followed the Spanish fashion of no longer using vos, areas like Argentina, which were less closely linked to Spain resisted this trend.

Final words on The history of the Spanish language

Spanish originated in vulgar Latin; a spoken version of Latin introduced to Spain by the Romans.  Spanish can be considered a separate language starting in the 13th century when Christian Kingdoms, most notably the Kingdom of Castile reconquered Spain from Muslim rule.

Keep in mind:

The history of Spanish language was greatly influenced by the Arabic language and the Reconquista, and regional differences within the Iberian Peninsula still illustrate its complex history.

Following the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish spread through the rapidly expanding Spanish Empire.  Over the next centuries, various differences developed not only between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish but also between regions in Latin America.

Think about it:

The complexity of modern Spanish bears witness to its complex history of conquests, fractures, expansion, and influence by other cultures.

By the way:

If you’re planning on learning Spanish, I have some good news: You can work with me directly. To learn about my special language learning method that emphasizes good habits and lifestyle over grammar, be sure to contact me, or if you want access to exclusive content I don’t share anywhere else, follow me on Instagram.

Meet Daniel

Since he was a child, Daniel has been passionate about Social Dynamics. Learn how Daniel got his start as a Language Coach, and why he decided to start this language blog. If you want to send Daniel a quick message, then visit his contact page here.

Leave a Comment