Freelance Spain
The Spanish Language

By Mark Little.


"Limpia, fija y da esplendor" ("Cleans, fixes and gives shine") sounds like an advertisement for car wax, but in fact it is the motto of Spain’s Royal Language Academy, whose function it is to ensure the purity of the Spanish language. The academy was established in 1713, after the French model, and its 46 members include scholars, writers and journalists - the post is for life, but unremunerated - who occupy seats identified by a letter of the alphabet (both in upper and lower case, so there is room for everybody). The members meet regularly to discuss whether capital letters should be accented (yes) or whether such imports as "fútbol", "trailer", "internet", "ketchup" or "crack" are worthy enough to be included among the 83,500 words in the official Spanish dictionary (yes to the first two; not yet for the others).

Spanish ("español", also referred to as "castellano", Castillian) is, like French, Portuguese, Italian, a Romance language, derived from Latin.

Unlike English, Spanish is a phonetic language. Words are pronounced exactly as they are spelt, which is why it is somewhat harder for Spaniards to learn English than viceversa. The main stumbling block for students are the Spanish verb tenses, especially the subjunctive. Spanish also distinguishes masculine and femine gender. There is no neutral gender so objects and concepts too are either masculine or feminine.

Following the discovery of America, Spaniards took their language with them to the four corners of the globe. Today, Spanish is spoken by more than 250 million people in north, south and central America and parts of Africa.

In Spain itself, while Spanish is the first official language, it coexists with a number of regional languages including Basque, Gallego and Catalan. The defense of local languages against the dominance of Castillian has always been a politically-charged issue in Spain.


Spanish is a Romance language. That is, like French and Italian, it is descended from the vulgar Latin spoken by soldiers and shopkeepers in the days of the Roman Empire. Gradually, the way people spoke Latin in the different parts of the Empire took on peculiar traits, becoming dialects of Latin and, eventually, languages in their own right, coexisting with the classical Latin spoken by scholars and the clergy.

Spanish is the particular dialect which arose in the region of Castile. The language spread to other parts of Spain apace with Castillian conquests, and overwhelmed other local dialects. The first written records in Castillian date from the 11th century: called "jarchas", they are small snippets of Romance which Moorish poets incorporated into their work. The first major instance of literary Spanish is the Song of Mio Cid, an oral epic poem first committed to writing by an anonymous troubadour in the 12th century.

A distinctive feature of Spanish is the large number of Arabic words it incorporated during the centuries-long Moorish presence in Spain. In fact, the Moors were not Arabs, but a racial mix of a small number of Arabs (mainly Syrians) and greater numbers of Berbers and descendents of the Ibero-Romans who had lived in Spain before the Muslim invasion. For much of the Moorish period Romance was the lingua franca in both Christian and Muslim Spain.

Language continually evolves. During the 17th century, Spanish underwent a significant - and very rapid - change in pronunciation. For instance the letter X, as in Don Quixote, was originally pronounced as "sh" . Afterwards, it was pronounced with the harsh "h" sound - like clearing your throat - used today, and in writing it came to be spelt J. The initial F in many words, such as "hijo" (son) was dropped, and in writing was replaced by the silent H. The modern pronunciation of Z, as a hard "th", also dates from this time.

You can still get an idea of how Spanish was spoken when Columbus sailed for America by listening to a speaker of  Ladino. This is a variant of Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews, and contains many traits of the language as it was when the Jews were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century.


Spanish coexists with other languages spoken in different regions of the Iberian peninsula.

Catalan and Gallego, like Spanish, are Romance languages. They are not dialects of Spanish, having evolved directly from Latin. Both have significant bodies of written literature.

Catalan, the language of the Catalonia region of north-eastern Spain, is more closely related to the Occitan language of southern France than to Spanish. Gallego, spoken in north-western Spain, is similar to Portuguese. Unlike Catalan or Portuguese, Gallego is easy for Spanish speakers to understand both in its spoken and written form.

Valenciano, Mallorquín and Aragonese are usually considered dialects of Catalan by everyone except people in Valencia, Mallorca and Aragon, who feel that a dialect is somehow a sign of second class citizenship, and therefore prefer to regard the local speech as fully fledged languages. Another Romance language, Bable, was widespread in northern Spain in the middle ages, but today is spoken only in pockets of the Asturian mountains in northern Spain.

Basque, or Euskera, is a different case altogether. Not only isn't it a Romance language, it is not even related to Indo-European. Basque is one of the oldest languages in Europe, but has always been an eminently oral one, lacking a significant body of literature. The irregular terrain of the Basque Country, encompassing parts of northern Spain and south-western France, gave rise to up to eight different dialects of Basque. The promotion of a standardized Basque language was one of the key issues for the Basque nationalist movement born at the end of the 19th century, but with Franco's repression of regional languages during his regime Basque became restricted principally to rural areas. Franco's policy also extended to Catalan, whose use in public was prohibited.

The arrival of modern democracy to Spain in the 1970s and the rise of autonomous rule in the different regions led to a revival of local languages, especially in the Basque Country and Catalonia.

Copyright © Mark Little.

See also: "Clinging to life" by Valerie Collins
"Did you know that of the more than 6500 languages currently spoken on our planet, fewer than half are likely to survive this century? Native American, African, Australian languages, stuff like that, no? Actually, it’s a bit closer to home. UNESCO’s Red Book on Endangered Languages (updated 1999) has no less than 94 entries for Europe. And, with the exception of Catalan, all the minority languages spoken in Spain are on that list. [...]"

False Amigos

"False friends" are linguistic booby traps: deceptive cognates, words that look similar in two languages but which mean something completely different, often with embarassing results. Here are some favorites:

Embarazada, a word which has caused more than one misunderstanding, does not mean "embarrassed". It means "pregnant".
Constipación is no more serious than a "common cold", nothing to do with "constipation".
Decepción has nothing to do with deceiving somebody, but is, instead, a "disappointment".
Ignorar is not to "ignore", but to be "unaware of", although being "ignorante" in Spain is just the same as being "ignorant" in English.
Compromiso is not a "comprimise", but a "committment" or "obligation". An engaged couple are said to be "comprometidos".
Remover is not "to remove", but "to stir".
Suplir, a verb, means "to substitute", not to "supply".
Suspenso means "suspended" or, in education, "flunked". For "suspense", Spanish borrows the English word directly, pronouncing it "soos-pen-say".
Quieto, in Spanish, is not "quiet" but "still, unmoving" (the opposite of "inquieto", "restless").
Profundo usually means "deep", rather than "profound".
Fastidioso is "bothersome", not "fastidious"
Soportar is not "to support", but to "suffer" or "tolerate" something.
Pretender doesn't mean "to pretend", but to "try" or "aspire to".
Molestar is to "annoy" or "bother", not to "molest".
Tópico is a "cliché", not a "topic".
Suceso is not a "success", but an "incident", while
Exito is a "success", not an "exit" (which is "salida")
Editor is not an "editor", but a "publisher"
Actualmente is "currently", not "actually", and "actualidad" is "news".
Realizar means to "carry out" a project or work, not to come to some "realization".
Lectura is the act of "reading", not a "lecture".
Recordar is not to "record", but to "remember".
Ilusión can be "illusion", as in "optical illusion", but is more often used to describe a state of mind: optimism, excitement, eagerness.
Billón, in Spain, is still "a million million".
Regular does not always mean "regular". More often than not,  it means  "not so good" or "so-so". Speaking of which...
Soso, applied to food, means "bland", "lacking in salt".
Simpático is "friendly" or "charming", but not necessarily "sympathetic".
Sensible means "sensitive" rather than "sensible".
Oscuro is "dark", not "obscure".
Pariente is not just a "parent", but any relative.
Informal, when used to describe a person, means he is "unreliable", not that he is casually dressed.
Excitado isn't "excited" in the usual sense of the word, but rather aroused, as in "sexually aroused".
Disgustado does not mean you're "disgusted", but that you're "angry".
Argumento is Spanish for a "argument" to prove a theory, or "plot" as in a movie plot, but not an argument between two people.
Discusión is an "argument" (usually a loud one), not a "discussion".
Rifirrafe is another way to describe an argument or verbal melée, and has nothing to do with "riff-raff"
Rendición means "surrender", not "rendition"
Desgracia is not a "disgrace", but a "misfortune" - nothing disgraceful when someone says "qué desgracia!", meaning "what a disaster!". 
Rape, which has led to many an inspired menu translation, refers to "monkfish" or "anglerfish".


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Copyright © 2000-2006 Mark and David Little & J.D. Dallet