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Spanish Language History



'El castellano', as the Spanish language is today known, is extended across the globe. Being the third with the highest number of native speakers, Spanish is the mother tongue of approximately 330 million people in 21 countries. The language of Cervantes, Picasso and García Marquez is already the second world language as a vehicle of international communication and the third as an international language of politics, economics and culture.

Spain has one of Europe's fastest growing economies, while the Latin American countries are following the same pattern: the creation of Mercosur and many other free trade agreements between South American countries and North America (ALADI, the Andean Community, CACM, NAFTA, G3) which already exist in order to improve the economies of these countries, are making them more efficient and competitive. In the US, the Hispanic population has grown by 60 per cent in just one decade.

Apart from the differences between Continental and Latin-American Spanish (e.g., a "lapicero" is a pencil holder in some areas and a ball-point pen in others, while a computer is "un ordenador" in Spain but "una computadora" in Latin America), one must also acknowledge that the language we call "Spanish" covers an important variety of 'dialects', including "Castilian" (spoken in the largest part of the territory), "Galician" (North-West) and "Catalonian" (East).

On the other hand, "Basque", which is spoken in the North-East of Spain and in a small swathe of France is a language on its own and doesn't share any similarities with Spanish whatsoever.


Spanish Language History


Spanish is a Romance language, meaning that it is a vernacular descendant of Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire and a branch of the Indo-European. In addition to Spanish, the Romance group includes such national languages as Portuguese, French, Italian, and Rumanian, as well as regional languages and dialects like Catalan, Galician, Occitan, Rheto-Romance and Sardinian.

Like the other Romance languages, Spanish is derived from Vulgar Latin, the cluster of dialects spoken by legionaries, traders, farmers and the like. Vulgar Latin was presumably always subject to considerable geographical variation, although not to the extent of becoming unintelligible by Latin speakers from different parts of the Roman Empire.

Regional varieties gradually drifted apart, a process that can only have accelerated after the Western Empire collapsed in the 5th century and the old Roman provinces were overrun by Germanic tribes (Franks, Burgundians, Swabians, Visigoths and so forth).

There are, then, no precise moments when the modern Romance languages were born. In the case of Spanish texts from the Castile area (the county the languages came from) begin to exhibit Romance features from the 10th century onwards, but the 12th century texts are the first that have a clear Spanish look. As ever, though, writing would have lagged behind speech, especially as for centuries an established orthography existed for Latin but not for the emerging Romance vernaculars.

Bullfighting arenaSpanish has its roots in the rustic Latin of southern Cantabria and has grown from an obscure provincial dialect to the rise of Castile kingdom. Initially a small enclave on the eastern edge of the kingdom of León, Castile played a leading role in the Reconquest (after Islamic occupation), expanded progressively southwards and, by the 14th century, controlled all of the Peninsula except Portugal, Navarre, Aragon and the surviving Muslin kingdom of Granada.

With the unification of Castile and Aragon in 1479 by the Catholic Kings, the modern Spanish nation-state was born and shortly afterwards Columbus's discovery of America initiated a new colonial phase. In this way, the language of Castile came to dominate not just in the Peninsula (with the notable exceptions of Portugal, Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia) but, from the 16th century onwards, in the American colonies too. The year of 1611 saw the publication of the first Spanish dictionary, by Sebastian de Covarrubias.


Spanish became the major diplomatic language until the eighteenth century. The lexicon at this time began to incorporate a large body of words from other languages, both European and Native American.  From Italian came such new words as: "soneto", "medalla" and "piano". Gallicisms included: "jardín" and "sargento". Words like "patata", "cóndor", "alpaca" and "puma" came from Quechua and Guarani. From the family of Nahuatl languages came such familiar vocabulary as: "chocolate", "tomate" and "cacao".


In 1713, the Real Academia Española was founded. It established authoritative criteria for the sanctioning of neologisms and the incorporation of international words. Spanish grammar was formalised during this period and there was a great flourish in Hispanic literature, helped by Spanish's relatively free word order, creating a variety of diverse literary styles.

The twentieth century has seen further alterations in how Spanish is used by its speakers. The eruption of neologisms, fuelled by technological and scientific advances, remains unabated. They range from the classic: "termómetro", "átomo" and "psicoanálisis" to the most modern and barely hispanicised: "filmar", "radar", "casete", "PC" and "módem".


Main Spanish-speaking countries

SPAINPalau National , Barcelona

Population: 40,280,780 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Castilian Spanish 74%, Catalan 17%, Galician 7%, Basque 2%
GDP: $885.5 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $22,000 (2003 est.) 

Exports: machinery, motor vehicles; foodstuffs, other consumer goods
Exports partners: France 19.2%, Germany 11.9%, Italy 9.7%, UK 9.4%, Portugal 9.3%, US 4.2% (2003 est.)
Imports: machinery and equipment, fuels, chemicals, semifinished goods, foodstuffs, consumer goods
Imports partners: France 16.8%, Germany 16.6%, Italy 8.8%, UK 6.5%, Netherlands 4.9% (2003 est.)

At the crossroads of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Europe and Africa, Spain was internationally isolated under General Franco's post-Civil War (1936-39) dictatorship. But it began to recover from recession in the 1950s, with a rise in tourism and aid from the US. Nowadays it boasts one of the healthiest economies in the EU.

The country is divided into 17 regions which all have their own directly elected authorities. The level of autonomy afforded to each region is far from uniform. For example, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia have special status with their own language and other rights. Andalucia, Navarre, Valencia and the Canaries in turn have more extensive powers than some other regions. Asturias and Aragon have taken steps to consolidate language rights. It is a complex and evolving picture.

From Velazquez in the seventeenth century, through Goya straddling the eighteenth and nineteenth, to Picasso in the twentieth, Spain has the proudest of traditions in art. Spanish Flamenco music and dance are widely admired around the world, while Cervantes' novel Don Quixote is one of the most popular ever written.


Population: 39,144,753 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Spanish (official), English, Italian, German, French
GDP: $435.5 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $11,200 (2003 est.) 

Exports: edible oils, fuels and energy, cereals, feed, motor vehicles
Exports partners: Brazil 19.1%, Chile 10.7%, US 9.7%, China 7.7%, Spain 4.6% (2003 est.)
Imports: machinery and equipment, motor vehicles, chemicals, metal manufactures, plastics
Imports partners: Brazil 24.5%, US 21.5%, Germany 6.8%, Italy 4.3%, Spain 4.2% (2003 est.)

Following independence from Spain in 1816, Argentina experienced periods of internal political conflict between conservatives and liberals and between civilian and military factions. After World War II, a long period of Peronist authoritarian rule and interference in subsequent governments was followed by a military junta that took power in 1976. Democracy returned in 1983, and numerous elections since then have underscored Argentina's progress in democratic consolidation.

A country of diverse terrain, Argentina is nearly 4,000 km long from the subtropical north to the subantarctic south. It encompasses part of the Andes mountain range, swamps, the large plains of the Pampas, and a lengthy coastline.

Argentina is rich in resources, has a well-educated workforce and is one of South America's largest economies. Argentines gave the world the tango. They are mad about football, and are reckoned to be the best polo players. Their love of horses is best personified by the figure of the Argentine 'gaucho', the solitary, independent ranch man, who has become known throughout the world.


Population: 8,724,156 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Spanish (official), Quechua (official), Aymara (official)
GDP: $21.01 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $2,400 (2003 est.)

Exports: soybeans, natural gas, zinc, gold, wood (2000)
Exports partners: Brazil 26.4%, Switzerland 16.3%, Venezuela 12.2%, Colombia 11.3%, US 10.9%, Peru 4.8% (2003 est.)
Imports: capital goods, raw materials and semi-manufactures, chemicals, petroleum, food
Imports partners: Brazil 27%, Argentina 21.3%, US 11.4%, Chile 8.9%, Peru 5.5% (2003 est.)

Bolivia, named after independence fighter Simon Bolivar, broke away from Spanish rule in 1825. A country of statistical extremes, landlocked Bolivia is the highest and most isolated country in South America. It has the largest proportion of indigenous people, who make up around two-thirds of the population, and is the world's largest producer of tin. The country has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in South America.

CHILEVolcano road, Llanquihue

Population: 15,823,957 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Spanish
GDP: $154.7 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $9,900 (2003 est.)

Exports: copper, fish, fruits, paper and pulp, chemicals, wine
Exports partners: US 16.2%, Japan 10.5%, China 8.6%, South Korea 4.7%, Mexico 4.3%, Italy 4.2% (2003 est.)
Imports: consumer goods, chemicals, motor vehicles, fuels, electrical machinery, heavy industrial machinery, food
Imports partners: Argentina 19.4%, US 13%, Brazil 10.4%, China 6.6% (2003 est.)

Chile's unusual, ribbon-like shape - 4,300 km long and on average 175 km wide - has given it a hugely varied climate. This ranges from the world's driest desert in the north, through a Mediterranean climate in the centre, to a snow-prone Alpine climate in the south, with glaciers, fjords and lakes.

With the exception of Pinochet's dictatorship, the country it has been relatively free of the coups and arbitrary governments that have blighted the region. Sound economic policies, maintained consistently since the 1980s, have contributed to steady growth and have helped secure the country's commitment to democratic and representative government. Chile has increasingly assumed regional and international leadership roles befitting its status as a stable, democratic nation.

Chile is relatively free of crime and official corruption. It had Latin America's fastest-growing economy in the 1990s and has weathered recent regional economic instability.

MEXICOPyramid in the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá

Population: 104,959,594 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Spanish, various Mayan, Nahuatl, and other regional indigenous languages
GDP: $941.2 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $9,000 (2003 est.) 

Exports: manufactured goods, oil and oil products, silver, fruits, vegetables, coffee, cotton
Exports partners: US 87.6%, Canada 1.8%, Germany 1.2% (2003 est.)
Imports: metalworking machines, steel mill products, agricultural machinery, electrical equipment, car parts for assembly, repair parts for motor vehicles, aircraft, and aircraft parts
Imports partners: US 61.8%, China 5.5%, Japan 4.5% (2003 est.)

The site of advanced Amerindian civilizations, Mexico came under Spanish rule for three centuries before achieving independence early in the 19th century. Mexican politics were dominated for 70 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. But parliamentary elections in 1997 saw the opposition win more support than the PRI, breaking what was in effect a one-party system with a democratic façade. Presidential elections in 2000 confirmed the trend, as Vicente Fox of the Alliance for Change became the first opposition candidate to hold the post.

Mexico is a large oil producer with substantial reserves. Nearly one-third of government revenue comes from this sector. Writers such as Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, the mural-painter Diego Rivera, and popular ranchero and mariachi music mean that Mexican culture is known throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond.

PERUMachu Picchu

Population: 27,544,305 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Spanish (official), Quechua (official), Aymara, and a large number of minor Amazonian languages
GDP: $146 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $5,100 (2003 est.) 

Exports: fish and fish products, gold, copper, zinc, crude petroleum and by-products, lead, coffee, sugar, cotton
Exports partners: US 27.1%, UK 12.4%, China 7.7%, Switzerland 7.6%, Chile 4.7%, Japan 4.4% (2003 est.)
Imports: machinery, transport equipment, foodstuffs, petroleum, iron and steel, chemicals, pharmaceuticals
Imports partners: US 28.6%, Spain 10%, Chile 7.5%, Brazil 5.1%, Colombia 4.5% (2003 est.)

Ancient Peru was the seat of several prominent Andean civilizations, most notably that of the Incas whose empire was captured by the Spanish "conquistadores" in 1533. Peruvian independence was declared in 1821, and remaining Spanish forces defeated in 1824.

Peru is a potentially wealthy country with a rich and varied cultural and architectural heritage. Facing the Pacific, it is an important link between southeast Asia and Brazil.

Peru is rich in deposits of copper, silver, lead, zinc, oil and gold. It also enjoys spectacular and varied scenery, including Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake, and has a strong Inca and pre-Inca heritage, which includes the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco and the lost city of Machu Picchu.

URUGUAYPunta Ballena

Population: 3,399,237 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Spanish or Portunol (Portuguese-Spanish mix on the Brazilian frontier)
GDP: $43.67 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $12,800 (2003 est.) 

Exports: meat, rice, leather products, wool, fish, dairy products
Exports partners: Brazil 22.4%, US 9%, Germany 5.4%, Argentina 5.2%, Paraguay 4.2%, Italy 4.1% (2003 est.)
Imports: machinery, chemicals, road vehicles, crude petroleum
Imports partners: Argentina 22.2%, Brazil 18.6%, US 11.1%, Russia 7.7%, China 4.3% (2003 est.)

Uruguay has traditionally been better off than many other countries in South America, and is known for its progress in education, its advanced welfare system and its liberal laws governing social issues such as divorce. It has become a model for the care of the aged, who form a comparatively high percentage of the population. Good access to health care has contributed to a high level of average life expectancy.

More recently, its colonial towns, sandy beaches and year-round mild climate have contributed to an increasingly important tourist industry, and its economy has also benefited from substantial earnings from offshore banking.


Population: 25,017,387 (July 2004 est.)
Languages: Spanish (official), numerous indigenous dialects
GDP: $117.9 billion (2003 est.)
GDP per capita: $4,800 (2003 est.)

Exports: petroleum, bauxite and aluminium, steel, chemicals, agricultural products, basic manufactures
Exports partners: US 48.1%, Netherlands Antilles 12.1%, Dominican Republic 2.7% (2003 est.)
Imports: raw materials, machinery and equipment, transport equipment, construction materials 
Imports partners: US 27.4%, Brazil 8.1%, Colombia 6.7%, Mexico 4.1% (2003 est.)

Historically one of South America's more stable democracies, Venezuela has one of the largest known oil deposits in the world as well as huge quantities of coal, iron ore, bauxite and gold.

A country of striking natural beauty, which ranges from the snow-capped Andean peaks in the west, through the Amazonian jungles in the south, to the beaches of the north, Venezuela is among the most highly urbanised countries in Latin America.