Posted by: janecronin | November 20, 2016

History of the Spanish language (part one)


Languages are like living organisms, they belong to groups or families, they have evolved through many generations and they are in a constant state of development.  Just as we can understand our present world better by studying its history, so also we can understand languages better by learning about where they came from and how they have developed.

The origins of human speech and writing go back into the mists of time, but it is possible to trace influences in language development over at least the last three thousand years.  The history of the English language (which I describe in simple terms in my book “Crazy English”) consists of a succession of mergers and impositions connected with the history of the English speaking world.  Likewise Spanish, whilst it is clearly part of the Latin family of languages, has its own, unique history.

As you may know, the language we usually call Spanish is also named “castellano” or “Castilian Spanish” as it originates from the medieval kingdom of Castilla (Castile).  The language is derived from what is known as “vulgar Latin” which simply means the form of Latin that was spoken by ordinary Roman citizens, and which dominated in Spain during the period of Roman control which lasted about seven hundred years (from 200 a.d. to 500 b.c.)

Prior to the Roman invasion, the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula spoke a variety of Celtic, Iberian, Phoenician and Carthaginian languages, amongst which are the ancestors of the modern Basque language.  Naturally, as the process of “Romanisation” occurred, many words from these indigenous languages remained and have survived into the present.  Here are some words which are of probable Celtic origin:  páramo (moorland), balsa (pool), lanza (spear),  losa (flagstone),  abedul (birch), álamo (poplar),  berro (watercress), garza (heron),  colmena (hive), gancho (hook).   These words are Iberian in origin:  barranco (ravine), lama (slime); arroyo (stream), gordo (fat).  Words that come from the Basque language include:  izquierda (left), pizarra (slate), cencerro (cowbell), órdago (challenge) and here are some other pre-Roman words of uncertain origin:  cama (bed), vega (meadow), sapo (toad), caspa (dandruff), gazpacho (cold vegetable soup), barro (mud), perro (dog).

It is possible to imagine how the process of Romanisation occurred linguistically speaking.  Latin would have certainly been resisted at first as it represented the language of the conquerors over the ordinary people.  As it became established as the language of bureaucracy and administration, it would have become a necessary evil for the indigenous conquered populations.  As generations passed, Vulgar Latin would be the new language of influence and advancement in the new political and cultural reality of the country whilst in more remote areas pockets of the old languages would survive, gradually being demoted to the status of dialects.   However, when it came to describing specific Iberian flora, fauna and geological features, the original words would survive, and in fact remain to this day.

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