Posted by: janecronin | March 12, 2017

The History of the Spanish Language (part four)

Before we leave this fascinating subject, we should look in more detail at an official organisation which has been of central importance to the Spanish language for the last 300 years.  This is the Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy) usually referred to as the RAE.  This body was founded in 1713 by the 8th Marquis of Villena, during the reign of the first Borbon King of Spain, Felipe V.  It was created with the express purpose of establishing the norms of the Spanish language in order to preserve the purity, elegance and splendour that it had attained over the previous two centuries.   However, unlike its counterparts in France, Italy and Portugal which were started more as literary and academic institutions, the Spanish academy had an official mission to establish national linguistic unity.   At the time of its creation there were already French, Italian and Portuguese dictionaries whereas the first Spanish dictionary was published by the RAE in 1726.  By way of contrast, it is interesting to note that the first English dictionary was published by a single writer, Samuel Johnson, in 1775.

As the Spanish colonies gained their independence from Spain they established their own language academies, with the encouragement of the RAE, and in 1951 an association of Spanish language academies was founded with 21 member organisations.   The first woman was admitted to the academy in 1784, however further female candidates were rejected over the intervening 300 years until the acceptance of Carmen Conde en 1978.  Since then a grand total of ten other woman have been accepted into the RAE.   Posts are referred to as “sillas” (chairs) and are given for life.  Each chair corresponds to a letter of the alphabet with separate posts for capital and small letters.   Members meet on a weekly basis to propose, debate and vote for changes to the language.  These may be the introduction of new words, the elimination of obsolete words or changes to spelling, punctuation and accents.  These alterations are then published on a regular basis and incorporated into the next edition of the RAE dictionary.

In 1993 the definition of the RAE’s mission was changed: “to safeguard the changes which the Spanish language may undergo with its constant adaptation to the needs of its speakers so that they do not break the essential unity which exists in the Spanish speaking world”.   As well as seeking the unity of Spanish worldwide, one of their greatest modern challenges is the incorporation of new words, usually derived from English, related to technology and the internet.

The RAE published its most recent grammar book in 2011 and the 23rd edition of its dictionary in 2014.  Unlike English where differences of opinion occur and there is no single official standard, these publications set down the rules of right and wrong of the Spanish language.



Posted by: janecronin | March 5, 2017

The History of the Spanish Language (part three)


During the Middle Ages there were a number of pronunciation changes to the Spanish language including variations in the “s”, “z” and “th” range of sounds.  The characteristic lisping “th” sound which is now represented in written Spanish by the letter “z” and the letter “c” when it appears before an “e” or an “i” became standard in most parts of Spain, apart from Andalucía, the Canary Islands and by extension throughout South America.  There is a legend that the lisped “th” was widely adopted in imitation of a Spanish king who had a speech impediment.  Although this story is very popular and oft-repeated, it has absolutely no historical basis.

Other changes which differentiated Spanish from its Latin roots were the softening of certain consonant sounds, e.g. Latin “vita” to Spanish “vida” (life),  Latin “lupus” to Spanish “lobo” (wolf); the introduction of diphthongs (double vowel sounds) e.g. Latin “terra” to Spanish “tierra” (earth), Latin “novum” to Spanish “nuevo” (new) and the creation of the “ñ” sound from the Latin “nn” e.g. Latin “annum” to Spanish “año”.

The process of re-conquering Spain from the Moorish kingdoms drew to a close in the late 15th century with the fall of Granada.  This occurred shortly after the kingdoms of Castilla and Aragón had reached a form of political union by the marriage of their monarchs Isabel of Castilla and Fernando of Aragón.  This same period saw the expulsion of the Jews and the discovery of America and so marked the beginning of what is regarded in historical terms as the foundation of modern Spain.  At this time the very first Castilian Grammar book was published by Antonio de Nebrija in Salamanca in which Spanish was studied as a modern language as distinct from Latin.

With the expansion of the Spanish Empire, Castilian became the official language of the colonies of modern Central America, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, the Philippines, Guam and other Pacific islands.  In the late 18th century Spain renounced its rights to large areas of North America although Spanish place names still remain (Las Vegas, Los Angeles).  On gaining independence, the former Spanish colonies of Central and South America established Spanish as their official languages whilst many southern states of North America (Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah) remained predominantly Spanish speaking, despite their official language being English.

Nowadays, it is calculated that there are around 468 million native Spanish speakers worldwide, with an additional 90 million second language speakers and students of the Spanish language.  In fact, Spanish is the second most widely spoken native language in the world, after Chinese and before English, although English has many more second language and foreign language speakers.


Posted by: janecronin | February 26, 2017

The History of the Spanish Language (part two)

In the early eighth century the Iberian Peninsula was invaded by the Moors who crossed over from North Africa.  They rapidly conquered most of the territory, and this initial expansion was followed by eight centuries of gradually diminishing occupation.  The invasion brought a very strong Arabic influence to the language of ordinary people, including 4000 separate words of Arabic origin that still exist today.  During the height of the Al-Andalus period, Arabic was the dominant language of the country, as it was the language of administration and culture.  The influence of the Arabic language on Spanish has been very significant, giving it a distinctive sound and flavour which has lasted to this day.  Here are a few examples of Arabic words in modern Spanish: almohada (pillow). aceite (oil), ajedrez (chess), aduana (customs), barrio (neighbourhood), zanahoria (carrot).  There are also thousands of place names of Arabic origin, including Madrid which was originally called “Magerit” as well as Mojácar, Benidorm and Albacete.

From the 11th century onwards the Iberian peninsula was split up into many small kingdoms: those ruled by Christians in the north, such as León, Castilla, Aragón and Navarra, which had been gradually expanding southwards; and Taifas, which were the splintered  and ever-changing Moorish kingdoms in the south including Denia, Valencia, Badajoz and Málaga.  This must have been a very confusing period linguistically, with some areas changing ruler many times.  We tend to look at maps which draw clear lines between different kingdoms, but the reality for ordinary people must have been much more muddled.  Of the northern kingdoms, Castilla slowly became the most dominant and it was this kingdom that finally managed to push south and take the cities of modern Andalucía.  This is why Castilian Spanish is now the most spoken language today, but also why there are many other official languages and dialects across the country, and why Arabic influence is so strong in modern Castilian Spanish both in vocabulary and pronunciation.

In the 13th century a Castilian king called Alfonso X el Sabio (the Wise) had the brilliant idea of rescuing the vast libraries of Arabic, Hebrew and Greek works left by the defeated Moors, and setting up an institution in Toledo called the School of Translators, whose task it was to translate these works into Latin and Spanish.  In so doing, Alfonso contributed enormously to the standardisation and prestige of the Castilian language.

Also during this period there were changes in the pronunciation of some of the original Latinate consonant sounds.  One of the most significant changes was the initial “f” sound of Latin words, for example “farina” meaning “flour”.  This initial consonant gradually moved back in the mouth to create an aspirated “h” which ultimately became a silent letter, even though the letter is conserved in spelling.  Consequently, from “farina” in Latin we have “harina” with a silent “h” in modern Spanish.  If you think that is strange, the English language contains a vast number of similarly weird and wonderful sound and spelling changes which are far less regular.



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.

Posted by: janecronin | November 13, 2016

Mistranslation technology

I’m hoping that quite a few of my readers will agree with the following reflection.  Why on earth don´t people check their translations with native speakers?  This question applies as much to Spanish business proudly proclaiming “English spoken” as to those English businesses in Spain whose publicity clearly demonstrates a mixture of Google and a well-thumbed copy of their Sunny Spanish phrasebook.  Hardly a day goes by without coming across an example of someone who has parted with good money to create a sign or print an advert without checking their Spanish with a single one of the country’s 46 million inhabitants or their English with the scores of people who walk past their front door every day.

Here are a few examples just in my most immediate vicinity.   About 500 metres from my home there is a business with a huge permanent sign pointing to its entrance.  It tells me on its premise I will find an “exposure” of its tiles.  Someone looked up “exposición” in the dictionary and discovered it could be either “exhibition” or “exposure”, and rather than asking one of the many local English speakers, they just chose the translation that sounded most likely to them.   Exactly the same process occurred in the bar down the road.  Whenever I go there for a snack with English speaking friends we are presented with the “carta” in Spanish and the “letter” in English.  “Carta” in English is either “letter”, “menu” or “card” so they went with “letter”, probably because it was the first word in the list.

I’m sure you can cite hundreds of similar examples.  In my very first year in Spain in the eighties I had a work colleague who used to go to read a local restaurant menu, just to cheer himself up when he felt depressed, because it made him laugh so much.  I remember that one of his favourites was “squid in his ink”.  I even once came across an estate agent who advertised “casa” as “he/she marries” and “cocina” as “he/she cooks”.  Another great memory was getting an attack of giggles with my mother in a very posh hotel in Galicia which was serving “fairy octopus”.  Well it was funny at the time, especially as very serious member of staff sat and glared at us.

The British in Spain are far from immune to the same mistakes.  Many times I’ve been asked to look over a website or advert that someone has translated through Google and had to tell them that the whole thing needs to be rewritten for it to sound anything like something a Spanish person would recognise as their own language.  The truth is that no matter how much translation technology is developing, and it has made the most amazing advances, it still cannot replace human intervention.   The complexities of context, tone, register and cultural differences mean that reliable translation is still in the hands of the language native speaker.   The good news is, there are plenty of them or us around.

Posted by: janecronin | November 6, 2016

The Spanish phonetic alphabet

Last week we talked about writing Spanish words phonetically and the difficulty of doing so.  By the term “phonetic” I meant a way of writing out an equivalent sound as though we were reading it in English, which gives us a rough indication of how the word should sound.  However, there is another common meaning to the word “phonetic” as used in the term “phonetic alphabet”.  This means the code words that represent letters of the alphabet used mainly when speaking by radio or telephone rather than face to face. The best known system is called the NATO phonetic alphabet and is the official international code used by speakers of all languages.  As we all learnt from Z-Cars (showing my age again) the alphabet starts with “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta …”.

Apart from this international alphabet, the Spanish also have their own version of the phonetic alphabet, which is commonly used in more informal circumstances, especially on the phone.  Although it is true that in general spelling is less of an issue in Spanish as words are written as they are pronounced, there is always that moment when you have to spell out a name and some confusion arises between “b” and “p” (be, pe) or “m” and “n” (eme, ene).

So, here are the most commonly used words in the unofficial Spanish phonetic alphabet, with thanks to my fellow CB News columnist Graham Shelton for passing them on to me.

Alicante, Barcelona, Cádiz, Dinamarca, España, Francia, Granada, Huelva, Italia, Jaén, Kilo, León, Madrid, Navarra, Oviedo (Orihuela is a local alternative) Pamplona, Queso, Roma, Sevilla, Tarragona, Uva, Valencia, Washington, Xilófono, Yeso, Zaragoza.

You will notice that most of the words are place names, either provincial capitals in Spain or the word for Spain itself.   Especially difficult for the Spanish are the letters K and W, which have very limited usage in the Spanish language, and are never found in place names. “Kilo”, is one of the few words that start with a “k” and for “w” they have resorted to an American city.   A notable absence from this list is the “ñ”.  You are highly unlikely to ever need to spell this out in the phonetic alphabet, but if you do, I recommend the word “ñoño” which means “wimp, crybaby” or “´ñu” which means gnu, as in wildebeest.   They’re just two words I happen to like!

As I’ve already mentioned, this system is unofficial, but widely used.   If you look up “alfabeto fonético” on the internet you will only find the official NATO version.  There is also a lot of help with pronunciation for non-English speakers.   It’s typical of us to assume that words like “Charlie” and “uniform” are going to be completely straightforward for everyone to pronounce!  However, the presence of “bravo” “sierra” and “tango” are helpful for the Spanish.  I have a feeling that Foxtrot is likely to be the hardest of the lot!

Posted by: janecronin | October 30, 2016

Writing “how it sounds”

I made a decision quite a long time ago about how to deal with the pronunciation of written Spanish.  Before explaining my decision, let’s look first at the most usual method employed by some writers.  No doubt you have in your possession a Spanish phrase book which writes the “phonetic pronunciation” of words and expressions.  Here are some typical examples:  “Quiero café con leche”  “Key-air-o, kafay con lechay”.   “¿Dónde está la estación?”  “Donday estah la esta-thee-on?”  Now, if I were travelling to a country where I didn´t speak the language and just needed a few basic phrases to get by for a week’s holiday, then I would definitely use this kind of phrase book.  However, if I decided to stay in that country for any length of time, I would dispense with it as soon as possible, and find out how the language is actually pronounced.

The problem with this so-called phonetic spelling is that all it ever does is give you the nearest English equivalent of a sound and the fact of the matter is that English sounds and Spanish sounds have important differences.  For example, in many English accents we use a lot of diphthongs, that is double vowel sounds, whereas in Spanish each vowel represents a single sound.  Therefore, if you say “kafay con lechay” the Spanish are actually hearing “cafei con lechei”.  Obviously if you’re sitting in a bar when you say it you will undoubtedly be understood, but if you continue to use those sounds as you progress with the language, you are giving yourself a huge handicap as the Spanish will struggle to understand you.

Let’s look at the “phonetic” spelling of “está” where the emphasis expressed by the accent on the “á” is replaced by an “h” – “estah”.  Most English speakers will read that as a lengthened “a” sound, in other words we would make it rhyme with “bar”.  In Spanish this lengthened “a” sound doesn´t exist at all.  There is only a single short “a” sound, so the correct pronunciation is much more clipped that the way a phrase book could possibly indicate.  Again, if you’re on your holidays and looking for a station, some pitying soul is bound to help you, but this pronunciation is absolutely no basis for further learning and communication.

So, with this in mind, what was the decision I made about explaining pronunciation when writing about Spanish?  Well, I have written a lot of articles specifically explaining the structure of Spanish pronunciation, including my e-book A to Z of Spanish.  I have also made some videos about Spanish pronunciation which are free to view on my website  All my on-line course material includes audio files and in addition I do my best to explain particular features of pronunciation when the subject arises.   That might not give immediately gratification to my readers, but at least I can sleep at night knowing I haven´t made a travesty of Spanish language!


Posted by: janecronin | October 23, 2016

Non-sexist Spanish

The concept of challenging sexism in language is well established in English.  The historical linguistic assumption in words like “fireman” “policeman” and “chairman” is that these jobs are exclusively performed by men so when a woman fulfilled one of these roles, she was either obliged to maintain the male-biased title or the job name was altered to “firewoman”, “policewoman” and “chairwoman”.   The feminist argument was that there was no need to specify the gender of the person fulfilling an occupation, so the words “fire fighter”, “police officer” and “chairperson” are now in common use, along with many other similar changes.

Another area where gender assumptions are challenged is in the use of the personal pronoun “he” when the gender is unknown.   Here is a typical example:  “If your child is upset at school, he may need to be encouraged …”   Some writers have chosen to replace “he” with “she” to redress the balance: “If your child is upset at school, she may need to be encouraged ….”  However, nowadays the singular use of “they” has become increasingly accepted: “If you child is upset at school, they may need to be encouraged …”

Challenges to male linguistic domination are very significant in the Spanish language as well.  In many cases the reasons are even more justified since women were excluded from so many areas of social and professional life during Franco’s dictatorship.  However, the Spanish solution has been to create equivalent female job titles, rather than to eliminate gender references.  This is the case with “abogada”, “fontanera”, “directora” etc. where the linguistic form easily lends itself to  gender change.  More awkward are solutions like “concejal” “concejala” (local councillor); “jefe” “jefa” (boss); “juez” “jueza” (judge) and so on.  Some people reject these forms on linguistic grounds whilst the feminine movement in general strongly defends them.

As students of Spanish you will have learnt that the masculine form is the “default” form when there is a gender mix.  For example “we” is “nosotros” when male or mixed company is referred to and “nosotras” is only used when those included in “we” are all female.  However, this too is being challenged strongly.  Nowadays most public speeches are addressed to: “compañeras y compañeros”; “amigas y amigos”; “madres y padres”; “vosotras y vosotros” and so on, with the feminine form often preceding the masculine.  In written or typed form a rather neat formula has been found which consists of using the @ (arroba) symbol to represent the “o” and “a” like this:  Estimad@s amig@s.

If you have children at school you will be aware of the AMPA (Parents’ Association).  This stands for Asociación de Madres, Padres y Apoderados (Association of Mothers, Fathers and Guardians).  However, when my children started school these were called “APA” – Asociación de Padres y Apoderados (Association of Parents and Guardians).  This was changed to specifically include mothers, which was more than justified, especially since they were the only ones who ever actually got involved!

Posted by: janecronin | October 16, 2016

Bringing up bilingual children

Despite the fact that bilingualism and multilingualism are the norm in many parts of the world, people in modern monolingual cultures often have misunderstandings about the benefits or otherwise of bringing up a child to speak more than one language.   Some people fear that if a child is taught a second language from an early age it will cause confusion and hold them back.  Nothing could be further from the truth and in fact there are many studies that indicate that bilingualism gives children a great advantage in their intellectual development.   With that said, there are some principles that need to be observed for bilingualism to be successful.

An interesting observation I have made is that, as quickly as a small child can pick up a new language, they can lose the language equally as quickly if it isn´t maintained.  You may have come across some little person who chatters away in four or five languages without any difficulty at all.  This is because at such an early age, a child has no conscious realisation that she is speaking different languages; she simply notices that she must use certain words with certain people to communicate.  If Daddy calls something a “door” and Mummy calls it a “puerta” whilst the friend down the road call it a “tür” and other children at the nursery call it “porta” a small child is happy to use these different versions in each context.  However, if one of these language sources, a parent, the friend or the nursery, were to disappear, that area of language would also be wiped out extremely quickly.

So, what principles should parents adopt to ensure a solid, long-lasting bilingualism in their children?  Firstly, I think it is very important to speak to a child naturally in your own mother tongue and never adopt another language artificially when talking to your child.  Secondly, don´t be demanding about what language the child answers you in.  If you ask your child what she has learnt at school and she answers you in the language used at school, never demand that she answer you in a different language.   You can echo the same information back in your own language so that she hears an alternative, but never give her the impression that she has said something incorrectly.  A small child will not understand that you are encouraging her to use a different language; she will just perceive there is something wrong in what she has told you.

Finally, on this complex but interesting subject, the most important thing is not to get over-anxious about bilingualism.  Family situations, linguistic contexts and children´s personalities vary, and it is far more important that a child grows up being listened to, whatever they say and however they say it.

Posted by: janecronin | October 9, 2016

The Status of Languages

The language with the highest status worldwide is English.  There is no objective evidence for this, but it is clearly the language with most influence.  Just in terms of statistics, it is spoken as a first language by about 375 million people; it is the official language of 75 countries; there are more second language than first language English speakers in the world and around 750 million people speak it as a foreign language.   In addition, 80% of the world’s electronically stored information is in English.

Bringing such overwhelming statistics to a personal level, I brought my children up as bilingual English-Spanish speakers in Spain.  This has not only given them a huge advantage professionally and academically, it has also given them a social and psychological advantage.  Since early infancy they have been envied and congratulated by their Spanish friends, neighbours and teachers for their ability to speak English.  This has meant that they have grown up with positive emotional connections with their mother’s native language and have certainly never been embarrassed by it.

Now compare this with the psychological impression a child would have living in Europe if their other language belonged to an ethnic minority.  No one would be congratulating them for speaking the language and it is quite possible that it would be looked down on, either consciously or unconsciously by their friends and acquaintances.  This could ultimately lead to their own rejection of the language, along with its culture and associations, and their lack of interest in passing it on to their own children in later life.

Therefore, we can clearly see that different languages enjoy different levels of social acceptability, with English at the top of the league table.  When it comes to Spanish, there is a lot of effort being put into raising its status in the world.  Every year there is Spanish language congress attended by academics and institutional figures from Spanish speaking countries in which they work out strategies to improve the standing of Spanish in the world.  Their objectives include agreeing points of common ground in the language itself, asserting the recognition and use of Spanish in the Internet, promoting Spanish language interests around the world and so on.  They have particular issues in the United States where “latinos” have had a second class status for so long and another of their challenges is the invasion of English words and terminology which has become increasingly pervasive in advertising and marketing, as it has been for many years in other fields such as technology and medicine.

In a global world and a free-market economy it very difficult, and possibly even counter-productive, to protect a language by legislation, but those who are working to promote the status of the Spanish language in the world are helping themselves and future generations of Spanish speakers both  professionally and culturally.

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