Spanish in Castile

1. Introduction
Castilian Spanish – not any one localized dialect of it, but a supra-regional or ‘neutral’ variety – supplies the model for standard Spanish in Spain (some Latin Americans also regard Castilian usage as being the most prestigious, although in practice the majority of Latin American speakers now gravitate towards regional or even national linguistic norms). The sociolinguistic pre-eminence of Castilian usage stems from the way in which Spain the nation state came into being. Castile emerged as the driving force behind the Reconquest and was the senior partner in the 15th century union with Aragon, which effectively resulted in the formation of modern Spain. It was only to be expected that the speech patterns that were cDepiction of the King Alfonso el Sabioharacteristic of Castile would form the basis for any subsequent standardization of the national language.

Historically it seems that upper-class Toledo speech provided the basis for the first standard orthography, which was developed by scribes at the Toldeo royal court during the 13th century under the auspices of Alfonso X el Sabio. Over the centuries this spelling system has been progressively modified to take account of changes in pronunciation, but the focus on Castilian usage has remained in place. Codification of the grammar crystallized a century and a half later in the publication of Nebrija’s celebrated Gramática de la lengua castellana (1492). This was distributed widely in Spain and the colonies, thus helping to consolidate the Castilian dialect’s position at the centre of the nascent standard language ideology.

An early example of the emergent standard dialect is given below:

Si el marido quisiere dar algo ala mugier o la mugier al marido non auiendo fijo. puedalo fazer despues que fuere el anno passado desde que cassaren & non ante. (From the Fuero Real, 13th century.)


‘If the husband wants to give something to the wife or the wife to the husband, there not being children, they can do it after one year has passed since they married and not before.’

2. Phonetics and phonology
Given the way standard Spanish is defined, features that are general in Castilian usage, particularly in terms of pronunciation, are likely to belong to the standard system enshrined in the normative manuals. Two possible candidates for non-standard but widespread Castilian phonological tendencies are the following:
  1. the articulation of word-final /d/ as [θ], as in [saluθ] salud ‘health’, [bondaθ] bondad ‘goodness’
  2. the articulation of /s/ as [ɾ] before a dental consonant, as in [loɾðjentes] los dientes ‘the teeth’ and [loɾθapatos] los zapatos ‘the shoes’.

Almost uniquely in the Spanish-speaking world, Castilian /s/ is retroflex (phonetic symbol: [ʂ]), with the tip of the tongue curled backwards to just behind the alveolar ridge. This type of sibilant has a lower pitch than the blade-alveolar or blade-dental sibilant [s] that is found in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. On the other hand, the pitch is not as low as for palato-alveolar [ʃ], the sound foreign learners of Spanish often pPicture of Nebrijaroduce when attempting a Castilian-style [ʂ]. Among speakers who have emigrated from Andalusia to Castilian cities (especially Madrid), /s/ pronunciation is usually the last speech variable to be adjusted in any process of dialect shift.

The /ʎ/ ~ /ʝ/ opposition is associated primarily with Castilian Spanish, having been lost in Andalusian Spanish and most Latin American varieties. However even in the Castilian dialect area it is frequently neutralized, with youth and/or southern-ness being the normal correlates of the loss or erosion of the distinction.

The remaining features that merit comment are fairly localized. With regard to vowels, the most important divergence from standard Spanish consists in the raising of the mid vowels in unstressed final syllables, as in [jelu] hielo ‘ice’ and [letʃi] leche ‘milk’. This phenomenon appears to reflect the influence of Asturian and is associated mainly with western Cantabria. For a sociolinguistic study, see Holmquist 1985.

In terms of consonants, the most significant dialectalism is the so-called r asibilada (‘assibilated r’), which is common in the Spanish of north central and north-western areas of Spain (Alava, La Rioja, Navarre, Aragon). The term r asibilada refers to the occurrence of a voiceless or voiced retroflex sibilant ([ʂ] or [ʐ]) where standard Spanish has [ɾ] or [r]. In assibilating dialects, the word decir ‘to say’, for example, may be indistinguishable from decís ‘you say’, both being pronounced [deθiʂ].

The assibilation of /ɾ/ and /r/ is common also in Latin America and there, as in northern Spain, the distribution of the voiceless and voiced variants usually follows a common pattern. The voiceless variant [ʂ] usually appears in syllable-final position or after a voiceless stop, as in [paʂke] parque ‘park’ and [pʂopjo] propio ‘own’. One common instance of this pattern, viz. [tʂ], may be barely distinguishable from the affricate [tʃ], with the result that words such as otro ‘other’ and ocho ‘eight’ may approach homonymy in assibilating dialects. The voiced variant [ʐ] tends to appear word-initially or intervocalically (in words spelled with -rr-), as in [ʐoxo] rojo ‘red’ or [peʐo] perro ‘dog’.

3. Grammar
Surprisingly perhaps, given the link between Castilian Spanish and Standard Spanish, many speakers in Castile exhibit leísmo and/or laísmo. The first of these terms refers to the use of le (and less commonly les) in the function of direct object, while the second refers to the use of la and las in the function of indirect object. According to the ‘standard’ system of object clitics in Spanish, la and las are accusative or direct object pronouns only, while le and les are in principle reserved for the dative or indirect object function. This reflects the fact that la and las, together with lo and los, descend from accusative forms of the Latin personal pronoun, whereas le and les descend from dative forms.

Leísmo is most common when the reference is to a human being, but it is quite frequent also when the antecedent is any animate entity. In some parts of Old Castile the phenomenon is related to the count–mass distinction, with le(s) being used whenever the antecedent is a (masculine) count noun (i.e. a noun that is used of discrete objects, such as niño ‘child’, árbol ‘tree’, perro ‘dog’, coche ‘car’ etc.). Compare, for example, (1) and (2) below:

(1) El coche no le mueven de ahí.
‘They don’t move the car from there.’

(2) El café ya no lo pruebo.
‘I no longer drink coffee.’

In most parts of the Spanish-speaking world, the anaphoric clitics are organized primarily on the basis of syntactic function (direct versus indirect object) and only secondarily on the basis of gender. In Castile, on the other hand, the occurrence of leísmo and laísmo together may tend towards a system that is based primarily on gender, as idealized in the table below:




Human referent

Non-human referent







Direct object







Indirect object



A phenomenon that is characteristic of northern Castile, Cantabria and the Basque Country involves routinely using the conditional form in place of the past subjunctive:

(3) Si haría buen tiempo, iríamos a la ermita.
‘If the weather was good, we would go to the chapel in the country.’

(4) Le compré los caramelitos para que se estaría callado.
‘I bought him the sweets so that he would be quiet.’

(5) Yo me fui antes de que llegaría.
‘I left before he/she arrived.

(6) Ojalá me tocaría el gordo.
‘If only I won the lottery.’

(7) No encontré a ninguno que lo haría.
‘I found no one who would do it.’

With the possible exception of (7), each of the above sentences would be regarded as ungrammatical by speakers from outside the far north of Spain.

An additional feature of northern varieties is a preference for the preterite in cases where speakers from Madrid, say, or southern Spain would be likely to use the perfect. Thus, for example, ¿Comiste ya? ‘Have you eaten yet?’, Eso no lo oí yo ‘I haven’t heard that’.


4. Lexicon
As is to be expected, there are few lexical items that are general in Castile and yet do not belong to the standard vocabulary. Most studies of the Castilian lexicon have highlighted items whose use is limited to small geographical areas, such as individual provinces. On the other hand, most manuals report the widespread use of caer ‘to fall’ and quedar ‘to remain’ as transitive verbs:

(8) Me cayó el caballo en carnaval.
‘The horse threw me at the carnaval.’

(9) Quedé el libro sobre la mesa.
‘I left the book on the table.’


Holmquist, Jonathan. 1985. ‘Social Correlates of a Linguistic Variable: a study in a Spanish village.’ Language in Society 14, 2:191–203.