History of Spanish - Introduction

Spanish is a Romance language, meaning that it is a vernacular descendant of Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire. 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. Latin is normally thought of as an extinct language, and in one sense this is true, as there Roman ruins at Bolonia, Cadizare no longer any native speakers of the Classical Latin that is taught in schools. On the other hand, each of the languages that were just mentioned could be regarded as regional varieties of modern Latin. The fact that modern Spanish or French speakers, for example, cannot understand Classical Latin (unless they have deliberately learned it) reveals the far reaching changes that have taken place as the Romance languages have evolved. Nevertheless, an unbroken chain of speakers exists that links the population of the Roman Empire with the present population of the Romance-speaking world.

Like the other Romance languages, Spanish is derived from Vulgar Latin, the complex of dialects that represented the language spoken by legionaries, traders, farmers and so forth. Concrete evidence of what Vulgar Latin was like is hard to come by, however, as it was never systematically written down. As the philologist Menéndez Pidal put it (1968:3), el cantero más rudo, al grabar un letrero, se proponía escribir la lengua clásica ‘the least polished stone mason, when he carved a sign, tried to write the classical language.’ Only in a handful of inscriptions, prescriptive treatises such as the famous Appendix Probi, and the occasional non-standard text are we given a glimpse of how Latin was actually spoken by the population at large.

Nevertheless, the gap between Vulgar and Classical Latin should not be overestimated. It is true that grammatical relations which in Classical Latin were expressed by inflecting individual words were more commonly represented in the Vulgar variety syntactically or periphrastically, as in de cervos for cervorum of the deer or cantare habeo for cantabo I will sing. But there is no reason to suppose that the bulk of the populace would have been incapable of recognizing most of the words of a Classical text when it was read aloud or even of decoding the literary syntax and morphology.

Vulgar Latin was presumably always subject to considerable geographical variation, although not to the extent that Latin speakers from different parts of the Empire would not have been able to understand one another. 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 (i.e., originally, the language of Castile), texts from the Castile area begin to exhibit Romance features from the 10th century onwards, but the 12th century texts are the first that have a clear Spanish look to them (for examples of medieval Spanish writing, see Gifford & Hodcroft 1966). 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.

Spanish has its roots in the rustic Latin of southern Cantabria and its growth from obscure provincial dialect to world language mirrors the rise of the kingdom of Castile. Initially a small enclave on the eastern edge of the kingdom of León, Castile played a leading role in the Reconquest, expanded (together with its language) progressively southwards and by the fourteenth century controlled all of the Peninsula except Portugal, Navarre, Aragon and the surviving Islamic kingdom of Granada. With the unification of Castile and Aragon in 1479, the modern Spanish nation-state was born and, shortly afterwards, Columbus’s discovery of America initiated a new colonial phase. In this way, the Castilian variety of Romance came to be not just the pre-eminent language of the Iberian Peninsula but also, from the sixteenth century onwards, an important world language too.


Gifford, D. J. and F. W. Hodcroft. 1966. Textos Linguisticos de Medioevo Espanol. Con Introducciones y Glosario. London: Dolphin Book Co.

Menéndez Pidal, Ramón. 1968. Manual de gramática histórica español. Madrid: Espasa Calpe.