A history of the Spanish language

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A history of the Spanish language

The Aemilianensis Codex (San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja, 964 AD) is considered to be the first encyclopaedia written in the Iberian Peninsula. Photo: U.R.
The Aemilianensis Codex (San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja, 964 AD) is considered to be the first encyclopaedia written in the Iberian Peninsula. Photo: U.R.

Like all Romance languages, Spanish is derived from a third-century dialect of spoken or vulgar Latin. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the varieties of Latin spoken in the various territories conquered by the Romans began to drift away from one another and this led to the formation of new, Romance languages like Spanish.

In the late eleventh century, language standardisation or assimilation began in several areas of northern or central Spain, mainly involving such dialects as Astur-Leonese, Castilian and Navarro-Aragonese. This process led to the emergence of Castilian Spanish as a common language – the language we now call ‘Spanish’.

Early evidence

The Glosas Emilianenses (glosses, i.e. translations of isolated words and phrases into a language that could be identified as other than Latin, found in a tenth- or early eleventh-century codex at the Yuso Monastery in San Millán [St Aemilianus] de la Cogolla) were considered to be the earliest evidence of a text written in Spanish by philologist Ramón Menéndez Pidal. Later, however, it was shown that the Romance in which the glosses are written is closer to the Navarro-Aragonese language than to Castilian Spanish.

The first steps towards standardisation of written Castilian were taken by King Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1284), who gathered scribes at his court in Toledo and personally supervised their writing of extensive works in various fields – history, law, astronomy, etc. – in Castilian Spanish. This kind of knowledge had been written in Latin in Christian Europe for centuries, whereas vernacular languages were used to write popular literature only.

King Alfonso X’s decision triggered a linguistic and cultural revolution, giving the vernacular Spanish spoken and written in Castile the same prestige as only Latin had had so far. Thanks to this wise king, Spanish became the official language of the kingdom of Castile.

Expansion in the Iberian Peninsula

In the Late Middle Ages, Castilian Spanish spread in the Iberian Peninsula with the so-called Reconquista (the period during which the Spanish Christian kingdoms opposed and conquered the Muslim kingdoms). It began with the annexation of the kingdoms of Galicia and León under the rule of King Ferdinand III of Castile, the access of a Castilian dynasty to the throne of Aragon with King Ferdinand I and the conquest of every Muslim domain under King Ferdinand I and Queen Isabella I. The rising power of Castile among the kingdoms in the Peninsula led to the standardisation of the Spanish language on the basis of the variety used in the Castilian territory.

By the fifteenth century, most of the people in the Iberian Peninsula spoke a common language. In 1492, the Seville-born grammarian Antonio de Nebrija published the first Spanish Grammar in Salamanca. It was also the first grammar of a modern European language. The first book written in Spanish had been printed in 1483.

Brought by Spanish conquistadors, Spanish reached the Americas in the sixteenth century. After about two centuries of Spanish rule, most American countries fought for their independence, thus contributing to the spread of the Spanish language from California to Tierra del Fuego.

Meanwhile, in Spain, the Bourbon monarchs implemented centralised language policies through the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, strengthening the common language to the detriment of minority vernaculars.