A history of language in Spain
Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the world and the only language which is spoken in the whole Spanish territory. However, some of you might be surprised if I tell you there are a bunch of other languages that are spoken in specific areas. I could write pages and pages about them, but I’ll try to keep it simple so you don’t fall asleep halfway through the article. Here are a few languages spoken in Spain besides Spanish, although first of all have a look at this map of Spain divided in comunidades autónomas and provinces so you can figure out which parts of Spain you see in the following maps.
Euskera or Vascuence (in Spanish) is a peculiar language. Nobody knows where it comes from. I mean there are theories of course, but nobody knows for sure. Some say it has Berber origins, some say they are Caucasic, but right now the official version is that Euskera is an isolated language, with no relationship to any other one known.
The first known written words in Euskera are from some time between the 1st and the 3rd centuries. The first known verbal forms can be found in the Glosas Emilianenses (glosses of the Monastery of Saint Emilianus), from the 11th century. The first known literary text, written by François Rabelais, is from 1542.
Today, Euskera is the official language in the Basque Country and in some specific parts of Navarra. Thanks to mighty Wikipedia you can see the places where Basque is spoken frequently. As you can see, it is also spoken in a few areas of France. The areas where Basque is spoken nowadays are in white.
Are you curious about how Euskera sounds? I’ll assume you are so I have an excuse to post some music. Here’s a song from a Basque songwriter I really like.
This one is less weird for most people, it’s a Romance language after all. Roughly expressed, it’s a mix between Spanish and French with an Italian touch. As a Spaniard, it’s easy for me to understand a decent amount of written Catalan. The French influence can be seen in many words; I barely know any Catalan though, but the word finestra (fenêtre in French, finestra in Italian and ventana in Spanish) comes to mind.
The Romans arrived in Spain in the year 218 b.C, which means that Catalan wasn’t born before that. However, written proof of the language is not as old. It is possible to find feudal documents from the 11th century in which old Catalan is used, sometimes mixed with Latin, such as the Greuges de Guitard Isarn, senyor de Caboet. However, the first known literary use of Catalan are the Homilías de Organyà, from the end of that century or the beginning of the next one. These are collections of sermons about the preaching of the Gospel. The language has had its literary ups and downs, with some difficult times such as the 15th century and the not so distant dictatorship which ended about forty years ago. Nowadays, it is very common to see books written originally in Catalan.
Nowadays, Catalan is the only official language in Andorra, a tiny country between Spain and France with a population of 85,000 people. It is also co-official in Catalonia (northeastern Spain), Valencia (where it’s known as Valencian) and Majorca (where it’s known as Majorcan). There are regional standards in these two regions, although I believe the language is pretty much the same. I think there’s some Valencian or Majorcan people who don’t like to be told they speak Catalan, although I wouldn’t say there are many. If anyone reads this and doesn’t like it, please understand it is not my intention to offend anyone. Finally, Catalan also has semi-official status in Alghero, an Italian city on the island of Sardinia, and it is spoken without official recognition in some parts of Spain and southern France.
In this map, you can see where Catalan is spoken.
And, of course, there’s no better way of “meeting” a new language than listening to some music. Enjoy this happy Catalan song!
Galician, as Catalan, comes from Latin, although there are some words have older pre-Indo-European origins. As with pretty much every language spoken in Spain, although Latin is the main influence, there are others as well, such as the Germanic people who came in the 5th century when the Roman Empire was helplessly crumbling.
The transformation of Latin into Galician was slow but progressive, so it is difficult to determine when the language was truly born. However, thanks to some written documents, we know that, in the 8th century, the language the Church and the Administration used was, although not Galician, very different from classic Latin, with many idioms which later would be transmitted to Galician.
The first written documents in what is considered proper Galician are from the late 7th century, when Latin was still the “cultured” language. Specifically, the oldest document in Galician we know of is Ora faz ost’o senhor de Navarra from Joam Soares de Paiva, a satirical poem from approximately the year 1200. Galician had a golden age until the 14th century, when it started to decay. Later, in the 19th century, Galician became more important both in a day-to-day basis and in terms of literature; this period is known as Rexurdimento (revival).
Nowadays, Galician has a bit less than two and a half million speakers. It is official in Galicia (north-west of Spain) but it is also taught in some areas of Castilla y León that are adjacent to Galicia.
Here is a song in Galician.
Aranese was a dialect until, less than ten years ago, it became a language – arguably for political reasons, although I won’t elaborate. Nowadays it is official in Catalonia, although the only area in which it is really spoken is the Aran Valley. Aranese is very similar to Occitan language, and it is spoken by a bit more than fifty thousand people.
There are also a couple of dialects worth mentioning. The first one is Aragonese, which also comes from Latin. It is spoken by between ten and thirty thousand people in the north of Aragon.
Finally, there are there Astur-Leonese dialects, a group of dialects spoken in adjacent areas. The most important is bable, which around half a million people can speak nowadays.
This is a very quick introduction, and there is obviously a lot of information that is missing or has been simplified. If I hadn’t done that, you would be reading until frogs grew moustaches. I hope that, at least you have a very general idea of the languages spoken in Spain now.