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Spanish language

This article is about the international language known as Spanish. For other languages spoken in Spain see Languages of Spain.

Spanish or Castilian is an Iberian Romance language, and the second (perhaps third) most spoken language in the world. It is spoken as a first language by about 352 million people, or by 417 million including non-native speakers (according to 1999 estimates).


"Spanish" or "Castilian"

Spaniards tend to call their language español (Spanish) when contrasting it with other national languages (for example: in a list with French and English), but call it castellano (Castilian, from the Castile region) when contrasting it with regional languages of Spain (such as Galician, Basque, and Catalan). For the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, speakers of the language in some areas refer to it as español, and in others castellano is more common.


Spanish is a member of the Romance branch of Indo-European, descended largely from Latin and having much in common with its geographical neighbors.


The Spanish language was developed from vulgar Latin, with influence from Basque and French,in the north of the Iberian Peninsula (see Iberian Romance languages). Typical features of Spanish diachronical phonology include lenition (Latin vita, Spanish vida), palatalization (Latin annum, Spanish año) and diphthongation (stem-changing) of breve E/O from vulgar Latin (Latin terra, Spanish tierra; Latin novus, Spanish nuevo); similar phenomena can be found in most Romance languages as well.

During the Reconquista, this northern dialect was carried south, and indeed is still a minority language in northern Morocco.

The language was brought to the Americas, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Marianas, Palau and the Philippines, by Spanish colonization, beginning in the 16th century.

In the 20th century, Spanish was introduced in Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara.

Geographic distribution

Spanish is one of the official languages of the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. The majority of its speakers are confined to the Western Hemisphere, Europe and the Spanish territories in Africa (Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla).

With close to 100 million first-language and second-language speakers, Mexico boasts the largest population of Spanish-speakers in the world. The four next largest populations reside in Colombia (44 million), Spain (c. 42 million), Argentina (39 million) and the United States of America (c. 30 million).

Spanish is the official and most important language in 20 countries: Argentina, Bolivia (co-official Aymará), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea (co-official French), Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay (co-official Guaraní), Peru (co-official Quechua, Aymara and many other ones), Spain (co-official Catalan/Valencian, Galician, and Basque), Uruguay and Venezuela .

It is an important and widely-spoken language, but without official recognition, in Andorra and Belize.

It is spoken by much of the population of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar (which is also claimed by Spain), though English remains the most widely used and only official language. Yanito, an English-Spanish mixed language is also spoken.

In the United States, Spanish is spoken by some three-quarters of its over 40 million Hispanic population. It is also being learned and spoken by a small, though slowly growing, proportion of its non-Hispanic population for its increasing use in business, commerce, and both domestic and international politics. Spanish does hold co-official status in the state of New Mexico, and in the unincorporated U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. See Spanish in the United States for further information.

Spanish is also spoken by segments of the populations in Aruba, Canada, Israel (both standard Spanish and the Judæo-Spanish of the Sephardim, also known as Ladino), northern Morocco (both standard Spanish and Ladino), Netherlands Antilles, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey (Ladino), the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Western Sahara.

In Brazil, where virtually the entire population speaks Portuguese, Spanish is obtaining an important status as a second or third language (after English) among young students and some skilled professionals. The close genetic relationship between the two languages - along with the fact that Spanish is the dominant and official language of almost every country that borders Brazil - adds to the popularity. Standard Spanish and Ladino (Judæo-Spanish) may also be spoken natively by some Spanish-descended Brazilians, immigrant wokers from neighbouring Spanish-speaking countries and Brazilian Sephardim respectively, who have maintained it as the language of the home. Portuñol, the name of a mixed language coined from the words "português" and "español" and which is based on Spanish and Portuguese, is spoken in Brazilian border towns and villages, especially the Uruguayo-Brazilian border.

In Australia, Spanish is the seventh most spoken language after English. In the 2001 Australian Census, of the persons who reported they spoke a language other than English at home, around 97,000 reported Spanish. It is most common among Hispanic immigrants to Australia but tends to be lost among the generations of Australian-born Hispanics.

Among European countries, other than Spain and Andorra, it may be spoken by some of their Spanish-speaking immigrant communities, primarily in the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

In the Philippines, where its use has been in decline, Spanish ceased to be an official language in 1973 and is now spoken by less than 0.01% of the population; 2,658 speakers (1990 Census). The sole existing Spanish-Asiatic creole language, Chabacano, is also spoken by 292,630 (1990 census) Filipinos. The speakers are mainly confined to various regions on the island of Mindanao, a region south of Manila on the island of Luzon and by some speakers in Sabah, Malaysia. Most other native Philippine languages contain generous quantities of Spanish loan words.

In addition to the Philippines, Spanish may also be spoken in other Asian countries by pockets of ex-immigrant communities. Such instances include Mexican-born Chinese deported to China, and third or fourth generation ethnic Japanese Peruvians returning to their ancestral homeland of Japan, now much more prosperous than when their forebears emigrated.

The Pacific Island nations of Guam, Micronesia, Palau, Northern Marianas, and Marshall Islands all once had Spanish speakers, but Spanish has long since been forgotten, and now only exists as an influence on the local native languages. The only place in Oceania with a significant number of Spanish speakers is Easter Island, spoken by all of the approx. 3,000 inhabitants.

Argentina, Chile, Spain and Peru have bases in the Antarctic.


There are important variations in dialect among the various regions of Spain and Spanish-speaking America. In Spain the North Castilian dialect pronunciation is commonly taken as the national standard (although the characteristic weak pronouns usage or laísmo of this dialect is deprecated).

Spanish has three second-person singular pronouns , usted, and in some parts of Latin America, vos. Generally speaking, and vos are informal and used with friends (though in Spain "Vos" is considered a highly exalted archaism that is now confined to liturgy). Usted is universally regarded as the formal form, and is used as a mark of respect, as when addressing one's elders or strangers.

Vos is used extensively as the primary form of the second-person singular in various countries around Latin America (Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay) but can also be present in other countries as a limited regionalism. Its use, depending on country and region, can be considered the accepted standard or reproached as sub-standard and considered as speech of the ignorant and uneducated. The interpersonal situations in which the employment of vos is acceptable may also also differ considerably between regions.

Spanish dialects also differ regarding second-person plural pronouns. The Spanish dialects of Latin America have only one form of the second-person plural; ustedes (formal/familiar). Meanwhile, Castilian Spanish of Spain has two; ustedes (formal) and vosotros (familiar/informal).

The RAE (Real Academia Española), in association with twenty-one other national language academies, exercises a prudent influence through its publication of dictionaries and widely respected grammar guides and style guides.


Main article: Spanish grammar

(also: Spanish verbs)

Spanish is a relatively inflected language, with a two-gender system and about fifty conjugated forms per verb, but small noun declension and limited pronominal declension.

As for syntax, the unmarked sentence word order is Subject Verb Object, though variations are possible. Spanish is right-branching, with prepositions - with adjectives generally coming after nouns.

Spanish is also pro-drop (allows the elision of pronouns when unnecessary) and verb-framed.


Main article: Spanish phonology

The consonantal system of Castilian Spanish, by the 16th century, underwent the following important changes that differentiated it from some nearby Romance languages, such as Portuguese, Valencian and Catalan:

  • The initial /f/, that had evolved into a vacillating /h/, was lost in most words (although this etymological h- has been preserved in spelling).
  • The voiced labiodental fricative /v/ (that was written 'u' or 'v') merged with the bilabial oclusive /b/ (written 'b'). Orthographically, 'b' and 'v' do not correspond to different phonemes in contemporary Spanish, excepting some areas in Spain, particularly the ones influenced by Catalan/Valencian and some Andalusia.
  • The voiced alveolar fricative /z/ (that was written 's' between vowels) merged with the voiceless /s/ (that was written 's', or 'ss' between vowels), and these are now written 's' everywhere.
  • The voiced alveolar affricate /dz/ (that was written 'z') merged with the voiceless /ts/ (that was written 'ç,ce,ci'), and then /ts/ evolved into the interdental /θ/, now written 'z,ce,ci'. But in Andalucia, the Canary Islands and the Americas these sounds merged with /s/ as well. Notice that the 'ç' or 'c with cedilla' was in its origin a Spanish letter, although is no longer used.
  • The voiced postalveolar fricative /ʒ/ (that was written 'j,ge,gi') merged with the voiceless /ʃ/ (that was written 'x', as in 'Quixote'), and then /ʃ/ evolved by the 17th century into the modern velar sound /x/, now written 'j,ge,gi'.

The consonantal system of Medieval Spanish has been better preserved in Ladino, the language spoken by the descendants of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century.

Lexical stress

Spanish has a phonemic stress system — the place where stress will fall cannot be predicted by other features of the word, and two words can differ by just a change in stress. For example, the word camino (with penultimate stress) means "road" or "I walk" whereas caminó (with final stress) means "he/she/it walked". Also, since Spanish pronounces all syllables at a more or less constant tempo, it is said to be a syllable-timed language.

Writing system

Spanish is written using the Latin alphabet, with a few special letters: the vowels can be marked with an acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú) to mark stress when it doesn't follow the normal pattern or to differentiate otherwise equally spelt words (see below); diaeresis u (ü) after g to indicate a [gw] or [gu] pronunciation; and n with tilde (ñ) to indicate the palatal nasal [J]. Traditionally, the digraph rr was considered a separate letter, but this is no longer the case; the digraphs ch and ll have been considered separate letters since 1803 (see the DRAE for the entries on ch and ll). However, in 1994, the tenth congress of the Association of Spanish Language Academies agreed to sort ch and ll as ordinary pairs of letters by request of UNESCO and other international organizations, while keeping them as distinct letters for other purposes. Thus for example ch, instead of being sorted between c and d as formerly, now comes between ce and ci.

Written Spanish precedes exclamatory and interrogative clauses with inverted question and exclamation marks, examples: ¿Qué dices? (What do you mean?) ¡No es verdad! (That's not true!). This feature provides an immediate understanding of a written sentence's sense from its very beginning. It is one of the few languages whose written form does so.

Written Spanish also marks unequivocally stress through a series of orthographic rules. The default stress is on the final syllable when the word ends in any consonant other than "n" or "s" and on the penultimate (next-to-last) syllable on words that end in a vowel, "n" or "s". Words that don't follow the default stress have an acute accent over the stressed vowel.

A word with final stress is called aguda; a word with penultimate stress is called llana or grave; a word with antepenultimate stress (stress on the third last syllable) is called esdrújula; and a word with preantepenultimate stress (on the fourth last syllable) or earlier is called sobresdrújula. All esdrújula and sobresdrújula words have written accent marks.

Also, in a number of cases, homonyms are distinguished with written accents on the stressed (or only) syllable: for example, te (object case of "you") and ("tea"); se (third person reflexive) and ("I know" or imperative "be"); como ("I eat") and cómo ("how?").

These rules are similar but not the same as those of Portuguese and Catalan.

Spanish orthography is such that every speaker can guess the pronunciation (adapted for accent) from the written form.

While the same pronunciation could be misspelt in several ways — there are homophones, because of the language's silent h, vacillations between b and v, and between c and z (and between c, z, and s in Latin America and some parts of the Peninsula) — the orthography is far more coherent than, say, English orthography.

In spite of that, there have been several initiatives to reform the spelling: Andrés Bello succeeded in making his proposal official in several South American countries, but they later returned to the RAE standard. Another initiative, the O.RR.L.I. , remained a curiosity. Juan Ramón Jiménez proposed changing -ge- and -gi to -je- and ji, but this is only applied in editions of his works or his wife 's. Gabriel García Márquez raised the issue of reform during a congress at Zacatecas, but, with all his prestige, he got attention but nothing going. The Academies however from time to time change several tidbits.

Spanish is nicknamed la lengua de Cervantes (the language of Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote).

Examples of Spanish

Note, the third column uses the International Phonetic Alphabet, the standard for linguists, to transcribe the sounds. If you are not familiar with the IPA, or your browser is too old to display special characters correctly, there is an approximate pronunciation based on English in the fourth column. There are several examples of travellers' vocabulary and one literary reference.

English Spanish IPA transcription Figured pronunciation
Spanish español [espa'ɲol] (es-pahn-YOL)
Spanish (Castilian) castellano [kaste'ʎano] (kah-steh-YAH-no)
hello, hi hola ['ola] (OH-la)
Good morning! ¡buenos días! ['bwenos 'dias] (BWEH-naws DEE-as)
Good afternoon! ¡buenas tardes! ['bwenas 'tardes] (BWEH-nahs TAR-dess)
Good evening! ¡buenas noches! ['bwenas 'not∫es] (BWEH-nahs NOH-chess)
goodbye adiós [a'ðjos] (ah-THYOSE)
please por favor [porfa'βor] (pore faah-VORE)
thank you gracias ['graθjas] (GRAH-thyahs)
sorry perdón [per'ðon] (pare-THON)
because porque ['porke] (PORE-keh)
hurry up! ¡date prisa! ['date'prisa] (DAH-teh PREE-sah)
that (thing) eso ['eso] (EH-saw)
how much? cuánto ['kwanto] (KWAHN-to)
for example por ejemplo [por e'xemplo] (pore eh-HEM-ploh)
English inglés [iŋ'gles] (ing-GLESS)
yes ['si] (SEE)
no no ['no] (noh)
I don't understand no entiendo [noen'tjendo] (noh en-tYEN-do)
where's the bathroom? ¿dónde está el baño? ['dondees'tael'βaɲo] (DON-deh es-TAH el BA-nyo)
cheers! (toast) ¡salud! [sa'luð] (sah-LOOTHE)
do you speak English? ¿habla usted inglés? ['aβlaws'teðiɲ'gles] (AH-blah oos-TED ing-GLESS)
English: In some village in La Mancha, whose name I do not care to recall, there dwelt not so long ago a gentleman of the type wont to keep an unused lance, an old shield, a greyhound for racing, and a skinny old horse.
Spanish: En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.
IPA transcription: [enunlu'ɣarðela'mantʃa de'kuɟo'nombreno'kjeroakor'ðarme noa'mutʃo'tjempokeβi'βiauni'ðalɣo ðelozðe'lanθaenasti'ʎero a'ðarɣaan'tiɣwa rro'θin'flako i'ɣalɣokorre'ðor]

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (opening sentence).

See also

External links

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