The language(s)

T he fall of Rome at the start of the fifth century led to Latin losing its role as the language of a vast empire, but not its influence. In Hispania, a Vulgar Latin began to evolve in the Ebro Valley of the Pyrenees Mountains. From there it spread along the river and morphed into separate languages. Except in the northwest, where a Celtic dialect (Celtiberian) was also spoken, making the area around present day Galicia and North Portugal bilingual. Meanwhile, nearby was the language of Basque, whose origins remain unknown. Some say it dates back to the ancient Iberian or shares the same roots as Chechen in the Caucasus Mountains. The truth, still a mystery waiting to be solved by a linguistic detective.

Much of Hispania was ruled by romanized Germanic Visigoths during the time known as the Dark Ages. These Germanic rulers didn’t mix with the natives, nor impose their language. As a result their linguistic influence on the locals was minimal, yet profound, giving us surnames that end in “-z“: Díaz, Pérez, López, Ruiz, Muñoz, etc., from a now extinct genitive declination in Spanish. Not in English, though. It’s the “-’s”,  sometimes known as the “Saxon genitive”.

The arrival of Berbers and Arabs across the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 marked the beginning of the end of Visigoth rule and the start of the Middle Ages. The Islamic emirate of Al-Andalus was born, extending into the southern part of Gaul (Modern day France) within 10 years.

Click for a map of this time

al-Andalus at its greatest extent, 720. (wikipedia)

al-Andalus at its greatest extent, 720. (wikipedia)

As the number of Arab speakers grew in the fertile Ebro valley, so did the language’s impact, giving us: aceite (oil), arroz (rice), espinaca (spinach) and azúcar (sugar), to name a few in food and beverage vocabulary alone. All total there are around four thousand Arabic derived words, or 8% of the current Spanish vocabulary, second only to Latin. Possibly the most famous of which is, “¡Olé!,” from wa’llah, or ojalá (I wish), which comes from Law sha’a Allah. “May Allah want.”


Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (Wikipedia)

The Battle of Toulouse in 721 stopped Moorish advances into France. A year later, the Battle of Covadonga, in the Kingdom of Asturias, began what is known known as, “La Reconquista” (The Reconquest).

Three hundred years would pass before Gallic Pope Urban II declared the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain as the “First Crusade”. The marriage of the Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, followed by the fall of Granada in 1491, signaled the end of Al-Andalus and the creation of Andalucía, one part of the current Kingdom of Spain.

Click for a gif showing the Reconquest


The Reconquista, 790-1300 (wikipedia)

12 October 1492 – Christopher Columbus discovers The Americas for Spain, painting by John Vanderlyn.

12 October 1492 – Christopher Columbus discovers The Americas for Spain, painting by John Vanderlyn.

1492. A year whose importance stretches borders and oceans. For it was when Isabella and Ferdinand funded Columbus’s historic journey, with the last of their money, after The Reconquest and unification of Spain.

The accidental discovery of the Americas began Spain’s golden age as a colonial empire and with it came an influx of new words to describe their new culinary riches: tomate (tomato), chocolate (chocolate), cacao (cocoa), patata (potato), maíz (corn).

But these aren’t the only historical influences. Italian, French, English, have played a role in the language now spoken by 406 million people. In fact, only Mandarin Chinese has more native speakers, even though Spain is no longer an empire or an aspiring global power.

The variety and flavor of Español (what the Spanish call Spanish outside of Spain) deserves its own … And that’s the goal, along with other languages. Until then, explore the original, Castellano, as the Spanish refer to their own language. When there’s a major difference with Español, we try and point it out.

Throughout its history the biggest influence hasn’t been external, however. It was the other derivatives of Vulgar Latin spoken on the Iberian Peninsula: Catalan and Galician, as well the mysterious Basque. All of which we also hope to bring to you soon. In the meantime here’s a suggestion – try and guess the origin of the word you come across in our dictionary. Then run a quick search online to check if you’re right. It’s a great way to remember the name of that dish you just can’t wait to try, or the many that you must avoid because you’re a vegan.


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