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Why is Spanish, well, Spanish?

By Tom Thompson

When I first studied Spanish in high school, my only interest was the easy grade promised by a basketball coach-teacher, who, without knowing much Spanish, had been assigned the dubious duty of teaching it. I did not know that there was a text book for the course, and I thought that the required time each week in a language laboratory was for extra credit. That didn’t matter. Because of my superb final grade, for the next year’s coursework I was assigned to an accelerated second year Spanish class, where, frightfully, I really had to pay attention, and even study, in order even to maintain academic eligibility to be able to play basketball.

To my sudden and total surprise at the time, my basketball career was short lived, but, it didn’t matter as I found Spanish to be so interesting that it was the first of many subsequent career-building language learning efforts. Still I can vividly remember thinking then that knowing Spanish wasn’t good for much. It was mostly just fun to do imitations in another language. Many years later, and fluent in Spanish, I’m always interested to know the origins of its words and what other languages have contributed to its vocabulary. I’m fascinated by the process through which new words have been formed and continue to be formed. And I’m forever amazed by the varieties of Spanish, its adaptability, and its color and liveliness.

Ironically I remember being told by that basketball coach that I should be pleased and grateful to be his “modern language” Spanish student. The alternative, he had warned me, was Latin, “a dead language that’s completely irrelevant.”

Later I appreciated that Spanish is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. While speakers of Indo-European migrated through two continents, they naturally lost contact with one another, and new innovations in language splintered Indo-European into many distinct language branches. Latin is part of the Italic branch.

As the Roman Empire gained power during the fourth century B.C., Latin gradually began to spread throughout the Italian peninsula, and then through the Mediterranean.

Varying events in the different areas where Latin touched down eventually resulted in several distinct but related regional dialects, commonly known as the Romance languages. And Spanish shares with the other Romance languages most of the phonological and grammatical changes that characterized Vulgar Latin. Easy examples are the abandonment of distinctive vowel length, the loss of the case system for nouns, and the loss of deponent verbs.

As I finished high school and began to study French, Portuguese, and later Italian, it was obvious that speaking any one of them makes it much easier to decipher the others. And of course that’s because they all started out as Latin, or, to be accurate, what linguists call Vulgar Latin. Vulgar not meaning rude or obscene, but from the Latin vulgus, meaning “common people.” Scholars these days wish that they knew more about Vulgar Latin, but there’s not much evidence of it left, mainly because nobody wrote it down!

One would think that as the Roman Empire declined, the Germanic invasions in parts of Galicia and Andalusia would have put pressure on the Roman inhabitants’ use of Latin. But that wasn’t the case. In fact, writes David Pharies in A Brief History of the Spanish Language, the most significant effect of the brutal Visigothic presence on the Peninsula is the isolation of Spanish from the Romance varieties spoken in the neighboring regions of the former Empire. The Visigothic language became extinct in the seventh century.

While the Muslims invaded Europe as far as Tours in France and then are crushed by the Franks in 732, they enjoyed great success in Spain, partly out of the desire to be free of the cruelty and incompetence of the Visigothic kings. The Reconquest of the Peninsula by Spanish rule in the 1300s marked the territorial expansion of Castile, and of course the political dissolution of the Caliphate of Al-Andalus. Afterwards the Castilian vernacular reigned. But presence of so many Arabic speakers of Arabic during what was a long period transformed the linguistic physiognomy of the Peninsula and profoundly affected the Spanish language. Arabic provided to Spanish literally thousands of word loans, especially in several different semantic fields: administration, military, housing, agriculture, crafts, and commerce, among them. Alcalde (mayor), almirante (admiral), alcoba (bedroom), arroz (rice), albañil (bricklayer), aduana (customs) are all examples.

Through the eleventh century, the influence of Arabic was felt not only on vocabulary: Arabic also had a direct impact on the semantics of the Latin vernacular that developed in Spain. In La Historia del Español, Professors Nadeau and Barlow write that it’s possible that the Arabic influence forged another feature of modern Spanish that distinguishes it from other Romance languages, namely its simplicity. Spanish is by far the most phonetic and the most transparent of all Latin languages.

It’s easy to overlook the Arabic influence on Spanish in the Americas. The initial spread of Spanish to the Americas with the first Columbus voyage in 1492 was the same year that the last Islamic stronghold in Granada fell. In the following century in the Americas, the Spanish conquistadors went about subduing the native populations and taking back wealth to Spain. The Latin of the Catholic Church, Spanish, and various native languages (Mayan, Nahuatl, Totonac, and Quechua come to mind) were all used and produced a mix of language that became the official Spanish of the time. Some prehispanic words that are used today in Spanish include ahuacate (avocado), jitomate (tomato), and hurikán (hurricane).

Spanish is clearly becoming less Ibero-centric. Ninety percent of the 500 million Spanish speakers in the world now live west of the Atlantic Ocean. As Nadeau and Barlow, have said, “Spain’s empire was indeed critical to Spanish. But the real force driving Spanish over the last thousand years has been the spirit of its speakers, at once ingenious and sensitive, cruel and caring, coarse and highly spiritual.” Without dismissing colloquial or popular Spanish, or striving to attain an idealized language the way the French do with a doctrine of purism, Spanish is the language of Cervantes, Picasso, Garcia Marquez, Celia Cruz, Shakira, and any number of mariachis. All of them! Yes, the distinct flavor of the language can vary from region to region with some words that have different or particular meanings, even significantly so, but they are not beyond comprehension. A conversation involving a Miami Cuban, a Puerto Rican from New York, a Chicano from Texas, and a Mexican from California would seek a middle ground between any slang.

So called Spanglish has received lots of attention in the U.S., much of it having to do more with the heated politics of immigration than with linguistics. It is not a recent phenomenon. Mocho, pocho, and pachuco are antecedents. In any case Spanglish is a natural result of the contact between two language cultures. Puerto Ricans often substitute so for entonces (then, so). In Washington, D.C., I often hear chatearemos for “Let’s chat.” The point is that this kind of fusion is typical where languages coexist. There’s Llanito in Gibraltar, Zonian in the Panama Canal, and Franglais for English speakers in Quebec.

The main grammatical variation from one region to another in the Americas involves differing uses of pronouns, especially those of the second person. The customary use of usted, , and vos denotes different formality, familiarity, and intimacy from region to region.

The number and proportion of americanismos (vocabulary proper to the Americas) is increasing dramatically. With the numbers of 20th and 21st century Spanish speaking immigrants to the U.S. in the millions, Spanish has recently become more visible in the United States. But, in fact, Spanish has been used by Hispanics for nearly four centuries in portions of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas. There are now roughly 500 million people in the world who speak Spanish.

About the author

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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