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Spanish – A Multicultural Language

The “official” language of Spain is referred to as Castellano (Castilian) since it is derived from the dialect spoken in the kingdom of Castile (historically the largest and strongest of the Iberian kingdoms). Other languages/dialects found in Spain include Catalan, Galician, and of course, Basque (which has no linguistic relationship to the Latin derived romance languages of the region). As a result of policies implemented by the 13th century King of Castile and Leon, Alfonso X (1252-1284), Castilian was increasingly standardized through the development of grammar and writing conventions. Dialects from other regions that were of oral, but not written, traditions (as in Aragon) were not able to maintain or expand their spheres of influence. As Castile’s power and influence increased, its linguistic conventions became dominant.

However, what many do not realize is that the modern Spanish language is an admixture of various cultural influences from outside of Spain. One of the most important contributions to the language was Arabic. Between 711 – 1492 Arabic speaking Moors controlled and ruled Iberia. The Moors were North African Arab speakers who crossed the straits of Gibraltar and conquered the weak Visigoth kingdom of Hispania. This period also saw the flourishing of multiculturalism and religious tolerance. For nearly 800 years, under the rule of Moors, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together and exchanged vocabularies as well as sangre (blood).

It is estimated that at about one third of modern Spanish is derived from the Arabic. Interestingly, many words for luxury items are from the Arabic. Here is a short list:

alberca - pool
alfombra - carpet
almohada - pillow
camisa - shirt
taza - cup

Other loan words show the influence of the Moors in the areas of agriculture and trade:
aceite - oil
acequia - irrigation canal
aduana - customs house
albañil - bricklayer
azafrán - saffron
azúcar - sugar
berenjena - eggplant
café - coffee
naranja - orange
zanahoria - carrot

A common phrase still used throughout the Spanish speaking world is “Ojalá” (hopefully) which translates from the Arabic as “should Allah (God) will it.” Few contemporary Spanish speakers are aware of the Muslim origins of this invocation.

The next significant change to the Spanish language correlates with the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Moors on January 2, 1492. Later that same year, Christopher Columbus would make his historic voyage that would link the Old and New Worlds. Spaniards would adopt words and phrases for things unknown to the Old World from the numerous of Indigenous societies of the Americas.

Familiar loan words (many of which have entered into English) include:

Spanish - English - Origins
barbacoa - barbecue - Caribbean (Taino)
hamaca - hammock - Caribbean (Taino)
cacique - chief - Caribbean (Taino)
manati - manatee - Caribbean (Taino)
coyote - coyote - Aztec (Nahuatl)
chocolate - chocolate - Aztec (Nahuatl)
guajolote - turkey - Aztec (Nahuatl)
tomate - tomato - Aztec (Nahuatl)
tlacuache - opossum - Aztec (Nahuatl)
cacao - cocoa - Mayan
chompipe - turkey - Mayan(?)(used in Central America)
chuco/shuco - dirty - - Mayan
chucho - dog - Mayan(?)(used in Central America)
coca - coca leaves - Inca (Quechua)
condor - condor - Inca (Quechua)
guano - guano - Inca (Quechua)
llama - llama - Inca (Quechua)
papa - potato Inca (Quechua)
quinoa - quinoa - Inca (Quechua)

Today, the country with the greatest number of Spanish speakers is Mexico. With a population of more than 112 million, Mexicans outnumber Spaniards by more than 2:1! Further, a recent report by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language indicates that 90% of Spanish speakers live in the Americas.

Dramatic changes have occurred to Spanish language and culture over the past 1300 years and it will continue to develop and evolve with the times. We can expect Spanish to assimilate new words and concepts from other cultures as a consequence of globalization.


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Content copyright © 2013 by Carleen D. Sanchez, PhD. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Carleen D. Sanchez, PhD. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Valerie Aguilar for details.



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