A historic and linguistic tour of Spain

Stately building in Madrid

Stately building in Madrid

I am going to take you on a bit of a historical and linguistic tour of Spain to give you a better idea what Spain is today—and how it got that way.

Spain has been influenced by numerous ancient civilizations which inevitably left their mark on it is a culture and country. Even the name Spain comes from the early inhabitants.

The term Iberian peninsula came from the North African inhabitants who first crossed the Straits of Gibraltar called it Iberia, which meant the land of rivers (‘Iber’ meant river).  Then when the Greeks invaded the peninsula, they called it “land of the setting sun” since it was the westernmost point of the European continent.  The Carthaginians arrived at the peninsula around 300 BCE and appropriately called it Ispania, which meant “land of the rabbits.” Later, when the Romans rolled into town, they Latinized the name to Hispania. Over time the name Hispania changed to what it is today, España, so really, Spain is the “land of rabbits.”  This could explain the number of dishes that include bunnies as the main ingredient. 

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Basque country

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Basque country

You would be forgiven thinking that Spanish is the language spoken in Spain, it is of course—but it is not the only language. There are five co-official languages that are used and each adds an important part of the culture of Spain.  The languages other than Spanish are Catalan, Gallego, Euskera and Valenciano.  Catalan is spoken in Catalonia which borders France to the north, Gallego is spoken on the north coast above the Portuguese border, Valenciano is very similar to Catalan but found in the province of Valencia. Euskara is an antique language in a category of its own.

Euskara (also known as Basque) is thought to be an old Celtic language, but it fascinates linguists as it isn’t related to any other language in the world.  If you are heading to Spain and think you might want to take on a language besides Spanish just a word of warning: Euskara is rated among one of the 10 most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn.

Driving in the Basque country is a challenge as all the signs are in Euskara, not Spanish. On one road trip through the Basque country my husband was driving and I was navigating (before GPS). Navigating and map reading are not my strong points at the best of times, but in this instance when my husband asked me if we were near Bilbao and I told him I had absolutely no idea. The map was in Spanish with all the Spanish names, whereas the signs on the road are all in Euskara which has no resemblance at all to the Spanish names. Bilbao in, Euskara, is Bizkaia. San Sebastian becomes Donostia and so on. We eventually got to where we needed to go—not thanks to my talents nor to the road signs, but more due to my husband’s sense of direction.

Staying on the linguistic theme, one of my readers asked about the differences between Castilian Spanish (from Spain) and Spanish from Latin America. The answer is that each country has its own accent—similar to how each English speaking country also has a distinct accent. Actually, without even heading to the Latin countries, each region and sometimes each town in Spain has a different accent. Latin America tends to be more Americanized in that English words are sprinkled throughout their vocabulary. Spain Spanish will invent a new Spanish word, but rarely incorporates English or any other language into its vocabulary. 

In Spain, we speak more informally, rarely using the formal use of you, "usted." For plural, we speak with the informal "vosotros."  There are some words that are common in Spain that are considered insults in Latin American Spanish. I always have a halted speech when speaking to someone from South America as I am trying not to offend, either by words that I use in every day speech that are offensive to a South American, or by not speaking formally enough. Even after years in Spain, my formal Spanish is poor as I simply never need to use it except on rare occasions.  

A brief historical look of Spain

For centuries Spain was divided up into separate kingdoms all warring and vying for power. There were alliances, marriages of convenience, and constant power struggles. At one point Spain was much more extensive than it is now—it actually encompassed most of Europe, and had colonies in central and South America as well as the Philippines. Without getting into all the struggles or all the kings, queens and clergy who played huge roles in the history of Spain I will just briefly mention a few names that will keep popping up almost no matter where you go in Spain: Queen Isabella and King Fernando, their grandson Carlos I and his son Felipe II.

Queen Isabella and King Fernando were known as the Catholic kings. They united the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon to bring Spain to almost the size that it is today. Under their rule they conquered Granada which added the south of Spain to their lands, then they forcefully kicked out all of the Jews and Arabs in their territories and started the inquisition which tortured and killed anyone who was suspected of going against the Catholic church. Christopher Columbus negotiated with them to sponsor his scheme of finding India via the Atlantic ocean.

Almost all European royalty today are direct descendants from this couple, including Queen Elizabeth II of England.


Carlos I retired in this Monastery as far away from the European court as he could get

Carlos I retired in this Monastery as far away from the European court as he could get

Carlos I, grandson of Isabella and Fernando, was also known as Carlos V of Germany. He actually started ruling as Emperor of  Germany and Austria and the Netherlands before inheriting Spain from his maternal grandmother. He had never been to Spain before he became its king, and spoke very little Spanish. However, after 40 years of reigning over most of Europe, he decided to retire in Spain in a small obscure monastery about as far away from the court as he could get. You can catch up more on his story in this article: An Emperor's retirement home in the Monastery of Yuste

Felipe II, Carlos I’s son, started reigning when his father abducted the throne. He was a devout Catholic and started ruling at a time when Protestantism was making in-roads in mainland Europe. To prove that Catholicism was the supreme religion he went about pouring all the money coming in from the colonies in America to building a massive palace called El Escorial.   

The above-mentioned royals ruled from 1474 until 1598, and between them held power when Spain was in its prime. There were other important kings, queens and rulers with thousands of stories both before and after, but none held the same amount of power as Isabella together with Fernando, their grandson Carlos I, and great-grandson Felipe II.

 This post doesn’t even begin to dip into the history of Spain, but as you travel around, take the time to discover the historic and cultural treasures.

I would love to hear your questions, thoughts or comments about the language or history of Spain.