Before the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Romans in the 2nd century BC, the area delimited by the present borders of Spain was inhabited by over a dozen nations, e.g. Iberians, Celts, Basques, Phoenicians and Carthaginians, whose languages became extinct during the Romans’ reign (except for the Basque language described below). Local dialects gave way to Latin, which in turn gave rise to the contemporary Spanish language. Spanish was also greatly influenced by Arabic, as Moors ruled the peninsula for over 700 years.
The first longer text written in Spanish was entitled “Cantar de mio Cid”. This was an epic poem describing the fate of a national hero of the time of the Reconquista, written in 1307. Nowadays, Spanish is the third most widely spoken language on the Earth (you can see more statistics on the attached infographics).
As regards the official language used in Spain, this status is assigned to Castilian. It is this very language that is commonly referred to as Spanish. Regional languages are also widely used. These are: Basque (the official language in the Basque Country and northern Navarre), Catalan (in Catalonia, Valencia and on the Balearic Islands), Galician (in Galicia) and Aranese (spoken in the area of the Val d’Aran and in the province of Lleida). It should be noted that these are not dialects but full-fledged languages, recognized locally as official ones. Below, you will find some information about the most important languages used in Spain (besides Castilian).
Catalan should sound familiar to those who have spent some time in Barcelona or on one of the following Spanish islands: Majorca, Minorca or Ibiza, as Catalan is the official language of the autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia (where Valencian – a regional variation of Catalan – is used). It is also the official language in Andorra.
Many people still consider Catalan as a Castilian dialect, yet this is a big mistake. Catalan emerged from folk Latin earlier than Castilian, and the first literary texts in this language go back to as early as the beginning of the 13th century. Catalan was losing its importance as the present Kingdom of Spain was being formed. This was also due to the influence of Castilian. Catalan remained, however, the main dialect for millions of people living in Mediterranean coastal areas. In the 20th century, during the reign of General Franco, Catalan was banned – along with all forms of the cultural and national identity of Catalans. It was, among other factors, the marginalization of this region’s position at the time of Franco’s dictatorship that has made present inhabitants of Catalonia so strongly emphasize their independence and diversity, while seeking for recognition of their culture and language.
The Basque language is spoken at present by about one million people, 90% of whom live in the area of present-day Spain. As many as ten significantly different dialects can be found in Euskara. To facilitate learning this language and communicating in it, its standardized variety – Euskara Batua – connecting the most important features of all ten dialects, has been developed.
The origin of the Basque language is very mysterious. It is known that it had been spoken in the Iberian Peninsula yet before Indo-European languages were introduced there, but we do not know from which language group it originated. So far, researchers have not been able to prove its relationship with any other European language, however, new theories about its origin emerge from time to time.
Galician is the official language (alongside Castilian) in Galicia, which is a territory in the north west of Spain, neighbouring in the south with Portugal. Some linguists argue that Portuguese and Galician are variations of the same language. The fact is that Portuguese derives from Galician (and not vice versa, as is commonly believed). What is more, Galego used to be considered to be the language of educated people – numerous poets and writes from the Iberian Peninsula wrote their works in this language in the Middle Ages.