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8 Facts about the Spanish Language

Updated: May 19

1. Spanish is the world's second most spoken language

This surprises many people who assume that English, with 328 million native speakers, would be in second place behind, obviously, Chinese, with 1.2 billion! However, Spanish has 329 million, which just pips it.

2. Spanish is the fourth most widely spoken language

There are 44 countries where Spanish is spoken by at least 3 million people, which makes it the fourth most widely spoken language behind English, which is represented by 112 countries, French (60), and Arabic (57). Oceania and Antarctica (obviously!) are the only continents without a large Spanish-speaking population.

3. Spanish Is in the Same Language Family as English

Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees; we both evolved from the same common ancestor of hominoid. This is an almost perfect analogy for how closely related English and Spanish are: we both evolved from the original source called Proto Indo-European (PIE), as did the vast majority of European languages, but then branched off long enough ago to consider ourselves as completely separate entities.

To take an average of all the estimates, it was about 3000 BCE that this single PIE language split into several main language families, such as Romance/Latinate, Slavic, and Germanic, which then sub-divided into the individual languages we would recognise today.

The collapse of the Roman Empire was the event that allowed all the Latinate languages to start to develop in different ways from each other, and whilst it can be tempting to think of each group as having one dominant language and others as corruptions of this original, this is simply not true! Of the several different languages (not dialects!) spoken in mainland Spain for example, it is mainly an accident of history, and partly the efforts of Spain’s King Alonso in the 13th century, that Castilian Spanish rather than Catalan or Galician is recognised as standard, and is the version that has become the second most-spoken language in the world, in terms of pure numbers of native speakers.

4. Spanish or Castilian; Español or Castellano?

It is a surprisingly accurate indicator of a Spanish speaker’s political leanings as to whether they refer to their own language as español or castellano (the Spanish equivalent of "Castilian"). People who favour any kind of devolution from centralised Madrid-based power are more likely to use español, while the more traditional, conservative types will use castellano.

English speakers sometimes use "Castilian" to refer to the Spanish of Spain as opposed to that of Latin America, but that distinction is not the one used among Spanish speakers.

5. What’s a spelling bee?

The good news for anyone learning Spanish is that it is one of the most phonetic languages in the world. If you know how to spell a word, you can pronounce it with confidence, and whilst there are a few flies in the ointment in terms of the vice versa scenario, you can be fairly sure of spelling it correctly, making spelling competitions rather pointless.

The main exception is recently-borrowed words of foreign origin, which sometimes retain their original spelling. Having said this, some foreign words are hispanified in terms of spelling, for the obvious reason of ease of pronunciation:

Buffet --- bufé

Standard --- estándar

Volleyball --- voleibol

And some words borrow the concept from another language, but render it into Spanish:

Kindergarten --- jardín para niños (garden for children)

The next time you are in Spain, count how many different spellings you can find for “sandwich” and “ketchup”. You will see them spelt according to the way the individual restaurant owner might pronounce it.

6. The Royal Spanish Academy

The Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española), was formed in the 18th century, and has become the de facto arbiter of standard Spanish. The dictionaries and grammar guides it publishes are considered to be the most authoritative. Although its directives do not have the same standing as that of the French equivalent, L’Académie Française, they are widely accepted as language ‘law’, if not actual law, in both Spain and Latin America. Arguably, the Academy’s most notable reform to the language has been the addition of the inverted question mark and exclamation mark (¿ and ¡), which are unique to Spanish. The same is true of the tilde above the ‘n’, in words such as niño, La Coruña and of course, España.

7. You say papa, I say patata

As we have already established, Spanish originated on the Iberian Peninsula as one of the direct descendants of Roman Empire Latin. However, due to Señor Colón and his New World colonisations, (have you ever made the link between the Spanish version of ‘Columbus’ and the word ‘colony’?) there are more speakers in Latin America than Spain, by a factor or approximately 10:1. There are some differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation between the European Spanish and that of Latin America, but not so great as to prevent easy communication. Think of American and British English: the differences are comparable.

Papa, by the way, is the Latin American word for potato, as opposed to patata in Spain.

In Spain, papá (note the accent) means daddy, whereas el Papa (no accent) is the Pope.

Interestingly, the difference between European Portuguese and that spoken in Brazil is much greater than the Spanish and English equivalents.

8. Arabic Had a Huge Influence on Spanish Language

When studying Spanish it is not uncommon to come across a new word and think “Whoa! Where did that come from?!” If it is completely unfamiliar, dissimilar to anything you’ve seen in any other European language, the chances are it belongs to the sizable list of words that come from Arabic.

The Arabic-speaking Moors ruled Spain, or at least had a strong foot-hold, for seven hundred years, so it is hardly surprising that a lot of words were borrowed by the Spanish language. Is ‘borrow’ not a euphemism? They are not going to be given back! Some of them made it over the Pyrenees into other European languages, but a good few of them stayed on the peninsula, giving us learners of Spanish a bit of a jaqueca [see below].

There are so many Arabic words in Spanish that it almost seems pointless to make a list, but I’ve put a few examples below.

Side note: I once conducted an interview for a PE teacher. The best candidate, a blond Swedish woman, confidently told me that she could also teach Arabic. “Fantastic,” I said, highly impressed and rather surprised. “We have a lot of children from Middle-Eastern families in this school, maybe you could run a club…”

A blank look.

“I’m sorry, I thought you said you could teach Arabic.”

“No, aerobics.”

This made rather more sense.

Aceite oil

Aduana customs (at border)

Albóndiga meatball

Alcohol alcohol

Alfombra carpet, rug

Almohada pillow

Alcalde mayor

Basically, pretty much any word that starts with ‘al-’ comes from Arabic

Cero zero

(Don) Fulano so-and-so

Jaqueca migraine

Máscara mask

Sandía watermelon

Whilst Arabic is historically the biggest influence on Spanish, today it is unquestionably English, a statement which probably applies to most languages in the world today.

Learning facts about the language is a good start, but really just the warm-up activity for Learning The Language itself. If you have ever wondered about learning Spanish from scratch, or brushing up some rusty knowledge from school days or past holidays, now is the idea time: we have places in our groups of all levels, and are hoping to start up a brand-new beginners' class, online, after Easter. Please make contact here if you would like to find out more details.

Andrew Wenger, Same-Sky Languages

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