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Castilian: The Real Spanish Language?

In an attempt to build and main­tain a nation­al iden­ti­ty, lan­guage is con­sid­ered to be the pri­ma­ry deter­mi­nant of suc­cess.” Lin­guis­tic schol­ar Andrew Simpson’s obser­va­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant in Spain, both in a his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary sense. It is no coin­ci­dence that one of dic­ta­tor Fran­cis­co Franco’s first pri­or­i­ties after the Nation­al­ist vic­to­ry in the Span­ish Civ­il War (19361939) was to out­law lan­guages oth­er than Castil­ian, tem­porar­i­ly crip­pling the fur­ther devel­op­ment of polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty in cul­tur­al­ly autonomous areas of the country.

What is Castil­ian? In the sim­plest sense, it is the lan­guage that we know today as Span­ish. But it didn’t have to be that way. Castil­ian has its roots in the north-cen­tral part of Spain known as Castile but was far from being a dom­i­nant lin­guis­tic com­peti­tor. Although employed as the lan­guage of state by Castil­ian King Alfon­so in the 13th Cen­tu­ry, the Castil­ian lan­guage did not begin its expo­nen­tial expan­sion until the mar­riage of The Catholic Kings”, Fer­di­nand and Isabel­la (1469). This mar­riage brought togeth­er the crowns of Castile and Aragon cre­at­ing much of what we con­sid­er today as geo­graph­ic Spain. Most crit­i­cal­ly, Isabel­la pre­scient­ly ced­ed her native Aragonese lan­guage to Castil­ian, believ­ing that it would be a bet­ter tool for the Chris­t­ian monar­chy, as it pushed the last of the Moors from the Penin­su­la and began its exploration/​evangelization of the Amer­i­c­as. So it was this mar­riage and this appre­ci­a­tion of func­tion­al­i­ty of the lan­guage that result­ed in Colum­bus car­ry­ing Castil­ian to the new world in 1492 rather than one of the many oth­er Romance lan­guages spo­ken on the Iber­ian Penin­su­la at the time. 

Obvi­ous­ly, the lan­guage has evolved glob­al­ly in many ways. Span­ish in Latin Amer­i­ca is spo­ken in a num­ber of dialects, in the same sense that Amer­i­can, British, and Aus­tralian Eng­lish have devel­oped their own unique char­ac­ter­is­tics. In the mean­time back in Spain, 99% of native Spaniards cur­rent­ly speak Castil­ian as a default lan­guage, mak­ing it the nation’s com­mon tongue. That, how­ev­er, is not the whole story. 

After Franco’s death in 1975, a new con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy restored lin­guis­tic free­dom to the Span­ish peo­ple. Since that time, there has been a dra­mat­ic resur­gence of region­al lan­guages. To touch on just a few:

  • Cata­lan. Most Amer­i­cans are aware that Cat­alo­nia has its own lan­guage, with roots dat­ing back to the 8thCen­tu­ry. In Barcelona today, it is spo­ken near­ly exclu­sive­ly, with Cata­lans resort­ing to Span­ish only when engag­ing with non-Cata­lan speak­ers. It is no secret that this resur­gence has been accom­pa­nied by a mod­ern dri­ve for increased polit­i­cal autonomy. 
  • Basque. The Basque lan­guage (Spo­ken in both the Span­ish and French Basque regions) is the only native non-Romance lan­guage on the Penin­su­la, with roots so deep that lin­guists are still not sure where it is from or how it orig­i­nal­ly arrived to the Penin­su­la. Although the resur­gence of the Basque lan­guage after the death of Fran­co ini­tial­ly accom­pa­nied a burst of polit­i­cal sen­ti­ment, the lan­guage now reflects cul­tur­al auton­o­my more than polit­i­cal ambition. 
  • Gali­cian. Spo­ken in the north­west­ern state of Spain known as Gali­cia, the lan­guage is unques­tion­ably relat­ed to Por­tuguese with some lin­guists argu­ing that the lan­guages are dialects of each other. 

This short list does not even come close to reflect­ing Spain’s ongo­ing lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty. It is sim­ply meant to dis­suade the read­er of any false mis­con­cep­tion they might have regard­ing the polit­i­cal or cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny of Castil­ian on the Iber­ian Penin­su­la. Simpson’s obser­va­tion remains absolute­ly rel­e­vant today as the peo­ple of Spain (and indeed much of the mod­ern world) strug­gle to deter­mine mean­ing­ful, and rel­e­vant identities.