The History of the Spanish Language

In this history of the Spanish language I will look first at the people and cultures that inhabited the Iberian Peninsula. These peoples had undoubtedly a great influence in the way the Spanish language evolved. Many cultures left their mark on the Spanish people and their language; among them are prehistoric man, the Iberians, the Tartessians, the Phoenicians, the Celts, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Swabians, the Alans, the Visigoths and the Moors. Secondly, I will look at a few of the changes that took place in the transformation of Latin, which was the dominant language of the peninsula following the Roman colonization, into Spanish.

The People

Numerous traces of prehistoric people have been found all throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Sites have been discovered dating as early as 500,000 B.C. By the Middle Paleolithic period, Neanderthal men lived in the area. During the Upper Paleolithic period, Cromagnon men inhabited the peninsula (Candau).

Following prehistoric man, the Iberians inhabited the peninsula. We do not know exactly who the Iberians were. Some believe that they were direct descendants of the prehistoric men (Poulter 13). Others believe that they were a civilization formed by contact between the indigenous people of the area and the Greek and Phoenician colonies that were established on the peninsula (Candau 13). And yet others believe that they were a civilization who had come from Africa. The language of the Iberians was preserved in a few inscriptions and, presumably, it was still spoken at the end of the first century A.D. (Spaulding 7). Most of the Iberian inscriptions that have been found use the Punic alphabet. It seems that the language of the Iberians had only a minor influence on Spanish since very few words from this pre-Roman time have survived. Some of these words are: arroyo(small stream), García(family name), sapo(toad), manteca(lard), cachorro(puppy, cub) (Spaulding 8).

The Phoenicians colonized the peninsula around 1100 B.C., founding numerous cities on the Mediterranean coast for trading purposes. Spaulding explains: "The Phoenicians, carrying their trade around the Mediterranean coast line, arrived, by the eleventh century B.C. . . . at southern Spain, where they set up 'factories,' or at least ports of call at Málaga, Carteya, Adra, Almuñécar, and Cádiz" (13). One of the greatest contributions of the Phoenicians was that they introduced the art of writing into Spain. As far as contributions to the language, there were very few; some scholars believe that the name Hispania has its root in a Semitic word meaning "hidden, concealed, remote" (Spaulding 15).

The Tartessian culture came about as a consequence of the Phoenician colonizations. According to Poulter, they are believed to be the people of the city of Tarshish mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 23:1, Jeremiah 10:9). This culture disappeared from history around 500 B.C., and little is know about what became of them (14).

The Greek and the Phoenician colonizations of the peninsula were parallel. The Greeks were also attracted to the Iberian Peninsula for trading purposes. They established several cities there including Emporion and Rhodes. Most of the words of Greek origin found in modern day Spanish do not come from this period of colonization; rather, they were introduced into the language later by the Romans. Most of these words refer to education, science, art, culture and religion, like matemática(mathematics), telegrafía(telegraphy), botánica(botany), física(physics), gramática (grammar), poema(poem), drama(drama), obispo(bishop), bautizar(baptize), angel(angel) (Lapesa 45).

Poulter claims that the Celts migrated to the Iberian Peninsula from Northern and Western Europe in 1000 B.C., and that there was also a second migratory wave around 500 B.C. He also explains that the Celts did not impose their government or their language on the indigenous people, but rather there was a coexistence of the two cultures (15). As with Greek, most of the Celtic words found in the vocabulary of modern day Spanish were brought in by the Romans who had previously encountered the Celts in Gaul (Spaulding 12). Most of these words have to do with material things, hunting and war. For example: caballo(horse), carro(cart), camino(road), flecha (arrow), lanza(lance), cerveza(beer), camisa(shirt) (Spaulding 13).

The Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage in 1000 B.C. on the African coast. By 500 B.C., it had evolved into a Mediterranean power. During the six century B.C., the Carthaginians responded to a Tartessian attack on the Phoenician city of Gadir. They invaded the peninsula and subjugated the Tartessians. But it was the Carthaginians who ultimately lead to the Roman invasion of the Peninsula. In 264 B.C., the Carthaginians engaged in war with Rome over control of Sicily. This is known as the first Punic war. In 218 B.C., they engaged in the second Punic war, trying to recover territories that they had lost to the Romans during the first war. They were defeated, and the Roman Empire took over control of the peninsula (Spanish 522 class notes). The Romans brought with them their language and imposed it on their subjects. Latin became the dominant language of the peninsula, and it is from Latin that Spanish evolved. Later on, in the language section of this paper, I will concentrate on Latin and its development into Spanish.

In 409 A.D. Germanic barbarians entered the peninsula. This group consisted of the Vandals, the Swabians and the Alans. Their presence in the area was brief and they had little influence on the language. Most traces of their presence are seen in geographical place names like Andalucia(Vandalusia> Vandalucia, land of the Vandals) (Poulter 18).

During the fourth century, the Visigoths entered Rome, where they lived under Roman rule. Poulter explains that around the year 415 A.D. they entered Hispania and expelled the barbarian tribes that had settled in the area. Later on they separated from the Roman Empire and established their dominion throughout the Iberian Peninsula, with their capital at Toledo. By the time they entered Hispania, the Visigoths had become Romanized and had abandoned their language in favor of Latin (20). Thus, the Visigoths were a Latin-speaking Germanic tribe.

Probably the most important consequence of the Germanic invasions was not their linguistic influence. Rather, their invasions created a great cultural depression which truncated communication with the rest of the areas of Roman control (Lapesa 123). Vulgar Latin in the peninsula was left to its own.

In 711, the Moors took over Hispania and defeated Roderic, the last Visigoth king. Many Christians remained under Moorish control, while others relocated to the north outside Moorish jurisdiction (Poulter 20). Moorish invaders traveled alone and many of them married Spanish women. Toledo was recaptured from the Moors in 1085 by Alfonso VI, and in 1492 Granada was defeated and the Moors were expelled from Spain.

The language of the Moors was Arabic. This was the most influential language in the development of Spanish. More that 4,000 Spanish words have been found to come from Arabic. Most of these words are related to war, agriculture, science and the home, like tambor (drum), alférez(ensign), acicates(spur), acequia(canal, drain), aljibe(cistern, reservoir), alcachofa(artichoke), alfalfa(alfalfa), algodón(cotton), alcoba(bedroom), azotea(flat roof), algoritmo(algorithm), alquimia(alchemy), alcohol(alcohol) (Lapesa 98). The influence of Arabic on Spanish was only on the lexicon, and as a matter of fact, Spanish did not incorporate any Arabic phonemes into its phonological system (Lapesa 106).

The Language

As we have seen before, when the Romans took over the peninsula they brought with them their language and imposed it on the people. From that time on, Latin was the dominant language on the region, and it is from Latin that Spanish evolved.

During the first century B.C., the Roman Republic reached its cultural climax, and it is the Latin of this period that is now referred to as Classical Latin (CL). As Poulter explains, CL "was the language of culture, learning, philosophy, and religion" (23). This language originated in a small region called Latium, near the Tiber.

In the CL vocalic system each vowel had a short version and a long version. The meaning of the word changed according to the length of the vowel. This was a quantitative differentiation of the vowels. I have chosen the following example to illustrate this point: the Latin word libermeans free (libre), while the Latin word libermeans book (libro) (Spanish 522 class notes).

Latin was a highly inflected language which used morphological variations of the basic form of a word to express different ideas. CL had five different declinations. Nouns belonged to one of these declinations according to the ending they had. Nouns of the first and fifth declinations were feminine, while nouns of the second and most of the nouns of the fourth declinations were masculine. Nouns of the third declination were either masculine, feminine, or neuter. All nouns were inflected for number and case. CL had five cases, nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative. Pronouns and adjectives were also inflected for case, number and gender (Poulter 26).

In CL there were finite and non-finite verbs. The finite verbs were inflected for person, number, tense, voice and mood. The non-finite verbs forms were the infinitive, the gerund, the participle and the supine. Verbs were divided into four conjugations depending on the infinitive endings: -are = amare, -ere = habere, -ere = facere, ire = audire (Poulter 30).

Vulgar Latin (VL) and CL coexisted. VL has no implicit chronological limits and it is contemporaneous with CL. CL was the Latin taught in schools, it was the Latin spoken by the upper class. VL, on the other hand, was used by the common people in everyday conversation. It is from VL and not CL that Spanish came from. Since VL was mostly a spoken language, there are few sources of it. Some of the sources we do have came from literary writings reflecting popular speech, technical writings directed to people of modest education who worked in cookeries, farms, and constructions, Christian writings directed to an unsophisticated audience and writings of grammarians correcting common mistakes (Span. 522 class notes).

The VL vowel system was different than the CL system in that the distinction among vowels was qualitative instead of quantitative. The long vowels became close vowels, while the short vowels became open vowels.

The consonant system remained practically the same in VL as in CL, with a few exceptions. hdisappeared altogether in VL. Intervocalic band v became bilabial fricatives. cand g before front vowels became palatal affricates and later alveolar affricates [ts] and [dz]. Intervocalic voiceless stops [p, t, k] became voiced [b, d, g]. mand nin word final positions disappeared, except m became n in monosyllabic words.

By the six century, Latin morphology and syntax had suffered major changes. Prepositions started to appear replacing three of the five cases, leaving only nominative and accusative. One explanation for this is that when final munderwent deletion the exactness of the function of case endings was lessened and it created confusion of eand i, and o and u in unstressed syllablescausing the cases to sound too much alike (Spaulding 38). By the end of the VL period in Spain, declinations had disappeared altogether, and neuter forms assumed gender.

The verbs were simplified as well. Most of the verbs of the third conjugation went to the second, and some to the fourth. There was also a shift on the tenses. Poulter explains this shift as follows: "The perfect tense became the preterit; the perfect passive participle became the past participle. The perfect tense came to be expressed by compounding habere with the past participle. Similarly, the future was replaced by compounding the infinitive with the present indicative of habere, and from this arose the conditional by using the imperfect of haberewith the infinitive" (52).

Once the Roman Empire fell, VL started taking on different characteristics in the different regions. The area of Roman domination was separated linguistically into two groups. These were the eastern region, including Dacia, Dalmacia and the Italic Peninsula, and the western region, including Spain, Portugal, Galia, Northern Italy and Retia. Both regions had their own changes which differentiated them from each other. One such difference is the formation of the plurals. The western region started forming the plurals by adding -s. In the eastern region they formed their plurals differently because of the dropping of word final s(Lapesa 86). As an example of this I compared Spanish, which belongs to the western region, and Italian, which belongs to the eastern region. I took the singular form of the words libro(book), casa(house) and cosa(thing), which are common to both languages. Then, I compared the corresponding plural forms of these words which are libros, casasand cosas in Spanish, while in Italian they are libri, caseand cose.

During the period leading to Old Spanish (OS), many changes took place. The sources of OS available to us, and from which most of the information we have comes from, are mostly literary writings and notarial documents. Notarial documents tend not to be as good a source for vernacular language, but they are very helpful in establishing a chronology of change since they offer precise datings (Blake 1).;_

There were many phonological changes, both in the vowel and consonant systems. Due to the number of these changes I will only mention a few (a complete listing of these changes can be found in Poulter 58-77). Latin ffollowed by a vowel at the beginning of a word changed to h(eg., filum> hilo, ferrum> hierro, femina> hembra). Voiceless stops p, k and gchanged to voiced stops b, dand g (eg., focum> fuego, sapit> sabe, auditum> oído). Double consonants cc, pp, tt, ssand mmsimplified to c, p, t, sand m(eg., vacca> vaca, cippum> cepo, cattus> gato, passu> paso, communu> común). Final rseems to have metathesized into the interior (eg., semper> siempre, inter > entre) (Poulter 58-77).

Many changes also took place in the verb system. The passive forms disappeared, the infinitive and supine forms were replaced by the present active infinitive, the participles disappeared, with the exception of the perfect passive, which became the Spanish past participle, and only the accusative form of the gerund remained and became the present participle of Spanish. The future and conditional forms were formed by using habere with the infinitive, and the present perfect was created with the present tense of habereplus the past participle. From the pluperfect derived the forms of the imperfect of habereplus the past participle. The pluperfect indicative and subjunctive forms became the subjunctive of Spanish, and the pluperfect subjunctive was constructed on the imperfect subjunctive of habereplus the past participle. The future indicative and the present subjunctive forms became the future subjunctive of Spanish (Poulter 82).

The changes I have mentioned here are but a few of the many transformations that took place in the development of the Spanish Language. Many of these transformations were a result of the natural process of language change, while others came about as a consequence of the Hispanic Peninsula's long history of invasions.


Blake, R. J. ."New Linguistic Sources for Old Spanish." Hispanic Review 55 (1987), 1-12.

Candau, M. Historia de la Lengua Española. Scripta Humanistica: Potomac, Maryland. 1985.

Lapesa, R. Historia de la Lengua Española. Escelicer, S. L.: Madrid. 1950.

Poulter, V. L. An Introduction to Old Spanish. Peter Lang Publishing: New York. 1990.

Spanish 522 class notes. Prof. J. Turley. History of the Spanish Language. Fall 1994.

Spaulding, R. K. How Spanish Grew. University of California Press: London, England. 1943.

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Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999