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Names given to the Spanish language

There are two names given to the Spanish language: Spanish (español) and Castilian (castellano). Spanish speakers from different countries or backgrounds can show a preference for one term or the other, or use them indiscriminately, but political issues or common usage might make speakers choose one term or the other. It is the purpose of this article to explain the differences between those terms, the countries or backgrounds that show a preference for one or the other and the implications the choice of words might have for a native Spanish speaker.

Generally speaking, both terms can refer to the Spanish language as a whole, with a preference for one term over the other that depends on the context or the speaker's origin; Castilian (castellano) has another somehow more restricted meaning, relating either to the old romance language spoken in the Kingdom of Castile in the Middle Ages, predecessor of the modern Spanish language, or to the Spanish dialect nowadays spoken in the historical region of Castile, in central Spain.

History of the terms

The history of these two terms is tightly intertwined to the History of Spain and South America, and more specifically to the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Originally Castilian (castellano) referred to the language of the Kingdom of Castile, one of several northern kingdoms that spread across the Iberian Peninsula through the Middle Ages, from the about the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. The first recorded example of written Castilian/Spanish is the Glosas Emilianenses, a document from the eleventh century. This protoromanic language is no longer spoken, but can be read in many texts such as El cantar del Mio Cid. This language derived from Latin and evolved into the modern Spanish, or Castillian, language.

However, the term Spanish (español) is a more recent term that first referred to Spain as a country, and then to the predominant language spoken in that country. Spain as a truly unified nation appeared centuries later than the language and the Kingdom of Castile; in fact, it was only in 1469 that the marital union between the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon gave way to the modern Kingdom of Spain. The actual legal unification date is disputed, but commonly agreed to have not occurred earlier than the eighteenth century. Only then did the Castilian language begin to be commonly called Spanish.

In 1492, the arrival of Christopher Columbus on a Castilian-paid expedition paved the way for the Spanish colonization of the Americas. As a result of this process, many countries in South America now speak the same language as Spain. But until about the eighteenth century, it was the Kingdom of Castile, and not Spain as a whole, the colonization power; so the language they used was called Castilian. Thus, some American countries formerly under the Castilian/Spanish rule have retained the custom of calling it el castellano, while others switched to calling it el español at some point or the other, with many other different factors influencing the final choice.

In English, the term Spanish relates more to the language than to the nation; the noun and adjective used today for people from Spain is Spaniard. Also, the use of the term Castilian is much less widespread than the use of Spanish.

To understand how two terms can refer to the same language, imagine that the English language was sometimes called English after the historical nation whose language it is, but also sometimes British after the modern state, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, of which it is the official language. To add to the complexity, former British colonies such as British North America had to choose a name for the language, as did the speakers of Welsh and other non-English languages in the United Kingdom. This resembles the situation with Spain and its historical centre, Castile.

History of the term 'Castilian'

Castile (in Spanish: Castilla) means Castle-land, from castiello plus the suffix -ia, giving Castiella, a form that survives in the Astur-Leonese language and can be seen in mediaeval Castilian texts such as the Lay of the Cid. Modern Spanish has transformed all words ending in -iello, -iella into -illo, -illa. The adjective derived from Castilla is castellano, or 'Castilian', in English. Castellano also means 'castellan', i.e. a castle master. There is a comic scene based on the play on words (Castilian/castellan) in Don Quijote.

The region was thus named because it was a frontier land controlled from a series of fortified castles. It shared borders with rival Moorish Spain and the Christian kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon.

History of the term 'Spanish'

HISPANIA was the name given to the Iberian Peninsula by the Romans when they discovered and later subjugated it. The name was previously Canaanite אי שפנים (ʾî šəpānîm), meaning 'coast of hyraxes', named by Canaanite-speaking Phoenicians who mistook Spain's large rabbit population for hyraxes that roamed the Iberian Peninsula in ancient times (although today, the Spanish population of wild rabbits is not quite as abundant as it was then due to the introduction of the myxomatosis virus to mainland Europe in 1950.) The Romans called its inhabitants HISPANI (singular: HISPANVS), and the relevant adjective was HISPANICVS. These terms would naturally have developed into España, *espanos (singular: *espano) and *espánego in Castilian. In reality, only the first term exists in modern Castilian, as it seems that the Spanish borrowed the Occitan name for themselves, which was the name España plus the diminutive suffix -ol, from the Latin -VLVS or -OLVS. We can see this because if the native Castilian suffix had been used this would have given us *españuelo rather than español.

The term español, which was adopted by several languages — and transformed according to their own phonology and grammar rules — to designate the Spanish people and their language, is from medieval Latin Hispaniolus (literally, "little Hispanian"), a form that evolved later, by hypercorrection, to the written form Spaniolus (note that, by that time, the Latin h had become silent, causing the word to be pronounced [ispaˈniolu]), and the prosthetic vowel [i] (used in spoken Latin for euphonic reasons) opened to [e], giving the present word.

As the branches of Vulgar Latin began to evolve into separate Romance languages, the term that would evolve into español began to be used to refer to these derivative languages (especially as opposed to the Arabic and Hebrew of the Moorish and Jewish inhabitants of Iberia). It was at first a general term that embraced the various dialects of Iberian Romance spoken in the area, including the forebears of modern Galician, Castilian and Catalan. However, with the rise of Castile as a power, and its absorption of all surrounding regions into an ever-growing empire that eventually spread to the New World, the term España was eventually equated with the peninsular territories ruled by the Crown. With this, the break with the Roman concept of Hispania was complete, and the term acquired its modern meaning of 'all of Iberia except for Portugal and Andorra'. Similarly, el español came to be used to refer to the common language of this new country: Castilian.

The terms España and español spread to other languages. The English name 'Spain' is from the French Espagne. 'Spanish' is 'Spain' plus the English suffix -ish. The term continues evolving as other languages adapt these words to form their own name for Spain — for example, Japanese スペイン語 (Supein-go), 'Spanish language', and スペイン人 (Supein-jin), 'Spaniard', derives from the Japanese word for Spain, スペイン (Supein), which, in turn, derives from English 'Spain'. In Chinese though, the word is directly taken from Spanish (or perhaps even Latin) rather than English: they say 西班牙 (Pinyin phonetic symbols: xībānyá) for Spain and 西班牙语 (Pinyin: xībānyá yǔ) , or the abbreviation 西語 (Pinyin: xī yǔ) for the Spanish language. The Arabic إسبانية (isbaniya) for Spain derives directly from the word España: the absence of "p" in the Arabic alphabet makes it a "b", and the sound "ñ" is transformed into "ny". إسباني (isbani) is the name for Spanish, with the same end of عربي ('arabi that means "arabic").

While Espanyol is used in Tagalog and other languages of the Philippines, the word Kastila is more frequently used. Furthermore Katsila is also used among those who speak Visayan languages like Cebuano.

In Guatemala, although Spanish is the official language, the Mayans, the original inhabitants of the region, call it "la castilla", keeping the original name from colonial times. Mayans speak at least 22 different "Mayan" languages and dialects (Mam, Pocomam, cak'chikel, tzu'tuhil, kek'chi, ki'che, etc).

* denotes an unattested or hypothetical form.

Usage of the term "cristiano" (Christian)

During the presence of Moors in Hispania, Spanish was sometimes given the name el cristiano to distinguish it from the Arabic and Hebrew languages. Spanish also marked Christians from Amerindians. This term is still used today to refer to the language, though usually jocularly.

The expression Hábleme en cristiano "talk to me in Christian", uttered to people not speaking Spanish at the moment, is used in opposition of the other Spanish languages, which is felt as annoying by them (Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country, but not in America).

History of the term 'Language of Cervantes'

Spanish is often referred to in educated circles as 'the Language of Cervantes' or la lengua de Cervantes, in reference to Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a usage akin to that of Shakespeare for English, Dante for Italian, etc.

Academic choice of words

In Spain, the Royal Spanish Academy is recognized as a normative body that rules on the orthography and general usage rules of the language. The Academy used el castellano from the 18th century, but since 1923 its dictionary and grammar are de la lengua española ("of the Spanish language"). The Academy's usage of one term is not necessarily a condemnation of the other.

There do exist many other Academies (reunited at the Association of Spanish Language Academies) that may or may not have an official normative recognition, but nevertheless cooperate in the elaboration of the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas (a compendium of corrected typical mistakes and doubts). In this dictionary, whose redaction was agreed upon by the 22 different Spanish Language Academies, we may read:

Thus, even if both terms are allowed in Spanish, the usage of el español is recommended for the language as a whole. However, popular choice of terms is not so clear, with other factors such as customs or politics coming in.

Usage in Spain

Spaniards tend to call the language el español (Spanish) when contrasting it to languages of other states, such as in a list with French (francés), Chinese (chino), etc. El castellano (Castilian) by contrast, is more often used when contrasting the language with other regional languages of Spain: Aragonese, Asturian, Basque, Catalan, Galician, Leonese and so on. In this manner, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 uses the term el castellano to define the official language of the whole State, opposed to las demás lenguas españolas (lit. the other Spanish languages). Article III reads as follows:

This choice of words can however vary depending on many factors, including the origin of the speaker or some political nuances.

Monolingual regions of Spain

In monolingual regions of Spain, the implications are a little different. There, inhabitants do not have anything to prove, but still they must choose one of the two terms. Castilians usually use the term el español, thus legitimately presenting it as the national language (the Spanish constitution declares that all Spaniards have the right to speak Castilian and the duty to know it). However, they also frequently call it el castellano, either to assert their ownership or to distinguish it from the regional languages.

Monolingual regions outside of Castile include, mainly, Andalusia, but also other regions where the regional languages are not developed enough to be widely spoken by the majority of the population; this is the case of Extremadura, Cantabria or Aragon, for example. There, español may be used as in Castile to stress the national nature of the language, but with a slightly different nuance: they are accepting another region's historical language as their own. However, one must not forget that if Castilian is spoken in these regions it is due to the Reconquista, and thus it was not imposed as happened in other regions such as the Basque Country or Catalonia.

Bilingual regions of Spain

In the bilingual regions where regional languages are spoken, there is obviously a daily need to make this contrast, and so the language is most often referred to as Castilian, particularly in the regional languages themselves (e.g. espanyol is virtually never used to refer to the Spanish language in Catalan: castellà is used instead.) This usage is often mirrored by educated English speakers when referring to the linguistic situation in Spain.

For some, this use of the term castellano or Castilian is a political or cultural statement that Castilian is only the language of Castile and perhaps some areas that Castile colonised, but not the language of their region, where they consider the only legitimate language to be the regional one, i.e. Catalan, Basque, etc. This stance is common in regionalist circles.

Conversely, some nationalist circles prefer the term español because they perceive their ethnic community to be distinct from that of Spain, and therefore do not object to the language of Spain being called Spanish. In Basque-speaking regions, where the language is not of Romance origin — Basque is considered by many scholars to be a language isolate — some Basque speakers might even use the term erdara (lit. foreign) specifically for Spanish, since for them it is the prevalent foreign language - just as in the French Basque Country, "French language" is the usual meaning of erdara.

Regions of Spain with more than two languages

There are several regions in Spain where more than two, and even more than three languages are spoken. Some of them, are:

Concept of a standard

The term castellano is occasionally used to imply more of a standard form than español does. For example, if someone mispronounces a word, they might be told ¡hable castellano!, i.e. 'Speak Castilian!', 'Speak properly!'. However, this nuance is not to be exaggerated, as it is perfectly possible that the term español or even, jocularly, cristiano ('Christian') could be used instead. Moreover, the term castellano is also commonly and correctly used to refer to dialects of Spanish that deviate dramatically from the standard.

Usage and implications in former colonies

Both names are commonly used in parts of the world colonized by Spanish speakers, such as the Americas. As in Spain, the implications are complex. The most common term is español, generally considered to be a neutral term simply reflecting the country the language came from. For people who use this term, castellano may possibly imply greater correctness as it sometimes does in Spain, or it may merely be an alien term, referring to a region in a far-off country.

However, some Latin Americans prefer the word castellano, especially in Argentina, Chile, and Peru. One reason for this is that many of the early Argentine settlers were Galicians, so castellano had the special connotation of standard Spanish as opposed to Galician.. Reasons given generally include the idea that Spanish is an international language with historical origins in the old kingdom of Castile, and that the term español is imperialist, implying it is the language of Spain. One criticism of this reasoning is that Castile is the imperialist heart of Spain, and the engine that drove the colonization of the Americas, so castellano is just as 'bad' in these terms as español. However, the fact that Spain is still a major nation-state, whereas Castile is now a region buried within Spain and internationally forgotten, is the deciding psychological factor.

In practice, the use of one term or the other tends to be a matter of local customs, rather than reflecting any philosophical or political ideas.

However, in some Latin American nations, castellano may be used to specifically describe the variation(s) of the language spoken in the castellano speaking regions of Spain, while español would generally refer to Standard Spanish.

Some constitutions avoid the issue by talking about "the national language".

Castellano ('Castilian') is generally preferred in:

Alternation between both names

Español ('Spanish') is generally preferred in:

Usage and misconceptions abroad

This complex linguistic situation is obviously not always grasped by non-Spanish speakers (or even by Spanish speakers themselves). Some believe that the term español is not used in Spanish, or only in Spain, and that the term Spanish is therefore wrong. So, it is not uncommon in some politically correct circles to write Castilian or even Castellano in English texts, calling Spanish incorrect or imperialist. This can even lead to their rejecting the official ISO 639 code for Spanish (es) in favor of ca, with the consequence that Catalan then would have to be given ct.

Some philologists use "Castilian" only when speaking of the language spoken in Castile during the Middle Ages, stating that it is preferable to use "Spanish" for its modern form. The dialect of Spanish spoken in northern parts of modern Castile may also be called "Castilian." This dialect differs from those of other regions of Spain (Andalusia or Madrid for example); the Castilian dialect is conventionally considered in Spain to be the same as standard Spanish.

Another use of Castilian in English is to distinguish between standard Spanish and regional dialects. As noted above, this distinction is made to some extent in Spanish, but not as far as some English speakers go — for example, websites with language selection screens giving the choice between Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish among other languages.

In the Americas, where Spanish is the native language of 20 countries, usage of castellano and español is sometimes reversed when referring to another nation. For example, a Peruvian, talking about a Uruguayan, might say Yo hablo en español peruano, él habla en español uruguayo, pero los dos hablamos castellano ("I speak Peruvian Spanish, he speaks Uruguayan Spanish, but we both speak Castilian"). This odd usage comes from the historical association of español with the language that was brought to America by conquistadores, and later transformed in each nation through daily usage, and castellano as the basis for all variants.

Other terms

Gonzalo de Berceo, one of the earlier authors in Castilian, named his language román paladino (i.e., "plain Romance") "in which a person talks to his neighbor", that is, direct talking, without affectation.

See also


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