History of the Spanish language

The language known today as Spanish is derived from a dialect of spoken Latin that evolved in the north-central part of the Iberian Peninsula after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. A written standard was developed in the cities of Toledo (13th to 16th centuries) and Madrid (from the 1560s).[1] Over the past 1,000 years, the language expanded south to the Mediterranean Sea, and was later transferred to the Spanish colonial empire, most notably to the Americas. Today it is the official language of 21 countries and of numerous international organizations. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Main distinguishing features of the language

The development of Spanish phonology is distinguished from those of other nearby Romance languages (e.g. Portuguese, Catalan) by several features:

The following features are characteristic of Spanish phonology and also of some other Ibero-Romance languages, but not the Romance languages as a whole:

The Latin system of four verb conjugations (form classes) is reduced to three in Spanish. The Latin infinitives with the endings -ĀRE, -ĒRE, and -ĪRE become Spanish infinitives in -ar, -er, and -ir respectively. The Latin third conjugation—infinitives ending in -ĔRE—are redistributed between the Spanish -er and -ir classes (e.g. facerehacer, diceredecir). Spanish verbal morphology continues the use of some Latin synthetic forms that were replaced by analytic ones in French and (partly) Italian (cf. Sp. lavó, Fr. il a lavé), and the Spanish subjunctive mood maintains separate present and past-tense forms.

Spanish syntax provides overt marking for some direct objects (the so-called "personal a", see differential object marking for the general phenomenon), and uses clitic doubling with indirect objects, in which a "redundant" pronoun (le, les) appears even in the presence of an explicit noun phrase. (Neither feature occurs in other Western Romance languages, but both are features of Romanian, with pe < PER corresponding to Spanish a.) With regard to subject pronouns, Spanish is a pro-drop language, meaning that the verb phrase can often stand alone without the use of a subject pronoun (or a subject noun phrase). Compared to other Romance languages, Spanish has a somewhat freer syntax with relatively fewer restrictions on subject-verb-object word order.

Due to prolonged language contact with other languages, the Spanish lexicon contains loanwords from Basque, Germanic, Arabic and indigenous languages of the Americas.

Accents—used in Modern Spanish to mark the vowel of the stressed syllable in words where stress is not predictable from rules—come into use sporadically in the 15th century, and massively in the 16th century. Their use begins to be standardized with the advent of the Spanish Royal Academy in the 18th century. See also Spanish orthography.

External history

As Arabs were rebuffed from Iberia, various Vulgar Latin language groups ended up mixing (along with Basques). The largest such group was the Castilians, whose language became Spanish.

The standard Spanish language is also called Castilian in its original variant and in order to distinguish with other languages native to parts of Spain, such as Galician, Catalan, Basque, etc. In its earliest documented form, and up through approximately the 15th century, the language is customarily called Old Spanish. From approximately the 16th century on, it is called Modern Spanish. Spanish of the 16th and 17th centuries is sometimes called "classical" Spanish, referring to the literary accomplishments of that period. Unlike English and French, it is not customary to speak of a "middle" stage in the development of Spanish.


Castilian Spanish originated, after the decline of the Roman Empire, as a continuation of spoken Latin in several areas of northern and central Spain. Eventually, the variety spoken in the city of Toledo around the 13th century became the basis for the written standard. With the Reconquista, this northern dialect spread to the south, where it almost entirely replaced or absorbed the local Romance dialects, at the same time as it borrowed many words from Moorish Arabic and was influenced by Mozarabic (the Romance speech of Christians living in Moorish territory) and medieval Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino). These languages had vanished in the Iberian Peninsula by the late 16th century.[3][4]

The prestige of Castile and its language was propagated partly by the exploits of Castilian heroes in the battles of the Reconquista—among them Fernán González and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid)—and by the narrative poems about them that were recited in Castilian even outside the original territory of that dialect.[5]

The "first written Spanish" was traditionally considered to have appeared in the Glosas Emilianenses. These are "glosses" (translations of isolated words and phrases in a form more like Hispanic Romance than Latin) added between the lines of a manuscript that was written earlier in Latin. Nowadays the language of the Glosas Emilianenses is considered to be closer to the Navarro-Aragonese language than to Spanish proper. Estimates of their date vary from the late 10th to the early 11th century.[6]

The first steps toward standardization of written Castilian were taken in the 13th century by King Alfonso X of Castile, known as Alfonso el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise), in his court in Toledo. He assembled scribes at his court and supervised their writing, in Castilian, of extensive works on history, astronomy, law, and other fields of knowledge.[7][8]

Antonio de Nebrija wrote the first grammar of Spanish, Gramática de la lengua castellana, and presented it, in 1492, to Queen Isabella, who is said to have had an early appreciation of the usefulness of the language as a tool of hegemony, as if anticipating the empire that was about to be founded with the voyages of Columbus.[9]

Because Old Spanish resembles the modern written language to a relatively high degree, a reader of Modern Spanish can learn to read medieval documents without much difficulty.

The Spanish Royal Academy was founded in 1713, largely with the purpose of standardizing the language. The Academy published its first dictionary in six volumes over the period 1726–1739, and its first grammar in 1771,[10] and it continues to produce new editions of both from time to time. (The Academy's dictionary is now accessible on the Internet.) Today, each of the Spanish-speaking countries has an analogous language academy, and an Association of Spanish Language Academies was created in 1951.


Beginning in the 16th century, Spanish colonization brought the language to the Americas (Mexico, Central America, and western and southern South America), where it is spoken today, as well as to several island groups in the Pacific where it is no longer spoken by any large numbers of people: the Philippines, Palau, the Marianas (including Guam), and what is today the Federated States of Micronesia.

Use of the language in the Americas was continued by descendants of the Spaniards, both by Spanish criollos and by the Amerindian majority. After the wars of independence fought by these colonies in the 19th century, the new ruling elites extended their Spanish to the whole population to strengthen national unity, and nowadays it is the first and official language of the resulting republics, except in very isolated parts of the former Spanish colonies.[11]

In the late 19th century, the still-Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico encouraged more immigrants from Spain, and similarly other Spanish-speaking countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, and to a lesser extent Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, attracted waves of European immigration, Spanish and non-Spanish, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There, the countries' large (or sizable minority) population groups of second- and third-generation descendants adopted the Spanish language as part of their governments' official assimilation policies to include Europeans. In some countries, they had to be Catholics and agreed to take an oath of allegiance to their chosen nation's government.

When Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States as a consequence of the Spanish–American War, its population—almost entirely of Spanish and mixed Afro-Caribbean/Spanish (mulatto and mestizo) descent—retained its inherited Spanish language as a mother tongue, in co-existence with the American-imposed English as co-official. In the 20th century, more than a million Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland U.S. (see Puerto Ricans in the United States).

A similar situation occurred in the American Southwest, including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where Spaniards, then criollos (Tejanos, Californios, etc.) followed by Chicanos (Mexican Americans) and later Mexican immigrants, kept the Spanish language alive before, during and after the American appropriation of those territories following the Mexican–American War. Spanish continues to be used by millions of citizens and immigrants to the United States from Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas (for example, many Cubans arrived in Miami, Florida, beginning with the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and followed by other Latin American groups; the local majority is now Spanish-speaking). Spanish is now treated as the country's "second language," and over 5 percent of the U.S. population are Spanish-speaking, but most Latino/Hispanic Americans are bilingual or also regularly speak English.


The presence of Spanish in Equatorial Guinea dates from the late 18th century, and it was adopted as the official language when independence was granted in 1968.

Spanish is widely spoken in Western Sahara, which was a protectorate/colony of Spain from the 1880s to the 1970s.


In 1492 Spain expelled its Jewish population. Their Judaeo-Spanish language, called Ladino, developed along its own lines and continues to be spoken by a dwindling number of speakers, mainly in Israel, Turkey, and Greece.[12][13]

In the Pacific

In the Marianas, the Spanish language was retained until the Pacific War, but is no longer spoken there by any significant number of people.


Language politics in Francoist Spain declared Spanish as the only official language in Spain, and to this day it is the most widely used language in government, business, public education, the workplace, cultural arts, and the media. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the Spanish parliament agreed to allow provinces to use, speak, and print official documents in three other languages: Catalan for Catalonia, Balearic Islands and Valencia; Basque for the Basque provinces and Navarre, and Galician for Galicia. Since 1975, following the death of Franco, Spain has become a multi-party democracy and decentralized country, constituted in autonomous communities. Under this system, some languages of Spain—such as Aranese (an Occitan language of northwestern Catalonia), Basque, Catalan/Valencian, and Galician—have gained co-official status in their respective geographical areas. Others—such as Aragonese, Asturian and Leonese—have been recognized by regional governments.

International projection

When the United Nations organization was founded in 1945, Spanish was designated one of its five official languages (along with Chinese, English, French, and Russian; a sixth language, Arabic, was added in 1973).

The list of Nobel laureates in Literature includes eleven authors who wrote in Spanish (José Echegaray, Jacinto Benavente, Gabriela Mistral, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Vicente Aleixandre, Gabriel García Márquez, Camilo José Cela, Octavio Paz, and Mario Vargas Llosa).


The mention of "influences" on the Spanish language refers primarily to lexical borrowing. Throughout its history, Spanish has accepted loanwords, first from pre-Roman languages (including Basque, Iberian, and Celtiberian), and later from Greek, from Germanic languages, from neighboring Romance languages, from Arabic, from Native American languages, and from English.

The most frequently used word that entered Spanish from (or through[14]) Basque is izquierda "left".[15] Basque is perhaps most evident in some common Spanish surnames, including García and Echeverría. Basque place names also are prominent throughout Spain, because many Castilians who took part in the Reconquista and repopulation of Moorish Iberia by Christians were of Basque lineage. Iberian and Celtiberian likewise are thought to have contributed place names to Spain. Words of everyday use that are attributed to Celtic sources include camino "road", carro "cart", and cerveza "beer".[16]

Influence of Basque phonology is credited by some researchers with softening the Spanish labiodentals: turning labiodental [v] to bilabial [β], and ultimately deleting labiodental [f]. Others negate or downplay Basque phonological influence, claiming that these changes occurred in the affected dialects wholly as a result of factors internal to the language, not outside influence.[17] It is also possible that the two forces, internal and external, worked in concert and reinforced each other.

Some words of Greek origin were already present in the spoken Latin that became Spanish. Additionally, many Greek words formed part of the language of the Church. Spanish also borrowed Greek vocabulary in the areas of medical, technical, and scientific language, beginning as early as the 13th century.[18]

The influence of Germanic languages is, by most accounts, very little on phonological development, but rather is found mainly in the Spanish lexicon. Words of Germanic origin are common in all varieties of Spanish. The modern words for the cardinal directions (norte, este, sur, oeste), for example, are all taken from Germanic words (compare north, east, south and west in Modern English), after the contact with Atlantic sailors. These words did not exist in Spanish prior to the 15th century. Instead, "north" and "south" were septentrion and meridion respectively (both virtually obsolete in Modern Spanish), while "east" was oriente (or levante), and "west" was occidente (or poniente). These older words for "east" and "west" continue to have some use in Modern Spanish.

In 711 Spain was invaded by Moors, who brought the Arabic language to the Peninsula. From then until the fall of the Emirate of Granada (1492), Spanish borrowed words from Arabic. It is thought that the bilingualism of the Mozarabs facilitated the transfer of vocabulary from Arabic to Castilian.[19]

The neighboring Romance languages—Portuguese/Galician, Catalan, French, and Occitan—contributed greatly to the Spanish lexicon throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era.[20] Borrowing from Italian occurred most frequently in the 16th and 17th centuries, due largely to the influence of the Italian Renaissance.[21]

With the development of the Spanish Empire in the New World came lexical borrowing from indigenous languages of the Americas, especially vocabulary dealing with flora, fauna, and cultural concepts unique to the Americas.[22]

Borrowing from English has become especially strong, beginning in the 20th century, with words borrowed from many fields of activity, including sports, technology, and commerce.[23]

The incorporation into Spanish of learned, or "bookish" words from its own ancestor language, Latin, is arguably another form of lexical borrowing. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, most literate Spanish-speakers were also literate in Latin; and thus they easily adopted Latin words into their writing—and eventually speech—in Spanish.

Internal history

Spanish shares with other Romance languages most of the phonological and grammatical changes that characterized Vulgar Latin, such as the abandonment of distinctive vowel length, the loss of the case system for nouns, and the loss of deponent verbs.


Syncope in the history of Spanish refers to the loss of an unstressed vowel from the syllable immediately preceding or following the stressed syllable. Early in its history, Spanish lost such vowels where they preceded or followed R or L, and between S and T.[24][25][26]

Early syncope in Spanish
Environment Latin words Spanish words
_raperīre, humerum, litteram,[27] operam, honorāre abrir, hombro, letra, obra, honrar
r_eremum, viridem yermo, verde
_lacūculam, fabulam, insulam, populumaguja, habla, isla, pueblo
s_tpositum, consūtūram puesto, costura

*Solitario, which is derived from sōlitārium, is a learned word; cf. the alternate form soltero.

Later, after the time of intervocalic voicing, unstressed vowels were lost between other combinations of consonants:

Later syncope in Spanish
Environment Latin words Spanish words
b_tcubitum, dēbitam, dūbitam codo, deuda, duda
c_m, c_p, c_tdecimum, acceptōre, recitārediezmo, azor, rezar
d_cundecim, vindicāreonce, vengar
f_cadvērificāre averiguar
m_c, m_n, m_thāmiceolum, hominem, comitem anzuelo, hombre, conde
n_c, n_tdominicum, bonitāte, cuminitiāre domingo, bondad, comenzar
p_tcapitālem, computāre, hospitālemcaudal, contar, hostal
s_c, s_nquassicāre, rassicāre, asinum, fraxinumcascar, rascar, asno, fresno
t_c, t_nmasticāre, portaticum, trīticum, retinammascar/masticar, portazgo, trigo, rienda

Words capital, computar, hospital, recitar and vindicar are learned words; cf. capitālem, computāre, hospitālem, recitāre, and vindicāre and alternate forms caudal, contar, hostal, rezar, and vengar.


While voiceless intervocalic consonants often became voiced, many voiced intervocalic stops (d, g, and occasionally b) were dropped from words altogether through a process called elision.[28][29] Latin /b/ between vowels usually changed to /v/ in Old Spanish (e.g. habēre > aver), while Latin /p/ became /b/ (sapere > saber). In modern times the two phonemes merged into /b/ (haber, saber), realized as [β] between vowels (see Merger of /b/ and /v/). Latin voiced stops—/b/, /d/, and /g/, which are represented orthographically as B, D, and G respectively—and also occurred in intervocalic positions also underwent lenition: [β], [ð], and [ɣ], but appeared in Spanish also through learned words from Classical Latin.

Examples of elision in Spanish
Consonant Latin word Spanish word
b → Øvendēbatvendía
d → Øcomedere, vidēre, cadēre, pede, quō modōcomer, ver, caer, pie, cómo
g → Øgitāre, digitum, legere, ligāre, lēgāle cuidar, dedo, leer, liar, leal

Many forms with d and g preserved, e.g. ligar, legal, crudo, are learned words (Latinisms); cf. the alternate forms liar, leal and Old Spanish cruo and its Latin origin crudus.

Voicing and spirantization

In virtually all the Western Romance languages, the Latin voiceless stops/p/, /t/, and /k/, which are represented orthographically as P, T, and C respectively—where they occurred in an "intervocalic" environment (qualified below), underwent one, two, or three successive stages of lenition, from voicing to spirantization to, in some cases, elision (deletion). In Spanish these three consonants generally undergo both voicing and spirantization, resulting in voiced fricatives: [β], [ð], and [ɣ], respectively.[30][31] This change is supposed to have been effected under the influence of the phonologies of the substrate Celtic and Basque languages, which were in geographical proximity to Iberian Vulgar Latin (see Sprachbund). Intervocalic /p/, /t/, and /k/ reappeared in Spanish through learned words from Classical Latin and also appeared in Spanish through consonant cluster simplification from Vulgar Latin (see below), and Latin voiced stops—/b/, /d/, and /g/, which are represented orthographically as B, D, and G respectively—and also occurred in intervocalic positions also underwent lenition: [β], [ð], and [ɣ], but appeared in Spanish also through learned words from Classical Latin and also appeared in Spanish through consonant cluster simplification.

The phonological environment of these changes is not only between vowels but also after a vowel and before a sonorant consonant such as /r/ (Latin patrem > Spanish padre)—but not the reverse (Latin partem > Spanish parte, not *parde).

Examples of voicing and spirantization in Spanish
Consonants Latin word Spanish word
pb [β]aperīre, cooperīre, lupum,
operam, populum, capram, superāre1
abrir [aˈβrir], cubrir [kuˈβrir], lobo [ˈloβo],
obra [ˈoβra], pueblo [ˈpweβlo], cabra [ˈkaβra], sobrar [soβˈrar]
td [ð]cīvitātem, cubitum, latum, mūtāre,
scūtum, petram
ciudad [θjuˈðað], codo [ˈkoðo], lado [ˈlaðo], mudar [muˈðar],
escudo [esˈkuðo], piedra [ˈpjeðra]
cg [ɣ]focum, lacum, locum,
pacāre, sacrātum
fuego [ˈfweɣo], lago [ˈlaɣo], luego [ˈlweɣo],
pagar [paˈɣar], sagrado [saˈɣraðo]

1Latin superāre produced both sobrar and its learned doublet superar.

The verb decir, in its various conjugated forms, exemplifies different phonetic changes, depending on whether the letter <c> (Latin /k/) was followed by a front vowel or not. The Latin /k/ changes ultimately to Spanish /θ/ when followed by the front vowels (/i/ or /e/—thus dice, decimos, etc.), but in other forms, before a back vowel, /k/ is voiced to /ɡ/ and, in the modern language, realized as a spirant [ɣ] (as in digo, diga). This also is the pattern of a few other Spanish verbs ending in -cer or -cir, as in the table below:

Forms with /k//θ/ (before front vowels) Forms with /k//g/ (before back vowels)
English Latin Spanish English Latin Spanish
To say, to tell
It says, it tells
dīcere /ˈdiːkere/
dīcit /ˈdiːkit/
decir /deˈθiɾ/
dice /ˈdiθe/
I say, I tell
May it tell
dīcō /ˈdiːkoː/
dīcat /ˈdiːkat/
digo /ˈdigo/
diga /ˈdiga/
To do, to make
It does, it makes
facere /ˈfakere/
facit /ˈfakit/
hacer /aˈθeɾ/
hace /ˈaθe/
I do, I make
May it make
faciō > *facō /ˈfakoː/
faciat > *facat /ˈfakat/
hago /ˈago/
haga /ˈaga/

Diphthongization in open and closed syllables

The stressed short E and O of Latin undergo diphthongization in many of the Western Romance languages. In Spanish this change occurs regardless of syllable shape (open or closed), in contrast to French and Italian, where it takes place only in open syllables, and in greater contrast to Catalan and Portuguese—neighboring languages on the Iberian Peninsula—where this diphthongization does not occur at all. As a result, Spanish phonology exhibits a five-vowel system, not the seven-vowel system that is typical of most other Western Romance languages.[32][33][34] The stressed short [e] and [o] reappeared in Spanish through learned words from Classical Latin and appeared in Spanish that evolved from short vowels /i/ and /u/ from Vulgar Latin and retention of long vowels [] and [] from Vulgar Latin.

Spanish diphthongization in open and closed syllables
Syllable shape Latin Spanish French Italian Portuguese Catalan
Openpetram, focuspiedra, fuego pierre, feupietra, fuocopedra, fogopedra, foc
Closedfesta, portafiesta, puertafête, portefesta, portafesta, portafesta, porta

Learned words and consonant cluster simplification

Learned words—that is, "bookish" words transmitted partly through writing and thus affected by their Latin form—became increasingly frequent with the works of Alfonso X in the mid-to-late 13th century. Many of these words contained consonant clusters which, in oral transmission, had been reduced to simpler consonant clusters or single consonants in previous centuries. This same process affected many of these new, more academic, words, especially when the words extended into popular usage in the Old Spanish period. Some of the consonant clusters affected were -ct-, -ct[i]-, -pt-, -gn-, -mn-, -mpt-, and -nct-. Most of the simplified forms have since reverted to the learned forms or are now considered to be uneducated.[35]

Reduction of consonant clusters
Consonant cluster Latin form Learned form Old Spanish form Modern Spanish form
ctteffectum, perfectum, respectum, aspectum, sectamefecto, perfecto, respecto, aspecto, sectaefeto, perfeto, respeto, aspeto, setaefecto, perfecto, aspeto/aspecto, respeto/respecto, secta
ct[i] → cc[i] → c[i]affectiōnem, lectiōnem, perfectiōnemaffección, lección, perfecciónafición, lición, perfeciónafición/afección, lección, perfección
pttacceptāre, baptismum,
aceptar, baptismo,
acetar, bautismo,
aceptar, bautismo,
gnndignum, magnificum, significāredigno, magnífico,
dino, manífico,
digno, magnífico,
mnncolumnam, solemnitātemcolumna, solemnidadcoluna, solenidadcolumna, solemnidad
mptntpromptum, exemptumprompto, exemptopronto, exentopronto, exento

Most of these words have modern forms which more closely resemble Latin than Old Spanish. In Old Spanish, the simplified forms were acceptable forms which were in coexistence (and sometimes competition) with the learned forms. The Spanish educational system, and later the Real Academia Española, with their demand that all consonants of a word be pronounced, steadily drove most simplified forms from existence. Many of the simplified forms were used in literary works in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (sometimes intentionally as an archaism), but have since been relegated mostly to popular and uneducated speech. Occasionally, both forms exist in Modern Spanish with different nuances of meaning or in idiomatic usage: for example afición is a 'fondness (of)' or 'taste (for)', while afección is 'illness'; Modern Spanish respeto is '(attitude of) respect', while con respecto a means 'with regard to'.

Another consonant cluster simplifications include double plosives that became single: -pp-, -tt-, -cc-, -bb-, -dd-, -gg- [pː, tː, kː, bː, dː, gː] > -p-, -t-, -c-, -b-, -d-, -g- [p, t, k, b, d, g], wherein -bb-, -dd-, -gg- [bː, dː, gː] generally undergo both voicing and spirantization, resulting in voiced fricatives: [β], [ð], and [ɣ], respectively.

Simplification of double plosives in Spanish
Consonant Latin word Spanish word
bb [] → b [β]
dd [] → d [ð]
gg [] → g [ɣ]
pp [] → p [p]
tt [] → t [t]
cc [] → c [k]


The term "vocalization" refers to the change from a consonant to the vowel-like sound of a glide. Some syllable-final consonants, regardless of whether they were already syllable-final in Latin or brought into that position by syncope, became glides. Labials (b, p) yielded the rounded glide [w] (which was in turn absorbed by a preceding round vowel), while the velar c ([k]) produced the palatal glide [j] (which could palatalize a following [t] and be absorbed by the resulting palatal affricate). (The forms debda, cobdo, and dubdar are documented in Old Spanish; but the hypothetical forms *oito and *noite had already given way to ocho and noche by the time Castilian became a written language.)[36][37][38]

Syllable-final vocalization
Change Latin word Intermediate form Spanish word
pwbaptistam, capitālem(none for baptistam), cabdalbautista, caudal
bw → Øcubitum, dubitārecobdo, dubdarcodo, dudar
ctchoctō, noctem*oito, *noiteocho, noche

Merger of /b/ and /v/

Most Romance languages have maintained the distinction between a phoneme /b/ and a phoneme /v/—a voiced bilabial stop and a voiced, usually labiodental fricative, respectively. Instances of the /b/ phoneme could be inherited directly from Latin /b/ (when not between vowels), or they could result from the voicing of Latin /p/ between vowels. The /v/ phoneme was generally derived either (1) from an allophone of Latin /b/ between vowels or (2) from the Latin phoneme corresponding to the letter ⟨v⟩ (pronounced [w] in Classical Latin, but later fortified to the status of a fricative consonant in Vulgar Latin). In most Romance-speaking regions, /v/ had labiodental articulation, but in Old Spanish (which still distinguished /b/ and /v/), /v/ was probably realized as a bilabial fricative [β]. The contrast between the two phonemes was neutralized in certain environments, as the fricative [β] also occurred as an allophone of /b/ between vowels, after a vowel, and after certain consonants in Old Spanish).[39] The similarity between the stop [b] and fricative [β] resulted in their merging entirely by the end of the Old Spanish period.[40] In Modern Spanish orthography the letters ⟨b⟩ and ⟨v⟩ represent the same phoneme (usually treated as /b/ in phonemic transcription) which is generally realized as the fricative [β] except when utterance-initial or after a nasal consonant, in which cases it is realized as the stop [b]. The same situation prevails in northern Portuguese dialects, including Galician, while the rest of Portuguese dialects maintain the distinction. The merger of /b/ and /v/ also occurs in standard Catalan in eastern Catalonia; the distinction is retained in standard Valencian spoken in eastern Catalonia and some areas in southern Catalonia, in the Balearic dialect, as well as in Alguerese. In Modern Spanish, from the 16th century onward, the choice of orthographic ⟨b⟩ or ⟨v⟩ depends mainly on the etymology of the word: it attempts to mimic the Latin spelling rather than continue the pronunciation-based spelling of Old Spanish.[2] (Hence Old Spanish bever "to drink", bivir/vivir "to live" become beber, vivir, respectively, following the Latin spelling bibere, vīvere.) The Spanish place name Córdoba—more often Cordova in Old Spanish (the spelling that prevailed in English until the mid-20th century)—now reflects its Arabic origin in Qurṭubah.

Latin f- to Spanish h-

F was almost always initial in Latin words, and most of these words came to be written with initial ⟨h⟩ in Spanish, now for the most part silent. It is thought that the letter ⟨f⟩ originally represented the labiodental [f] in Latin, and that through a series of "softening" changes became, successively, bilabial [ɸ] and then glottal [h] (hence the modern spelling), before being lost altogether in most varieties; ⟨h⟩ is completely silent in Vulgar Latin. The first written record of the process dates from 863, when the Latin name Forticius was written as Ortiço, which might have been pronounced with initial /h/ but certainly not /f/. (The same name appears as Hortiço in a document dated 927.) The replacement of ⟨f⟩ by ⟨h⟩ in spelling is not frequent before the 16th century; however, this is thought not to reflect preservation of /f/. Rather, ⟨f⟩ was consistently used to represent /h/ until the phoneme /f/ reappeared in the language (around the 16th century, as a result of borrowings from Classical Latin), at which point it was necessary to distinguish the two in spelling.

The change from /f/ to /h/ occurred historically in the Romance speech of Old Castile and Gascon, but nowhere else nearby. Since these are both areas which were historically bilingual with Basque, and Basque historically had [h] but no [f], it is often suggested that this change is due to Basque influence. However, this is contested by many linguists.

Most current instances of ⟨f⟩ are either learned words (i.e. words influenced by their written Latin form, such as forma, falso, fama, feria), loanwords of Arabic origin, or words whose initial ⟨f⟩ in Old Spanish is followed by a non-vowel—⟨r⟩, ⟨l⟩, or the glide element of a diphthong—as in frente, flor, fiesta, fuerte.[41][42][43] This is the reason why there are modern spelling variants Fernando and Hernando (both Spanish of "Ferdinand"), ferrero and herrero (both Spanish of "smith"), fierro and hierro (both Spanish of "iron"), and fondo and hondo (both Spanish of "deep", but fondo means "depth" while hondo means "deep"); hacer (Spanish of "to make") is the root word of satisfacer (Spanish of "to satisfy"), and hecho ("made") is the root word of satisfecho (Spanish of "satisfied").

Examples of Latin 'f-' to Spanish 'h-'
Consonants Latin word Old Spanish form Modern Spanish word
f-h-fabulāri, facere, faciendam, factum, faminem,
farīnam, fēminam, fīcatum, fīlium, foliam,
fōrmōsum, fūmum, fungum, furcam
fablar, fazer, facienda, feito, fambre,
farina, fembra, fígado, fijo, foja,
formoso, fumo, fongo, forca
hablar, hacer, hacienda, hecho, hambre,
harina, hembra, hígado, hijo, hoja,
hermoso, humo, hongo, horca

Modern development of the Old Spanish sibilants

During the 16th century, the three voiced sibilant phonemes—dental /d͡z/, apico-alveolar /z/, and palato-alveolar /ʒ/ (as in Old Spanish fazer, casa, and ojo, respectively) lost their voicing and merged with their voiceless counterparts: /t͡s/, /s/, and /ʃ/ (as in caçar, passar, and baxar respectively. The character ⟨ç⟩, called ⟨c⟩ cedilla, originated in Old Spanish,[44] but has been replaced by ⟨z⟩ in the modern language.

Additionally, the affricate /t͡s/ lost its stop component, to become a laminodental fricative, [s̪].[45] As a result, the sound system then contained two sibilant fricative phonemes whose contrast depended entirely on a subtle distinction between their places of articulation: apicoalveolar, in the case of the /s/, and laminodental, in the case of the new fricative sibilant /s̪/ derived from the affricate /t͡s/. The distinction between these sounds was widened in the dialects of northern and central Spain by paradigmatic dissimilation, while those of Andalusia and the Americas merged the two sounds.

The dissimilation in the northern and central dialects occurred with the laminodental fricative moving forward to an interdental place of articulation, losing its sibilancy to become [θ]. This sound is represented in modern spelling by ⟨c⟩ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩, and by ⟨z⟩ elsewhere. In the south of Spain and the Americas, the /s/ and /s̪/ phonemes merged, with the new phoneme being pronounced either as [s] ("seseo"—in the Americas and parts of Andalusia) or as [θ] ("ceceo"—in a few parts of Andalusia). In general, coastal regions of Andalusia preferred [θ], while more inland regions preferred [s] (see the map at ceceo). During the colonization of the Americas, most of the settlers came from the south of Spain; as a result, language historians believe, the great majority of the Spanish-speaking New World today speaks a language variety derived largely from the Andalusian dialect.

Meanwhile, the alveopalatal fricative /ʃ/—the result of the merger of voiceless /ʃ/ (spelled ⟨x⟩ in Old Spanish) with voiced /ʒ/ (spelled with ⟨j⟩ in some words, and in others with ⟨g⟩ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩)—was moved rearward in all dialects, becoming (depending on geographical variety) velar [x], uvular [χ] (in parts of Spain), or glottal [h] (in Andalusia and parts of the Americas, especially the Caribbean region). [46][47]

Interchange of the liquids /l/ and /r/

One unusual feature of Spanish etymology is the way in which the liquids /r/ and /l/ have sometimes replaced each other in words derived from Latin, French and other sources. For example, Spanish milagro, "miracle", is derived from Latin miraculum. More rarely, this process has involved nasals such as /n/ (as in alma, from Latin anima). Here is an incomplete list of such words:


Documents from as early as the 15th century show occasional evidence of sporadic confusion between the phoneme /ʝ/ (generally spelled ⟨y⟩) and the palatal lateral /ʎ/ (spelled ⟨ll⟩). Although the distinction is maintained in spelling, in most dialects of Modern Spanish, the two have merged into the same, non-lateral palatal sound. Thus, for example, most Spanish speakers have the same pronunciation for haya (from the verb haber) as for halla (from hallar). This phonemic merger is called yeísmo, based on one name for the letter ⟨y⟩.[48][49][50]

For a long time, this was known as a specifically Andalusian trait, and only seems to have reached Madrid and other cities of central and northern Spain in the last 100 years or so. Since more than half of the early settlers of Spanish America came from Andalusia,[51][52][53] most Spanish-speaking regions of the Americas have yeísmo, although there are pockets where the sounds are still distinguished. People whose native language is not Spanish, such as Portuguese, Galician, Astur-Leonese, Basque, Aragonese, Occitan and Catalan speakers, usually do not feature yeísmo (since these languages historically–and actually–do retain the /ʎ/ phoneme distinguished).

A related trait which has also been documented sporadically for several hundred years is rehilamiento (literally "whizzing"), the pronunciation of /ʝ/ as a sibilant fricative [ʒ] or even an affricate [], which is also common among non-native Spanish speakers. (The same sound occurs in Judaeo-Spanish, but in a different context: Judaeo-Spanish preserves the old pronunciation of "j", for example in "hijo", where modern Spanish has [x]). The current pronunciation varies greatly depending on the geographical dialect and sociolect (with [], especially, stigmatized except at the beginning of a word). Rioplatense Spanish (of Argentina and Uruguay) is particularly known for the pronunciation [ʒ] of both /ʝ/ and original /ʎ/. Within the last 50 years or so, however, the unvoiced pronunciation [ʃ] has become dominant in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, and is spreading outward due to the prestige associated with the capital city.


  1. Penny, Ralph (2002). A History Of The Spanish Language (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–21.
  2. 1 2 Navarro Tomás (1918/1982), §§90-91.
  3. Penny (2002:11–15)
  4. Ostler (2005:331–334)
  5. Penny (2002:15)
  6. Lapesa (1942/1981:162)
  7. Penny (2002:15–16)
  8. Lapesa (1942/1981:235–248)
  9. Lapesa (1942/1981:288–290)
  10. Lapesa (1942/1981:419–420)
  11. Ostler (2005:335–347)
  12. Penny (2002:21–24)
  13. Lapesa (1942/1981:524–534)
  14. Corominas (1973:340)
  15. Erichsen (n.d.)
  16. Penny (2002:256)
  17. Penny (2002:91–92)
  18. Penny (2002:260–262)
  19. Penny (2002:271)
  20. Penny (2002:272–275, 279–281)
  21. Penny (2002:281–284)
  22. Penny (2002:275–277)
  23. Penny (2002:277–279)
  24. Lathrop (2003:10)
  25. Lloyd (1987:113)
  26. Penny (2002:50–51)
  27. Most Spanish nouns and adjectives are thought to have evolved from the accusative-case forms of their Latin source words; thus words that appear in dictionaries in their nominative forms (humerus, littera, etc.) are shown here with the accusative final -m (humerum, litteram, etc.)
  28. Lathrop (2003:85–87)
  29. Lloyd (1987:232–237)
  30. Lathrop (2003:82–85)
  31. Penny (2002:67–71)
  32. Lathrop (2003:61–63)
  33. Lloyd (1987:122)
  34. Penny (2002:44)
  35. Lapesa (1942/1981:390)
  36. Lathrop (2003:85 and 94)
  37. Lloyd (1987:253 and 347)
  38. Penny (2002:61 and 78)
  39. The confusion of Latin /b/ and /v/ in Spain is demonstrated by an oft-cited pun in Latin, "Beati Hispani quibus vivere bibere est" [Blessed (are the) Spaniards, for whom to live is to drink], with variants such as "Beati Hispani, dum bibere dicunt vivere". The saying seems to be in fact not from Roman times but from the Middle Ages or even the Renaissance. See Nihil Novum sub Sole.
  40. Lloyd (1987:239)
  41. Lathrop (2003:78–79)
  42. Lloyd (1987:212–223)
  43. Penny (2002:90)
  44. Lapesa (1942/1981:163)
  45. Penny (2002:86)
  46. Lloyd (1987:328–344)
  47. Penny (2002:86–90)
  48. Hammond (2001)
  49. Lloyd (1987:344–347)
  50. Penny (2002:93)
  51. Boyd-Bowman (1964)
  52. Penny (2002:25–26)
  53. Lapesa (1942/1981:565–566)

See also


External links

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