The Languages spoken in Spain
The languages of Spain, or Spanish languages (lenguas españolas or lenguas hispánicas), are those languages that are either currently or were once spoken in Spain. The main languages of Spain fall into the category of Romance languages, of which Spanish—the Castilian variety of Spanish—is the sole official language for the whole of the country. Additionally, there are a number of other languages and variants with co-official or regionally-recognized status in specific territories and regions of the country, as well as several unofficial languages and dialects that can be heard in certain localities within the Spanish borders. This linguistic diversity and freedom in Spain is guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution, which establishes that the nation will protect “all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in the exercise of human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions.”
Spanish Languages of Today
Official Language of Spain
Spanish (Español)—officially recognized in the Constitution as Castilian (Castellano)—is the official language of the entire country of Spain. It is also the most predominant and most widely spoken language in the country; a language which nearly all Spaniards can speak as either a first or second language. In fact, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 requires that all citizens be familiar with the language, specifically saying that “it is the right and duty of every Spaniard to know the Spanish (Castilian) language.” According to the latest available information, 89 percent of the Spanish people speak Spanish as their native language.
In addition to naming Castilian as the official language of Spain, the Spanish Constitution also states that “all other Spanish languages”—that is, all other languages of Spain—will also be official in their respective autonomous communities in accordance with their laws and statutes and their organic regional legislations, and that the “richness of the distinct linguistic modalities of Spain represents a patrimony which will be the object of special respect and protection.”
In the same poll mentioned above, Catalan/Valencian is listed as the second-most widely spoken language in Spain, spoken as a first language by approximately 9 percent of the population. This language is followed by Galician, spoken by 5 percent of the population; Basque, spoken by 1 percent of the population; and other native languages, spoken by 3 percent of the population. In addition, there are a number of regional languages that, although not deemed co-official, are spoken widely in certain Spanish territories.
The languages that have co-official status in the country of Spain are as follows:
- Catalan. Catalan (Català) is the co-official language in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Additionally, a distinct variant of Catalan known as Valencian is co-official in the Valencian Autonomous Community.
- Galician. The Galician (Galegos) language is co-official in Galicia. It can also be heard in the nearby western portions of the Principality of Asturias and Castile and Leon, although it is not officially recognized in these areas.
- Basque. The Basque (Euskara) language is co-official in the Basque Country and Navarre. Interestingly, it is the only non-Romance language granted co-official status by the Spanish Constitution.
- Aranese. Like Catalan, Aranese is also co-official in Catalonia. This language is spoken sparsely in the Pyrenean comarca of the Aran Valley (Val d’Aran), located in the northwestern portion of Catalonia. Aranese is a variety of Gascon, which in turn is a variety of the Occitan language.
Castilian Spanish is the official language throughout the country of Spain. It is the language used officially by the national government and the language used in education in those autonomous communities where it is the only language with official or co-official status. The languages listed above, however, are granted co-official status in their respective communities, and each of them, except for Aranese, is “sufficiently widespread as to have daily newspapers and significant book publishing and media presence in those communities.” In Catalonia and Galicia, the respective co-official languages of Catalan and Galician are used by the regional governments and local administrations there. Many of those living in these regions deem their regional language as their primary language and Spanish/Castilian as their secondary language.
In addition to the official language of Spain (Castilian) and those granted co-official status (Catalan, Galician, Basque and Aranese), there are also a number of languages that are recognized regionally throughout the country, though these languages are seen as endangered due to the miniscule percentage of speakers in present-day Spain. These regionally recognized languages include:
- Aragonese. Aragonese is recognized regionally, although not officially, in Aragon.
- Asturian. Asturian is recognized regionally, although not officially in Asturias.
- Leonese. Leonese is spoken by a very small percentage of the population of Castile and Leon, specifically in the provinces of Leon and Zamora. Like Aragonese and Asturian, it is recognized regionally in these areas, although not officially.
The Spanish or Castilian language itself has a number of distinct dialects used around the country. The Andalusian or Canarian dialects, for example, each have their own sub-varieties, some of which are associated with the Spanish spoken in the Americas. These, and other dialects like them, have traditionally been influenced, in various ways, depending on the regions and/or period, and according to different and non-homogenous migrating or the processes of colonization.
Spain is home to five localized dialects of different affiliation: Fala, an unofficial, unrecognized and nearly extinct dialect, mostly ascribed to the Galician-Portuguese group of languages; Cantabrian and Extremaduran, Spanish dialects that are also regarded as Astur-Leonese dialects; Eonavian, a dialect sounding like a cross between Asturian and Galician, although closer to the latter according to experts; and Benasquese, a Ribagorcan dialect that was once categorized as Catalan, later Aragonese, and which is currently regarded as a traditional language of its own. The regional languages Asturian and Leonese are closely akin to the local Mirandese dialect, which is spoken on an adjacent territory, one that spills over into Portugal. Mirandese is, however, recognized there and has some official status at the local level.
Save for Basque, all of the languages spoken within the mainland borders of Spain are Indo-European languages, specifically Romance languages. Outside of the mainland borders, Afro-Asiatic languages, such as Arabic (including Ceutra Darija) or Berber (mainly Riffian Berber), are spoken by the Muslim populations of Ceuta and Melilla and by recent immigrants, mainly those arriving from Algeria and Morocco.
Spain and the Portuguese Language
The Galician and Portuguese languages have many similarities, and although Portuguese has no official status in Spain, it can be heard in certain regions of the country, particularly Galicia. The mutual relationship between the Galician and Portuguese languages has recently stirred up some controversy in Spain. Some linguists consider that they are both dialects of a common language, in spite of the differences in vocabulary and phonology. Others argue that the major differences in vocabulary and phonics, and to a lesser extent, morphology and syntax, have caused them to become completely separate languages.
Nevertheless, the written standards of each respective language (Galician and Portuguese) are noticeably discernible from one another, in part due to the different phonological features and the usage of Spanish orthographic conventions over the Portuguese ones at the time of Galician standardization by the 20th century. Because of this, the official position of the Galician Language Institute is that Galician and Portuguese should and are to be considered separate languages.
Fala, a Galician-Portuguese based dialect, is spoken locally in Spain in an area sometimes known as the Valley of Jálama/Xálima, which includes the towns of San Martin de Trevejo (Sa Martin de Travellu), Eljas (As Elhas) and Valverde del Fresno (Valverdi du Fresnu), in the northwestern corner of Cáceres province, Extremadura. In terms of Portuguese itself, in its proper form, it can still regularly be heard in a select number of border regions, including the towns of La Alamedilla, in the Salamanca province; Cedillo (in Portuguese Cedilho) and Herrera de Alcantara (in Portuguese Ferreira de Alcantara), although its use in the latter two towns has faded greatly. In addition, Portuguese is also spoken to some degree in the town of Olivenza (in Portuguese Olivenca), in the Badajoz province, and in its surrounding territory, which although formerly part of Portugal and still claimed by that country, has officially been Spanish territory since the 19th century.
Historical Languages of Spain
No discussion of Spanish languages would be complete without mentioning some of the historical languages of Spain—languages once spoken, although now rarely used, in the area that is now Spain, located on the Iberian Peninsula.
The Iberian and Celtic people were the first historically-recorded inhabitants in the region now known as Spain, with the former speaking the Iberian language, and the latter speaking one of two Celtic languages: Celtiberian and Gallaecian. Later, due to its geographical importance, Iberia became an important part of the Roman Empire, and as such, the country became very latinized, and the Latin language was introduced widely around the region. The Gothic language was widely spoken during the Visigoth era in Spain. However, when the Christians were conquered by the Moors in the 8th century, languages such as Andalusi Arabic, Classical Arabic and Mozarabic became the norm and were widely spoken throughout Spain. These languages would remain in force until the Moors were finally ousted by Christian forces during the Reconquista of the 15th century, ending nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule. Following this ouster, Spain gradually reverted back to the Latin-based Romance languages, a category of which most of its languages of today---Castilian, Galician, Catalan, etc.—are a part.
Click on one of the following links to learn more about the culture, language, education, health & safety, economy, government, history, religion, gastronomy, visas, local services, climate, locations in Spain.