Spanish (// (listen); español (help·info)), known in the Middle Ages as Castilian (// (listen), castellano (help·info)), is a Romance language that originated in the Castile region of Spain and today has hundreds of millions of native speakers in the Americas and Spain. It is a global language and the world’s second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese.
Spanish is a part of the Ibero-Romance group of languages, which evolved from several dialects of Vulgar Latin in Iberia after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The oldest Latin texts with traces of Spanish come from mid-northern Iberia in the 9th century, and the first systematic written use of the language happened in Toledo, then capital of the Kingdom of Castile, in the 13th century. Beginning in 1492, the Spanish language was taken to the viceroyalties of the Spanish Empire, most notably to the Americas, as well as territories in Africa, Oceania and the Philippines.
Around 75% of modern Spanish vocabulary is derived from Latin and, through Latin,
Spanish vocabulary has been in contact with Arabic from an early date, having developed during the Al-Andalus era in the Iberian Peninsula. With around 8% of its vocabulary being Arabic in origin, this language is the second most important influence after Latin.
It has also been influenced by Basque, Iberian, Celtiberian, Visigothic, and by neighboring Ibero-Romance languages.
Additionally, it has absorbed vocabulary from other languages, particularly the Romance languages—French, Italian, Portuguese, Galician, Catalan, Occitan, and Sardinian—as well as from Quechua, Nahuatl, and other indigenous languages of the Americas.
Spanish is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. It is also used as an official language by the European Union, the Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the African Union and many other international organizations.
Despite its large number of speakers, the Spanish language does not feature prominently in scientific writing, with the exception of the humanities.
Estimated number of speakers
It is estimated that more than 437 million people speak Spanish as a native language, which qualifies it as second on the lists of languages by number of native speakers. Instituto Cervantes claims that there are an estimated 477 million Spanish speakers with native competence and 572 million Spanish speakers as a first or second language—including speakers with limited competence—and more than 21 million students of Spanish as a foreign language.
Spanish is the official or national language in Spain, Equatorial Guinea, and 19 countries in the Americas. Speakers in the Americas total some 418 million. It is also an optional language in the Philippines as it was a Spanish colony from 1569 to 1899. In the European Union, Spanish is the mother tongue of 8% of the population, with an additional 7% speaking it as a second language. Spanish is the most popular second language learned in the United States. In 2011 it was estimated by the American Community Survey that of the 55 million Hispanic United States residents who are five years of age and over, 38 million speak Spanish at home.
According to a 2011 paper by U.S. Census Bureau Demographers Jennifer Ortman and Hyon B. Shin, the number of Spanish speakers is projected to rise through 2020 to anywhere between 39 million and 43 million, depending on the assumption one makes about immigration. Most of these Spanish speakers will be Hispanic, with Ortman and Shin projecting between 37.5 million and 41 million Hispanic Spanish speakers by 2020.
Names of the language
In Spain and in some other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, Spanish is called not only español (Spanish) but also castellano (Castilian), the language from the kingdom of Castile, contrasting it with other languages spoken in Spain such as Galician, Basque, Asturian, Catalan, Aragonese and Occitan.
The Spanish Constitution of 1978 uses the term castellano to define the official language of the whole Spanish State in contrast to las demás lenguas españolas (lit. “the other Spanish languages“). Article III reads as follows:
El castellano es la lengua española oficial del Estado. … Las demás lenguas españolas serán también oficiales en las respectivas Comunidades Autónomas…
Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. … The other Spanish languages shall also be official in their respective Autonomous Communities…
The Spanish Royal Academy, on the other hand, currently uses the term español in its publications, but from 1713 to 1923 called the language castellano.
The Diccionario panhispánico de dudas (a language guide published by the Spanish Royal Academy) states that, although the Spanish Royal Academy prefers to use the term español in its publications when referring to the Spanish language, both terms—español and castellano—are regarded as synonymous and equally valid.
Two etymologies for español have been suggested. The Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary derives the term from the Provençal word espaignol, and that in turn from the Medieval Latin word Hispaniolus, ‘from—or pertaining to—Hispania’. Other authorities attribute it to a supposed mediaeval Latin *hispaniōne, with the same meaning.
The Spanish language evolved from Vulgar Latin, which was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Romans during the Second Punic War, beginning in 210 BC. Previously, several pre-Roman languages (also called Paleohispanic languages)—unrelated to Latin, and some of them unrelated even to Indo-European—were spoken in the Iberian Peninsula. These languages included Basque (still spoken today), Iberian, Celtiberian and Gallaecian.
The first documents to show traces of what is today regarded as the precursor of modern Spanish are from the 9th century. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era, the most important influences on the Spanish lexicon came from neighboring Romance languages—Mozarabic (Andalusi Romance), Navarro-Aragonese, Leonese, Catalan, Portuguese, Galician, Occitan, and later, French and Italian. Spanish also borrowed a considerable number of words from Arabic, as well as a minor influence from the Germanic Gothic language through the migration of tribes and a period of Visigoth rule in Iberia. In addition, many more words were borrowed from Latin through the influence of written language and the liturgical language of the Church. The loanwords were taken from both Classical Latin and Renaissance Latin, the form of Latin in use at that time.
According to the theories of Ramón Menéndez Pidal, local sociolects of Vulgar Latin evolved into Spanish, in the north of Iberia, in an area centered in the city of Burgos, and this dialect was later brought to the city of Toledo, where the written standard of Spanish was first developed, in the 13th century. In this formative stage, Spanish developed a strongly differing variant from its close cousin, Leonese, and, according to some authors, was distinguished by a heavy Basque influence (see Iberian Romance languages). This distinctive dialect spread to southern Spain with the advance of the Reconquista, and meanwhile gathered a sizable lexical influence from the Arabic of Al-Andalus, much of it indirectly, through the Romance Mozarabic dialects (some 4,000 Arabic-derived words, make up around 8% of the language today). The written standard for this new language was developed in the cities of Toledo, in the 13th to 16th centuries, and Madrid, from the 1570s.
The development of the Spanish sound system from that of Vulgar Latin exhibits most of the changes that are typical of Western Romance languages, including lenition of intervocalic consonants (thus Latin vīta > Spanish vida). The diphthongization of Latin stressed short e and o—which occurred in open syllables in French and Italian, but not at all in Catalan or Portuguese—is found in both open and closed syllables in Spanish, as shown in the following table:
|Latin||Spanish||Ladino||Aragonese||Asturian||Galician||Portuguese||Catalan||Gascon / Occitan||French||Sardinian||Italian||Romanian||English|
Spanish is marked by the palatalization of the Latin double consonants nn and ll (thus Latin
annum > Spanish año, and Latin anellum > Spanish
The consonant written u or v in Latin and pronounced [w] in Classical Latin had probably “fortified” to a bilabial fricative /β/ in Vulgar Latin. In early Spanish (but not in Catalan or Portuguese) it merged with the consonant written b (a bilabial with plosive and fricative allophones). In modern Spanish, there is no difference between the pronunciation of orthographic b and v, with some exceptions in Caribbean Spanish.
Peculiar to Spanish (as well as to the neighboring Gascon dialect of Occitan, and attributed to a Basque substratum) was the mutation of Latin initial f into h- whenever it was followed by a vowel that did not diphthongize. The h-, still preserved in spelling, is now silent in most varieties of the language, although in some Andalusian and Caribbean dialects it is still aspirated in some words. Because of borrowings from Latin and from neighboring Romance languages, there are many f-/h-doublets in modern Spanish: Fernando and Hernando (both Spanish for “Ferdinand”), ferrero and herrero (both Spanish for “smith”), fierro and hierro (both Spanish for “iron”), and fondo and hondo (both Spanish for “deep”, but fondo means “bottom” while hondo means “deep”); hacer (Spanish for “to make”) is cognate to the root word of satisfacer (Spanish for “to satisfy”), and hecho (“made”) is similarly cognate to the root word of satisfecho (Spanish for “satisfied”).
Compare the examples in the following table:
|Latin||Spanish||Ladino||Aragonese||Asturian||Galician||Portuguese||Catalan||Gascon / Occitan||French||Sardinian||Italian||Romanian||English|
|filium||hijo||fijo (or hijo)||fillo||fíu||fillo||filho||fill||filh, hilh||fils||fillu||figlio||fiu||‘son’|
|facere||hacer||fazer||fer||facer||fazer||fer||far, faire, har (or hèr)||faire||fairi||fare||a face||‘to do’|
|febrem||fiebre||febre||fèbre, frèbe, hrèbe (or
|focum||fuego||fueu||fogo||foc||fuòc, fòc, huèc||feu||fogu||fuoco||foc||‘fire’|
Some consonant clusters of Latin also produced characteristically different results in these languages, as shown in the examples in the following table:
|Latin||Spanish||Ladino||Aragonese||Asturian||Galician||Portuguese||Catalan||Gascon / Occitan||French||Sardinian||Italian||Romanian||English|
|flamma||llama, flama||flama||chama||chama, flama||flama||flamme||framma||fiamma||flamă||‘flame’|
|plēnum||lleno, pleno||pleno||plen||llenu||cheo||cheio, pleno||ple||plen||plein||prenu||pieno||plin||‘plenty, full’|
|octō||ocho||güeito||ocho, oito||oito||oito (oito)||vuit, huit||uèch, uòch, uèit||huit||otu||otto||opt||‘eight’|
|molt||molt (arch.)||moult (arch.)||(meda)||molto||mult||‘much,
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish underwent a dramatic change in the pronunciation of its sibilant consonants, known in Spanish as the reajuste de las sibilantes, which resulted in the distinctive velar [x] pronunciation of the letter ⟨j⟩ and—in a large part of Spain—the characteristic interdental [θ] (“th-sound”) for the letter ⟨z⟩ (and for ⟨c⟩ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩). See History of Spanish (Modern development of the Old Spanish sibilants) for details.
The Gramática de la lengua castellana, written in Salamanca in 1492 by Elio Antonio de Nebrija, was the first grammar written for a modern European language. According to a popular anecdote, when Nebrija presented it to Queen Isabella I, she asked him what was the use of such a work, and he answered that language is the instrument of empire. In his introduction to the grammar, dated 18 August 1492, Nebrija wrote that “… language was always the companion of empire.”
From the sixteenth century onwards, the language was taken to the Spanish-discovered America and the Spanish East Indies via Spanish colonization of America. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote, is such a well-known reference in the world that Spanish is often called la lengua de Cervantes (“the language of Cervantes”).
In the twentieth century, Spanish was introduced to Equatorial Guinea and the Western Sahara, and to areas of the United States that had not been part of the Spanish Empire, such as Spanish Harlem in New York City. For details on borrowed words and other external influences upon Spanish, see Influences on the Spanish language.
Most of the grammatical and typological features of Spanish are shared with the other Romance languages. Spanish is a fusional language. The noun and adjective systems exhibit two genders and two numbers, in addition articles and some pronouns and determiners have a neuter gender in singular. There are about fifty conjugated forms per verb, with 3 tenses: past, present, future; 2 aspects for past: perfective, imperfective; 4 moods: indicative, subjunctive, conditional, imperative; 3 persons: first, second, third; 2 numbers: singular, plural; 3 verboid forms: infinitive, gerund, and past participle. Verbs express T-V distinction by using different persons for formal and informal addresses. (For a detailed overview of verbs, see Spanish verbs and Spanish irregular verbs.)
Spanish syntax is considered right-branching, meaning that subordinate or modifying constituents tend to be placed after their head words. The language uses prepositions (rather than postpositions or inflection of nouns for case), and usually—though not always—places adjectives after nouns, as do most other Romance languages.
The language is classified as a subject–verb–object language; however, as in most Romance languages, constituent order is highly variable and governed mainly by topicalization and focus rather than by syntax. It is a “pro-drop“, or “null-subject” language—that is, it allows the deletion of subject pronouns when they are pragmatically unnecessary. Spanish is described as a “verb-framed” language, meaning that the direction of motion is expressed in the verb while the mode of locomotion is expressed adverbially (e.g. subir corriendo or salir volando; the respective English equivalents of these examples—’to run up’ and ‘to fly out’—show that English is, by contrast, “satellite-framed”, with mode of locomotion expressed in the verb and direction in an adverbial modifier).
Subject/verb inversion is not required in questions, and thus the recognition of declarative or interrogative may depend entirely on intonation.
The Spanish phonemic system is originally descended from that of Vulgar Latin. Its development exhibits some traits in common with the neighboring dialects—especially Leonese and Aragonese—as well as other traits unique to Castilian. Castilian is unique among its neighbors in the aspiration and eventual loss of the Latin initial /f/ sound (e.g. Cast. harina vs. Leon. and Arag. farina). The Latin initial consonant sequences pl-, cl-, and fl- in Spanish typically become ll- (originally pronounced [ʎ]), while in Aragonese they are preserved, and in Leonese they present a variety of outcomes, including [tʃ], [ʃ], and [ʎ]. Where Latin had -li- before a vowel (e.g. filius) or the ending -iculus, -icula (e.g. auricula), Old Spanish produced [ʒ], that in Modern Spanish became the velar fricative [x] (hijo, oreja, where neighboring languages have the palatal lateral [ʎ] (e.g. Portuguese filho, orelha; Catalan fill, orella).
The Spanish phonemic inventory consists of five vowel phonemes (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/) and 17 to 19 consonant phonemes (the exact number depending on the dialect). The main allophonic variation among vowels is the reduction of the high vowels /i/ and /u/ to glides—[j] and [w] respectively—when unstressed and adjacent to another vowel. Some instances of the mid vowels /e/ and /o/, determined lexically, alternate with the diphthongs /je/ and /we/ respectively when stressed, in a process that is better described as morphophonemic rather than phonological, as it is not predictable from phonology alone.
The Spanish consonant system is characterized by (1) three nasal phonemes, and one or two (depending on the dialect) lateral phoneme(s), which in syllable-final position lose their contrast and are subject to assimilation to a following consonant; (2) three voiceless stops and the affricate /tʃ/; (3) three or four (depending on the dialect) voiceless fricatives; (4) a set of voiced obstruents—/b/, /d/, /ɡ/, and sometimes /ʝ/—which alternate between approximant and plosive allophones depending on the environment; and (5) a phonemic distinction between the “tapped” and “trilled” r-sounds (single ⟨r⟩ and double ⟨rr⟩ in orthography).
In the following table of consonant phonemes, /ʎ/ is marked with an asterisk (*) to indicate that it is preserved only in some dialects. In most dialects it has been merged with /ʝ/ in the merger called yeísmo. Similarly, /θ/ is also marked with an asterisk to indicate that most dialects do not distinguish it from /s/ (see seseo), although this is not a true merger but an outcome of different evolution of sibilants in Southern Spain.
The phoneme /ʃ/ is in parentheses () to indicate that it appears only in loanwords. Each of the voiced obstruent phonemes /b/, /d/, /ʝ/, and /ɡ/ appears to the right of a pair of voiceless phonemes, to indicate that, while the voiceless phonemes maintain a phonemic contrast between plosive (or affricate) and fricative, the voiced ones alternate allophonically (i.e. without phonemic contrast) between plosive and approximant pronunciations.
Spanish intonation varies significantly according to dialect but generally conforms to a pattern of falling tone for declarative sentences and wh-questions (who, what, why, etc.) and rising tone for yes/no questions. There are no syntactic markers to distinguish between questions and statements and thus, the recognition of declarative or interrogative depends entirely on intonation.
Stress most often occurs on any of the last three syllables of a word, with some rare exceptions at the fourth-last or earlier syllables. The tendencies of stress assignment are as follows:
- In words that end with a vowel, stress most often falls on the penultimate syllable.
- In words that end with a consonant, stress most often falls on the last syllable, with the following exceptions: The grammatical endings -n (for third-person-plural of verbs) and -s (whether for plural of nouns and adjectives or for second-person-singular of verbs) do not change the location of stress. Thus, regular verbs ending with -n and the great majority of words ending with -s are stressed on the penult. Although a significant number of nouns and adjectives ending with -n are also stressed on the penult (joven, virgen, mitin), the great majority of nouns and adjectives ending with -n are stressed on their last syllable (capitán, almacén, jardín, corazón).
- Preantepenultimate stress (stress on the fourth-to-last syllable) occurs rarely, only on verbs with clitic pronouns attached (guardándoselos ‘saving them for him/her/them/you’).
In addition to the many exceptions to these tendencies, there are numerous minimal pairs that contrast solely on stress such as sábana (‘sheet’) and sabana (‘savannah’); límite (‘boundary’), limite (‘[that] he/she limits’) and limité (‘I limited’); líquido (‘liquid’), liquido (‘I sell off’) and liquidó (‘he/she sold off’).
The orthographic system unambiguously reflects where the stress occurs: in the absence of an accent mark, the stress falls on the last syllable unless the last letter is ⟨n⟩, ⟨s⟩, or a vowel, in which cases the stress falls on the next-to-last (penultimate) syllable. Exceptions to those rules are indicated by an acute accent mark over the vowel of the stressed syllable. (See Spanish orthography.)
Spanish is the primary language of 20 countries worldwide. It is estimated that the combined total number of Spanish speakers is between 470 and 500 million, making it the second most widely spoken language in terms of native speakers.
Spanish is the third most spoken language by total number of speakers (after Mandarin and English). Internet usage statistics for 2007 also show Spanish as the third most commonly used language on the Internet, after English and Mandarin.
In Europe, Spanish is an official language of Spain, the country after which it is named and from which it originated. It is widely spoken in Gibraltar, and also commonly spoken in Andorra, although Catalan is the official language there.
Spanish is also spoken by small communities in other European countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. Spanish is an official language of the European Union. In Switzerland, which had a massive influx of Spanish migrants in the 20th century, Spanish is the native language of 2.2% of the population.
Most Spanish speakers are in Hispanic America; of all countries with a majority of Spanish speakers, only Spain and Equatorial Guinea are outside the Americas. Nationally, Spanish is the official language—either de facto or de jure—of Argentina, Bolivia (co-official with Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, and 34 other languages), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico (co-official with 63 indigenous languages), Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay (co-official with Guaraní), Peru (co-official with Quechua, Aymara, and “the other indigenous languages”), Puerto Rico (co-official with English), Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Spanish has no official recognition in the former British colony of Belize; however, per the 2000 census, it is spoken by 43% of the population. Mainly, it is spoken by the descendants of Hispanics who have been in the region since the seventeenth century; however, English is the official language.
Due to their proximity to Spanish-speaking countries, Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil have implemented Spanish language teaching into their education systems. The Trinidad government launched the Spanish as a First Foreign Language (SAFFL) initiative in March 2005. In 2005, the National Congress of Brazil approved a bill, signed into law by the President, making it mandatory for schools to offer Spanish as an alternative foreign language course in both public and private secondary schools in Brazil. In September 2016 this law was revoked by Michel Temer after impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. In many border towns and villages along Paraguay and Uruguay, a mixed language known as Portuñol is spoken.
According to 2006 census data, 44.3 million people of the U.S. population were Hispanic or Hispanic American by origin; 38.3 million people, 13 percent of the population over five years old speak Spanish at home. The Spanish language has a long history of presence in the United States due to early Spanish and, later, Mexican administration over territories now forming the southwestern states, also Louisiana ruled by Spain from 1762 to 1802, as well as Florida, which was Spanish territory until 1821.
Spanish is by far the most common second language in the US, with over 50 million total speakers if non-native or second-language speakers are included. While English is the de facto national language of the country, Spanish is often used in public services and notices at the federal and state levels. Spanish is also used in administration in the state of New Mexico. The language also has a strong influence in major metropolitan areas such as those of Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, New York, San Francisco, Dallas, and Phoenix; as well as more recently, Chicago, Las Vegas, Boston, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando, Tampa, Raleigh and Baltimore-Washington, D.C. due to 20th- and 21st-century immigration.
In Africa, Spanish is official (along with Portuguese and French) in Equatorial Guinea, as well as an official language of the African Union. In Equatorial Guinea, Spanish is the predominant language when native and non-native speakers (around 500,000 people) are counted, while Fang is the most spoken language by number of native speakers.
Spanish is also spoken in the integral territories of Spain in North Africa, which include the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, the Plazas de soberanía, and the Canary Islands archipelago (population 2,000,000), located some 100 km (62 mi) off the northwest coast of mainland Africa. In northern Morocco, a former Spanish protectorate that is also geographically close to Spain, approximately 20,000 people speak Spanish as a second language, while Arabic is the de jure official language. A small number of Moroccan Jews also speak the Sephardic Spanish dialect Haketia (related to the Ladino dialect spoken in Israel). Spanish is spoken by some small communities in Angola because of the Cuban influence from the Cold War and in South Sudan among South Sudanese natives that relocated to Cuba during the Sudanese wars and returned in time for their country’s independence.
In Western Sahara, formerly Spanish Sahara, Spanish was officially spoken during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, Spanish in this disputed territory is maintained by populations of Sahrawi nomads numbering about 500,000 people, and is de facto official alongside Arabic in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, although this entity receives limited international recognition.
Spanish was an official language of the Philippines from the beginning of Spanish administration in 1565 to a constitutional change in 1973. During Spanish colonization (1565–1898), it was the language of government, trade and education, and spoken as a first language by Spaniards and educated Filipinos. In the mid-nineteenth century, the colonial government set up a free public education system with Spanish as the medium of instruction. This increased use of Spanish throughout the islands led to the formation of a class of Spanish-speaking intellectuals called the Ilustrados. By the time of Philippine independence in 1898, around 70% of the population had knowledge of Spanish, with 10% speaking it as their first and only language and about 60% of the population spoke it as their second or third language.
Despite American administration after the defeat of Spain in the Spanish–American War in 1898, the usage of Spanish continued in Philippine literature and press during the early years of American administration. Gradually, however, the American government began increasingly promoting the use of English, and it characterized Spanish as a negative influence of the past. Eventually, by the 1920s, English became the primary language of administration and education. But despite a significant decrease in influence and speakers, Spanish remained an official language of the Philippines when it became independent in 1946, alongside English and Filipino, a standardized version of Tagalog.
Spanish was removed from official status in 1973 under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, but regained its status as an official language two months later under Presidential Decree No. 155, dated 15 March 1973. It remained an official language until 1987, with the ratification of the present constitution, in which it was re-designated as a voluntary and optional auxiliary language. In 2010, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo encouraged the reintroduction of Spanish-language teaching in the Philippine education system. But by 2012, the number of secondary schools at which the language was either a compulsory subject or an elective had become very limited. Today, despite government promotions of Spanish, less than 0.5% of the population report being able to speak the language proficiently. Aside from standard Spanish, a Spanish-based creole language—Chavacano—developed in the southern Philippines. The number of Chavacano-speakers was estimated at 1.2 million in 1996. However, it is not mutually intelligible with Spanish. Speakers of the Zamboangueño variety of Chavacano were numbered about 360,000 in the 2000 census. The local languages of the Philippines also retain some Spanish influence, with many words being derived from Mexican Spanish, owing to the administration of the islands by Spain through New Spain until 1821, and then directly from Madrid until 1898.
Spanish speakers by country
The following table shows the number of Spanish speakers in some 79 countries.
|Country||Population||Spanish as a native language speakers||Native speakers or very good speakers as a second language||Total number of Spanish speakers (including limited competence speakers)|
|Mexico||124,737,789||115,631,930 (92.7%)||122,866,722 (98.5%)|
|United States||325,719,178||41,017,620 (13.4%)||42,926,496 (82% of the 57.4 mill. Hispanics + 2.8 mill. non Hispanics)||58,008,778 (40,5 million as a first language, 15 million as a second language, 7.8 million students and some of the 9 million undocumented Hispanics not accounted by the Census)|
|Spain||46,698,569||43,009,382 (92,1%)||46,138,186 (98.8%)|
|Colombia||45,500.000||44,999,500 (98,9%)||45,136,000 (99,2%)|
|Argentina||44,494,502||42,062,795 (95.5%)||43,780,542 (99.4%)|
|Venezuela||31,828,110||30,729,866 (1,098,244 with other mother tongue)||31,466,173 (98.8%)|
|Peru||32,162,184||27,048,397 (84.1%)||28,945,966 (86.6%)|
|Chile||18,275,530||17,993,930 (281,600 with other mother tongue)||18,147,601 (99.3%)|
|Guatemala||16,945,000||10,167,000 (60%)||14,640,480 (86.4%)|
|Dominican Republic||10,819,000||9,300,000||10,775,724 (99.6%)|
|Bolivia||11,145,770||6,464,547 (58%)||9,797,132 (87.9%)|
|Honduras||8,866,351||8,658,501 (207,750 with other mother tongue)||8,777,687 (99.0%)|
|Paraguay||6,953,646||4,721,526 (67.9%)||6,953,646 (2,232,120 limited proficiency)|
|France||65,635,000||477,564 (1% of 47,756,439)||1,910,258 (4% of 47,756,439)||6,685,901 (14% of 47,756,439)|
|El Salvador||6,349,939||6,330,889 (99.7%)||6,349,939 (19,050 limited proficiency)|
|Nicaragua||6,218,321||6,037,990 (97.1%) (490,124 with other mother tongue)||6,218,321 (180,331 limited proficiency)|
|Brazil||206,120,000||460,018||460,018||6,056,018 (460,018 native speakers + 96,000 limited proficiency + 5,500,000 can hold a conversation)|
|Italy||60,795,612||255,459||1,037,248 (2% of 51,862,391)||5,704,863 (11% of 51,862,391)|
|Costa Rica||4,890,379||4,806,069 (84,310 with other mother tongue)||4,851,256 (99.2%)|
|Panama||3,764,166||3,263,123 (501,043 with other mother tongue)||3,504,439 (93.1%)|
|Uruguay||3,480,222||3,330,022 (150,200 with other mother tongue)||3,441,940 (98.9%)|
|Puerto Rico||3,474,182||3,303,947 (95.1%)||3,432,492 (98.8%)|
|United Kingdom||64,105,700||120,000||518,480 (1% of 51,848,010)||3,110,880 (6% of 51,848,010)|
|Germany||81,292,400||644,091 (1% of 64,409,146)||2,576,366 (4% of 64,409,146)|
|Equatorial Guinea||1,622,000||1,683||918,000 (90.5%)|
|Romania||21,355,849||182,467 (1% of 18,246,731)||912,337 (5% of 18,246,731)|
|Portugal||10,636,888||323,237 (4% of 8,080,915)||808,091 (10% of 8,080,915)|
|Canada||34,605,346||553,495||643,800 (87% of 740,000)||736,653|
|Netherlands||16,665,900||133,719 (1% of 13,371,980)||668,599 (5% of 13,371,980 )|
|Sweden||9,555,893||77,912 (1% of 7,791,240)||77,912 (1% of 7,791,240)||467,474 (6% of 7,791,240)|
|Belgium||10,918,405||89,395 (1% of 8,939,546)||446,977 (5% of 8,939,546)|
|Ivory Coast||21,359,000||341,073 (students)|
|Poland||38,092,000||324,137 (1% of 32,413,735)||324,137 (1% of 32,413,735)|
|Austria||8,205,533||70,098 (1% of 7,009,827)||280,393 (4% of 7,009,827)|
|Denmark||5,484,723||45,613 (1% of 4,561,264)||182,450 (4% of 4,561,264)|
|Japan||127,288,419||100,229||100,229||167,514 (60,000 students)|
|Switzerland||7,581,520||150,782 (2,24%)||150,782||165,202 (14,420 students)|
|Ireland||4,581,269||35,220 (1% of 3,522,000)||140,880 (4% of 3,522,000)|
|Finland||5,244,749||133,200 (3% of 4,440,004)|
|Bulgaria||7,262,675||130,750 (2% of 6,537,510)||130,750 (2% of 6,537,510)|
|Bonaire and Curaçao||223,652||10,699||10,699||125,534|
|Czech Republic||10,513,209||90,124 (1% of 9,012,443)|
|Hungary||9,957,731||83,206 (1% of 8,320,614)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||1,317,714||4,100||4,100||65,886 (5%)|
|Slovenia||35,194 (2% of 1,759,701)||52,791 (3% of 1,759,701)|
|New Zealand||21,645||21,645||47,322 (25,677 students)|
|Slovakia||5,455,407||45,500 (1% of 4,549,955)|
|Lithuania||2,972,949||28,297 (1% of 2,829,740)|
|Luxembourg||524,853||4,049 (1% of 404,907)||8,098 (2% of 404,907)||24,294 (6% of 404,907)|
|US Virgin Islands||16,788||16,788||16,788|
|Latvia||2,209,000||13,943 (1% of 1,447,866)|
|Cyprus||2% of 660,400|
|Estonia||9,457 (1% of 945,733)|
|Malta||3,354 (1% of 335,476)|
|European Union (excluding Spain)||460,624,488||2,397,000 (934,984 already counted)|
|Total||7,430,000,000 (Total World Population)||461,860,681 (6.2 %)||497,514,992 (6.6 % )||545,691,655 (7.3 %)|
The variety with the most speakers is Mexican Spanish. It is spoken by more than twenty percent of the world’s Spanish speakers (more than 112 million of the total of more than 500 million, according to the table above). One of its main features is the reduction or loss of unstressed vowels, mainly when they are in contact with the sound /s/.
In Spain, northern dialects are popularly thought of as closer to the standard, although positive attitudes toward southern dialects have increased significantly in the last 50 years. Even so, the speech of Madrid, which has typically southern features such as yeísmo and s-aspiration, is the standard variety for use on radio and television. The educated Madrid variety has most influenced the written standard for Spanish.
The four main phonological divisions are based respectively on (1) the phoneme /θ/ (“theta”), (2) the debuccalization of syllable-final /s/, (3) the sound of the spelled ⟨s⟩, (4) and the phoneme /ʎ/ (“turned y“),
- The phoneme /θ/ (spelled c before e or i and spelled ⟨z⟩ elsewhere), a voiceless dental fricative as in English thing, is maintained by a majority of Spain’s population, especially in the northern and central parts of the country. In other areas (some parts of southern Spain, the Canary Islands, and the Americas), /θ/ doesn’t exist and /s/ occurs instead. The maintenance of phonemic contrast is called distinción in Spanish, while the merger is generally called seseo (in reference to the usual realization of the merged phoneme as [s]) or, occasionally, ceceo (referring to its interdental realization, [θ], in some parts of southern Spain). In most of Hispanic America, the spelled ⟨c⟩ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩, and spelled ⟨z⟩ is always pronounced as a voiceless dental sibilant.
- The debuccalization (pronunciation as [h], or loss) of syllable-final /s/ is associated with the southern half of Spain and lowland Americas: Central America (except central Costa Rica and Guatemala), the Caribbean, coastal areas of southern Mexico, and South America except Andean highlands. Debuccalization is frequently called “aspiration” in English, and aspiración in Spanish. When there is no debuccalization, the syllable-final /s/ is pronounced as voiceless “apico-alveolar” sibilant or as a voiceless dental sibilant in the same fashion as in the next paragraph.
- The sound that corresponds to the letter ⟨s⟩ is pronounced in northern and central Spain as a voiceless “apico-alveolar” sibilant [s̺] (also described acoustically as “grave” and articulatorily as “retracted”), with a weak “hushing” sound reminiscent of retroflex fricatives. In Andalusia, Canary Islands and most of Hispanic America (except in the Paisa region of Colombia) it is pronounced as a voiceless dental sibilant [s], much like the most frequent pronunciation of the /s/ of English. Because /s/ is one of the most frequent phonemes in Spanish, the difference of pronunciation is one of the first to be noted by a Spanish-speaking person to differentiate Spaniards from Spanish-speakers of the Americas.
- The phoneme /ʎ/ spelled ⟨ll⟩, palatal lateral consonant sometimes compared in sound to the sound of the ⟨lli⟩ of English million, tends to be maintained in less-urbanized areas of northern Spain and in highland areas of South America. Meanwhile, in the speech of most other Spanish-speakers, it is merged with /ʝ/ (“curly-tail j“), a non-lateral, usually voiced, usually fricative, palatal consonant, sometimes compared to English /j/ (yod) as in yacht and spelled ⟨y⟩ in Spanish. As with other forms of allophony across world languages, the small difference of the spelled ⟨ll⟩ and the spelled ⟨y⟩ is usually not perceived (the difference is not heard) by people who do not produce them as different phonemes. Such a phonemic merger is called yeísmo in Spanish. In Rioplatense Spanish, the merged phoneme is generally pronounced as a postalveolar fricative, either voiced [ʒ] (as in English measure or the French ⟨j⟩) in the central and western parts of the dialectal region (zheísmo), or voiceless [ʃ] (as in the French ⟨ch⟩ or Portuguese ⟨x⟩) in and around Buenos Aires and Montevideo (sheísmo).
The main morphological variations between dialects of Spanish involve differing uses of pronouns, especially those of the second person and, to a lesser extent, the object pronouns of the third person.
Virtually all dialects of Spanish make the distinction between a formal and a familiar register in the second-person singular and thus have two different pronouns meaning “you”: usted in the formal and either tú or vos in the familiar (and each of these three pronouns has its associated verb forms), with the choice of tú or vos varying from one dialect to another. The use of vos (and/or its verb forms) is called voseo. In a few dialects, all three pronouns are used, with usted, tú, and vos denoting respectively formality, familiarity, and intimacy.
In voseo, vos is the subject form (vos decís, “you say”) and the form for the object of a preposition (voy con vos, “I am going with you”), while the direct and indirect object forms, and the possessives, are the same as those associated with tú: Vos sabés que tus amigos te respetan (“You know your friends respect you”).
The verb forms of general voseo are the same as those used with tú except in the present tense (indicative and imperative) verbs. The forms for vos generally can be derived from those of vosotros (the traditional second-person familiar plural) by deleting the glide [i̯], or /d/, where it appears in the ending: vosotros pensáis > vos pensás; vosotros volvéis > vos volvés, pensad! (vosotros) > pensá! (vos), volved! (vosotros) > volvé! (vos) .
|Present||Simple past||Imperfect past||Future||Conditional||Present||Past|
|The forms in bold coincide with standard tú-conjugation.|
In Chilean voseo on the other hand, almost all verb forms are distinct from their standard tú-forms.
|Present||Simple past||Imperfect past||Future||Conditional||Present||Past|
|The forms in bold coincide with standard tú-conjugation.|
The use of the pronoun vos with the verb forms of tú (vos piensas) is called “pronominal voseo“. Conversely, the use of the verb forms of vos with the pronoun tú (tú pensás or tú pensái) is called “verbal voseo“.
In Chile, for example, verbal voseo is much more common than the actual use of the pronoun vos, which is usually reserved for highly informal situations.
And in Central American voseo, one can see even further distinction.
|Present||Simple past||Imperfect past||Future||Conditional||Present||Past|
|The forms in bold coincide with standard tú-conjugation.|
Distribution in Spanish-speaking regions of the Americas
Although vos is not used in Spain, it occurs in many Spanish-speaking regions of the Americas as the primary spoken form of the second-person singular familiar pronoun, with wide differences in social consideration. Generally, it can be said that there are zones of exclusive use of tuteo (the use of tú) in the following areas: almost all of Mexico, the West Indies, Panama, most of Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and coastal Ecuador.
Tuteo as a cultured form alternates with voseo as a popular or rural form in Bolivia, in the north and south of Peru, in Andean Ecuador, in small zones of the Venezuelan Andes (and most notably in the Venezuelan state of Zulia), and in a large part of Colombia. Some researchers maintain that voseo can be heard in some parts of eastern Cuba, and others assert that it is absent from the island.
Tuteo exists as the second-person usage with an intermediate degree of formality alongside the more familiar voseo in Chile, in the Venezuelan state of Zulia, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the Azuero Peninsula in Panama, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and in parts of Guatemala.
Areas of generalized voseo include Argentina, Nicaragua, eastern Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Uruguay and the Colombian departments of Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda, Quindio and Valle del Cauca.
Ustedes functions as formal and informal second person plural in over 90% of the Spanish-speaking world, including all of Hispanic America, the Canary Islands, and some regions of Andalusia. In Seville, Huelva, Cadiz, and other parts of western Andalusia, the familiar form is constructed as ustedes vais, using the traditional second-person plural form of the verb. Most of Spain maintains the formal/familiar distinction with ustedes and vosotros respectively.
Usted is the usual second-person singular pronoun in a formal context, but it is used jointly with the third-person singular voice of the verb. It is used to convey respect toward someone who is a generation older or is of higher authority (“you, sir”/”you, ma’am”). It is also used in a familiar context by many speakers in Colombia and Costa Rica and in parts of Ecuador and Panama, to the exclusion of tú or vos. This usage is sometimes called ustedeo in Spanish.
In Central America, especially in Honduras, usted is often used as a formal pronoun to convey respect between the members of a romantic couple. Usted is also used that way between parents and children in the Andean regions of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.
Third-person object pronouns
Most speakers use (and the Real Academia Española prefers) the pronouns lo and la for direct objects (masculine and feminine respectively, regardless of animacy, meaning “him”, “her”, or “it”), and le for indirect objects (regardless of gender or animacy, meaning “to him”, “to her”, or “to it”). The usage is sometimes called “etymological”, as these direct and indirect object pronouns are a continuation, respectively, of the accusative and dative pronouns of Latin, the ancestor language of Spanish.
Deviations from this norm (more common in Spain than in the Americas) are called “leísmo“, “loísmo“, or “laísmo“, according to which respective pronoun, le, lo, or la, has expanded beyond the etymological usage (le as a direct object, or lo or la as an indirect object).
Some words can be significantly different in different Hispanophone countries. Most Spanish speakers can recognize other Spanish forms even in places where they are not commonly used, but Spaniards generally do not recognize specifically American usages. For example, Spanish mantequilla, aguacate and albaricoque (respectively, ‘butter’, ‘avocado’, ‘apricot’) correspond to manteca (word used for lard in Peninsular Spanish), palta, and damasco, respectively, in Argentina, Chile (except manteca), Paraguay, Peru (except manteca and damasco), and Uruguay.
Relation to other languages
It is generally acknowledged that Portuguese and Spanish speakers can communicate in written form, with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.
Mutual intelligibility of the written Spanish and Portuguese languages is remarkably high, and the difficulties of the spoken forms are based more on phonology than on grammatical and lexical dissimilarities. Ethnologue gives estimates of the lexical similarity between related languages in terms of precise percentages. For Spanish and Portuguese, that figure is 89%. Italian, on the other hand its phonology similar to Spanish, but has a lower lexical similarity of 82%. Mutual intelligibility between Spanish and French or between Spanish and Romanian is lower still, given lexical similarity ratings of 75% and 71% respectively. And comprehension of Spanish by French speakers who have not studied the language is much lower, at an estimated 45%. In general, thanks to the common features of the writing systems of the Romance languages, interlingual comprehension of the written word is greater than that of oral communication.
The following table compares the forms of some common words in several Romance languages:
(lit. “true brother”)
|dies martis (Classical)
feria tertia (Ecclesiastical)
(arch. chus or plus)
(arch. pus or plus)
|manus sinistra||mano izquierda6
(arch. mano siniestra)
|man esquerda6||mão esquerda6
(arch. mão sẽestra)
|man cucha||mà esquerra6
(arch. mà sinistra)
|main gauche||mano sinistra||mâna stângă||‘left hand’|
nullam rem natam
(lit. “no thing born”)
(also ren and res)
(neca and nula rés
in some expressions; arch. rem)
(also un res)
1. Also nós outros in early modern Portuguese (e.g. The Lusiads), and nosoutros in Galician.
2. Alternatively nous autres in French.
3. Also noialtri in Southern Italian dialects and languages.
4. Medieval Catalan (e.g. Llibre dels fets).
5. Depending on the written norm used (see Reintegrationism).
6. From Basque esku, “hand” + erdi, “half, incomplete”. Notice that this negative meaning also applies for Latin sinistra(m) (“dark, unfortunate”).
7. Romanian caș (from Latin cāsevs) means a type of cheese. The universal term for cheese in Romanian is brânză (from unknown etymology).
Judaeo-Spanish, also known as Ladino, is a variety of Spanish which preserves many features of medieval Spanish and Portuguese and is spoken by descendants of the Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Conversely, in Portugal the vast majority of the Portuguese Jews converted and became ‘New Christians’. Therefore, its relationship to Spanish is comparable with that of the Yiddish language to German. Ladino speakers today are almost exclusively Sephardi Jews, with family roots in Turkey, Greece, or the Balkans, and living mostly in Israel, Turkey, and the United States, with a few communities in Hispanic America. Judaeo-Spanish lacks the Native American vocabulary which was acquired by standard Spanish during the Spanish colonial period, and it retains many archaic features which have since been lost in standard Spanish. It contains, however, other vocabulary which is not found in standard Spanish, including vocabulary from Hebrew, French, Greek and Turkish, and other languages spoken where the Sephardim settled.
Judaeo-Spanish is in serious danger of extinction because many native speakers today are elderly as well as elderly olim (immigrants to Israel) who have not transmitted the language to their children or grandchildren. However, it is experiencing a minor revival among Sephardi communities, especially in music. In the case of the Latin American communities, the danger of extinction is also due to the risk of assimilation by modern Castilian.
A related dialect is Haketia, the Judaeo-Spanish of northern Morocco. This too tended to assimilate with modern Spanish, during the Spanish occupation of the region.
Spanish language around the 13th century
Spanish is written in the Latin script, with the addition of the character ⟨ñ⟩ (eñe, representing the phoneme /ɲ/, a letter distinct from ⟨n⟩, although typographically composed of an ⟨n⟩ with a tilde). Formerly the digraphs ⟨ch⟩ (che, representing the phoneme /t͡ʃ/) and ⟨ll⟩ (elle, representing the phoneme /ʎ/), were also considered single letters. However, the digraph ⟨rr⟩ (erre fuerte, ‘strong r’, erre doble, ‘double r’, or simply erre), which also represents a distinct phoneme /r/, was not similarly regarded as a single letter. Since 1994 ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨ll⟩ have been treated as letter pairs for collation purposes, though they remained a part of the alphabet until 2010. Words with ⟨ch⟩ are now alphabetically sorted between those with ⟨cg⟩ and ⟨ci⟩, instead of following ⟨cz⟩ as they used to. The situation is similar for ⟨ll⟩.
Thus, the Spanish alphabet has the following 27 letters:
- A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, Ñ, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.
Since 2010, none of the digraphs (ch, ll, rr, gu, qu) is considered a letter by the Spanish Royal Academy.
The letters k and w are used only in words and names coming from foreign languages (kilo, folklore, whisky, kiwi, etc.).
With the exclusion of a very small number of regional terms such as México (see Toponymy of Mexico), pronunciation can be entirely determined from spelling. Under the orthographic conventions, a typical Spanish word is stressed on the syllable before the last if it ends with a vowel (not including ⟨y⟩) or with a vowel followed by ⟨n⟩ or an ⟨s⟩; it is stressed on the last syllable otherwise. Exceptions to this rule are indicated by placing an acute accent on the stressed vowel.
The acute accent is used, in addition, to distinguish between certain homophones, especially when one of them is a stressed word and the other one is a clitic: compare el (‘the’, masculine singular definite article) with él (‘he’ or ‘it’), or te (‘you’, object pronoun) with té (‘tea’), de (preposition ‘of’) versus dé (‘give’ [formal imperative/third-person present subjunctive]), and se (reflexive pronoun) versus sé (‘I know’ or imperative ‘be’).
The interrogative pronouns (qué, cuál, dónde, quién, etc.) also receive accents in direct or indirect questions, and some demonstratives (ése, éste, aquél, etc.) can be accented when used as pronouns. Accent marks used to be omitted on capital letters (a widespread practice in the days of typewriters and the early days of computers when only lowercase vowels were available with accents), although the Real Academia Española advises against this and the orthographic conventions taught at schools enforce the use of the accent.
When u is written between g and a front vowel e or i, it indicates a “hard g” pronunciation. A diaeresis ü indicates that it is not silent as it normally would be (e.g., cigüeña, ‘stork’, is pronounced [θiˈɣweɲa]; if it were written *cigueña, it would be pronounced *[θiˈɣeɲa]).
Interrogative and exclamatory clauses are introduced with inverted question and exclamation marks (¿ and ¡, respectively).
Royal Spanish Academy
The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), founded in 1713, together with the 21 other national ones (see Association of Spanish Language Academies), exercises a standardizing influence through its publication of dictionaries and widely respected grammar and style guides.
Because of influence and for other sociohistorical reasons, a standardized form of the language (Standard Spanish) is widely acknowledged for use in literature, academic contexts and the media.
Association of Spanish Language Academies
The Association of Spanish Language Academies (Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, or ASALE) is the entity which regulates the Spanish language. It was created in Mexico in 1951 and represents the union of all the separate academies in the Spanish-speaking world. It comprises the academies of 23 countries, ordered by date of Academy foundation: Spain (1713), Colombia (1871), Ecuador (1874), Mexico (1875), El Salvador (1876), Venezuela (1883), Chile (1885), Peru (1887), Guatemala (1887), Costa Rica (1923), Philippines (1924), Panama (1926), Cuba (1926),
Paraguay (1927), Dominican Republic (1927), Bolivia (1927), Nicaragua (1928), Argentina (1931), Uruguay (1943), Honduras (1949), Puerto Rico (1955), United States (1973) and Equatorial Guinea (2016).
The Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute) is a worldwide nonprofit organization created by the Spanish government in 1991. This organization has branched out in over 20 different countries, with 75 centers devoted to the Spanish and Hispanic American cultures and Spanish language. The ultimate goals of the Institute are to promote universally the education, the study, and the use of Spanish as a second language, to support methods and activities that help the process of Spanish-language education, and to contribute to the advancement of the Spanish and Hispanic American cultures in non-Spanish-speaking countries. The Institute’s 2015 report “El español, una lengua viva” (Spanish, a living language) estimated that there were 559 million Spanish speakers worldwide. Its latest annual report “El español en el mundo 2018” (Spanish in the world 2018) counts 577 million Spanish speakers worldwide. Among the sources cited in the report is the U.S. Census Bureau, which estimates that the U.S. will have 138 million Spanish speakers by 2050, making it the biggest Spanish-speaking nation on earth, with Spanish the mother tongue of almost a third of its citizens.
Official use by international organizations
Spanish is one of the official languages of the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the Organization of American States, the Organization of Ibero-American States, the African Union, the Union of South American Nations, the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, the Latin Union, the Caricom, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and numerous other international organizations.
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