History of Spanish

History of Spanish

The language known today as Spanish is derived from a dialect of spoken Latin that developed in the north-central part of the Iberian Peninsula in what is now northern Spain. 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, and it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

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

  • diphthongization of Latin stressed short E and O in closed syllables as well as open (tiempo, puerta)
  • devoicing and further development of the medieval Spanish sibilants, producing (1) the velar fricative [x] in words such as caja, hijo, gente, and (2) — in many dialects of Spain, including the prestige varieties of Madrid, Toledo, etc. — the interdental [θ] in words such as cinco, hacer, and lazo
  • debuccalization and eventual loss of Latin F, marked in modern spelling by the silent ⟨h⟩ of words such as hablar, hilo, hoja
  • early fricativization of palatal /ʎ/ (from Vulgar Latin -LY-, -CL-, -GL-) into /dʒ/ (hijo < FILIU, ojo < OCLU, reja < REGLA; cf. Portuguese filho, olho, relha)
  • development of initial PL-, CL-, FL- into palatal /ʎ/ (llorar < PLORARE, llamar < CLAMARE, llama < FLAMMA; cf. Portuguese chorar, chamar, chama, Catalan plorar, clamar, flama)
  • Vulgar Latin initial /j/ (from J-, DY-, G(E)-, G(I)-) remains before /a/, /e/ and /i/, subsequently disappearing in an unstressed syllable (yace, yeso, helar, enero, echar, hinojo vs. Portuguese jaz, gesso, gelar, janeiro, jeitar, joelho)

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

  • palatalization of Latin -NN- and -LL- (año, silla) (also in Catalan)
  • the phonemic merger of /b/ and /v/, making, for example, the noun tubo and the verb tuvo phonetically equivalent (in all contexts except those of hypercorrection or spelling pronunciation)[1] (also in Galician, Northern European Portuguese and some Catalan and Occitan varieties)
  • spirantization of /b/, /d/, and /g/ — not only from original Latin B, D, and G (as in Sp. probar, sudar, legumbre), but also from Latin P, T, and C (as in Sp. sabe, vida, lago) (also in Galician, European Portuguese, Catalan and Occitan)

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. FACĔRE > hacer, DICĔRE > decir). Spanish verbal morphology continues the use of some Latin synthetic forms that were replaced by analytic ones in French and 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"), 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

The standard Spanish language is also called Castilian. 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 the Cantabrian Mountains, in northern Spain, in the 8th and 9th centuries, according to most authorities.[2] With the Reconquista, this northern dialect spread to the south, where it almost entirely replaced or absorbed the provincial dialects, at the same time as it borrowed massively from the vocabulary of Moorish Arabic and was influenced by Mozarabic (the Romance speech of Christians living in Moorish territory) and medieval Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). These languages all but vanished in the Iberian Peninsula by the late 16th century.[3][4]

The prestige of Old 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. Estimates of their date vary from the late 10th to the early 11th century.[6]. Today they are considered most probably Navarro-Aragonese.

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). 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 preserving the "purity" of 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 what had then become the mixed Spanish-Amerindian (mestizo) 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 the encouragement of all natives to become fluent in Spanish has had a certain amount of success, 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 Latin American 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 (mulato 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 from Latin America to the United States (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. It is also spoken in parts of the United States that had not been part of the Spanish Empire, such as Spanish Harlem in New York City, at first by immigrants from Puerto Rico, and later by other Latin American immigrants who arrived there in the late 20th century.

In 1492 Spain expelled its Jewish population. Their Judeo-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 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 preferred 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, Basque for the Basque provinces, and Galician for Galicia. Since the early 1980s after Spain became a multi-party democracy, these regional and minority languages have rebounded in common usage as secondary languages, but Spanish remains the universal language of the Spanish people.

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).


Many Castilians who took part in the reconquista and later repopulation campaigns were of Basque lineage, and this is evidenced by many place names throughout Spain. Influence of Basque phonology is credited by some researchers with softening the Spanish labiodentals: turning labiodental [v] to [β], and ultimately deleting labiodental [f]. Others negate or downplay Basque phonological influence, claiming that these changes occurred in the affected dialects wholly independent of each other as a result of internal change (i.e. linguistic factors, not outside influence). It is also possible that the two forces, internal and external, worked in concert and reinforced each other.

Germanic languages by most accounts affected the phonological development very little, many Spanish words of Germanic origin are very common in all varieties of everyday Spanish. The 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. In Old Spanish este and oeste did not exist; oriente (or levante) and occidente (or poniente) were used instead, and are still widely used.

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. Spanish was once written in the Arabic alphabet in specific geographical areas. (See Aljamiado)

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.[14][15][16]

Early syncope in Spanish
Environment Latin words Spanish words
_r aperīre, humerum,[17] litteram, operam abrir, hombro, letra, obra
r_ eremum, viridem yermo, verde
_l acūculam, fabulam, insulam, populum aguja, habla, isla, pueblo
l_ sōlitārium soltero
s_t positum, consūtūram puesto, costura

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_t cubitum, dēbitam, dūbitam codo, deuda, duda
c_m, c_p, c_t decimum, acceptōre, recitāre diezmo, azor, rezar
d_c undecim, vindicāre once, vengar
f_c advērificāre averiguar
m_c, m_n, m_t hāmiceolum, hominem, comitem anzuelo, hombre, conde
n_c, n_t dominicum, bonitāte, cuminitiāre domingo, bondad, comenzar
p_t capitālem, computāre, hospitālem caudal, contar, hostal
s_c, s_n quassicāre, rassicāre, asinum, fraxinum cascar, rascar, asno, fresno
t_c, t_n masticāre, portaticum, trīticum, retinam mascar/masticar, portazgo, trigo, rienda


While voiceless intervocalic consonants were often voiced, many voiced intervocalic stops (d, g, and occasionally b) were simply dropped from words altogether through a process called elision.[18][19]

Examples of elision in Spanish
Consonant Latin word Spanish word
b → Ø vendēbat vendía
d → Ø comedere, vidēre, cadēre, pede, quō modō comer, ver, caer, pie, cómo
g → Ø gitāre, 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.

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.[20][21]

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
abrir [aˈβrir], cubrir [kuˈβrir], lobo [ˈloβo],
obra [ˈoβra], pueblo [ˈpweβlo], cabra [ˈkaβra]
td [ð] cīvitātem, latum, mūtāre,
scūtum, petram
ciudad [θjuˈðað], 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]

The verb form digo is an interesting example as it shows different phonetic changes appearing in different verb forms. Notably, some forms of decir will feature the Latin /k/ to Spanish /θ/ change (which occurs when Latin /k/ is followed by /i/ or /e/), but in other verb forms /k/ is voiced and spirantized to /ɡ/. This also occurs in a few other Spanish verbs ending in -cer or -cir, as in the table below:

Forms with /k//θ/ Forms with voicing of /k/ to /ɡ/
English Latin Spanish English Latin Spanish
To say, to tell
It says, it tells
dīcere /diːkere/
dīcet /diːket/
decir /deˈθiɾ/
dice /ˈdiθe/
I say, I tell
May it tell
dīcō /diːkoː/
dīcat /diːkat/
digo /ˈdiɡo/
diga /ˈdiɡa/
To do, to make
It does, it makes
facere /fakere/
facit /fakit/
hacer /aˈθeɾ/
hace /ˈaθe/
I do, I make
May it make
faciō > *facō /fakoː/
faciat > *facat /fakat/
hago /ˈaɡo/
haga /ˈaɡa/

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.[22][23][24]

Spanish diphthongization in open and closed syllables
Syllable shape Latin Spanish French Italian Catalan Portuguese
Open petra, focus piedra, fuego pierre, feu pietra, fuoco pedra, foc pedra, fogo
Closed festa, porta fiesta, puerta fête, porte festa, porta festa, porta festa, 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-, and -mpt-. Most of the simplified forms have since reverted to the learned forms or are now considered to be uneducated.[25]

Reduction of consonant clusters
Consonant cluster Latin form Learned form Old Spanish form Modern Spanish form
ctt effectum, perfectum, respectum, sectam efecto, perfecto, respecto, secta efeto, perfeto, respeto, seta efecto, perfecto, respeto/respecto, secta
ct[i] → cc[i] → c[i] affectiōnem, lectiōnem, perfectiōnem affección, lección, perfección afición, lición, perfeción afición/afección, lección, perfección
ptt acceptāre, baptismum,
aceptar, baptismo,
acetar, bautismo,
aceptar, bautismo,
gnn dignum, magnificum, significāre digno, magnífico,
dino, manífico,
digno, magnífico,
mnn columnam, solemnitātem columna, solemnidad coluna, solenidad columna, solemnidad
mptnt promptum, exemptum prompto, exempto pronto, exento pronto, 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 coexistenece (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. afición is a 'fondness of' or 'taste for' while afección is 'illness.' Modern Spanish respeto is 'respect' while con respecto a means 'with regard to.'


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.)[26][27][28]

Syllable-final vocalization
Change Latin word Intermediate form Spanish word
pw baptistam bautista
bw bitam debda deuda
bw → Ø cubitum, dubitāre cobdo, dubdar codo, dudar
ctch octō, noctem *oito, *noite ocho, 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 from Latin /b/ between vowels, or from the Latin phoneme corresponding to the letter ⟨v⟩ and thought to have been pronounced [w] in Classical Latin (but later "fortified" to fricative consonant status). In most regions, /v/ had labiodental articulation, but in Old Spanish (which still distinguished /b/ and /v/), /v/ was actually a bilabial fricative [β]. (This pronunciation already existed in the 1st century BC, as shown by Julius Caesar's famous pun "Beati Hispani quibus vivere bibere est", i.e. "Blessed (are the) Spaniards, for whom to live is to drink".) The similarity between the stop [b] and fricative [β] resulted in them merging entirely by the end of the Old Spanish period.[29] In Modern Spanish orthography the letters ⟨b⟩ and ⟨v⟩ represent the same phoneme, usually transcribed as /b/ — 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 choice of orthographic ⟨b⟩ or ⟨v⟩ depends mainly on the etymology of the word, and attempts to mimic the Latin spelling of the word rather than continue the Old Spanish pronunciation.[1] (Hence Old Spanish bever "to drink", bivir/vivir "to live" become beber, vivir, respectively, following the Latin spelling bibere, vīvere.)

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. 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) 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.[30][31][32]

Examples of Latin 'f-' to Spanish 'h-'
Consonants Latin word Spanish word
f-h- fabulāri, facere, faciendam, factum, faminem,
farīnam, fēminam, fīcatum, fīlium, foliam,
fōrmōsum, fūmum, fungum, furcam
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 — /d͡z/ (voiced dental affricate), /z/ (voiced apicoalveolar fricative), and /ʒ/ (voiced alveopalatal fricative), as in Old Spanish fazer, casa, and ojo respectively — lose their voicing and merge 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, but is replaced by ⟨z⟩ in the modern language.

Additionally, the affricate /t͡s/ loses its stop component, to become a (still sibilant, laminodental) fricative, /s̪/. 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/ inherited from Latin, and laminodental in the case of the new fricative sibilant /s̪/ derived from the affricate /t͡s/. The “problem” of this reduced contrast is resolved in the dialects of northern and central Spain by paradigmatic dissimilation, and in those of Andalusia and the Americas by phonemic merger.

In the northern and central dialects, the laminodental fricative is displaced forward to an interdental place of articulation, losing its sibilancy; the result is interdental [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 merge, with the new phoneme being pronounced either as [s] (“seseo” — in the Americas and parts of Andalusia) or as [θ] (“ceceo” — in other parts of Andalusia). In general, coastal regions of Andalusia preferred [θ], while more inland regions preferred [s] (see map at ceceo). During the colonization of the Americas most of the people who were destined to settle the new colonies where from the south of Spain, as a result, language historians believe, the entire Spanish-speaking New World today speaks a language variety derived largely from the language of Andalusia.

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 in all dialects displaced rearward, to become (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). This sound is represented in the modern orthography by ⟨j⟩, or by ⟨g⟩ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩.[33][34]


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⟩.[35][36][37] 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 most settlers of Latin America came from Andalusia, most Latin American regions have yeísmo, although there are pockets where the sounds are still 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 [dʒ]. The current pronunciation varies greatly depending on the geographical dialect and sociolect (with [dʒ], especially, stigmatized except at the beginning of a word). Rioplatense Spanish (of Argentina and Paraguay) 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. ^ a b Navarro Tomás (1918/1982), §§90-91.
  2. ^ For example Lapesa, 7th ed. (1968), p. 124.
  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. ^ Lathrop (2003:10)
  15. ^ Lloyd (1987:113)
  16. ^ Penny (2002:50–51)
  17. ^ 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.)
  18. ^ Lathrop (2003:85–87)
  19. ^ Lloyd (1987:232–237)
  20. ^ Lathrop (2003:82–85)
  21. ^ Penny (2002:67–71)
  22. ^ Lathrop (2003:61–63)
  23. ^ Lloyd (1987:122)
  24. ^ Penny (2002:44)
  25. ^ Lapesa (1942/1981:390)
  26. ^ Lathrop (2003:85 and 94)
  27. ^ Lloyd (1987:253 and 347)
  28. ^ Penny (2002:61 and 78)
  29. ^ Lloyd (1987:239)
  30. ^ Lathrop (2003:78–79)
  31. ^ Lloyd (1987:212–223)
  32. ^ Penny (2002:90)
  33. ^ Lloyd (1987:328–344)
  34. ^ Penny (2002:86–90)
  35. ^ Hammond (2001)
  36. ^ Lloyd (1987:344–347)
  37. ^ Penny (2002:93)

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