The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

Julie Barlow (Photo: Veronica Louis)

The Spanish that’s spoken here in the United States is a far cry from the language that came into being on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman invasion.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau wanted to trace that Point-A-to-Point-Z history. So they moved from their native Canada to the United States, and began researching the book that became The Story of Spanish.

They found a language in flux—not just now, in the US, but in flux since its beginnings. No language, of course, ever stops changing, but Spanish has been a faster mover than many. History decided that. The Iberian Peninsula took in wave upon wave of invasion—from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors. When large-scale migration into Spain ended, Spanish-speakers migrated away, mainly to what became Latin America. There, the language was pushed and pulled in many directions—in most places it was spoken only by a minority elite. Only after independence in countries like Mexico and Peru did Spanish become a lingua franca.

Alfonso X of Castile (Photo via Wikipedia)

As Julie Barlow told me, Arabic in particular had a huge influence on Spanish. Not just through loanwords, though Spanish has many of them. (Albaricoque: Apricot. From Arabic al-barqouq (البرقوق) meaning plum or early-ripe; ojalá: I hope, I wish that… From law šha’ allāh: God willing.) Moorish rule over Spain was waning by the time King Alfonso Tenth of Castile decided that he’d use language to forge power.

Afonso—who later became known as Alfonso The Wise—decided to incentivize people into speaking Spanish. He wanted make Spanish prestigious and interesting. But when he looked around for what was prestigious and interesting in Spain, it was all in Arabic. So, Alfonso launched a huge project of translating Arabic classics into Spanish—which meant the rules of the language had to be defined, so that the translators had coherency and consistency.

“It becomes a trend in Spanish to define the language, the vocabulary and the spelling rules,” said Barlow. That was “very avant-garde in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

Excerpt from "Epitafio épico del Cid," circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from “Epitafio épico del Cid,” circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barlow and Nadeau are language history veterans. They previously co-authored a book called The Story of French. So it’s no surprise they often compare Spanish to French, two romance languages that took very different paths.

“French is a language that is controlled by one country. Paris sets the rules,” said Barlow. “Spanish is completely different. Spain was overcome by its own empire and it very quickly in its history learned to share control of the language.” So the Royal Academy in Madrid has created standards for the Spanish language by taking into account consideration all the Spanish that’s spoken throughout the Spanish-speaking world. “It’s very much a language about sharing control and diversity.”

Barlow and Nadeau’s experience of United States comes very much from a Canadian perspective. They lived in Phoenix, Arizona where they enrolled their daughters in predominantly Hispanic schools. They observed the widespread phenomenon in the US of non-native English-speaking parents urging their kids to learn English and forget their Spanish.

“It’s like a zero-sum game,” said Barlow. These immigrants “are convinced that they can’t teach their kids Spanish of they won’t make it in the English United States. This was eye-opening for us, because it’s the opposite in Canada. Everybody wants to learn French—French is an officially recognized language and it will get you a job in the government. In the United States, there’s a similar idea among white people who want their kids to learn Spanish. But the perfectly bilingual Spanish-speaking kids are hearing from the parents. ‘English, English, English! Forget your Spanish.’”

Here’s a report on The Story of French from an previous podcast:


In the pod, I mentioned PRI’s Global Reporting Fund. Here’s where you can contribute.



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1 Comment

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One response to “The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

  1. Ian Holder

    Another 2 books to add to my ever-increasing want-to-buy list… [I had forgotten about the French one, but your penultimate (love that word!) sentence reminded me.] I really enjoyed this historic reflection on the Spanish language, and very interesting with the push of non-native parents in the US pushing English only: thanks Patrick

    And thanks for the link to PRI’s GRF also.

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