The Spanish Language

Spanish flagIt is estimated that Spanish is spoken by between 350 and 400 million people around the world. It is the third most spoken language by number of speakers (after Chinese and English), and the second most spoken language in terms of native speakers. It is also the official language of nearly all of South and Central America. Spanish has certainly spread itself far and wide from its Iberian beginnings.

Some history

One of the Romance languages, sub-classified in the Ibero-Romance group, Spanish developed in the 9th Century from various languages in the centre-north of Iberia. As the Kingdom of Castile grew across central and southern Iberia, the language spread, picking up Arabic words and sounds from the Moors as it did so.

With the massive expansion of the Spanish empire during the 16th and 17th centuries, and right up to the 19th century, it is no wonder that so much of the world now speaks this language.

Spanish v Castilian

Whether it is referred to as castellano or español depends greatly on the context in which the language is being talked about, and the motivations of the speaker. Many speakers of the other official languages in Spain like to refer to 'castellano' in order to acknowledge that there is more than one Spanish language, i.e. more than one language spoken in Spain and therefore more than one which merits being referred to as 'español'.

Puerto Pollensa harbour Others differentiate between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that of elsewhere with the terms Castilian and Mexican/Chilean etc. Spanish. Within Spain, the term Castilian is sometimes employed in order to differentiate between the standard 'official' version of the language and regional dialectical variations. Even the Royal Spanish Academy referred to the pure language of 'castellano' until the 1920s, preferring this term to 'español'.

Pronunciation and Spelling

Spanish spelling and pronunciation are wonderfully consistent. Once you know a few rules, you can pronounce any word that you see written and you can spell any word you hear spoken.

Here are the basic guidelines:
Words ending in a vowel, N or S: the stress falls on the next to last syllable.
Words ending in a consonant, except N or S: the stress falls on the last syllable.

There are a few exceptions to the above, in which case the stress is identified by an accent. Watch out for accents over vowels as English eyes tend not to notice them.

Most letters are pronounced like in English but the exceptions are shown below.
C- before I and E, this is pronounced like 'th' as in 'thin'. In some areas of Spain (such as parts of Andalucía and the Canary Islands) and in South and Central American Spanish, it is pronounced like English 's'. Before A, O and U, it is pronounced like 'k'.
D- much like in English, but with a lighter touch when the 'd' comes at the end of a word. Around Madrid the light 'd' drifts into a 'th' sound.
G- this depends on what letters are around it. Before A, O and U it is a hard 'g' like 'golf'. Before E and I it becomes the sound in the back of the throat that is derived from Arabic; best described as being like the 'ch' in 'loch' when pronounced by a Scotsman. U inserted between G and the following vowel modifies the sound. Before A, O and U the U sounds like 'w' so 'gua' is 'gwa'. Before E and I the U just makes a hard 'g' again so 'gue' would be the sound in the English 'get'.
H- always silent.
J- that choking sound again! Like the 'ch' as in a Scottish 'loch'.
LL- considered a different letter in Spanish, it sounds like a 'y' at the beginning of a word.
Ñ- 'ny' like in 'onion'. Make sure not to pronounce this like a normal N as it can dramatically change the meaning of a word. 'Tengo 50 años' pronounced correctly means 'I am 50 years old'. Pronounced with 'n' instead of 'ny' it becomes 'I have 50 arses'!
V- generally sounds more like a 'b'. This is one of the very rare occasions when the same sound could be spelt two ways. Vaca = cow, baca = roof rack, but they both sound the same!
Z- like 'th' as in 'thin'. Again, like C, it sounds like 's' in Central and South America.

Words Common to English

FlamencoIf you know little Spanish, try to be undaunted by the prospect of speaking it. A lot of words are cognates of English ones (words which basically mean the same), or to be more specific, quite a lot of English words have come from Spanish. Here are a few examples:
aficionado
banana- although this is now 'platano' in normal Spanish, 'banana' denotes a particular variety.
machismo/macho
mosquito
oregano
renegade
savvy- said to be from 'sabe', the third-person form of the verb 'saber', to know.
spaniel- from the same root word as 'Spain', 'Hispania'.

Some words have gone the other way too, for example 'futbol' (football).

It is when looking at verbs though that the similarities come into their own. There are so many cases where the Spanish verb can be guessed with a reasonable degree of accuracy. These are just some of the many examples:
Comenzar- 'to begin'. 'It seems more formal in English, but 'comenzar' is the standard word for 'to begin'.
Decidir- you have probably guessed that this is 'to decide'.
Describir- 'escribir' is 'to write' and 'describir' is the similar-looking 'to describe'.
Destruir- again looking pretty similar, this is 'to destroy'.
Dormir- when you consider the meaning of 'dormant', 'dormir' being 'to sleep' makes sense.
Ganar- very often 'to earn', 'ganar' can also mean 'to win', and even the similar-looking 'to gain'.
Intentar- 'to try', but this of course resembles 'to intend'.
Lanzar- 'to throw'. Resembles the English words 'lance' and 'to launch'.
Necesitar- 'to need', obviously resembling 'necessity'.
Permitir- 'to allow'.
Terminar- in a neat parallel with 'comenzar' meaning 'to begin' more than 'to commence', 'terminar' is typically the standard word for 'to end', rather than 'to terminate'.
Vender- 'to sell'. The traces of this word can be seen in the English 'vendor' for 'seller'.

False Friends

There are various 'false friends' in Spanish waiting to trip up the unwary. Some are more embarrassing than others.
Carpeta- Meaning 'folder', this word can refer to either a computer folder or a physical one. Ordinarily, a carpet is an 'alfombra' or 'moqueta'.
Castle of the Eagle Constiparse/Constipación- 'Constiparse' is actually to catch a cold and 'constipación' is a cold itself. 'Constipated' is 'estreñido'.
Embarazada- It means 'pregnant'. 'Avergonzado' is embarrassed. Now that one is embarrassing to get wrong.
Excitado- The word exists in a more limited range of usage in Spanish, and it almost exclusively caters for sexual excitement. It's safer to opt for 'emocionado' to convey any other type of excitement.
Estar caliente- Staying on the previous theme, 'estoy caliente' means 'I am hot' but with a sexual inference. 'I am hot' because I am sitting in the sun is 'tengo calor' (literally 'I have heat').
Molestar- This time the apparently offensive implication is not offensive at all. This simply refers to (possibly quite minor) annoyances or irritations. It is then, 'to bother', 'to annoy', 'to irritate', etc.
Preservativo- No-one wants these in their food. A 'preservativo' is a condom.
Pretender- This is 'to claim' or 'to try'. 'To pretend' is 'simular' or 'fingir'.
Sensible- 'Sensitive'. There are various ways to say 'sensible' including 'prudente' (for a decision) and 'sensato' (for a person or decision).
Sopa- 'Soup'. 'Soap' is 'jabón'.

While we can all have a good giggle at some of the more unfortunate errors that can arise (I still smile at the memory of a very polite Spanish lady desperately trying not to laugh at the "Tengo 50 años" faux pas mentioned earlier), the reality is that a little effort in the language can get you a very long way.


You may not be surprised to learn that this blog was contributed by a language teacher. If you are interested in on-line Spanish (or French) classes, let us know and we'll put you in touch.


31 Jan 2016, 17:21