Names given to the Spanish language

From Academic Kids

eo:Kastilia lingvoes:Castellano pl:język kastylijski ro:Castelană Template:Spanish There are two main names given to the Spanish language: 'Spanish' and 'Castilian'.

This article explains the usage, history and connotations of these two terms, and some others.


'Spanish' versus 'Castilian'


Linguistically speaking, 'Castilian' means 'Spanish', as it is the medieval Castilian language that spread across Spain and became the national language known virtually always as 'Spanish', in English. But in Spanish itself, the term castellano (Castilian) is often used to refer to the language, at the expense of the term espaol (Spanish). It seems that awareness of the term 'Castilian' is growing in English, and even more so in French.

To understand how two terms can refer to the same language, imagine that the English language was sometimes called 'English' after the historical nation whose language it is, but also sometimes 'British' after the modern state of which it is the official language. Imagine then that Britain had an empire of colonies in the Americas. How would they then refer to the language? What about the speakers of Welsh and other non-English languages spoken in Britain? This is almost exactly the situation with Spain and its historical heart, Castile (Castilla).

(For general discussion of the history and linguistic characteristics of the Castilian language, see Spanish language)

Usage and implications today in Spain

Spaniards tend to call this language espaol (Spanish) when contrasting it to languages of other states (e.g. in a list such as francs, ingls, chino y espaol) but castellano (Castilian) when contrasting it with other regional languages of Spain (e.g. gallego, vasco, cataln/valenciano y castellano, as in the Spanish Constitution of 1978).

The official Real Academia Espaola used castellano from the 18th century, but from 1923 its dictionary and grammar are de la lengua espaola. However, the Academy's use of one term or the other should not be taken to be a condemnation of the other.

Bilingual regions

In the bilingual regions where such languages are spoken, there is obviously a daily need to make this contrast, and so the language is most often referred to as Castilian, particularly in the regional languages themselves (e.g. espanyol is virtually never used to refer to the Spanish language in Catalan: castell is used instead.) This usage is often mirrored by English-speakers when referring to the linguistic situation in Spain.

For some, this use of the term castellano or Castilian is a political or cultural statement that Castilian is only the language of Castile and perhaps some areas that Castile colonised, but not the language of their region, where they consider the only legitimate language to be the regional one, i.e. Catalan, Basque, etc. This is a common belief in regionalist circles.

Conversely, some nationalist circles prefer espaol/espanyol because they see Catalonia as already separate from Spain, and therefore do not mind the language of Spain being called Spanish.

Monolingual regions

In monolingual regions of Spain, the implications are a little different. There, inhabitants do not have anything to prove, but still they must choose one of the two terms. Castilians themselves usually use the term espaol, thus legitimately presenting it as the national language (the Spanish constitution declares that all Spaniards have 'the right to speak Spanish/Castilian and the duty to know it'). However, they also frequently call it castellano, thus implying it is their special language that the rest of Spain is just borrowing, if you will. Alternatively, they may of course use the term in order to distinguish between Castilian and the regional languages.

Outside of Castile, there are other regions of Spain that are monolingual (i.e. they only speak Spanish/Castilian); for example, Cantabria or Andalusia. In these areas, espaol may be used as in Castile to stress the national nature of the language, with a slightly different nuance: they are accepting another region's historical language as their national language, rather than asserting their own as one. The terms have otherwise much the same significance as in Castile.

The concept of a standard

The term castellano is occasionally used to imply more of a standard form than espaol does. For example, if someone mispronounces a word, they might be told hable castellano!, i.e. 'Speak Castilian!', 'Speak properly!'. However, this nuance is not to be exaggerated, as it is perfectly possible that the term espaol or even cristiano ('Christian') could be used instead. Moreover, the term castellano is also commonly and correctly used to refer to dialects of Spanish that deviate dramatically from the standard.

Usage and implications today in former colonies

Both of the language's names are commonly used in parts of the world colonised by Spanish speakers, such as the Americas. As in Spain, the implications are complex. The most common term is espaol, generally considered to be a neutral term simply reflecting the country the language came from. For people who use this term, castellano may possibly imply greater correctness as it sometimes does in Spain, or it may merely be an alien term, referring to a region in a far-off country.

However, some Latin Americans prefer the word castellano. Reasons given generally include the idea that Spanish is an international language with historical origins in the old kingdom of Castile, and that the term espaol is imperialist, implying it is the language of Spain. One criticism of this reasoning is that Castile is the imperialist heart of Spain, and the engine that drove the colonisation of the Americas, so castellano is just as 'bad' in these terms as espaol. However, the fact that Spain is still a major nation-state, whereas Castile is now a region buried and internationally forgotten within Spain, is the deciding psychological factor.

In practice, the use of one term or the other tends to be a matter of local customs, rather than deep philosophical, sociological and political thought on the individual level.

Some constitutions avoid the issue by talking about "the national language".

Countries or regions where castellano ('Castilian') is generally preferred
Countries or regions where there is generally oscillation between the two
  • Chile: The media uses the word espaol and the school subject is castellano.
Countries or regions where espaol ('Spanish') is generally preferred
  • Colombia
  • The Dominican Republic
  • Mexico
  • Peru: Both words "Castellano" and "Spanish" are used in the same context. In Secondary Education the language is studied in a subject called "Castellano" (Castilian), and literature is studied in subjects called "Literatura Espaola" (Spanish Literature) and "Literatura Peruana" (Peruvian Literature).

Usage and misconceptions abroad

This complex linguistic situation is obviously not always grasped by non-Spanish speakers (or even by Spanish speakers themselves). Some believe that the term espaol is not used in Spanish, or only in Spain, and that the term 'Spanish' is therefore wrong. So, it is not uncommon in some politically correct circles to write 'Castilian', 'Castillian' or even 'Castellano' in English texts, calling 'Spanish' incorrect or imperialist. This can even lead to their rejecting the official ISO 639 code for Spanish ('es') in favour of 'ca', with the consequence that Catalan then would have to be given 'ct'.

Another use of 'Castilian' in English is to distinguish between standard Spanish and dialects. As noted above, this distinction is made to some extent in Spanish, but not as far as some English speakers go — for example, websites with language selection screens giving the choice between 'Castilian' and 'Latino Spanish' among other languages. However, it is possible to say that "Spanish" has two standards, one spoken in Spain and the other in Latin America. The former can be called Spanish Castilian and the latter Latin American Castilian.

Historical background to the various terms

History of the term 'Castilian'

Castile (in Spanish: Castilla) means Castle-land, from castiello plus the suffix -ia, giving Castiella, a form that survives in the Astur-Leonese language and can be seen in mediaeval Castilian texts such as the Lay of the Cid. Modern Spanish has transformed all words ending in -iello, -iella into -illo, -illa. The adjective derived from Castilla is castellano, or 'Castilian', in English. Castellano also means 'castellan', i.e. a castle master. There is a comic scene based on the play on words (Castilian/castellan) in Don Quixote.

The reason for the name is that Castile was a land surrounded by castles for centuries during and after the Reconquest (Reconquista) of the peninsula from the Moors by Christians spreading down from their northern stronghold.

History of the term 'Spanish'

HISPANIA was the name given to the Iberian Peninsula by the Romans when they discovered and later subjugated it. The name was previously Canaanite אי שפנים (ʾ šəpānm), meaning 'coast of hyraxes', named by Canaanite-speaking Phoenicians who mistook Spain's large rabbit population for hyraxes. (The name today is even more of a misnomer, as the wild rabbit population all but disappeared with the introduction of the myxomatosis virus to mainland Europe in 1950.) The Romans called its inhabitants HISPANI (singular: HISPANVS), and the relevant adjective was HISPANICVS. These terms would naturally have developed into Espaa, *espanos (singular: *espano) and *espnego in Castilian. In reality, only the first term exists in modern Castilian, as it seems that the Spanish borrowed the Occitan name for themselves, which was the name Espaa plus the diminutive suffix -ol, from the Latin -VLVS or -OLVS. We can see this because if the native Castilian suffix had been used this would have given us *espauelo rather than espaol.

As the branches of Vulgar Latin began to evolve into separate Romance languages, the term that would evolve into espaol began to be used to refer to these derivative languages (especially as opposed to the Arabic and Hebrew of the Moorish and Jewish inhabitants of Iberia). It was at first a general term that embraced the various dialects of Iberian Romance spoken in the area, including the forebears of modern Portuguese, Galician, Castilian and Catalan. However, with the rise of Castile as a power, and its absorption of all surrounding regions into an ever-growing empire that eventually spread to the New World, the term Espaa was eventually equated with the peninsular territories dominated by Castile. With this, the break with the Roman concept of Hispania was complete, and the term acquired its modern meaning of 'all of Iberia except for Portugal'. Similarly, espaol came to be used to refer to the common language of this new country: Castilian.

The terms Espaa and espaol spread to other languages. The English name 'Spain' is from the French Espagne. 'Spanish' is 'Spain' plus the English suffix -ish. The term continues evolving as other languages adapt these words to form their own name for Spain — for example, Japanese スペイン語 (Supein-go), 'Spanish language', and スペイン人 (Supein-jin), 'Spaniard', derive from the Japanese word for Spain, スペイン (Supein), which, in turn, derives from English 'Spain'. In Chinese though, the word is directly taken from Spanish (or perhaps even Latin) rather than English: they say 西班牙 xībāny for Spain and 西班牙语 xībāny yǔ for the Spanish language.

 * denotes an unattested or hypothetical form.

History of the term 'Christian'

During the presence of Moors in Hispania, Spanish was sometimes given the name cristiano to distinguish it from the Arabic and Hebrew languages. Spanish also marked Christians from "heathen" Amerindians. This term is still used today to refer to the language, though usually jocularly, and never in English.

The expression Hbleme en cristiano "talk to me in Christian", uttered to people not speaking Spanish is often felt as racist and insulting by inhabitants of the bilingual areas of Spain, such as Catalonia, Valencia, Galicia and the Basque Country.

History of the term 'Language of Cervantes'

Spanish is often referred to in educated circles as the 'Language of Cervantes' or lengua de Cervantes, in reference to the writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and in analogy with the expressions language of Shakespeare (English), language of Goethe (German), language of Dante (Italian), language of Cames (Portuguese), and the like.


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