Everybody in Spain speaks Spanish, right? Well, yes and no. While Castilian Spanish is indeed the language used by the central government and the only official language universal across the nation, Spain is also home to a variety of separate languages that in my opinion are rarely given the credit they deserve. These languages are as much a part of their speakers’ identities as any other cultural aspect, and the interplay between them helps to make Spain a vibrant and fascinating country—rich with history and tradition, but divided at times by conflict.
Approximately 74% of Spaniards speak Castilian Spanish (Castellano or Español in Spanish) as a first language, and those who do not learn it as a second language in nearly every case. Native speakers of Spain’s regional languages, however, often feel very strongly about preserving their heritages and will only switch to Castilian when it is absolutely necessary.
Catalan (Català) is probably the most well-known of Spain’s regional languages. It is the primary language spoken in Barcelona, a highly-touristic city of nearly two million people, as well as in the rest of the province of Catalonia—where it has co-official status. In addition, Catalan is also one of the official languages in the autonomous community of Valencia and on the Balearic Islands. I have been studying this language for the past four months or so, and my studies have just so happened to coincide with a historic time for the Catalonian people as their province’s movement for total independence from Spain gains traction. Many inhabitants of Catalonia have a strong desire for autonomy; in fact, a poll taken on 9 November 2014 showed that an incredible 81% of them support becoming independent. The central Spanish government, meanwhile, is vehemently opposed to that idea, and Catalonia’s future remains uncertain. But I could not imagine a more exciting time to be learning the Catalan language!
Galician (Galego) is a Romance language like Catalan and Spanish, and it is spoken natively by 5% of Spaniards—mostly in Galicia, where it has co-official status. Galician is closely related to Portuguese, so much so that some consider the two to be dialects of the same language! Most Galicians, however, are very proud of their heritage and culture, and maintain that their language is an entirely separate entity.
Also a Romance language, Aranese (Aranés) is actually considered to be a dialect of Occitan—a regional language spoken mainly in France. It is one of the official languages in Catalonia alongside Spanish and Catalan, and is currently experiencing somewhat of a renaissance after once having been considered endangered. It is taught in many schools and is the official language used for signs and town names in the Val d’Aran region of Catalonia.
Aragonese, Leonese, and Asturian
Aragonese (Aragonés), Leonese (Llionés), and Asturian (Asturianu) are three additional Romance languages that are spoken in parts of Spain. All three are recognised but are not granted official status in the areas in which they are spoken. Asturian and Leonese are so closely related that they are considered dialects of the same language, and Aragonese—with approximately 54,000 native speakers—is used primarily in the community of Aragon.
Basque (Euskara) is one of the world’s most fascinating languages. It does not belong to the Romance or the Indo-European family; rather, it is considered a linguistic isolate: unrelated to any other presently-known language as far as today’s scholars can tell. Believed to have possibly originated prior to the appearance of any Indo-European language in the area, Basque is spoken by approximately 720,000 native speakers in northeastern Spain (where it does enjoy co-official status) and southwestern France. The majority of those speakers consider themselves proud proponents of their language and culture, and for good reason: Basque is one of the most unique and mysterious languages in the world, and it adds a great deal to Spain’s linguistic landscape.
Spain has thus far managed to remain a unified country in spite of the vast number of languages spoken there, and the exchange of culture and tradition that those languages engender that make it an interesting and dynamic place. That is not to say, however, that Spain has not experienced its fair share of uprisings and independence movements over the years. In addition to the Catalonian independence movement already discussed—which has been in motion since before the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)—there was the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, or ‘Basque Homeland and Freedom’), an extremist Basque separatist group that exists in Spain and is classified as a terrorist organisation due to the violent nature of its campaign for independence. Small separatist movements took place in Galicia and Asturia over the years, due to the desire of some Asturians and Galicians to be recognised as culturally, linguistically, and politically separate from the rest of the nation.
Spain is also home to so many other languages that not all of them can be discussed fully here. Among them are Judeo-Spanish (an interesting Old Spanish-derived Romance language that is sometimes still written with the Hebrew alphabet), Fala (a Romance language sharing traits of both Portuguese and Leonese, and whose name literally translates to ‘speech’), Riffian Berber (a Moroccan language), Silbo Gomero* (a whistled version of Spanish used on the Canary Islands), and several minor Romance languages. Every language discussed here has something to offer curious learners of the world, especially in terms of culture and/or linguistics; and none of them should be overlooked simply because they’re not well-known or widely spoken. So, the next time somebody is surprised to learn that not only Spanish is used in Spain, you can tell them that they have some exploring to do!