Facts Sheets of Major World Languages Spanish

About the major world language Spanish, history, number and location of speaker, samples, trivia, words used in English, and more.



Sample of Language: Si me das la mano, te llevo conmigo. Juntos Iograremos un mundo deamor. ("If you give me your hand, I'll take you with me. Together we shall achieve a world of love.")

How Many Speakers: 225 million

Where Spoken: Spain, all of South America except Brazil and Guyana, all six Central American republic, Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, the Balearic and Canary Islands, Equatorial Guinea, and parts of Morocco. In the U.S., Texas, New Mexico (as co-official language), Arizona, California, New York City, and southern Florida.

History: Spanish, the foreign language most familiar to Americans, is spoken by more people and in more countries than any other Romance language.

In origin, Spanish is intrinsically Latin, the Latin of the legions that wrested ancient Iberia from the Carthaginians. Later, as the Romans took firm control of the Iberian Peninsula, they wiped out all Celtic and Iberian tongues (except Basque), romanizing and latinizing the natives so thoroughly that in later centuries Spain furnished Rome with emperors, such as Hadrian, and great orators, such as Seneca.

After 700 years in Spain, Rome fell, and Germanic invaders founded a Visigothic dynasty that endured from the 5th to the 8th century. Their only linguistic contribution was of common Spanish family names like Gonzalez and Hernandez.

In 711 A.D., the African Moors invaded Spain, and their seven centuries of rule left an indelible imprint on the language. Numerous words begin with al-, the Arabic article; many place-names, such as Guadalajara and Guadalupe, start with the Arabic for "river." Even the exclamation Ole is Arabic for "by God."

By 950 A.D., Latin and Spanish had merged, but each region had its own Spanish dialect. Castilian predominance was assured because it was Castile that took the lead in the war for the Christian reconquest of Spain, so it was the Castilian dialect that spread southward with the Spanish armies that finally threw the Moors back into Africa in 1492. That year also marked the Spanish discovery of America, and again it was basically Castilian that was brought to the New World and propagated in the vast Spanish Empire. Even today, the terms Castilian and Spanish are synonymous in Spanish-speaking countries.

The Spanish Academy has deliberately regularized grammar; Spanish sounds are simple and its spelling is phonetic. Syntax, however, can be unbelievably loose and arbitrary.

Pronunciation and usage vary from country to country, but Spanish is intelligible anywhere in the Hispanic world. The language is spoken by people of widely different racial and cultural backgrounds-fair-haired Castilians and swarthy Moroccan Berbers, Peruvian Indians and Cuban Negroes, Filipinos and Aztecs, Majorcans and Basques.

Oddities: The th sound in European Spanish originated with a king who had a lisp. No word begins with s followed by another consonant. Thus, Spanish speakers pronounce "Spanish" Espanish.

Hombre pobre means "pauper," but pobre hombre means "poor things." Spanish loves diminutives like chiquito, "very small," and even chiquitito, "teeny-weeny."

A 100-page English book needs 105 pages in Spanish translation. Spanish uses inverted punctuation marks to begin questions and exclamations.

Tabaco, which means "tobacco" in Spain, becomes "cigar" in Cuba, where the Castilian cigarro ("cigar") is a cigarette. An illiterate farmhand is a peon in Mexico, a guaso in Chile, a guajiro in Cuba, a jibaro in Puerto Rico, and a pongo in Bolivia.

Many English words can be converted to Spanish by adding -o or -a, but this can be a dangerous practice. Bravo does not mean "brave" but "angry"; bizarro is not "bizarre" but "magnanimous"; insano is not "insane" but "unhealthy"; and embarazada does not mean "embarrassed" but "pregnant."

Words Now Used in English: guitar, parade, barbecue, vanilla, banana, canyon, patio, junta, guerrilla, grenade, comrade, cannibal, mosquito, cockroach, alligator, marijuana, cigarette, wop (from guapo, "handsome"), sherry, fiesta, jade, tornado, serenade.

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