What You Need To Know About Spain

Spanish Language Originated There a Millennium Ago

The Spanish language obviously derives its name from Spain. And while the vast majority of Spanish speakers today don't live in Spain, the European nation continues to have an outsize influence on the language. As you study Spanish, here are some facts about Spain that will be useful to know:

Spanish Had Its Origins in Spain

Memorial in Madrid, S[ain
A memorial in Madrid, Spain, honors the victims of a March 11, 2007, terror attack. Felipe Gabaldón/Creative Commons

Although a few words and some grammatical features of Spanish can be traced back to at least 7,000 years ago, the development of a language that closely resembles what we know as Spanish today didn't start developing until around 1,000 years ago as a dialect of Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin was a spoken and popular version of classical Latin, which was taught throughout the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Empire, which occurred on the Iberian Peninsula in the 5th century, parts of the former empire became more isolated from each other and Vulgar Latin began varying in different regions. Old Spanish — whose written form remains fairly intelligible to modern readers — developed in the area around Castile (Castilla in Spanish). It spread throughout the rest of Spain as the Arabic-speaking Moors were pushed out of the region.

Although modern Spanish is a decidedly Latin-based language in its vocabulary and syntax, it accumulated thousands of Arabic words.

Among the other changes that the language made as it morphed from Latin into Spanish are these:

  • Adding -s or -es to make words plural.
  • The elimination of noun endings (or cases) that indicated what function a noun had in a sentence (although some cases were retained for pronouns). Instead, Spanish increasingly came to use prepositions for a similar purpose.
  • The near elimination of the neuter gender. Many of the functions of the neuter in Latin were taken over by the masculine gender in Spanish.
  • The reduction of infinitive verb endings from four to three (-ar, -er and -ir).
  • Pronunciation shifts such as the change of an f at the beginning of a word to h. An example is the Latin ferrum (iron), which became hierro.
  • Changes in verb tenses and conjugation. For example, forms of the Latin verb habere (the source of haber) were added after the infinitive to form the future tense; eventually the spelling changed to the form used today.

The Castilian dialect was standardized in part through the widespread use of a book, Arte de la lengua castellana by Antonio de Nebrija, the first printed grammar authority for a European language.

Spanish Isn't the Only Major Language of Spain

airport in Barcelona, Spain
An airport sign in Barcelona, Spain, is in Catalan, English and Spanish. Marcela Escandell/Creative Commons.

Spain is a linguistically diverse country. Although Spanish is used throughout the country, it is used as a first language by only 74 percent of the population. Catalan is spoken by 17 percent, mostly in and around Barcelona. Sizable minorities also speak Euskara (also known as Euskera or Basque, 2 percent) or Galician (similar to Portuguese, 7 percent). Basque is not known to be related to any other language, while Catalan and Galician come from Vulgar Latin.

Spanish-speaking visitors should have little problem visiting areas where a non-Castilian language dominates. Signs and restaurant menus are likely to be bilingual, and Spanish is taught in schools nearly everywhere. English, French and German are also commonly spoken in tourist areas.

Spain Has an Abundance of Language Schools

Spain has at least 50 immersion schools where foreigners can study Spanish and lodge in a home where Spanish is spoken. Most schools offer instruction in classes of 10 or fewer students, and some offer individual instruction or special programs such as for businesspersons or medical professionals.

Madrid and the coastal resorts are especially popular locations for schools, although they can also be found in nearly every large city.

Costs typically begin around $300 U.S. per week for class, room and partial board.

Vital Statistics

Spain has a population of 48.1 million (July 2015) with a median age of 42 years.

Almost 80 percent of the people live in urban areas, with the capital, Madrid, being the largest city (6.2 million), followed closely by Barcelona (5.3 million).

Spain has a land area of 499,000 square kilometers, about five times that of Kentucky. It is bordered by France, Portugal, Andorra, Morocco and Gibraltar.

Although the bulk of Spain is on the Iberian Peninsula, it has three small territories on the African mainland as well as islands off the African coast and in the Mediterranean Sea. The 75-meter boundary separating Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Peñon de Velez de la Gomera (occupied by military personnel) is the world's shortest international border.

A Brief History of Spain

castle in Castile, Spain
Un castillo en Castilla, España. (A castle in Castile, Spain.). Jacinta Lluch Valero/Creative Commons

What we know now as Spain has been the site of battles and conquests for centuries — it seems like every group in the region has wanted control of the territory.

Archaeology indicates that humans have been on the Iberian Peninsula since before the dawn of history. Among the cultures established before the Roman Empire were those of the Iberians, Celts, Vascones and Lusitanians. Greeks and Phoenicians were among the seafarers who traded in the region or settled small colonies.

Roman rule began in the 2nd century B.C. and continued until the 5th century A.D. The vacuum created by the Roman fall allowed various Germanic tribes to enter, and the Visigothic Kingdom eventually consolidated power until the 8th century, when the Muslim or Arab conquest began. In a long process known as the Reconquista, Christians from northern parts of the peninsula eventually expelled the Muslims in 1492.

The marriage of monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469 marked the beginning of the Spanish Empire, which ultimately led to the conquest of much of the Americas and worldwide dominance in the 16th and 17th centuries. But Spain ultimately fell behind other powerful European countries.

Spain suffered through a brutal civil war in 1936-39. Although there are no reliable figures, reports suggest that the death toll was 500,000 or more. The outcome was the dictatorship of Francisco Franco until his death in 1975. Spain then transitioned to democratic rule and modernized its economy and institutional structures. Today, the country remains a democracy as a member of the European Union but struggles with pervasive unemployment in a weak economy.

Visiting Spain

Málaga, Spain
The port city of Málaga, Spain, is a popular tourist destination. Bvi4092/Creative Commons

Spain is one of the world's most visited countries, ranking second only to France among European countries in terms of number of visitors. It is especially popular with tourists from Great Britain, France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

Spain is known especially for its beach resorts, which draw the bulk of the tourists. Resorts are located along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines as well as on the Balearic and Canary Islands. The cities of Madrid, Seville and Granada are among those that also draw visitors for cultural and historic attractions.

You can learn more about visiting Spain from About.com's Spain Travel site.