Why Spanish Is Sometimes Called Castilian

Language names have political as well as linguistic significance

Segovia
Segovia, in the Castile and León region of Spain, is famous for its cathedral.

 Didi_Lavchieva / Getty Images

Spanish or Castilian? You'll hear both terms used in referring to the language that originated in Spain and spread to most of Latin America. The same is true in Spanish-speaking countries, where their language can be known as either español or castellano.

To understand why requires a look at how the Spanish language developed to its current form:What we know as Spanish is primarily a derivative of Latin, which arrived on the Iberian Peninsula (the peninsula that includes Spain and Portugal) around 2,000 years ago. On the peninsula, Latin adopted some of the vocabulary of indigenous languages, becoming Vulgar Latin. The peninsula's variety of Latin became quite well entrenched, and with various changes (including the addition of thousands of Arabic words), it survived well into the second millennium before it came to be considered a separate language.

Variant of Latin Emerged From Castile

For reasons more political than linguistic, the dialect of Vulgar Latin that was common in what is now the north-central portion of Spain, which includes Castile, spread throughout the region. In the 13th century, King Alfonso supported efforts such as the translation of historic documents that helped the dialect, known as Castilian, become the standard for educated use of the language. He also made that dialect the official language for government administration.

As later rulers pushed the Moors out of Spain, they continued to use Castilian as the official tongue. Further strengthening Castilian's use as a language for educated people was Arte de la lengua castellana by Antonio de Nebrija, what might be called the first Spanish-language textbook and one of the first books to systematically define the grammar of a European language.

Although Castilian became the primary language of the area now known as Spain, its use didn't eliminate the other Latin-based languages in the region. Galician (which has similarities to Portuguese) and Catalan (one of the major languages of Europe with similarities to Spanish, French, and Italian) continue to be used extensively today. A non-Latin-based language, Euskara or Basque, whose origins remain unclear, is also spoken by a minority. All three languages are officially recognized in Spain, although they are of regional use.

Multiple Meanings for ‘Castilian’

In a sense, then, these other languages—Galician, Catalan, and Euskara—are Spanish languages, so the term Castilian (and more often castellano) has sometimes been used to differentiate that language from the other languages of Spain.

Today, the term "Castilian" is used in other ways too. Sometimes it is used to distinguish the north-central standard of Spanish from regional variations such as Andalusian (used in southern Spain). Often it is used, not altogether accurately, to distinguish the Spanish of Spain from that of Latin America. And sometimes it is used simply as a synonym for Spanish, especially when referring to the "pure" Spanish promulgated by the Royal Spanish Academy (which itself preferred the term castellano in its dictionaries until the 1920s).

In Spain, a person's choice of terms to refer to the language—castellano or español—sometimes can have political implications. In many parts of Latin America, the Spanish language is known routinely as castellano rather than español. Meet someone new, and she may ask you "¿Habla castellano?" rather than "¿Habla español?" for "Do you speak Spanish?"

One Way Spanish Remains Unified

Despite regional variations in Spanish and its spread to three continents outside Europe—North America, South America, Africa (it's official in Equatorial Guinea), and Asia (thousands of Spanish words are part of Filipino, the national language of the Philippines)—Spanish remains remarkably uniform. Spanish-language films and TV shows transcend national boundaries without subtitles, and Spanish speakers can can usually converse easily with each other despite national boundaries.

Historically, one of the major influences on Spanish uniformity has been the Royal Spanish Academy, which has published Spanish dictionaries and grammar guides since the mid-18th century. The Academy, known as the Real Academia Española or RAE in Spanish, has affiliates in nearly every country where Spanish is spoken. The Academy tends to be conservative about accepting changes to the Spanish languages, but remains highly influential. Its decisions do not have the force of law

Primary Hemispheric Differences in Spanish

Since English speakers frequently use "Castilian" to refer to the Spanish of Spain when contrasted with that of Latin America, you may be interested to know some of the major ​differences between the two. Keep in mind that the language also varies both within Spain and among Latin American countries.

  • Spaniards usually use vosotros as the plural of , while Latin Americans almost universally use ustedes. In some parts of Latin America, particularly Argentina and parts of Central America, vos replaces .
  • Leísmo is very common in Spain, not so in Latin America.
  • Numerous vocabulary differences separate the hemispheres, although some vocabulary, especially slang, and can vary considerably within individual countries. Among the common differences between Spain and Latin America are that in the former manejar is used to refer to driving, while Latin Americans usually use conducir. Also, a computer is usually called a computadora in Latin America but ordenador in Spain.
  • In most of Spain, the z (or the c when it comes before e or i) is pronounced much like the "th" in "thin," while in most of Latin America it has the "s" sound.
  • In Spain, the present perfect tense is often used for recent events, while in Latin America the preterite is consistently used.

In degree, the differences been Spain and Latin America are roughly comparable to those between British English and American English.

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish is sometimes known as Castilian because the language emerged from Latin in the Castile area of Spain.
  • In some Spanish-speaking areas, the language is called castellano rather than or in addition to español. The two terms can by synonymous, or they can be differentiated by geography or politics.
  • It is common for English speakers to use "Castilian" to refer to Spanish as it is spoken in Spain.