Why Spanish Is Sometimes Called Castilian

Language names have political as well as linguistic significance

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 brief 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.

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 in large numbers today. A non-Latin-based language, Euskara or Basque, whose origins remain unclear, is also spoken by a minority.

Multiple Meanings for 'Castilian'

In a sense, then, these other languages — Galician, Catalan and Euskara — are Spanish languages and even have official status in their regions, 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). Sometimes 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 "¿Hablas castellano?" rather than "¿Hablas español?" for "Do you speak Spanish?

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.

Despite these differences, native speakers in Spain can converse freely with Latin Americans and vice versa, especially if they avoid slang. In degree, the differences are roughly comparable to those between British English and American English.