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Influences on the Spanish language

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Title: Influences on the Spanish language  
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Influences on the Spanish language

The Spanish language has a long history of borrowing words, expressions and subtler features of other languages it has come in contact with.

Spanish developed from Vulgar Latin, with influence from Celtiberian (and possibly other Paleohispanic languages), Basque and Arabic, and Visigothic in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. Now is spoken by a host of people in the American Continent, of multicultural backgrounds and mainly amerindian and mestizo heritage. The extensive contact between Spanish and the native American languages, deeply shaped this peripheral romance language, as long as the native ones.

Formative influences

As Spanish went through its first stages of development in Spain, it received influences from neighbouring related languages, and from Basque, which is a language isolate and thus completely unrelated to Spanish in origin. Umbrian and Oscan influences have also been postulated.


Spain was controlled by the Visigoths between the 5th and 8th centuries. However, the influence of the Gothic language (an East Germanic language) on Spanish was minimal because the invaders were already somewhat Romanized, were secluded in the upper echelons of society, and generally did not intermarry with the natives. Besides a few military words, Spanish borrowed the following from Gothic:[1]

  • A new noun declension (nominative , oblique -āne), which originated from the Gothic n-stem declension. This was used mostly with proper names, e.g., Old Spanish Fruela ~ Froilán (for the same person) and also guardia "guard" ~ guardián "guardian" (from Gothic nominative wardja, accusative wardjan).
  • The originally adjectivizing suffix -engo (Germanic -ing), as in abolengo 'ancestry' (cf. abuelo 'grandfather'), abadengo 'abbatial', realengo 'belonging to the Crown', camarlengo 'chamberlain'.
  • The originally patronymic surname suffixes in -z (as in Díaz, Pérez, López, Ruiz, Muñoz, etc.) is from numerous Latinized Gothic genitives in -īcī, from original -iks. Thus, Roderic(us) (→ Ruy) → Roderīcī 'son of Roderick' → RodrizRuiz.
  • A few words of Gothic origin, e.g., ganso 'goose' (← *gans), rueca 'distaff' (← *rokko), tascar 'to brake hemp or flax' (← *taskōn), triscar 'to set, tease' (← þriskan 'to thresh'), ataviar 'to attire, adorn' (← *attaujan 'to mend').

Other Germanic influence

Although Germanic languages by most accounts affected the phonological development very little, Spanish words of Germanic origin are present in all varieties of Modern Spanish. Many of the Spanish words of Germanic origin were already present in Vulgar Latin, and so they are shared with other Romance languages.[2] Other Germanic words were borrowed in more recent times; for example, the words for the cardinal directions (norte, este, sur, oeste — 'north', 'east', 'south', 'west') are not documented until late in the 15th century. These direction words are thought to be from Old English, probably by way of French.[3]


In 711 AD, Spain was invaded by Arabic-speaking Muslims from North Africa, sometimes known as Moors (moros in Spanish). Over the course of the following centuries, Spanish borrowed words from Arabic in many semantic fields (the majority of these words are nouns, with a very limited number of verbs):

  • Military and administrative terms such as alcázar "fortress" (from Latin castrum "encampment, castle", through Arabic),[3] alcalde "mayor", barrio "ward, neighborhood", aldea "village";
  • Leisure and comfort items such as alfombra "carpet", almohada "pillow", guitarra "guitar" (from Greek kithāra "zither, cithara", through Arabic);[3]
  • Legal terms such as asesino "assassin, murderer", rehén "hostage", tarifa "tariff, fee", arancel "fee";
  • Food and beverage names such as aceite "oil", arroz "rice", espinaca "spinach" and naranja "orange" (both from Persian, through Arabic),[3] café "coffee" (from Arabic through Turkish and then Italian),[3] azúcar "sugar";
  • Terms of architecture and craftsmanship such as alcoba "alcove, room", azotea "flat roof", albañil "mason", tabique "dividing wall", adoquín "paving stone", adobe "adobe", alfarero "potter", taza "cup", jarra "pitcher";
  • Chemical substances and materials such as alcohol "alcohol", álcali "alkali" (through Late Latin, hence the initial stress),[3] laca "lacquer"(from Sanskrit through Persian and then Arabic);[3]
  • Mathematical and astronomical terms such as cero "zero" (through Late Latin and then Italian),[3] cifra "cipher, figure", álgebra "algebra" (through Late Latin, hence the initial stress),[3] cenit "zenith" (Arabic semt ar-ra's, with an apparent misreading of -m- as -ni- in 13th-century manuscripts),[3] guarismo "number, figure";
  • Interjections such as ojalá ("may it be that. ..", originally "May Allah want. .."), olé, and albricias "joy!".

Many of these borrowings (especially in the scientific field) were then passed on to other languages (English obtained most of them via French).

Most Spanish nouns beginning with the letters al- (from the Arabic definite article) have their origin in Arabic.[4]

As to how many words in Modern Spanish are of Arabic origin, the estimates vary widely, depending largely on whether the count includes derived forms and place names. One respected authority[5] suggests that they number more than 4,000, based on estimates of 850 of known etymology, 780 forms derived from them, 1,000 place names, 500 additional place names of "probable" Arabic origin, and "very numerous" Arabic-looking words whose affiliation has not yet been established. The largest Spanish etymological dictionary — the Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, by Joan Corominas[6] — lists slightly over 1,000 words of Arabic origin, while WorldHeritage's own List of Spanish words of Arabic origin, based on etymologies given by the Real Academia Española so far includes 1,200 confirmed Arabisms, excluding place names and derivatives.

Morphological borrowing was scarce. The suffíx (deriving adjectives from place names, as in Marbellí, Ceutí or Iraní, "from Marbella", "from Ceuta", or "from Iran" respectively) is an example.

Possible Basque influence

Many Castilians who took part in the reconquista and later repopulation campaigns were of Basque lineage and this is evidenced by many place names throughout Spain. The change from Latin 'f-' to Spanish 'h-' was once commonly ascribed to the influence of Basque speakers for a few reasons. The change from f to h was first documented in the areas around Castile and La Rioja, areas where many Basques were known to have lived. The change to h took place to a greater degree in the Gascon language in Gascony in France, an area also inhabited by Basques. The claim is that the Basque language lacked the f sound and thus substituted it with h, the closest thing to f in that language.
There are some difficulties with attributing this change to Basque, however. There is no hard evidence that medieval Basque did or did not have an f sound. Presumably early borrowings of forms with initial f into Basque were usually received as p or b (e.g. FESTA > Basque pesta or besta, depending on the dialect), rather than h. Adding to this is the fact that the f to h lenition is not peculiar to Spanish. In fact, the change from f to h is one of the most common phonological changes in all kinds of world languages. According to the explanations which negate or downplay Basque influence, the change occurred in the affected dialects wholly independent of each other as the result of internal change (i.e. linguistic factors, not outside influence). It is also possible that the two forces worked in concert and reinforced each other.

Possible Celtiberian influence

Two specific types of lenition, the voicing of voiceless consonants and the elision of voiced consonants (both of which are discussed at greater length below), are the phonological changes of Spanish which are most often attributed to the influence of Celtic languages; these are also attributed to the influence of Basque language. While examples of these two types of lenition are ubiquitous and well-documented in Spanish, two assumptions need to be made if these two types of lenition are to be attributed to patterns of lenition in Celtic languages. The first assumption is that a population of bilingual CeltiberianVulgar Latin speakers existed long enough to have had an influence on the development of Castilian. The second assumption is that Continental Celtic, an extinct branch of Celtic, did indeed exhibit the types of lenition which are known to exist in modern Insular Celtic languages. The latter is simply not known, and it should also be noted that such lenitions are a very common kind of change in languages all around the world, and similar phenomena are found in Corsican and Sardinian where no Celtic causation is plausible. The Spanish development may therefore just be a natural internal process, not due to outside influence.

Influences from Native American languages

In October 1492 Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the Americas, and thereafter Spanish settlers began to come into contact with a host of native American languages. Most of these were wiped out or severely reduced in number of speakers and distribution area during the conquest, but Spanish adopted a number of words from some of them. The following list is by no means exhaustive.

Those words referring to local features or animals might be limited to regional usage, but many others like cóndor, canoa or chocolate are extended even to other languages.

Modern borrowings

Spanish borrowed words from other European languages (its close neighbors such as Catalan, other Romance languages like French (this particularly during the Neoclassicist to Napoleonic periods, when French language and culture became the fashion at the royal court) and Italian, and Germanic languages like English). For example:

  • chao, chau "bye" from Italian ciao (sometimes co-existing with adiós)
  • chofer "chauffeur" from French (co-existing with "conductor")
  • elenco "team" or "cast" from Italian (co-existing with equipo, when used as team, and reparto)
  • sandwich, from English (co-existing with "emparedado" and sometimes with "bocadillo")
  • briquet from French (used in Colombia, co-existing with encendedor)
  • capot from French
  • carnet from French (identification card)
  • fútbol from English (football) (originally balompié)
  • gendarme from French (prison guards).
  • coche from Hungarian kocsi.
  • pistola from German Pistole.

Recent borrowings

In recent times, Spanish has borrowed many words and expressions from English, especially in the fields of computers and the Internet. In many cases, technical expressions which superficially employ common Spanish words are in fact calques from English equivalents. For example, disco duro is a literal translation of "hard disk". Words like blog, chat, and weblog are used, though bitácora (from cuaderno de bitácora, the captain's log on a boat) is also common.

Words of non-Latin origin

Some authors estimate that seventy-five percent of Spanish words have come from Latin[8] and were in use in Spain before the Common Era. The remaining 25 percent come from other languages. Of these languages (and language families), the four which have contributed the most words are Arabic, Indigenous languages of the Americas, Germanic, and Celtic in roughly that order.

Lists of Spanish etymology

AfricanAmericasArabicAustronesianBasque/IberianCelticChineseEtruscanFrenchGermanicIndo-AryanIranianItalicSemiticTurkicuncertainvarious origins.


  1. ^ Penny, Ralph (2002). A history of the Spanish language (2. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 14–16.  
  2. ^ Spaulding (1943/1971:49–51)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Corominas (1973)
  4. ^ For example, 152 (72%) of the 210 nouns in al- listed in Corominas (1973), are of Arabic origin.
  5. ^ Lapesa (1942/1981) §33, n. 5 bis
  6. ^ Corominas (1980-1991). The first edition, Corominas (1954-1957) contains an appendix in which words are grouped by language of origin.
  7. ^ Teofilo Laime Ajacopa, Diccionario Bilingüe Iskay simipi yuyayk'ancha, La Paz, 2007 (Quechua-Spanish dictionary)
  8. ^ Chandler & Schwartz (1961/1991:2)

See also


  • Alvar, Manuel; Pottier, Bernard (1983), Morfología histórica del español, Madrid: Gredos 
  • Chandler, Richard E.; Schwartz, Kessel (1961/1991), A New History of Spanish Literature, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 
  • Corominas, Joan (1954–1957), Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana, Madrid: Gredos 
  • Corominas, Joan (1973), Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, Madrid: Gredos 
  • Corominas, Joan (1980–1991), Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, Madrid: Gredos 
  • Lapesa, Rafael (1942/1981), Historia de la lengua española (9th ed.), Madrid: Gredos 
  • Menéndez Pidal, Ramón (1905/1968), Manual de gramática histórica española (13th ed.), Madrid: Espasa-Calpe 
  • Penny, Ralph (2002), A History of the Spanish Language (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press 
  • Spanish words of Latin origin Spanish, a Romance language.
  • Spaulding, Robert K[ilburn] (1943/1971), How Spanish Grew, Berkeley: University of California Press 

Category:History of the Spanish language

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