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Musings Abroad-My Life in Spain: Spain’s Official Languages

A flower from Granada, Spain peaks out over a white wall (Photo Credit: Anna Groeling).
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Pop quiz: How many official languages does Spain have?

Many people may be surprised that this question even exists. Well, Spanish is surely spoken in all of Spain, right? What other languages are there?

Spain has four official languages, the national language being Castilian Spanish. The term Castilian refers to a particular type of Spanish that’s more commonly spoken in Spain, as there are three co-official languages in various regions in Spain.

Spain’s three co-official languages are Basque (Euskera), Galician (Gallego) and Catalan (Català). Let’s break it down further:

Castilian Spanish

Castilian Spanish is spoken by the majority of the population and is also known by its Spanish term “castellano”. As mentioned above, it’s Spain’s national language. The language derives from the Latin Vulgar dialect. It became Spain’s common language through political domination as Castilian Spanish flourished when the Moors were chased out of Europe.

A flower from Granada, Spain peaks out over a white wall (Photo Credit: Anna Groeling).
A flower from Granada, Spain peaks out over a white wall. Castilian Spanish is the common language in Granada. (Photo Credit: Anna Groeling).

Official Castilian Spanish Regions: Cantabria, Asturias, Melilla, La Rioja, Canarias, Extremadura, Aragón, Castilla, León, the Madrid area and most of Navarra.

Catalan/Català

Catalan has many similarities to Castilian Spanish, French and Italian. Many Catalan speakers, especially those that live in cities such as Barcelona, are also fluent in Spanish. Catalan may sound like a mix of Romance languages to a non-speaker, but it is a separate language and also derives from Vulgar Latin. The language differentiates itself from Spanish and Portuguese in its pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Catalan’s name comes from its place of origin, which is Catalonia.

Official Catalan Regions: Catalonia (Catalunya), Valencia and the Balearic Islands.

*Catalan is also spoken in parts of Aragón and Murcia, but without official recognition.

Basque/Euskera

The Basque country developed a distinct linguistic variety due to its more isolated Pyrenees mountainous landscape. The region has also influenced the French Atlantic Pyrenees, where it’s also spoken. In 1968, the Basque Language Academy standardized Basque so that it could be preserved. The origins of Basque are unknown, as it came to the area long before Latin. This means that it’s considered a “language isolate,” meaning it has no relationship with any other language. Standardized Basque is based on its central dialect Gipuzkoan, which is used in school systems.

Official Basque Regions: Basque Country (Euskadi), a portion of Navarra

Galician/Gallego

Galician became co-official in Galicia in 1978 and is a part of the Ibero-Romance languages. Approximately 3 million people speak the language and around 1 million of these speakers are located in Portugal and Latin America. The language closely resembles Portuguese. Since the two languages are very similar, there’s political and cultural debate on whether Portuguese and Galician are dialects of the same language or if they are separate by their own right. Spain’s Galician speakers are commonly found in rural areas.

Official Gallego Regions: Galicia

Each language comes with its own history and culture. During Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975) in Spain, the co-official Catalan, Basque and Galician languages were repressed so that Castilian Spanish would remain the dominant language. Castilian Spanish was the only official language under Franco. These co-official languages and their various cultures were restored once Spain introduced democracy after Franco’s dictatorship.

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