The Spanish Language: The facts and figures – Part 1

June 27, 2011

Here are 10 facts about the Spanish language you might be interested to know:

1. With 329 million native speakers, Spanish ranks as the world’s No. 2 language in terms of how many people speak it as their first language. It is slightly ahead of English (328 million) but far behind Chinese (1.2 billion).

2. Spanish has at least 3 million native speakers each in 44 countries, making it the fourth mostly geographically widely spoken language behind English (112 countries), French (60) and Arabic (57).

3. Spanish is part of the Indo-European family of languages, which are spoken by more than a third of the world’s population. Other Indo-European languages include English, French, German, the Scandinavian languages, the Slavic languages and many of the languages of India. Spanish can be classified further as a Romance language, a group that includes French, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan and Romanian.

4. Although there is no clear boundary defining when the Latin of what is now the north-central area of Spain became Spanish, it is safe to say that the language of the Castile region became a distinct language in part because of efforts by King Alfonso in the 13th century to standardize the language for official use. By the time Columbus came to the Western Hemisphere in 1492, Spanish had reached the point where the language as spoken and written would be easily understandable today.

5.To the people who speak it, Spanish is sometimes called español and sometimes castellano (the Spanish equivalent of Castilian). The labels used vary from region to region and sometimes according to political viewpoint.

6. Spanish is one of the world’s most phonetic languages. If you know how a word is spelled, you can almost always know how it is pronounced (although the reverse isn’t true). The main exception is recent words of foreign origin, which usually retain their original spelling.

7. The Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española), created in the 18th century, is widely considered the arbiter of what is considered standard Spanish. It produces authoritative dictionaries and grammar guides. Although its decisions do not have the force of law, they are widely followed in both Spain and Latin America. Among the language reforms promoted by the Academy have the use of the inverted question mark and exclamation point (¿ and ¡). Although they have been used by people who speak some of the non-Spanish languages of Spain, they are otherwise unique to the Spanish language. Similarly unique to Spanish and a few local languages that have copied it is the ñ, which became standardized around the 14th century.

8. Although Spanish originated on the Iberian Peninsula as a descendant of Latin, today it is has far more speakers in Latin America, having been brought to the New World by Spanish colonizations. Although there are minor differences in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish of Latin America, the differences are not so great as to prevent easy communication.

9. After Latin, the language that has had the biggest influence on Spanish is Arabic. Today, the foreign language exerting the most influence is English, and Spanish has adopted hundreds of English words related to technology and culture.

10. Spanish and English share much of their vocabulary through cognates, as both languages derive many of their words from Latin and Arabic. The biggest differences in the grammar of the two languages include Spanish’s use of gender, a more extensive verb conjugation and the widespread use of subjunctive verb moods.