In the Western World, more people speak Castilian Spanish natively than any other language. That alone makes it a prime candidate for “most useful language to learn” status!
The name of the language is disputed by speakers themselves. Castellano ‘Castilian’ is preferred by some to distinguish it clearly from other “Spanish languages”, such as Catalan, Basque and Galician; others prefer to emphasise the unitary nature of the country or the Spanish-speaking world generally by using Español ‘Spanish’.
The latter is more commonly used by non-speakers, and is thus preferred (without political or constitutional prejudice) here.
Having grown as the administrative language of what was at the time the greatest empire the West had ever known, Spanish then expanded its reach to reach its contemporary position, covering almost the entirety of Central and South America except Brazil. This also has the practical effect of making Spanish a markedly influential language in cultural and economic life within the United States. It can also serve as a gateway to other Latin-based languages, notably Portuguese and Italian.
There is a tendency to distinguish crudely between “Peninsular Spanish” and “Latin American Spanish”. This distinction is somewhat artificial – there is in fact widespread variation within Latin America (with, in particular, the dialects of the Southern Cone being outstandingly distinct in intonation and aspects of grammar), and even within individual countries. Therefore the division is nothing like as straightforward as that between American and British/Commonwealth English.
Spanish is increasingly also the first foreign language in Anglophone countries. So what, immediately, do we need to know to gain some quick proficiency?
Having sounded almost identical to Portuguese with minor exceptions, Old Spanish underwent a dramatic and probably relatively swift consonantal sound shift around its sibilants in the 15th and 16th century (just before its expansion beyond Iberia) to become Modern Spanish. Before this period, combinations had already been simplified (/dz/ to /z/ and /ts/ to /s/). Then, generally, the “hissing” sibilant (represented by <x> in Old Spanish and modern Portuguese and typically by <sh> in modern English) was eliminated entirely; the other voiced sibilant in almost all instances was devoiced (i.e. /z/ to /s/); and the resultant merged or standalone /s/ (usually now written or ) shifted in most Iberian dialects to /θ/ (usually represented in modern English by <th>). Notably, this latter shift did not occur in southern dialects upon which most Latin American varieties are based.
Spanish had already generally lost initial f- in common words (perhaps due to Basque influence), which is now silent but written h– (e.g. hijo ‘son’, hierro ‘iron’; cf. Portuguese filho, ferro; Italian figlio, ferro). Silent initial h– is also now written etymologically in modern Spanish, e.g. haber ‘to have’ (cf. Old Spanish aver; modern Italian avere). This may not apply in compound words: hacer ‘to do’ but satisfacer ‘to satisfy’.
Spanish speech has also merged <v> and <b>, typically written etymologically in the modern language. Like Portuguese but unlike Italian, it also tends towards removing vowels between consonants and vice-versa (ver ‘to see’, pueblo ‘people’; Italian vedere, popolo).
With all those developments with consonants, Spanish vowels have also developed to become remarkably simplified, to just five. However, in certain stressed positions some are diphthongised (<e> to <ie> and <o> to <ue>).
Spanish has an Academy, whose most notable (and widely accepted) intervention was to re-spell the language to reflect modern pronunciation (allowing for some etymological distinction, which has had the effect of catering for some dialect variation) in 1815. Therefore, the writing system is considerably more representative of modern daily speech than is the case for languages such as English and French, while also less complex than Portuguese or Italian.
Unlike Brazilian versus European Portuguese or American versus British English, there are no differences in spelling standards across the Spanish-speaking world. The differences are confined to items of vocabulary and occasionally verb (particularly past participle) forms.
The assumption in standard writing is that words end in a vowel, –n or –s. Where this is the case, stress is consistently applied on the penultimate syllable; otherwise it is on the final; exceptions require the stress to be marked with an acute accent (plátano ‘banana’; fácil ‘easy’; nación ‘nation’). This accent is also used to mark separately pronounced vowels (día ‘day’) or distinction (mi ‘my’; mí ‘me’; this is particularly notable for question words, e.g. donde ‘where’, que ‘which, that’; dónde? ‘where?’, qué? ‘which? what?’). The only other written accents are the conspicuous tilde <ñ>, formerly a double consonant <nn> but now marking a palatisation (typically written <gn> in French and Italian), and the diaresis <ü> used to mark sounding after <g> (e.g. vergüenza ‘disgrace’).
Spanish vocabulary is overwhelmingly from Latin, but Spain’s history both as colonised (predominantly by Arabic speakers) and coloniser (predominantly in the Americas) means it also draws widely from elsewhere.
1 uno; 2 dos; 3 tres; 4 cuatro; 5 cinco; 6 seis; 7 siete; 8 ocho; 9 nueve; 10 diez;
11 once; 12 doce; 16 dieciséis; 17 diecisiete; 20 veinte; 21 veintiuno; 100 cien;
1000 mil; 456789 cuatrocientos cincuenta y seis mil setecientos ochenta y nueve.
Unlike Italian and Portuguese (and Old Spanish), Modern Spanish distinguishes between the auxiliary haber and main verb tener ‘to have’.
Key personal pronouns:
- Singular yo, me, mi; tú, te, ti (or vós; polite usted); él/ella, lo/la, le;
- Plural nosotros, nos; vosotros, os (polite ustedes); ellos/ellas, los/las, les.
The distinction between tú/vosotros and usted(es) (which takes the third person verb) varies between dialects. In many cases (notably parts of Bolivia/Ecuador/Colombia/Venezuela) vosotros is abandoned in the plural but the tú/usted distinction remains in the singular. In the Southern Cone, notably around the River Plate, vós is used as a singular (with its own set of verb forms).
Spanish also exhibits three degrees of distance: este/esta ‘this’; ese/esa ‘that’; aquel/aquela ‘that yonder’.
The Spanish noun, in common with nearly all other Latin-based languages, is either masculine (typically ending -o) or feminine (typically ending -a). Plural form is almost always -(e)s (with very few exceptions, typically direct borrowings from English or Latin). A notable feature of Spanish is the “interpersonal a“; the preposition a is required before all “animate” grammatical objects: el agua ayudó a mi hijo ‘the water helped my son’; vimos a Conchita ‘we saw Conchita’. (The origins and purpose of this feature remain a mystery to linguists.)
Verb endings in present tense (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person):
- canto, (tú) cantas or (vós) cantás, canta; cantamos, cantais, cantan.
Note also “infinitive” cantar; “past participle” cantado; “gerund” cantando.
The verb is not quite as complex as in Portuguese (at least in daily speech), but as in Portuguese separate preterite and imperfect endings run alongside present, future and conditional even in daily speech; there is also a present subjunctive form and bizarrely two past subjunctive forms (which are more or less interchangeable). In addition, the perfect aspect can be formed with the auxiliary haber and an immediate future with ir a ‘to go, to’. Notably the passive is often formed with a reflexive: Español se habla en Venezuela ‘Spanish is spoken [speaks itself] in Venezuela’.
Adjectives agree with their nouns in all circumstances, typically but not always placed after them: una vergüenza loca ‘a crazy disgrace’. Adverbs are relatively rare, but in line with Vulgar Latin and most of its daughter languages add –mente to the feminine form: verdadero ‘true‘; verdaderamente ‘truly’.
The singular articles are masculine el (definite) and un (indefinite), and feminine la and una. Plural are los and unos, and las and unas. Plural indefinite articles are relatively common to mean ‘some’ or ‘a number of’: unos cantadores ‘a number of singers’. There is no elision but, before stressed a-, la rather confusingly switches to el: el agua ‘the water’ (feminine). Unlike in Portuguese, no article is required with possessives: mi canción ‘my song’ (although stylistically it may be reinserted if the full possessive adjective is placed after: la canción mía ‘the song of mine’).
- de ‘of’; a ‘to’; por ‘for, through’; para ‘for, towards’.
The first two of these merge in the masculine singular with the article: del ‘of the’; al ‘to the’.
The negative particle is no, simply placed before the verb and any object pronouns: no lo vimos ‘we did not see it’. Double negation is possible and sometimes required: no vimos nada ‘we saw nothing’.
Spanish is consistently a pro-drop language meaning that verbs are used without the subject if the subject is clear: canto ‘I sing’; terminan ‘they finish’; lo vimos ‘we saw it’.
Spanish has a tendency to prefer nouns standing alone where other languages may prefer an adjective: es verdad ‘it’s true [it’s truth]’.
Word order is typically SVO (SOV where the object is a pronoun), but is in fact quite free. VSO is particularly common in subordinate clauses: el hierro que vieron los cantadores ‘the iron that the singers saw [saw the singers]‘. There is no ‘preceding direct object agreement’ in modern Spanish, but any object preceding the subject (or assumed subject if one is absent) must be repeated as an object pronoun: esta canción la hemos escrito hoy ‘This song, we have written it today’.
Spanish is a generally vocalic language (though less so than Italian), but generally has a somewhat flatter intonation. This can vary, of course – some dialects in Argentina and Uruguay do sound quite Italian. It is also quite verbal, often preferring complex verbs or even nouns turned into verbs (e.g. necesitar ‘to need’, solucionar ‘to solve’).
We continue heading north, to French – a language as theoretically far removed from Latin as Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, but one which in fact appears markedly distinct from them collectively.
Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre; venga a nosostros tu reino; hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo; danos hoy nuestro pan de cada día; perdona nuestras ofensas, como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden; no nos dejes caer en la tentación, y líbranos del mal.