How a backwater dialect – Castilian – became the talk of Spain

I am still travelling back in time to the Iberian Peninsula (that’s Spain and Portugal for the geographically challenged, plus bits of France and Andorra and Gibraltar), using Melveena McKendrick as my guide. I have moved on from the feats of Hasdrubal The Handsome, to the exploits of the likes of Sancho The Fat and Alfonso the Learned. I am now thinking of calling myself Bernard The Learned – I rather like the sound of it. (We won’t mention my fat levels).

The Alhambra, in Granada, which was the last Moslem area to fall back into the hands of the Christians. Image from Pixabay

The Alhambra, in Granada, which was the last Moslem area to fall back into the hands of the Christians. Image from Pixabay

So, to recap a bit, the collapse of Roman rule was followed by the Visigothic era, and then from 712 the Arab conquest began and “by 718 the country had fallen like a ripe plum into the hands of the caliph of Damascus, then capital of the Islamic world,” writes McKendrick, who must have had plum trees in her garden. Initially the Arabs/Moors did try to carry on into France, but they got beaten back at Poitiers and eventually settled into al-Andalus, as they called Islamic Spain, and from which Andalusia gets its name. They did not attempt to conquer the mountainous north of Spain (i.e. the regions we know as today, going from West to East, as Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country and Navarre). The Moslems adopted a policy of religious toleration, McKendrick notes, and the Christian communities living under Moslem rule, who were called Mozarabs, spoke Arabic and vulgar Latin. A prosperous period followed, al-Andalus became independent of Damascus (whose influence waned and Baghdad became the central authority) “tenth-century Moslem Spain [was] the cultural and intellectual center of a still-benighted Europe, a glittering meteor of civilization in a sky that was empty of all but a few stars“.

The Arabs were great farmers and cultivators. “A living testimony to the contribution made by Spanish Moslems to the life and economy of the Peninsula is that a large proportion of the four thousand Arabic words found in the Spanish language refer to agricultural produce and techniques and to commerce in general.”

Castile gets its names from the castles that characterised the region.  Pic from Pixabay

Castile gets its names from the castles that characterised the region. Pic from Pixabay

However, history and politics are all about power struggles, both internal and external. Regional tensions rose, and the Visigothic “mountain shepherds” of the north began to regroup. The kingdom of Asturias disintegrated into three, Asturias, Galicia and Léon, but then Galicia and Léon merged and the city of Léon became the capital. The kings of Léon had to build lots of castles on Spain’s central plateau to defend their territory, and this area became known as Castile, which soon grew in importance and was “cast in the spearhead role hitherto occupied by Léon. Asturias had spawned Léon and Léon had spawned Castile, and in each case the offspring had usurped the parent’s position.”

Even linguistically Castile assumed the lead,” McKendrick writes. “It was populated by migrations of mountaineers from the far north whose tongue was more emphatic and more primitive than the romance language spoken across the greater part of the Christian north. As Castile took the forefront of activities, the language became transformed from a backwater dialect into a vigorous innovatory vernacular to form the Castilian that became modern Spanish.”

So there you have it. It’s not the whole of the story, of course, from a linguistic and historic point of view. Castile occupied a central strip of the Peninsula, but there was what was to become Portugal to the west, and to the east what would become the Kingdom of Aragon and the principality of Catalonia. And let’s not forget Valencia and Murcia too.

Alfonso X (cenre) "LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourt". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Alfonso X (centre) “LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourt”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Later, when Alfonso X (The Learned) came to the throne of Castile, he embarked on a massive drive to have all the major scholarly works of the world translated, and it gave Castilian even more impetus. “Alfonso’s aim was to make the maximum amount of information available to the maximum number of people,” McKendrick notes, “and to this end the language into which his collaborators translated, and in which they wrote, was not Latin but Castilian. This meant that what was still a fairly primitive form of the vernacular, used in day-to-day living, was suddenly compelled to cope with a wide range of sophisticated subjects, and abstract concepts that were entirely strange to it. In the space of this one reign, therefore, Castilian became an infinitely richer and suppler form of expression – a language ripe for literary development.”

Enough history for now. Bernard The Learned is going to become Bernard The Bed-Ridden. Goodnight!


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