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¿Español o castellano?

Dear native Spanish speaker: if I were to ask you what your mother tongue is, would you say it’s español or castellano? Think about it for a sec. Ready? Great. If your answer is castellano, I strongly encourage you to keep reading. Unless you have a time machine and you just warped from the Middle Ages, you speak español, amigo.

If you are not a hispanohablante 1, you might be wondering what the whole fuss is all about. You see, in the Spanish-speaking community, both terms – español and castellano – are used to refer to the beautiful Spanish language. The only problem is that one of them is mistakenly overused. Here’s a visual aid to illustrate where español and castellano are spoken nowadays as official languages:

Expat Gone Foreign, language comics, fun linguistics, español, castellano, nacionalismos, terminología

Let’s get into the time machine, shall we? Dialing back to the 9th century. Destination: Condado de Castilla, northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. Bleepity bloopity boop!

Castellano was one of the many Romance descendants of Latin, and it was spoken by the small population who lived in the County of Castile. This county would later on turn into a kingdom – el Reino de Castilla – by taking vast amounts of territory and annexing other kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula. As the Kingdom of Castile expanded, so did the language of its Castilian folks.

Languages evolve throughout the years, and it’s hard to pin down the exact moment in which castellano diverged enough from Latin to be considered a language of its own. What started as the castellano of Castile in the 9th century had turned into the castellano of Spain by the 16th. Erudite King Alfonso X as well as the Golden Age litterateurs hoisted Spanish as the language of the Empire, a language that was gradually called español over castellano. By the 18th century, the first designation had taken over the latter.

So, why does a large number of hispanohablantes refer to their language as castellano? Habit, pride, politics… take your pick. The term is nowadays widely used in bilingual regions of Spain as well as some Spanish speaking-countries in Latin America 2. It has become so commonplace, that even the RAE decided to give up and include it is as a synonym for español 3. The DPD also weighs in.

Whereas the international community refers to the Spanish language as español across the board, native speakers of this language seem to disagree with the terminology. The way I see it, calling it castellano is anachronic and as preposterous as saying that Angela Merkel speaks Althochdeutsch. Still skeptical? Allow me to show you one last piece of evidence to dissuade you from labeling your language as castellano:

Facsimile of Cantar de mio Cid.
Here’s a transcription of the first eight verses:

A uos lama por sennor, e tienes por uuestro vasallo:
Mucho preçia la ondra Çid quel auedes dado.
Pocos dias ha, rey, que vna lid a arrancado,
A aquel rey de Marruecos Yuçeff por nombrado:
Con çinquenta mill arrancolos del campo:
Las ganançias que fizo mucho son sobeianas:
Ricos son venidos todos los sos vassallos:
E enbia uos dozientos cauallos, e besa uos las manos.

Do you speak THAT? I don’t think so. Let’s get into the time capsule and come back to the present, shall we?