The Spanish language, due to its global importance, is one everyone knows a few words from whether if it is just hola or adios. However if you heard somebody talking about a language called "Castilian", what language would you think they were referring to? You would be forgiven for believing that they were referring to some little spoken dialect rather than the language that most people refer to as 'espanol'. Although people talk about the Spanish language, in actual fact there are many Spanish languages and of these, the official tongue is Castilian. Those who have developed an interest in the Spanish language realise that it is extremely intricate and varied according to where it is being spoken, not only in terms of continent, but also in terms of country.
When we hear Spanish referred to one of the Romance Languages, great images are instantly conjured up of the Spanish Conquest, Juan Carlos or even just sunny weather and idyllic landscapes, but what the phrase actually reveals is that Spanish is a language derived from Latin, and so shares some similarities in terms of grammar and vocabulary with other popular European languages such as French and Italian. It also reveals the fact that the language can be traced all the way back to the reign of the Roman Empire, and indeed, a brief reflection on the origins of the language takes us back almost 2,000 years when the beginnings of the language commonly recognised as Spanish began to take shape on the Iberian Peninsula. The only common feature of the Spanish language which can be solely attributed to Spain itself rather than to Rome is the character, which was probably developed by scribes as a shorthand way of writing a double n, and signifies that the n is to be rolled off the tongue in speech. For example, the Latin word annus' (year) Spanish equivalent is aos, and is pronounced 'an-yos'.
Nowadays, as well as Castilian, the Basque, Catalan and Galician languages are also frequently used in Spain. Those who speak these languages are reluctant to call them dialects because the term suggests some form of dependence on Spanish. Instead, they are recognised as languages in their own rights and the use of these different languages reflects distinct and sometimes much divided Spanish cultures. For example, in the Basque region of Spain, there are ongoing campaigns for independence and so the fierce protection of the language constitutes a significant symbol of the Basque people's ongoing plight. The Spanish language and its variations are not only contained to Spain itself, but as a result of the Spanish Conquest have been spread all over the world, notably across the Atlantic Ocean to Latin America where Spanish is spoken in Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and many more countries. Over 300 million people in the world today speak Spanish as their native language, although it is becoming more and more evident that English is invading the Spanish language, just as it has done to French recently. Buzz words and slang terminology are regularly found in Spain and Latin America, interjected into fast Spanish speech. To use just a few examples, the words 'bus stop,' 'marketing' and 'click' are now all widely used in the Spanish language, with the resulting mish-mash of words being branded as 'Spanglish.' People who take pride in the Spanish language are keen to limit the ways in which English is infiltrating their mother tongue, although whether the Spanish take the same extreme measures as recently seen in France in order to protect the quality of their language remains to be seen.
In terms of learning the language, it is often marketed in schools as being one of the easiest languages to pick up, mainly due to its natural rhythm and flow of words, for example the fact that as a general rule you are able to determine whether a noun is masculine or feminine by checking to see whether it ends in 'o' or 'a.' But the language is not without its complexities. For example, one of the first things students have to get to grips with is when to use the verb 'ser' and when to use the verb 'estar.' A quick look in the dictionary will confirm that both these verbs are defined as 'to be,' but 'estar' is used for temporary states, and 'ser' is used when a condition is permanent. For example, if I were to be describing my gender I would conjugate 'ser' and say "soy una chica" (note the feminine word's 'a' ending), whereas if I were to describe my mood I would use estar and say "estoy muy contenta" because a mood is likely to change over time. Spanish pronunciation is relatively easy, because you pronounce the letters you see. It must be noted however, that exact pronunciation depends on which part of the world you are in, and two native Spanish speakers can sound very different from one another. The pronunciation guide below is relative to Spanish as it is spoken in Spain.
Neil Payne is a writer at the London based consultancy Kwintessential. One of the many services includes Spanish translation.80s dance music