The Languages of Spain



Among the many charms of travel, well beyond exploring new sights, cultures and cuisines, is the chance to enjoy the musical sounds of other languages, mysterious syllables that slowly unlock their secrets for us the longer we stay. In Spain, as many people are increasingly aware, apart from speaking castellano (Castilian Spanish), people in different regions of the country also speak fully distinct local languages. The best known are BasqueCatalan, and Galician, but there are others you may not be aware of… including one of the most unusual forms of communication on our planet. Curious? Read on:

Basque (Euskara)  The language spoken in four provinces in Spain’s north – Alaba (Álava), Biskaia (Vizcaya), and Gipuzkoa (Guipúzcoa), as well as the northern zone of neighbouring Navarre – is a fascinating, tongue-twisting relic unrelated to any other known language in the world, a legacy of prehistoric Europe before the migrations that brought proto-Indo-European (which then evolved into the rest of the continent’s languages). There are several variants, as well as a standardised version used in the media. Examples:  Hello kaixo; goodbye agur; please mesedez; thank you eskerrik asko.

Catalan (Català)  Like other languages of the peninsula, Catalan is one of Europe’s more than 30 offshoots of Latin (the Roman empire having ruled Iberia). It was once spoken across the western Mediterranean and today has official status in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Catalan is divided into eastern and western variants, with broad similarities. Examples:  Hello hola; goodbye adéu; please si us plau; thank you gràcies.

Galician (Galego)  Galician also evolved from Latin, and is co-official in the autonomous community of Galicia. It has similarities with sister language Portuguese, which of course is not surprising since Galicia and Portugal are neighbours. Galician is also spoken in border areas of neighbouring Asturias and Castile and León. Examples:  Hello ola; goodbye adeus; please por favor; thank you graças.

Apart from these vibrant languages, as you travel around Spain you may come across sounds that you definitely never heard in your high school Spanish class. If you are exploring the Pyrenees of northern Aragon, that would be, well, Aragonés (Aragonese), another descendant of Latin and colloquially known as fabla. Meanwhile, a few mountains over in an enclave of Catalonia on the French side of the Pyrenees you may hear Aranés (Aranese), a variant of French Occitan with similarities to Catalan, still widely understood and/or spoken in the Val d’Aran. Also related to Catalan, Valencià (Valencian) is co-official in the Valencian Autonomous Community, prevalent throughout 90 percent of the region as well as a sliver of the north of neighbouring Murcia.

Heading north to the Principality of Asturias, you may hear Asturianu (Asturian), formerly called bable by some. It’s locally taught and promoted, but apart from being passively understood by a fair bit of the population, it’s strongest in rural areas and among
older folks. Just south over the Picos de Europa mountains, Llionés (Leonese), is closely related to Asturianu and spoken by some in the New Castile provinces
of LeónSalamanca, and Zamora. Organisations exist to promote Llionés, and it is
starting to have more of a presence in schools.

By far the most unusual means of communication on this list (if not the world), however, is Silbo Gomero (the Gomeran whistle, right), which is actually – you guessed it – whistled rather than spoken. It dates back to the Guanche, the original North African Berber peoples who inhabited the islands before the arrival of the Spaniards, and has been handed down through generations of Canarians ever since. Today’s version, still practiced only on the island of Gomera, emulates the structure of Spanish through a boiled-down set of whistled phonemes and was perfectly adapted to communicating over the islands’ steep mountains and ravines. It’s even taught in local schools. For a truly different linguistic experience, check out the video below:

image | Martorell,