Only the Gringos speak Spanish here.


That seems like kind of a crazy thing to say, I know. But if by Spanish you mean the language they speak in Spain, there just isn’t a single language that meets that definition.

Around here in Valencia, if you ask about what sounds like Spanish to you, Castilian is what people will tell you they’re speaking (or rather Castellano, since they won’t be saying it in English). That’s not another name for it–that’s the name for it. The fact that it’s the language many non-Spaniards think of as Spanish doesn’t change that fact.*

Spain has seventeen autonomous regions, and in six of them Castilian is co-official with another language. Those other languages include Basque (Euskara in that language), Catalan/Valencian (Catalá/Valenciá), Galician (Galega), and Occitan/Aranese (Lenga d’òc/Aranés). Then there are a bunch of other languages that don’t rate co-official status, but we’ve got to stop somewhere.

Even among those with a government stamp, things get very complicated very quickly, and I’m having a hard time keeping it all straight. Depending on which official language governing body you talk to, Galician either very much is or emphatically isn’t distinct enough from Portuguese to merit being called a separate language.

The same could be said for Catalan and Valencian. These are topics of much controversy and political posturing. Folks from Catalonia think that Valencian is just a dialect of their own language; Valencians see it quite differently.


Bus shelter protest vandalism: “Valencian language, never Catalan.” (And yes, that’s a bat.)

There are some mixed messages being sent. On the occasion of the approval of the EU constitution in 2004, the Spanish government provided the EU with copies of the text in Castilian, Basque, Catalan, Galician and Valencian, but it turns out the Catalan and Valencian documents were identical. So, yes they’re different (look, two documents!), but yes, they’re the same (identical!)? I’m not sure who was furious about that one, but odds are good that somebody was.

Wikipedia has a cool graphic that shows the progress (or regress) of languages on the Iberian Peninsula from the year 1000 to the present day.† Watching to the end, you see that Castilian has muscled its way just about everywhere.


There’s still plenty that I don’t have sorted out, but I find the subject of languages and how they bump up against each other really interesting. And I’m always surprised when I’m reminded of how many languages there are. Google Translate is willing to translate into 91 languages for me (including Basque, Catalan, and Galician, though not Occitan or Valencian, by the way), but it’s estimated that there are about 6,500 languages spoken in the world today, with about 2,000 of them spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Intriguing.

Anyway, I’d better get back to working on my Spanish Castellano, so I’ll just say Adios (Castilian) Adeu (Catalan/Valencian) Adeus (Galician) A lèu! (Occitan) and Agur (Basque).

Flag of the autonomous region of Comunitat Valenciana

Flag of the autonomous region of Comunitat Valenciana

*I’m not trying to say that there’s no such thing as Spanish here–it’s a useful term when talking about language in an international context, but doesn’t convey much in Spain itself, in the same way that saying that the 1.3 billion people in China speak Chinese just isn’t very informative.

†You’ll note on the map that Leonese and Aragonese remain a contemporary force, but don’t appear in my list. The Wikipedia entry on languages of Spain lists them, along with Asturian, as “recognized” languages. The “unofficial” list is even more fun, including two flavors of Iberian Romani (one called Erromintxela) and something called Gomeran whistled language. I’ve definitely got more to explore here.


[images from, ferbr1 and mutxamel at wikimedia commons]



3 thoughts on “Only the Gringos speak Spanish here.

    • I do find languages really interesting, and love what I’ve learned about linguistics. The topic I proposed to my thesis advisor was more of a linguistics than a psychology topic, so I didn’t end up making it happen, but linguistics questions continue to call to me. As it happens, my oldest daughter married a linguist, so I now have one on speed-dial, which is handy. 🙂

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