Standard Spanish has come to be based on, and originated in, the Medieval Castilian dialect, more than any other variety. Castilian Spanish originated, after the decline of the Roman Empire, as a Romance continuation of spoken Latin. Local sociolects of Vulgar Latin began to be called Castilian in the north of Iberia, in an area centered in the city of Burgos. This variety experienced some sound changes that made it diverge from its close cousin, Leonese. Some of these sound changes might have influence from pre-Roman languages in the area, from which Basque is the only one that survives today. With the Reconquista, some traits from this distinctive northern dialect spread to the south, where the subsequent dialect mixture with the local Romance (Mozarabic) retained many words from Arabic.
The Castilians conquered in 1085 the city of Toledo, the traditional old capital of a united peninsular kingdom in the Visigothic era. This city became the main center of the kingdom and the Christian Primate see, and it was there where an increasing new body of documents was written, not in official Latin, but in the local dialect, then called Castillian too. So, the written standard of Spanish started developing during the 12th century. The first steps toward standardization of Castilian were taken in the 13th century by King Alfonso X of Castile (Alfonso, the Wise), who assembled scribes and translators at his main court in Toledo. The king supervised the writings or even wrote some documents himself, always trying to make sure that they wrote in castellano drecho (correct Castilian) on the extensive works on history, astronomy, law, and other fields of knowledge being composed or translated from Islamic sources. This body of writings helped the blooming of knowledge at the newly created Universities in Europe that would lead to the early Renaissance forms during the Trecento.
This prominence of Castilian internationally and especially in the peninsula, is based not only on the political dominance of Castile and the military prestige of its leading role in the Reconquista, but to this central chancelleries volume of work and also on the popular propagation use of that dialect outside its original area, through new settlers and journeymen carrying with them folk balads and recitations about Castilian heroes of the Reconquista, such as the Poem of the Cid, popular across borders.
The first grammar of Castilian (or of any modern European language) was published in 1492 by Antonio de Nebrija. Further commentary on the language was offered by Juan de Valdés in 1535. In its earliest documented form, and up through approximately the 15th century, the language used is customarily called Old Spanish. From approximately the 16th century on, it is called Modern Spanish. Because Old Spanish resembles the modern written language to a relatively high degree, a reader of Modern Spanish can learn to read medieval documents without much difficulty. After the settling of the Royal Court at Madrid, from the main one at Toledo and a few others, early in the 1600's the written language used among courtiers of all regional backgrounds in the peninsula would be percolated into a written common form, which would be finally settled by the Academy on the next century. Spanish of the 16th and 17th centuries is sometimes called Classical Spanish, referring to the literary accomplishments of that period.
The old colonies and the Real Academia Española
In the Americas, Madrid quickly lost its influence over the spoken language. Even in the administrative centers of Lima and Mexico City the phonetics and the grammar of the American dialects were notably different. Nonetheless, the situation was quite another for the written language, where variations are less prominent. For this greater stability in the written register, frequently cited causes are the early academic predominance of Peninsular universities and the centralization of administrative and legal authority in Spain during the colonial period.
In 1713, with the foundation of the Real Academia Española, part of the Academy's explicit purpose was the normalization of the language, "to fix the words and expressions of the Castilian language with the greatest possible propriety, elegance and purity". Throughout the 18th century the Academy developed means of standardization. Between 1726 and 1793 it published a "dictionary of the Castilian language, in which the true sense of the words is explained, as well as their nature and quality, along with the phrases and forms of speech, and the proverbs, sayings, and other matters pertinent to the use of the language". In 1741 the Academy published an Orthography of the Spanish Language, and in 1771 a Grammar of the Spanish Language. The language of the colonies began to be recorded in dictionaries as "Americanisms", beginning in the 19th century.
During the 1880s, a new political situation and the intellectual independence of the former colonies drove the Real Academia Española to propose the formation of branch academies in the Spanish-speaking republics. The project encountered some opposition among local intellectuals. In Argentina, for example, Juan Antonio Argerich, suspecting an attempt by Spain at cultural restoration, argued in favor of an independent academy, one that would not be merely "a branch office, a servant to Spanish imperialism", and Juan María Gutiérrez rejected the naming of a correspondent. However, the proposal was finally accepted, eventually resulting in the founding of the Association of Spanish Language Academies.
The academies insisted on the preservation of a "common language", based on the upper-class speech of Spain and without regard for the strong influence that indigenous languages of the Americas and other European languages such as Italian, Portuguese, and English were having on the lexicon and even the grammar of American Spanish. That orientation persisted through the 20th century. A 1918 letter from Ramón Menéndez Pidal of the Real Academia Española to the American Association of Teachers of Spanish on the appearance of the first issue of its journal Hispania suggested:
The teaching of the language should aim to provide a broad knowledge of literary Spanish, considered as a highly regarded model; and [only] in an incidental way should it explain the slight variations that are exhibited in educated speech in Spain and in Spanish America, showing the essential unity of all within the literary pattern (...) [And] in the specific case of teaching Spanish to foreigners, I see no reason to hesitate in imposing the pronunciation of the Castilian region.
— Ramón Menéndez Pidal, "La lengua española"
The priority of written language over spoken language, and of Peninsular Spanish over American varieties, was the central thesis of Menéndez Pidal's letter. The "barbaric character of the American indigenous languages", in his opinion, should prevent them from having any influence over American Spanish. The tutorship of the Academy would take care of the rest. With that he was trying to counteract the prediction made by Andrés Bello in the prologue (p. xi) to his Grammar of 1847, which warned of the profusion of regional varieties that would "flood and cloud much of what is written in America, and, altering the structure of the language, tend to make it into a multitude of irregular, licencious, barbarian dialects". According to this interlocking linguistic and political viewpoint, only the unity of the "educated" language would guarantee the unity of the Hispanic world. On the other hand, the Colombian philologist Rufino José Cuervo—who shared Bello's prognosis of the eventual fragmentation of Spanish into a plurality of mutually unintelligible languages (although unlike Bello he celebrated it)—warned against the use of the written medium to measure the unity of the language, considering it a "veil that covers local speech".
This issue was documented poignantly in the 1935 treatise by Amado Alonso entitled El problema de la lengua en América (The problem of language in [Spanish] America), and was reiterated in 1941 when the scholar Américo Castro published La peculiaridad lingüística rioplatense y su sentido histórico (The linguistic peculiarity of River Plate Spanish and its historical significance). For writers of this viewpoint, the drift away from educated Castilian language was an unmistakable sign of social decay. Castro declared that the peculiarities of Argentine Spanish, especially the voseo, were symptoms of "universal plebeianism", "base instincts", "inner discontent, [and] resentment upon thinking about submitting to any moderately arduous rule". According to Castro's diagnosis, the strong identity of the Buenos Aires dialect was due to the general acceptance of popular forms at the expense of educated ones. Castro worries above all about the impossibility of immediately perceiving the social class of the speaker from the traits of his speech. The lack of the "checks and inhibitions" that the upper classes should represent seemed to him an unmistakable sign of social decay.
Castro's text is typical of a widespread view that sees the unity of language as the guardian of national unity, and the upper classes as the guardians of language orthodoxy. Much of Menéndez Pidal's work is aimed at pursuing that goal, recommending greater zeal in the persecution of "incorrect" usage through "the teaching of grammar, doctrinal studies, dictionaries, the dissemination of good models, [and] commentary on the classical authors, or, unconsciously, through the effective example that is propagated through social interaction and literary creation". This kind of classist centralism—common to other colonial languages, especially French—has had lasting influence on the use and teaching of the language. Only recently have some regional varieties (such as voseo in Argentina) become part of formal education and of the literary language—the latter, thanks largely to the literary naturalism of the mid-20th century.
The question of standard language took on new relevance with the rise of the mass media, when, for the first time, speakers of different dialects gained immediate access—by radio, television, and, more recently, the Internet—to language from regions speaking a variety different from their own. The weakness of the standard form's influence on spoken language had made standardization a marginal issue in the past, but it now became an important subject for debate.
The lasting influence of linguistic centralism has led some commentators to claim that the problem of fragmentation is non-existent, and that it is enough simply to emulate educated language. One author, for example, repeated the doctrine of Menéndez Pidal when stating that
[i]t is possible that [speakers in] one or several of [the] mass media, at a particular moment, may give cause for concern because of their use of vernacular forms. [...] [But f]rom moment to moment, society's needs and the cultural obligations appropriate to these media [...] demand from [them] a higher level of culture, which includes raising speech to the most educated forms. Therefore they also will be, with greater and greater clarity, a strong force for the raising of the language [to a high standard] and for its unification.
In any event, in the sphere of spoken language the issue has become problematic since at least the 1950s, when the commercial demands on movie dubbing studios working with Hollywood films began to call for the development of a Spanish whose pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical features would not be recognizable as belonging to any particular country. This goal soon proved to be an elusive one: even if the results could, on occasion, approximate a universally intelligible form, at the same time the process prevented the transmission of a familiar, intimate, or everyday tone. Nevertheless, its continued use has produced a degree of familiarization with a certain abstract phonetics throughout Spanish America. Dubbings for use in Spain, on the other hand, are virtually always made in that country, using European varieties of Spanish.
At the First International Congress of the Spanish Language, held in 1997 in Zacatecas, Mexico, controversy emerged around the concept of Standard Spanish. Some authors, such as the Spanish writer José Antonio Millán, advocated defining a "common Spanish", composed of the lowest common denominator of most dialects. Others, such as the journalist Fermín Bocos (director of Radio Exterior de España), denied the existence of a problem, adhering to the traditionalist idea of the superiority of educated Castilian Spanish over influences from other languages. Finally, experts from the Americas such as Lila Petrella stated that a neutral Spanish language could possibly be developed for use in purely descriptive texts, but that the major variations among dialects with regard to semantics and pragmatics would imply that it is impossible to define a single standard variety that would have the same linguistic value for all Spanish-speakers. Above all, certain grammatical structures are impossible to form in a neutral way, due to differences in the verb conjugations used (e.g. the use of the second-person familiar pronoun vos in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Central American countries, while most other countries prefer tú, and some Colombians tend to use usted in the informal context—and all three pronouns require different verb conjugations). At least one of the three versions will always sound odd in any given Spanish-speaking country.
Given that a neutral Spanish for all Spanish-speakers is impossible, there are four established standardized "Spanishes" used in translations and, more recently, in film-dubbing by some companies: (1) Castilian or Peninsular Spanish for Spain; (2) River Plate Spanish for Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina (using voseo); (3) Mexican Spanish for the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America (even though this region is largely voseante), and the rest of the Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America); (4) the Spanish of international organisations like the United Nations, the Organisation of American States and their respective specialised bodies. Naturally UN Spanish differs from OAS Spanish, because Spain is not a full member of the latter organisation, and thus its influence is weak. But Spain was refused membership in the UN when it was founded in 1945, since Spain was a Fascist dictatorship. Although it remained a Fascist dictatorship, it was eventually admitted in 1956. However by then UN Spanish had been already established by Spanish-American diplomats and translators.
In the television market, Latin America is considered as one territory for distribution and syndication of programmes; for this reason they are dubbed into a Neutral Spanish that avoids idioms and words that may have a coarse meaning in any of the countries in which the programme will be shown. This Latin American Neutral Spanish:
- uses only ustedes for the second person plural pronoun, regardless whether familiar or formal (in contrast to the use of vosotros for the familiar in Spain);
- uses tú for the familiar second person singular pronoun (rather than vos);
- Tends to a single pronunciation of the s, c (before e or i) and z.
Latin American Neutral Spanish tends to be common in Colombia (because of the existence of a lot of regional dialects), Venezuela (because of its location as a crossroad for Latin America and an important Spanish-language soap opera production industry) and Mexico, where most of mass media is made.
Latin American Neutral Spanish was also formerly distributed with programmes in Spain, but that no longer happens.
Another motivator for the unification of Spanish is the translation by multinational companies of manuals, software, websites, etc., from English to Spanish. It is easier to use a neutral version of Spanish than to create different versions for each country or region. If it were done by country, there would be over twenty versions, and if by region it would be difficult to define which countries belonged to which region, as well as being complicated from the logistical point of view. The result has been to identify a neutral Spanish, a version that tries to avoid regional phenomena, such as the Latin American voseo, or terms that may be identified with specific countries (for example, for “computer”, the term in Spain is ordenador, while in Spanish America the most frequent term is computadora, except in a few areas that prefer computador; as a result, Microsoft Windows uses the region-neutral term equipo). This neutral language is developed with the help of glossaries that prescribe the preferred terms and the terms to avoid. It is a common occurrence in the computing field, because it lowers production costs.
- Penny, Ralph (2000). Variation and Change in Spanish. Cambridge University Press. p. 199. "Whatever might be claimed by other centres, such as Valladolid, it was educated varieties of Madrid Spanish that were mostly regularly reflected in the written standard."
- "fijar las voces y vocablos de la lengua castellana en su mayor propiedad, elegancia y pureza"
- "Diccionario de la lengua castellana, en que se explica el verdadero sentido de las voces, su naturaleza y calidad, con las frases o motivos de hablar, los proverbios o refranes y otras cosas convenientes del uso de la lengua"
- Ortografía de la lengua española
- Gramática de la lengua española
- del Valle, José (2002). "Lenguas imaginadas: Menéndez Pidal, la lingüística hispánica y la configuración del estándar". Estudios de Lingüística del Español. 16. ISSN 1139-8736
- La enseñanza de la lengua debe tender a dar amplio conocimiento del español literario, considerado como un elevado conjunto; y de un modo accesorio debe explicar las ligeras variantes que se ofrecen en el habla culta en España y en Hispano-América, haciendo ver la unidad esencial de todas dentro del patrón literario (...) en el caso concreto de la enseñanza del español a extranjeros, no creo cabe vacilar en imponer la pronunciación de las regiones castellanas.
- Translated from: Menéndez Pidal, Ramón (February 1918). (subscription required) "La lengua española". Hispania 1 (1): 1–14. doi:10.2307/331675. Also cited in del Valle, José (2002).
- Madrid: Espasa-Calpe.
- Madrid: Sur; revised ed. 1961, Madrid: Taurus
- "[P]lebeyismo universal", "instinto bajero", "descontento íntimo, encrespamiento del alma al pensar en someterse a cualquier norma medianamente trabajosa"
- "[L]a enseñanza de la gramática, los estudios doctrinales, los diccionarios, la difusión de buenos modelos, el comentario de los autores clásicos, o bien inconscientemente, mediante el eficaz ejemplo que se difunde en el trato social o en la creación literaria".
- Gastón Carrillo Herrera, "Tendencias a la unificación idiomática hispanoamericana e hispánica", in Presente y futuro de la lengua española, Volume II (Madrid: Ediciones de Cultura Hispánica, 1964), pp. 17-34. Quoted in Alberto Gómez Font, Donde dice... debiera decir... (Buenos Aires: Áncora, 2006), p. 240.
- Bentivegna, Diego (1999), Amado Alonso y Américo Castro en Buenos Aires : entre la alteridad y el equilibrio, en Narvaja de Arnoux, E. y Bein, R. Prácticas y representaciones del lenguaje, Buenos Aires: EUDEBA, 1999. pp. 135–156
- Borges, Jorge Luis (1974), Obras Completas, Buenos Aires: Emecé.
- Castro, Américo (1941), La peculiaridad lingüística rioplatense y su sentido histórico, Buenos Aires: Losada
- Krashen, Stephen (1998): "Language shyness and heritage language development". In Krashen, S., Tse, L. and McQuillan, J. (eds.), Heritage language development. Culver City, CA: Language Education Associates. pp. 41–50
- VV. AA. (1998), Actas del Primer Congreso Internacional de la lengua española, México DF: Siglo XXI.