Language Focus Spanish

7 incredible facts about Spanish

February 8, 2020

Note: This post was originally a guest post for Forge Language. Visit their blog to know more!

Spanish conquers hearts and minds wherever it decides to make an appearance.

It fills the room whenever we speak it, with its extroverted vowels, rolled “r”s, energetic flow and perkiness. It keeps any celebration moving with its liveliness, sensuality and cheerfulness, which jump out of our favorite party songs and inspire daring dance moves. When the Spanish language takes on its revolutionary face, it can also be a powerful voice for protest, challenge and change. 534 million people spoke it in 2019, making it the 4th most-spoken language in the world. It’s a good reason to claim – ¡Olé!

Oh, by the way…did you know that the origins of the iconic expression “¡Olé!” are…well…not very Spanish? Sorry to drop that unexpectedly. You’ll just have to keep reading to find out why! Here are seven incredible curiosities about the Spanish language that will blow your mente.

1. Spanish is not the fastest language in the world.

Spanish learners often complain about how fast native speakers talk, but you might be surprised to find out that it isn’t the fastest language around. At least, not according to a 2011 study performed at the University of Leon, which compared different languages and their speed side by side. They did it by measuring the rate of syllables per second, which is apparently a key factor in determining how fast a language will sound.

Based on these criteria, Japanese is the fastest language recorded at 7.84 syllables per second. However, Spanish is a close second…at 7.82 syllables per second.

2. Spanish is actually 8% Arabic.

Even though Spanish is a Romance language, the 781-year long Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula (between 711 and 1492) has certainly left its mark, including the creation of an entire Spanish Arabic dialect at the time.

Even today, everyday words like aceite (olive oil), azúcar (sugar), algodón (cotton), guitarra (guitar) and tabaco (tobacco) all come from Arabic. And remember the very “unSpanish” origins of the expression “¡Olé!”? While some defend it could have its origins in the Greek language or even in the Bible, the most commonly accepted theory is that it comes from…you guessed it. Either “Allah” (God) or “Wallah” (by God), both Arabic.

By now, you could be thinking this is kind of a stretch. But we don’t need to go that far. “Ojalá”, an expression frequently used in Spanish to mean “I hope so”, comes straight from “Inshallah” (إِنْ شَاءَ ٱللّٰهُ‎), which has the exact same thing in Arabic (“if God wills”).

3. There’s a lot going on behind “Buenos días.

Traveling through Europe, you will find a wide variety of languages wishing you a pleasant morning, afternoon or night. But there’s one thing that makes Spanish stand out – they use the plural to do so (“Buenos días”). Why is that?

Linguist Salvador Gutiérrez Ordóñez believes the greeting had its origins in a longer, religious phrase that was slowly shortened through the centuries. He tells BBC: “It is very likely that people used to say “May God give you good days” (“Buenos días os dé Dios”), an expression that not only referred to the present day, but also the days to follow and the entire existence of the person we were directing the wish towards. That phrase got shorter and became simply “Buenos días” (literally “Good mornings” / “Good days”). The same could apply to “Buenas tardes” (literally “good afternoons”) and “Buenas noches” (literally “good nights”).

4. The inverted question and exclamation marks are a modern invention (and were met with some resistance)

Inverted marks aren’t an old tradition or original feature of the Spanish language (whatever “original feature” might mean, anyway!). It was only in 1754 that the Royal Academy of Language thought it would be wise to include an inverted mark. Why?

Well, because unlike English, German or French, Spanish establishes no grammatical difference between asking a question or just declaring something. For example, while in English you would ask “Do you like the beach?” and affirm “You like the beach.”, Spanish would structure those the exact same way: “Te gusta la playa?” and “Te gusta la playa”. The difference is, of course, the punctuation and the tone people use while speaking.

The Royal Academy thought the inverted marks would be a clever way of telling the reader “Look, a question is coming!” when using very long sentences. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that people started to adopt them slowly. Even so, many writers of the time didn’t use it. Others explicitly refused to use it. Nowadays, when it comes to informal and online communication, most people find it practical not to use them anyway and stick to the end marks only. It seems inverted marks have always faced some resistance!

5. In the future, the country with the largest number of Spanish speakers might not be a Spanish-speaking country.

In 2018, only 50% of the United States of America’s children were white, with 25% being latinos. Childstats.gov explains: “The percentage of children who are Hispanic has grown substantially, increasing from 9% of the child population in 1980 to 25% in 2016. By 2050, it is projected that 31% of all children will be Hispanic.”

If this growth continues and Spanish-speaking parents decide to teach their American children the Spanish language (or these children decide to learn Spanish independently as grown-ups), the United States of America could become the country with the largest number of Spanish speakers in the world, at around 138 million speakers by 2050.

6. Basque existed in Spain before Spanish did.

“As native speakers, discussing the origins and characteristics of our isolated language is a pride for Basques. It’s a way of honoring our ancestors, who struggled to keep the language alive in times when Basque wasn’t even legal”, Oihana Guillan, a native speaker of the Basque language, explains. 

Basque, the language spoken today in Navarre and the Basque autonomous region in Spain and the French Basque Country, is one of the most interesting phenomena for language history enthusiasts. Researchers believe it is one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages in Europe and the only one in Western Europe, its origins being quite mysterious. However, it is generally agreed that Basque was already a thing in Spain before the arrival of Indo-European languages.

Take a second to digest this fact. This means people were already speaking Basque on the streets when Romans occupied the Iberian Peninsula from 210 BC. That’s before Spanish ever got the opportunity to evolve from Vulgar Latin. Impressive, to say the least!

7. Spanish is also an official language in Africa!

Most of us associate Spanish with Latin America and Europe. We often forget Spanish is also an official language in the African continent!

Equatorial Guinea includes Spanish as an official language alongside Portuguese and French. And while Fang and Bube are recognized regional languages, Spanish is the predominant language of communication when native and non-native speakers join the chat. It’s also the official language of the Canary Islands, located west of Morocco.

Some regions in North Africa also use Spanish as a language in daily life, but not with an official status and usually as an alternative tool, rather than the main language (Arabic, for instance).

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