Castilian (Castellano)


Area of Distribution

Castilian is an Ibero-Romance dialect, originating in north-central parts of the Iberian peninsula (Castilla Vieja or Old Castile), on the basis of which developped the Standard Spanish language. For this reason the terms Castilian and Spanish are often used interchangeably. The standard language however evolved in a rather specific way and since the 15th century its users in Central Spain (Castilla Nueva or New Castile) were yet inclined to regard the speech of Old Castile as rustic and archaic.

Origin and History

Castilian arose in the 9th century, when the Basques living in the Cantabrian mountains moved down to occupy the upper river Ebro valley and mixed there with the local Romance population. They adopted its language, marking it by some Basque phonological features and vocables. The region then was part of the boundary belt with the Muslims (Moors) and in order to have a firm hold of it the Christians were building a lot of castles there--from where the name Castile, meaning "land of castles", was derived. In the late 10th century Castile was politically consolidated as a county with its capital at Burgos. In 1037 it was proclaimed an independent kingdom and it played a decisive role in the Reconquest.

As the kingdom of  Castile expanded, the Castilian language spread over Spain. In the late 15th century it became the official language of the unified Kingdom of Spain. The end of the Reconquest and the discovery of America in 1492 were matched linguistically by the appearance of Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática de la lengua castellana ("Grammar of the Castilian Language"), which postulated the need for an ennobled language fit for imperial exportation. Distributed widely in Spain and the colonies, this Grammar entrenched the dominating position of Castilian and in 1526 Charles V referred to it as Spanish language, so that since this time both terms, Castilian and Spanish, were used as synonymous.

In this context Castilian gradually replaced most of the other Romance languages in the Kingdom (see Asturian, Catalan, Galician) and developped local varieties (dialects), in which elements of those languages were retained as a substratum. In relation to this it is important to distinguish the Leonese-Castilian dialect from the Asturo-Leonese language, the Castilian of Aragon from the Aragonese language etc.


The first standard orthography was elaborated in the late 13th century on the basis of the speech of the upper-class of Toledo, the new capital of Castile. The great king Alfonso X the Wise (1252-1284) was personally involved in this process. The spelling system, established then, has been subsequently modified to reflect changes in pronunciation, but its focus on Castilian usage, especially this of Toledo, and since the 17th century of Madrid, has always remained in place.


Phonetically modern Castilian speech differs from the established Spanish norm mainly in the following cases:

1. The pronunciation of word-final [d] as [θ], as in bondad [bondaθ] ‘goodness’, Madid [ma'driθ], salud [sa'luθ] ‘health’.

2. The pronunciation of [s] as [ɾ] before a dental consonant, as in los dientes [lo'ɾðjentes] ‘the teeth’ and los zorros [lo'ɾθoɾos] ‘the foxes’.

3. Retroflex [ʂ] in the end of the syllables; it is articulated with the tongue's  tip curled backwards to just behind the alveolar ridge.

4. The change of [-γn-] into [-xn-], as in digno ['dixno] 'worthy'.

5. The metathesis of r, l, n as in ['probe] for pobre 'poor'.

6. The opposition between [λ] and [j]  is disappearing both in urban and rural areas.

7. The most striking dialectal feature in the consonant system is the ‘assibilated r’, which is common in the speech of north central and north-western areas of Spain (Alava, La Rioja, Navarre, Aragon). It refers to the occurrence of a voiceless or voiced retroflex sibilant [ʂ] or [ʑ] instead of [ɾ] or [r]: thus in assibilating dialects, the word decir ‘to say’ becomes indistinguishable from decís ‘you say’. Note that the voiceless [ʂ] usually appears in syllable-final position or after a voiceless stop, as in parque ['paʂke] ‘park’ and propio ['pʂopjo] ‘own’, while the voiced [ʑ] tends to appear word-initially or intervocalically (in words spelled with -rr-), as in rojo [ʑoxo] ‘red’ or perro [peʑo] ‘dog’. The assibilation of [ɾ] and [r] is common also in Latin America and there, as in Northern Spain, the distribution of the voiced and voiceless sounds usually follows a common pattern.

8. In assibilating dialects the sequence [tʂ] may become indistinguishable from the affricate [tʃ], so that words such as otro ‘other’ and ocho ‘eight’ may approach homonymy.

9. Concerning the vowels, the most important divergence from standard language is in the raising of the mid vowels in unstressed final syllables, as in hielo ['jelu] ‘ice’ and leche ['letʃi] ‘milk’. This phenomenon occurs mainly in western Cantabria.

10. Also the hiatuses are transformed into diphthongs, as in ahora ['aọra] 'now' and maiz ['maθ] 'maize'.


Many speakers in Castile, even in Madrid, exhibit leísmo and / or laísmo.

Leísmo is most common when the reference is to a human being, but it is often used also when the antecedent is any animate entity. In some parts of Old Castile the phenomenon is related to the distinction countable (árbol ‘tree’, coche ‘car’, perro ‘dog’) and uncountable (agua 'water', café 'coffee') nouns, with le or les being used whenever the antecedent is a (masculine) countable noun, cf.:

In most parts of the Spanish-speaking world, the anaphoric clitics are organized primarily on the basis of syntactic function (direct versus indirect object) and only secondarily on the basis of gender. In Castile, on the other hand, the spread of leísmo and laísmo is tending towards the creation of a system that is based primarily on gender, cf.: 




human referent

non-human referent







Direct object







Indirect object



In the North of Castile, in Cantabria and the Basque Country the past subjunctive is routinely replaced with the conditional form:

An additional feature of northern varieties is a preference for the usage of the past simple tense in cases where speakers from Madrid or southern Spain would be likely to use the present perfect.



There are only few words generally used in Castile and not yet accepted in the standard language. Most studies of the Castilian vocabulary lists items, often of Arabic origin, whose use is limited to small geographical areas. On the other hand, most manuals report the widespread use of caer ‘to fall’ and quedar ‘to remain’ as transitive verbs:

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