For many people throughout the world, Castilian Spanish is Spanish, while all other varieties are merely `dialects.'  In many Spanish-speaking countries, including parts of Spain, the national language is referred to as castellano, and in non Spanish-speaking countries, students often aspire to learning `Castilian Spanish' as the `best' or `purest' variety.  Within Spain, the speech of Castile does enjoy a certain prominence, due to the fact that all capitals of Spain, from the earliest unions of the kingdoms of León and Castile, and later the kingdoms of Castile and Aragón to the present lie in Castilla la Vieja or Castilla la Nueva:  Toledo, Burgos, Madrid.  Unlike in some nations, the speech of the national capital, Madrid, is not regarded as especially prestigious, partly because of the influx of speakers from all parts of Spain, thus diluting what might be a traditional madrileño dialect, but also because Madrid, situated in reconquered Castilla la Nueva, exhibits some of the innovative linguistic traits associated with non-Castilian dialects. 

Regardless of contemporary attitudes, it is an indisputable fact that the modern Spanish language derives in greatest measure from the early speech of Castile, and much of reconquered southern and southwestern Spain also speaks dialects which directly trace their ancestry to medieval Castilian.  Several defining characteristics of Peninsular Spanish had their origins in Castile:  the loss of Latin word-initial /f/ (filium > hijo, femina > hembra), the devoicing of the sibilants /z/ and /dz/, the fronting of the medieval alveolar sibilant /s/ to /θ/, and possible the uvular realization [X] of the posterior fricative /x/, whose evolution from earlier [š] is also a Castilian trait.  Historically, Castilian differs from the remaining Ibero-Romance dialects in palatalizing word-initial /pl-/, /fl-/, /kl-/ to [λ], in diphthongizing Latin lax /E/ and /O/ in tonic position, including in closed syllables, but not before the palatal yod, and reduction of the medial cluster /-mb-/ to [m] (palomba > paloma).

Although Burgos, founded around 884 during the reconquest, is often thought of us as the original locus of Castilian Spanish, it was Toledo which became the linguistic benchmark for the castellano which was eventually to evolve into the lengua española. Toledo, founded in pre-Roman times, became the capital of Visigothic Spain.  The city was quickly conquered by Moorish invaders in 712.  During the Moorish occupation Toledo was always a hotbed of rebellion, and the city was liberated several times, only to fall captive again, before being definitively reconquered by Alfonso VI in 1085, who made this city the capital of his kingdom.  Reconquered Toledo became a locus of intellectual activity in western Europe, combining Christian, Moslem, and Jewish scholarship and art.  The Mozarabic dialect of Toledo had been promiment in Moorish Spain, and a heavy Mozarabic influence continued to characterize vernacular Toledo Spanish for several centuries following the Christian reconquist.  A translators school was founded in Toledo, and reached its apogee during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio, during the 13th century.  Alfonso X took the Toledo dialect to be the linguistic norm for Castile, and for a considerable time thereafter the Spanish dialect of Toledo enjoyed prominence and prestige as the ideology of nationhood overtook Spain.  In his Diálogo de la lengua (1535), Juan de Valdés reaffirmed the primacy of the Toledo dialect as the basis for proper speech.  In 1480 the Reyes Católicos, Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile convened the first Cortes or governing assembly, in which the prerogatives of the nobility were severely restricted.  During the reign of Carlos V, Toledo was once more the locus of insurrection against his pro-Germanic policies.  Following the transfer of the capital to Madrid by Felipe II in 1561,[1] Toledo rapidly declined in importance, although currently the city enjoys a prosperous tourism trade, as well as a substantial light industry base.

Phonetics and phonology

There is much regional and social variation within Castile, but a number of phonetic traits characterize all or most of the region:

(1)  All of Castile distinguishes /s/ and /θ/ in all positions.

(2)  The Castilian realization of /s/ is apicoalveolar throughout the entire region.

(3)  The posterior fricative /x/ is given a uvular realization [X] in Castile.

(4)  Word-final /n/ is uniformly alveolar [n] throughout Castile, except sporadically along the borders with Asturias, Extremadura, and Andalusia.

(5)  There are several enclaves in Castile which consistently distinguish /λ/ and /y/, although yeísmo is characteristic of most urban areas.  In some parts of Castile, /y/ receive a groove fricative or rehilada pronunciation [ž]; Calero Fernández (1993:  chap. 6) describes the spread of this process in the Toledo dialect.  In Burgos, the use of /λ/ is sociolinguistically stratified (Martínez Martín 1983:chap. 2), with /λ/ being retained at a higher rate among older speakers and in more formal contexts.  At the same time, lower sociocultural levels retain the lateral at approximately the same rate as more educated speakers; there is no appreciable difference between male and female speakers.

(6)  Word-final /d/ is typically retained as a lightly articulated fricative; it is pronounced as voiceless [θ] throughout much of Castile, and typifies the speech of such urban areas as Madrid, Valladolid, Burgos, and Salamanca.

(7)  Intervocalic /d/ in the suffix -ado is weak and frequently elided throughout Castile, even in educated and reasonably formal speech.

(8)  Syllable- and word-final /s/ and /θ/ resist effacement in much of Castile, particularly in Castilla la Vieja.  Some aspiration of syllable-final sibilants occurs in rural areas of Cantabria (Santander province) and neighboring areas of Castile, and systematic aspiration begins just to the south of Madrid, and increases as one nears the border with Andalusia to the south.  To the west, aspiration of /s/ begins roughly in Salamanca province near the border with Extremadura (Cáceres province), e.g. Iglesias Ovejero (1982:68, 72-3).  To the east, many parts of La Mancha now exhibit considerable aspiration (e.g. Chacón Berruga 1981:332-6).

(9)  Sporadically a paragogic final –e can be heard throughout Castile, as in Leon and Asturias (Moreno Fernández 1996:216).

(10)  Occasionally in Guadalajara and Cuenca provinces, final /o/ and /a/ are replaced by [e]:  aguiluche, alfalfe, redonde, regles, priete `prieto/prieta’ (Moreno Fernández 1996:216).  This phenomenon is unrelated to the shift of final /-as/ to [e] in a few enclaves of central Andalusia (Alonso 1956, Ranson 1992).

(11)  Throughout much of Castile, the affricate /č/ acquires a very forward articulation, verging on [ty]; this pronunciation appears to be gaining ground among younger generations.

(12)  In Castilian regions where final /s/ and /θ/ are aspirated, the aspiration sometimes evolves into a vocalic element:  perros [perroe], bellotas [beyotae], arroz [arroe] (Moreno Fernández 1996:218).

(13)  Throughout Castile, word-final /s/ frequently reduces to [r], particularly before dental consonants:  los dos [lorδoh].

(14)  Word-final /r/ may also disappear in rustic speech, particularly along the border with Extremadura (Iglesias Ovejero 1982:79).  The change of final /r/ > [l] also occurs in the same region (Iglesias Ovejero 1982:80).

As an example of the variation of final /s/ in mainstream Castilian Spanish, Calero Fernández (1993:  chap. 5) describes the pronunciation of syllable- and word-final /s/ in Toledo, revealing considering weakening of /s/ in various positions.  The quantitative data situate Toledo Spanish approximately halfway between the linguistically conservative dialects of northern Spain and the heavily /s/-reducing dialects of southern and southwestern Spain.  In the following comparative chart, the figures for the aspirated variant [h] Toledo also include the `assimilated' variants separately tabulated by Calero Fernández, e.g. /sd/ > [θ], /sb/ > [φ], /sk/ > [x].  Her data also indicate that aspiration is strongly preferred by male speakers, and is less frequent among female speakers of comparable age, educational level, and socioeconomic status.  Age-grading shows that weakening of final /s/ is rapidly spreading in the Toledo dialect.


Pronunciation of /s/-/θ/ in selected Spanish dialects(%)


Dialect                    /s/C                 /s/#C               /s/##                /s/#V               /s/#v


                                    [s] [h] [Ø]       [s] [h] [Ø]       [s] [h] [Ø]       [s] [h] [Ø]       [s] [h] [Ø]


Barcelona                    99   1   0          92   8   0          95   4   1          100   0   0        96   4   0

Madrid                                    94   6   0          69  29   2         82  12   6         92   8   0          96   4   0

Toledo                         65  31   4         21  59  20        76   4  20         84   9   7          82   8  10

Cáceres                       2    91   7         0    94   6         9    8  83         23  77   0         0    95   5

Granada                       0  82  18          0  85  15          1   2  97           0  15  85          2  50  48

Murcia                         1  70  29          0  80  20          18 11 71          36  28  38        38  41  21

Sevilla                         0  95   5           0  91   9           5   2  93           69  10  21        1  46  54

Las Palmas                  2  85  13          0  89  11          2  17  81          75  25   0         0  92   8


C = consonant; V = stressed vowel; v = atonic vowel; # = word boundary; ## = phrase boundary/pause


Morphology and syntax


The Spanish of Castile shares most of its morphosyntactic traits with the remainder of Spain, although in rural and isolated dialects archaic and idiosyncratic elements are found.  Hernández Alonso (1996) and Moreno Fernández (1996) summarize many Castilian features.  Among the general Castilian traits are:

(1)  Use of vosotros and the accompanying verbal morphology for the second person plural.

(2)  Leísmo (use of le/les) as masculine direct object clitics is generalized.  In popular speech, laísmo (use of la/las as feminine indirect object clitics) is also found.

(3)  The present perfect (ha dicho, etc.) is frequently used to express simple preterite action, even when the moment of speaking is not included (lo he hecho ayer).



The Spanish of the Basque country


In the País Vasco (Euskadi), Castilian Spanish enjoys considerable hegemony over Basque (Euskera), with the latter language being spoken fluently and consistently by older speakers, in rural areas, and in fishing villages.  In recent years the creation of an autonomous region in the Basque Country, the decree of Basque as a co-official language of the region, and the obligatory teaching of Basque to all school children (and even as the medium of instruction in the Basque-language ikastolas), the Basque language is making a considerable comeback.  Etxebarria Arostegui (2000) and Sánchez Carrión (1999) survey some of the sociolinguistic implications of this new bilingualism.  In general, the phonetics of Basque Spanish is identical to that of other northern Spanish dialects, while a few morphosyntactic differences separate many speakers of this region from those in other parts of Spain.

In the Spanish Golden Age the vizcaíno provided a literary stereotype (together with the gitano, the negro, the gallego, the moro, the sayagués, etc.) of Spanish spoken as a second language.  Most of the traits ascribed to Basque speakers in this literary stereotype are fanciful and bear no relation to Basque-influenced Spanish past or present.  Major Spanish writers such as Cervantes and Lope de Vega, as well as numerous writers of skits, poems, and longer plays, incorporated the vizcaíno, consolidating a stereotype which eventually needed no preamble to clue the audience as to the characters' identity (Legarda 1953; Herrero García: chap. IX).  The linguistic features of the Basque-Spanish stereotype center around incorrect subject-verb agreement, with an overwhelming preference for the second person singular (-s) as invariant verb form.  Bizarre word-order alteration frequently occurred, as did unstable gender and number agreement.  These humorous lapses were often combined with an extensive command of Spanish vocabulary and syntactic structures, not a likely combination in actually occurring bilingual speech.  Almost no phonetic modifications were found, but Basque words and phrases were often inserted.  The impression of vizcaíno Spanish is more chaotic and even demented than its closest relative, Afro-Hispanic pidgin, due to the startling juxtaposition of sophisticated vocabulary and improbable syntactic transpositions.  A few literary examples are:


Melchor de Santa Cruz, Floresta española (Santa Cruz 1996:  321-9) {1574}:


Juras a Dios, andas por arte del diablo `[I] swear to God, [the mill-wheel] is turning by the Devil's artifice'


Luis Vélez de Guevara, El amor en vizcaíno, los celos en francés, y torneos de Navarra (Vélez de Guevara 1975) {ca. 1615}:


Franchotes piensas que son `[I] think they are Frenchmen'

Del bronces del honra mío, que apuestas con los diamantes `With the bronze of my honor, which [I] wager with the diamonds'


Miguel de Cervantes, El vizcaíno fingido:


Pareces buena, hermosa; también noche esta cenamos; cadena quedas, duermes nunca, basta que doyla `You seem lovely; we will dine this evening; you will remain captive, you never sleep, I'll only have to give'


Luis Quiñones de Benavente, Entremés nuevo de Juan Francés {ca. 1660} (Cotarelo y Morí 1911:  vol. 2, 705-8):


Eres los castellanos mal demonos `Spaniards are devils'

ya viene mi maridos y yo les llama ... `my husband is coming now and I [will] call him'


In contemporary Spain, monolingual speakers of Basque are few in number, and even Spanish-recessive bilinguals are a disappearing breed.  Although it is impossible to completely rule out the possibility that the vizcaíno imitations may once have been accurate imitations of Spanish-Basque bilinguals, contemporary Basque-influenced Spanish shows strikingly different characteristics (cfr. Urrutia Cárdenas 1995).  Basque is a topic-prominent language, although the basic word order is SOV, and the Spanish of the Basque country exhibits many deviations from monolingual Spanish word order, some of which do coincide with earlier literary imitations.  More common, however, is the use of null objects, object clitic doubling, overuse of reflexives, use of definite articles instead of possessives, and innovative diminutives.  The is no evidence of the 2s. or other verb form being overextended in an invariant verb paradigm.  In one special circumstance, the Spanish infinitive may be overused (Urrutia Cárdenas 1995:  256-7):


Andar bien `go well'

luego limpiar, cocer y poner `then [we have] to clean, boil them, and serve [them]


Urrutia (1995:  256-7) believes that the use of the infinitive `is another instance of linguistic simplification, which is formed by a language contact situation.  By using the infinitive, obligatory elements (verbal morphemes and pronouns) do not have to be expressed.'

In addition to the innovative uses of the infinitive, Basque Spanish may also exhibit the following traits Urrutia Cárdenas 1995):

(1)  Null direct objects, also found in some Andean Spanish dialects:


Yo ya Ø he comprado

Sí, yo ya Ø he leído


(2)  Use of le/les instead of la/las for feminine direct object clitics:  a las chicas les vi.  This trait is sometime also found in vernacular Paraguayan Spanish.

(3)  Clitic doubling, also found in Andean Spanish:  Le veo a Juan en el parque.

(4)  Double reflexives:  se están quejándose.

(5)  Pleonastic or redundant reflexives:


Ese se nació en Canarias.

El se entró a casa muy rápido.


Most of the traits just discussed are found only among individuals with significant proficiency in Basque and who speak Basque more than Spanish from day to day.  Spanish-dominant or monolingual Spanish speakers from the Basque region exhibit few consistent linguistic traits to distinguish them from residents of nearby provinces of northern Spain.


[1] Felipe III subsequently transferred the court to Valladolid in 1600, but returned it to Madrid in 1605