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What kind of Spanish is spoken in Madrid - is Castilian the purest type of Spanish?

Castilian Spanish, or castellano, can be a confusing term for language students. Practically speaking, what does it actually mean to speak Castilian Spanish? And is it good to study Spanish in an area like Madrid, where Castilian Spanish is spoken?

What is Castilian Spanish?

‘Castilian Spanish’ refers to two things. Firstly, Castilian Spanish is considered a standardised type of Spanish language. Secondly, it refers to a particularly pure-sounding Spanish accent.

If we say that someone is speaking Castilian Spanish, it is the equivalent of saying that an English person is speaking ‘Oxford English’. In other words, the language is being spoken in its “original” or “proper” form.

Where does the term come from?

The term ‘Castilian’ refers to the province of Castile in central Spain. In Spanish, the term is translated castellano, which means “from Castile”. To understand the reason for this geographical reference, we need to briefly look at the history of the Spanish language, starting from the Roman era.

Latin, the origin of the Spanish language

The language we know today as Spanish originally derived from Latin. Latin was a language brought to the area (back then known as ‘Hispania’) by invading Roman armies, around 200 BC. The Roman rule continued for 600 years, and during that time the original Latin from Rome mixed with indigenous languages found on the Iberian Peninsula, and became known as ‘Vulgar Latin’. After the Roman rule ended, Vulgar Latin continued in use, but absorbed thousands of Arabic words during the Moorish conquests between 711 and 1492.

The standard Castilian dialect

In the 1200’s, King Alfonso X ruled over three Spanish regions: Castile, Leon and Galicia. During his time, central political power rested in the most central of these areas, Castile. For this reason, and because the king was a great patron of literacy and education, Alfonso X made his own regional dialect of Vulgar Latin – Castilian - the official government language. The kings who came to power after him, also continued to promote the Castilian region’s dialect as the nation’s standard tongue.

The first book of Castilian grammar

In 1492 Antonio de Nebrija, who Madrid University is named in honour of, famously published the grammar of Castilian Spanish, known as Grámatica de la lengua castellana. This was a sign that the Castilian variation of Vulgar Latin (spiced with many indigenous and Arab words) had finally become the official, recognised language of the state, spoken by educated people and used for all official government communications and texts.

Is Castilian only spoken in Castile today?

Today, modern Castilian Spanish is spoken in central and northern Spain, most notably in Castile, Madrid and Salamanca. The regions that speak Castilian Spanish are proud of their accent, because it is regarded as the best kind of Spanish that one can speak.

Standard Spanish and the RAE

The Real Academia Española (RAE), which is the royal institution responsible for overseeing the Spanish language, defined Castilian Spanish as today’s “standard Spanish”.

Its Spanish dictionary is regarded as the most authoritative Spanish language dictionary in the world, even though Latin American institutions have criticised it as too slow and conservative, and not always adopting regional or country-specific words quickly enough. (You can check whether any Spanish word in the world is considered an official and accepted part of the Spanish language in the RAE website’s online dictionary).

How does Castilian Spanish differ from other types of Spanish?

This is where the term ‘Castilian Spanish’ can become a little confusing. When people use the term ‘Castilian’, they can sometimes use the term quite flexibly.

  • Sometimes, ‘Castilian’ is used to differentiate the accent and vocabulary of central Spain from other regional accents, like the Andalusian in southern Spain. As in: él habla andaluz, pero ella habla castellano, ‘he speaks in an Andalusian accents, but she speaks in a Castilian (or central Spanish) accent’.
  • Some people also use the term ‘Castilian Spanish’ to separate the Spanish that is spoken in Spain, from Latin American variations of Spanish (although strictly speaking this isn’t the correct use of the term). As in: esta película está doblada en español latino, pero la otra está doblada en castellano, ‘this film is dubbed over in Latin American Spanish, but the other one is dubbed over in European Spanish’.
  • Finally, the term castellano is also often used as a synonym simply referring to the Spanish language in general. As in, hablo castellano, meaning ‘I speak Spanish’.

Are there advantages to learning Castilian Spanish?

For foreign language students, the Castilian Spanish accent is usually the easiest kind of Spanish to understand.

This is explained by the fact that Spanish is a so-called phonetic language - when you read Spanish, you’ll immediately know how to pronounce words, because with the exception of the letters c, g and h, all letters in Spanish each have one specific sound and are read out exactly as they are written.

In many areas of Spain and Latin America, however, accents and pronunciation vary. For example in Andalusian Spanish, people often don’t pronounce d’s and s’s, and generally pronounce everything with little precision. For example, the word desgraciado (unfortunate) in Malaga is pronounced without the s and the final d, the local pronunciation becoming de’gracia’o.

Said quickly, these variant word pronunciations can really throw even native Spaniards from other regions! Naturally, this makes it very hard for beginners to follow a ‘thick’ Andalusian Spanish accent, especially when it is spoken quickly.

But with Castilian Spanish, since every letter is carefully pronounced, it is much easier for those learning Spanish to understand the language spoken in central Spain and Madrid.

Does everybody in Madrid speak only Castilian Spanish?

Those people who are born in Madrid, or live there for a long time and adopt the local accent, speak Castilian Spanish. But Madrid is a very cosmopolitan city and there are also many Latin American immigrants, as well as many people from other Spanish provinces, who live and work there. This is why it is quite normal to hear many other types of Spanish accents in Madrid too, although the Castilian accent is the norm.

So should I study Spanish in Madrid and learn ‘proper’ Castilian Spanish?

There are over 406 million Spanish speakers in the world, spread between Spain, several South American nations, the United States, as well as a few other countries like Equatorial Guinea in Africa and the Philippines in Asia. Each of these areas has their own variations of Spanish accents, vocabulary and intonation.

Whereas it is not always so easy to follow strong regional or country accents, for instance Mexican Spanish or Andalusian Spanish, Castilian Spanish is a type of Spanish everybody all around the world will understand.

If you’re considering a Spanish immersion course in Spain for the first time, this does not mean that you should not go to other areas of Spain to study Spanish. However, for a first timer in Spain, choosing an area like Madrid where the easy-to-understand Castilian accent is mostly used, will make life in Spain easier the first time round. It will also give you a good grounding in Spanish language, as it is officially spoken today.

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