Galician is a Romance language spoken by about 2.4 million people , mostly in the northwestern region of Spain where it shares co-official status. Galician speakers can also be found scattered in the border areas of Asturias, Castile, and León as well as throughout Portugal. In fact, Galician shares so many similarities with Portuguese that there has been a longstanding political and cultural debate about whether the two should be considered separate languages.
Galician and Portuguese share roots in a common linguistic ancestor, namely Galician-Portuguese. While Galician’s spelling conventions and vocabulary have been strongly influenced by Spanish in the past century, it remains mutually intelligible with Portuguese. Galician was banned during the rule of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, but resurged after his death and is now one of five languages that enjoy co-official status in Spain.
Galician is widely spoken throughout the northwest of Spain, primarily in the mountainous rural areas. Most schools teach in both Galician and Spanish, although several universities teach exclusively in Galician. The coastal region of Galicia supports larger cities with a bustling economy based on fishing and shipbuilding, but those ports of call are more likely to be packed with Spanish speakers.
The relationship between the Galician language and Portuguese is very much a story of shared history and common roots. Galician-Portuguese was the mother tongue of the region until 1139 when Portugal became an independent kingdom and Galicia was controlled by the Crown of Castile. As Castilian Spanish became the lingua franca of Spain and mandatory for legal and government business, Galician was increasingly regulated to rural inland areas and smaller villages.
In the early 19th century, Galician experienced a resurgence among intellectuals. During this time, writers like Rosalía de Castro helped popularize a standardized Galician language that is still celebrated as a cornerstone of literature today. However, when the dictatorship of Francisco Franco took over after the Spanish Civil War, all other languages but Castilian Spanish were banned in the name of nationalism. After Franco’s death, the ban against other languages was lifted and in 1978 Galician became a co-official language with Spanish, making it one of the lenguas españolas of Spain.
Today, while there are still far more Spanish speakers in northwest Spain, the Galician language has become widely published and a source of pride for its people. Because of waves of emigration, Galician speaking communities can be found not just in Spain and Portugal, but in Argentina where people of Spanish descent are called gallegos or Galicians. There are also clusters of Galician speakers in Mexico, Cuba, Europe, and even large cities in the United States like New York.
Although Galician is closest to Portuguese, as a fellow Romance language, Galician also reflects influence from Spanish. Galician follows Portuguese in terms of lexicon and grammar, but standard Galician pronunciation mirrors Spanish. For instance, most Galician consonants are pronounced the same as Spanish with a few notable exceptions of regional variations on the letters “g,” “s,” and “z.” You’ll also get the standard rolling of the “r” in Galician that Spanish speakers perform with such ease, but can be incredibly elusive for beginning language learners.
There are some sounds in Galician that do not exist in Spanish. One is the nasal “n” (pronounced nh) in words that end in the letter “n.” Intonation in Galician is also partially different from Spanish, with a noticeable emphasis on inflection for interrogative questions. Just as Galician has been heavily influenced by Spanish speakers, Spanish spoken in Galicia has been affected by Galician speakers, specifically in regards to accent and intonation.
When traveling to the northwest region of Spain , it may be useful to know some Galician words to decipher the Spanish spoken along the border (Asturias, Castile, and León) and in rural areas. It’s also helpful to know the history of the language so when visitors are standing at the crossroads between Spanish and Galician, they’ll understand the relevance of the moment.
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