Why not Castilian?

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There is a big controversy on whether to use the term “Castilian”, or “Spanish”

Anyone who has studied Spanish, even for a while, or has had any contact with the country will be aware of the existence of “Castilian”, a term used to describe an international language and the official language of Spain and Spanish speaking countries, but which is sometimes ambiguous for foreigners.

The birthplace of the Castilian language is the historic Spanish region of Castile, which translates literally as a “land of castles”, and it is from this little known language that Spanish derived.

However, whether one should use the term Spanish or Castilian when referring to the language of Cervantes is something which has caused much controversy not only among academics and linguists, but also among politicians. It is also indirectly linked to the candid debate surrounding the other languages spoken in Spain and the controversy has not stopped at Spain’s borders. It became a European Union issue when Spain acceded to the Union in 1986 and the decision was made to use the term Spanish rather than Castilian.

Within the EU, we use the term Spanish in both verbal and written communication, despite the fact that Article 3 of the Spanish Constitution explicitly states that “Castilian is the official language of Spain” and “The other Spanish languages shall also be official in the respective Self-governing Communities in accordance with their Statutes”.

From this article, we can conclude that the official language of Spain is Castilian and all the other spoken languages are “Spanish languages”, among which are Catalan, Basque/Euskera and Galician. Moreover, according to the Royal Spanish Academy the use of the Castilian language does not exclude the use of Spanish, and is even recommended in situations where the other Spanish languages are not used. In EU texts, the term Castilian is not used to refer to one of the official languages of the Union. So, how is it that we find the Spanish Constitution and European Union documents at cross purposes? The answer may be found by looking back at a time when languages were something worth fighting for.

Regulation No.1 of 15 April 1958 of the European Economic Community is considered to be a key document governing the language arrangements and basic language principles of the EU. It also prescribes the status of languages in the European Union. Article 8 of this Regulation foresees that in the case of multilingual Member States, the Council should make a decision based on Member State petitions, as to which language should be granted the status of official and working language at Community level.

While Spain was negotiating its accession to the EU in 1986, the term Spanish was used in the Regulation governing the language regime of the Union. At the end of the negotiations, in order to apply the Constitution, Spanish authorities replaced the term with Castilian. However, in other language versions of the same text, the term “Spanish” was wrongly left in the wording. The negotiators most probably wanted to keep the term “Castilian” in all linguistic versions, but they did not have the mandate to decide on its transposition into other languages or on actual divergences between Spanish texts.

Finally, when Spain acceded to the Union, in order to dissipate any doubts, the Spanish permanent representation sent a letter to the Secretary General of the Council on 4 March 1986 expressing “Spanish authorities’ desire to use the term “Spanish (language)” for all the references to the language of Spain, as a Member State.”[1] This resolved the discussion at EU level and since then Spanish has remained the dominant term.

It is only if we go back to Regulation No.1, that we can find the same term as is used in the Spanish Constitution (“Castilian”), and this of course is true only for the Spanish version of the text. In all other language versions of the Regulation, the term Spanish remains. At this point, it must be added that the translators are not to be blamed for this lack of consistency, as the issue was decided on the basis of political pragmatism and what was appropriate at the time.

This seemingly insignificant linguistic puzzle of European construction leads us to consider all the possible implications of using one term over another. This is also an example of how by one small step we can fossilize a linguistic term for decades and make it a norm for generations to come.


Regulation No.1:


Spanish Constitution:


Labrie, N. La construction linguistique de la Communauté européenne, Honore Champion Editeur, Paris, 1993.

[1] “el deseo de las autoridades españoles que, con carácter general en toda referencia de la lengua de España como Estado miembro,  se utilice la expresión “lengua española””.

Published initially in One Europe on 22 Aug 2014