Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It was in El Calafate in Argentine Patagonia when a woman asked me whether I spoke “Castellano.” It took me a second to rifle through the clutters of my brain to recall that in Argentina, Spanish is often not called “Español” but “Castellano,” or Castilian.
Obliquely, this exchange was a forewarning of the frustrations I would have a couple of months later in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Portuguese, the language where everything is close enough to Spanish to be confusing, but different enough that no one understands you if you simply speak Spanish.
There is a long and complicated history of just how Portuguese came to be what it is, which also explains why the Patagonian woman referred to Spanish as Castilian. And it’s largely a variation on the long and complicated history of the Iberian Peninsula.
Everyone knows that the Iberia was part of the Roman Empire. Hell, in Gladiator, they called Russell Crowe’s character “the Spaniard.” And for that reason all of the romance languages including Spanish and Portuguese are derived from Latin. Indeed, back in the day the prototypical version of each would have simply been referred to as “Vulgar Latin,” “Sermo Vulgaris.”
But what happened after the fall of the Western Roman Empire?
First of all, Germanic tribes including the Visigoths and the Suevi or Suebi conquered “Hispania” and established kingdoms there. The Suevi were on the northwestern coast and the Visigoths in most of the rest of the area before the latter absorbed the former. This was the age between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of Islam, forgotten by most, when even North Africa was Germanic, a kingdom of the Vandals.
But Islam did rise out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, and the newly energized Arab Muslims swept westward across the Middle East and North Africa in a matter of decades. In 711 A.D. the Umayyad dynasty in North Africa crossed the Mediterranean and invaded Iberia, conquering most of the former Visigothic Kingdom. For the next eight centuries, much of Iberia would remain an Islamic country, the Arabic name al-Andalus still preserved in Spanish geography as “Andalusia.” And Arabic would forever leave its mark on the Spanish language in the form of many loan words introduced from the former.
Umayyad forces continued on to try to conquer what is now France, but Charlemagne and his knights managed to hold their own against the “Moors.” And for many centuries after, the Pyrenees marked the border between Christianity and Islam.
Except for the principality of Asturias in northwestern Spain. Celtic in origin, the people known as the Astures had always been fiercely independent and resisted the Romans before the Suevi and Visigoths. Now they resisted the Arabs and maintained a Christian enclave surrounded by Muslims. In the end the Christian Reconquista of Iberia would not have been possible but for this enclave.
To drastically simplify things, in the 9th century a nobleman from Asturias named Vimara Peres managed to wrest a large tract of western Iberia from the Moors. His king created a county out of the land conquered and made him its count. The capital of the area was called Portus Cale, the origin ultimately of the name “Portugal.” (Which would in turn give rise to the word for “orange” in many Middle Eastern and Eastern European languages, but that’s a story for another day.)
The Kingdom of Asturias later splintered into successor states, one of which was called the Kingdom of Leon, from which Portugal declared independence in 1139. From this point on, and even before that since the creation of the county under Peres, the dialect of Latin spoken there developed largely independently of the rest of Iberia, resulting centuries later in my confusion here in Portuguese-speaking Brazil as I type these words. Not to mention that Brazilian Portuguese is even further removed from Spanish as Portuguese in Europe, given its phonetic shifts: a “d” in Brazilian Portuguese is pronounced like an English “j.”
Oh, and one of the other successor states of Asturias was called Castile, from which the modern Kingdom of Spain ultimately arose. And that is why Argentines sometimes still refer to Spanish as “Castellano,” Castilian, the language of Castile.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."