Languages: “Castilian” Spanish, “Mexican” Spanish, and Other Spanishes

Languages: “Castilian” Spanish, “Mexican” Spanish, and Other Spanishes
Leslie Bary teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Trained in Comparative Literature, she studies modern Spanish American and Brazilian Literature.

I ran into a student on the street. “I am really enjoying your class.” It was a literature survey, and I was surprised anyone found it remarkable. “What makes it so good?” Her answer—“you don’t criticize my  Spanish”—took me by surprise. “You clearly went to a good high school in Ecuador, you speak literate Spanish, you can be confident in any venue.” But she had experienced a traumatic year in her Oregon high school, being called “elitist” for speaking “Castilian.” Her family had sacrificed for her education, and it had hurt to be called a class and race traitor because of it. But was she, from Guayaquil, speaking Castilian? 

Yes. So were her detractors, who had used the term “Castilian” to indicate a speech register, not a language or a dialect. This is just one of the misconceptions attached to the word “Castilian.”

“Castilian” is another name for the language we call Spanish. 

The term has two meanings: it can refer to the Spanish language as a whole and also to a certain dialect of the language. In English, it refers to the dialects of northern Spain. And when Spanish language programs were founded in the United States a hundred years ago, the influential philologist Ramón Menéndez Pidal promoted the Castilian dialect as prestigious and normative. But the southern dialects that gave New World Spanish its sound are Castilian, too—albeit with different accents and other regionalisms. And not every speaker of Castilian has the same level of literacy or access to standard speech, and even the most refined speakers use informal as well as formal registers. 

In Spanish, the term “Castilian” is used to distinguish this language from the other languages of Spain like Catalan, Galician and Basque. To say “español” or “Spanish” is to refer to Castilian as a national language; and to say “castellano” or “Castilian” is to refer to it in the multilingual and multicultural context of the Iberian Peninsula. In some parts of South America, the term “castellano, as opposed to “español,” is commonly used, in part because after Independence the term “Spanish” smacked of empire.

My student’s experience receiving both admiration and animosity because of her facility in standard South American Spanish resonated with me because of the questions I am asked when people learn about my background, including that I am a Spanish professor.

“Do you speak pure Castilian?” “Do you make your students speak Castilian?” “Do you teach Castilian, or just Mexican Spanish?” 

I am also told that if I know Castilian, I will not understand Spanish as spoken outside the region of Castile. Questions and comments like these stem in part from curiosity and enthusiasm. They can also be informed by racism or prejudice and most interestingly by ressentimentwhether directed at Spain, the former imperial power, or at its colonial subjects, including the inhabitants of the borderlands we seized from Mexico. The awe “pure Castilian” inspires is a colonial reflection, referring to both tongue and blood.

This awe is also a result of the obsession with correct speech. Castilian emerged in the thirteenth century as the government and academic language of the Crown of Castile. Of course informal speech, non-standard grammar, and slang existed then as well, but those who consider “pure Castilian” desirable, difficult, and prestigious do so because of its association with the Crown, the colonizing power, and the higher speech registers. Others consider it stuffy and oppressive for the same reasons. Both may malign “Mexican Spanish” as illiterate even though Mexico, the largest Spanish-speaking country, has major publishing houses, has world-class universities, and has a Nobel Prize in Literature. Here we see how closely our colonial imagination associates “correct” speech with European roots and with whiteness. “He spoke pure Castilian.” “She was of pure Castilian lineage.”

Coinciding in 1492, the year the Spanish Empire took shape, are not only Columbus’s landfall in the Caribbean, the defeat of the Moors in Granada, and the expulsion of the Jews, but also the publication of the first Castilian grammar book, Gramática de la lengua castellana. Author Antonio de Nebrija, in his dedication to Princess Isabel, says that “language has always accompanied empire” and that they both flourish and fall together. Nebrija was interested in an imperial language that would be intelligible across the globe and inclusive of new speakers. The issues of inclusivity and identity came up again with Spanish American Independence, when scholars like Andrés Bello were concerned to preserve broad intelligibility while also respecting language variation within the Americas and importantly, cultural difference from Spain. We can see similar impulses in the debates and initiatives of the current Real Academia de la Lengua. And from very early on, to “speak Castilian”or “Christianhas not meant to speak in a stiff or recondite way but to speak plainly, with words that are commonly understood.

Nebrija, with his interest in inclusivity and intelligibility, was less judgmental than our interlocutors today who admire “pure Castilian” and who condemn “Mexican” and other varieties of Spanish.  The “Castilian” some English speakers wrongly believe and wrongly say is especially difficult, does have certain features of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.  But these are only minor variations, and to speak in this style does not make a speaker better or worse.

In the interest of pan-Hispanism—the movement to unite Spanish-speaking countries, whose roots go back as far as Bolívar—the Argentine Academy of Letters has recently decided to recommend the use of the term “Spanish” instead of “Castilian,” and this is in a country where castellano has long been the term used to refer to the national language. “Castilian,” it is argued, is at this point an archaic reference, leading us back to the source, whereas “Spanish” is the inclusive term, the language Castilian has become. And there are other Spanishes, including historical ones like Ladino and Adaeseño and lesser-known regional ones like Asturian. Dialectical variation in Spanish America is similarly rich, although speakers share an enormous common core. There is a great deal to enjoy, if one is willing to drop ill-informed prejudice.

The author wishes to thank Richard Winters (University of Louisiana) and Jonathan Mayhew (University of Kansas) for their suggestions on this piece.

Leslie Bary teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Trained in Comparative Literature, she studies modern Spanish American and Brazilian Literature.

Art by Michelle Huang. Michelle read this piece and designed an original painting for Conceptions Review. “I conceptualized the evolving nature and inclusivity of ‘Spanish’ as two mouthpieces interacting from both sides of the painting, contrasted with the arbitrary imagining of ‘Castilian’ as a harsh split in colors.” Michelle is an artist from Sugar Land, Texas, now based out of New York, New York. She specializes in oil painting, known for her expressionist style in both figurative and abstract work. Her website is

Launched in March 2021, Conceptions Review is interested in the ideas people have about society and the consequences of these ideas. We seek accessible and standalone articles about conception-bending ideas and popular misconceptions. We are open to fields ranging from musicology to history to mathematics to insectology and everything in between.