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KNOWLEDGE MARCH 24, 2020

Did Portuguese or Spanish languages exist at the time of Muslim conquest?

That’s a tricky question since Portugal and Spain did not exist as separate entities in 711. The Balearic Islands were still part of the Byzantine Empire (yes, Byzantine, with Constantinople as its capital). At that time, the whole of the Iberian Peninsula was united under a Visigoth kingdom and the population spoke a vulgar version of Latin. None of the imports from Arabic (mostly place names, utensils used in trades, mathematics and foods that the Muslims would bring from the East) had come into the Portuguese and Spanish languages.

No, not exactly. Portuguese Spanish didn’t become the dominant language of Spain until the Moors were almost on their way out; very late in the game. Spanish was once known as Castilianwhich took its name after the Kingdom of Castille, one of the main kingdoms fighting in the Reconquista. In fact, Spanish is known in some Hispanic countries today as Castellano, reflecting its origins in Castille.

As you can see on the map above (c. 1200), Castille was only one of many kingdoms in Iberia. Often each kingdom or state having its own language. Castilian had the most influence in the Christian kingdoms of the north fighting the Moors but there were also the Portuguese, Leonese, Aragonese, Catalan, and the Asturian languages which are all also romance languages and closely related– but distinct from Castilian (Spanish).

However, by the time the Moors had arrived in the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, there were already descendants of Latin-speaking peoples in the area. The Moors, when they arrived, simply called the range of closely-related vulgar Latin dialects as “Latin”. As one might expect, Moorish administration officially used Arabic for all governing purposes. Typically, only Muslims or those involved with the government would be able speak Arabic. Today this is known as Andalusian Arabic and it only truly died out in the 1600s with the final expulsion of Moorish Christian converts who kept Arabic as their main language.

What most people in Islamic Spain used as a lingua franca was based on what the original Christian population already spoke: vulgar Latin. The dialects of vulgar Latin in Spain were grouped together by the Moors into a romance language known as Mozarabic. Mozarabic wasn’t exactly a singlular language but a group of dialects and in addition to that, it was informal speech and not frequently written down. When it was written, it would usually be written in Arabic script but it was also sometimes written in the Latin alphabet or even in the Hebrew script which goes to show you how versatile this romance language was for the religiously diverse population of Islamic Spain. If you’d like to listen to what it probably sounded like, here is a video example:

Overall, Mozarabic was the lingua franca of Moorish Spain while administrative language was Arabic/Andalusian Arabic. When the Christian kingdoms gained more territory, Mozarabic would tend to gradually blend in with Spanish or other languages of the Christian kingdoms until the end of the Reconquista when it was fully assimilated into Spanish.