1. The Land of the Rabbits
THREE MILLENNIA AGO, WHEN ROME was still a swamp and Athens was barely strong enough to take on Troy, the Mediterranean world belonged to the Phoenicians, a civilization of master seafarers from the Middle East. Renowned for their mercantile prowess, the Phoenicians drummed up business as far north as Britain and Scandinavia and built trading ports all along the shores of North Africa.
It was during one of these construction phases, around 1200 BC, that the Phoenicians landed on the Iberian Peninsula.
The Phoenicians started settling the peninsula only around 800 BC. At the time, it was a sparsely populated land of dense forests and open plains teeming with wild boars, deer, wolves, and bears. Among the many novelties the Phoenicians discovered, one small mammal caught their attention. It was similar to a furry, tailless Middle Eastern creature with round ears that they called a hyrax, except this version had long ears and long legs, and multiplied at an astonishing pace.
The Phoenicians were evidently much impressed by these prolific little mammals. They named their new territory after them: I-shepan-ha, literally “land of hyraxes.” Centuries later, the Romans Latinized this name to Hispania. And centuries after that, the name morphed into España.
In other words, Spain’s names originally meant something like “land of the rabbits.”
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But the Iberian Peninsula had a long history of settlement long before the Phoenicians arrived. To get an idea of its historical layers, we traveled to the city of Burgos, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Castile and León, in northern Spain. Located in the valley of the río Arlanzón, Burgos is still dominated by the old castillo (castle) built there twelve hundred years ago to defend settlers fleeing marauding Moors. But there had been people living around Burgos literally a million years before that.
From the ramparts of Burgos’s Castillo, on top of the hill of San Miguel, we gazed down on a dense maze of tile roofs, a view dominated by the city’s splendid Gothic cathedral. In the middle of the town is an enormous, futuristic glass structure, the Museo de la Evolución Humana (Museum of Human Evolution), which houses the finds of impressive archaeological digs carried out about ten miles from Burgos. One site, known as Atapuerca, produced some of the most impressive discoveries in European archaeology in the last thirty years.
Some of these discoveries forced historians to rewrite the story of the dawn of humanity. The oldest bones from Atapuerca are those of a man who died 1.2 million years ago. Previously, no one believed that humanity’s ancestors had left Africa that early. Although archaeologists disagree about where the remnants fit in the evolutionary chain, their discovery indisputably makes Spain the European cradle of mankind. In addition to the 1.2-million-year-old Homo antecessor, archaeologists in the Burgos area found some Neanderthal remains dating from 60,000 BC, which would make them among the last of their kind. Recent dating of cave art in northern Spain has shown that it is ten thousand years older than similar finds in France.
They say that history is written by the conquerors, but this wasn’t the case for the Phoenicians. That is probably because, although they settled in the southern Iberian Peninsula for eight hundred years, the Phoenicians never managed to pass their language on to its inhabitants.
The Romans, who landed on the Iberian Peninsula in the third century BC were the first to write down anything about the people who lived there. They recorded observations about the three principal ethnic groups they encountered: the Basques, the Iberians, and the Celts, none of whom had written anything about themselves beyond the names of their dead on gravestones.
Yet some of the words from the languages of pre-Roman Spain did find their way into modern Spanish.
The Basque language is believed to have evolved from a language used in Neolithic times. Today’s Basque territory straddles the border of France and Spain, yet Spain has so many place names of Basque origin that historians believe that the Basques might once have occupied up to a third of the Iberian Peninsula. Among the civilizations the Romans conquered in Hispania, the Basques alone refused to give up their language. That language, Euskera, is still spoken today in both France and Spain, although it has been heavily influenced by Latin over the centuries.
Curiously, the Basques got their own name from the Celts, a tribe that migrated to the Iberian Peninsula around 2000 BC, and dubbed them Vascos, their name in Spanish to this day. The Celts spoke a group of related tongues similar to those spoken by the Celtic populations farther north, in France and Britain. These Celtic languages themselves originated in the same tongue that spawned Latin, a language linguists call Indo-European, spoken about eight thousand years ago in Turkey. Indo-European spawned Greek, Germanic, Celtic, and Sanskrit (a language of India), which all share some common vocabulary, like papa and mama.
In the southern part of the peninsula, the Romans discovered another tribe, called the Iberians. Again, the name came from a Celtic word bier, which meant river. Bier eventually morphed into Ebro, the name of Spain’s main river. The Celts labeled the people living across the Ebro from them the Iberians, which just meant “the Riverians.”
The Iberians, who were probably related to the Berbers in North Africa and had been on the peninsula for several thousand years before the Romans arrived, were the only native population in Iberia who had a written language. Unfortunately, almost no traces of the Iberian language survive and almost nothing is known about it, not even the name Iberians called themselves before the Celts named them.
In between the Iberians and Celts, the Romans discovered another group. The Romans seem to have run out of names by the time they discovered this people and just called them the Celtiberians.
Although most of what we know about these ancient civilizations comes from what the Romans wrote about them, the Romans didn’t have much to say. This was a stark contrast to Gaul, where Julius Caesar wrote extensively about the Celtic civilization he conquered. Roman generals never recorded more than a few details about the people of the Iberian Peninsula, not to mention their languages. To decode Iberia’s languages, historians have had to work from broken plates and tombstone engravings—not the most reliable sources, since ancient engravers wrote phonetically in ill-defined writing systems.
Nevertheless, many words from Iberia’s original civilizations survived the centuries and are still part of modern Spanish. Galápago (turtle), silo, puerco (pig), toro (bull), álamo (poplar), and salmón (salmon) come from pre-Roman languages. Almost all the ancient words that made it into modern Spanish relate to material and agricultural life. Barro (mud), charco (puddle), manteca (fat, butter), and perro (dog) come from Celtic words, as do camisa (shirt), cabaña (shed), carro (cart), cerveza (beer), cama (bed), and camino (road).
The Basque language, Euskera, gave Spanish izquierdo (left). Basque probably contributed the rolled rr of Spanish: pizarra (slate), chaparro (oak), zamarra (sheepskin jacket), narria (flatbed truck), cencerro (cowbell), and gabarra (barge). All have a Basque origin.
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But the story of Spanish really starts with Rome. The language the Romans brought to Hispania would survive other conquering empires as it evolved into a modern tongue. It would one day travel across the globe where it would grow to become the world’s third language, spoken by five hundred million people in two dozen countries. It’s amazing, then, to think that the Romans didn’t really want to be on the Iberian Peninsula in the first place. The main reason they went was to defeat their rivals at the time—the Carthaginians, a powerful Phoenician colony based in today’s Tunisia, which had grown to control the Mediterranean Sea by that time.
The Carthaginians were the catalyst that set the history of the Spanish language history into motion. In the third century BC, the Romans ran up against the Carthaginians while they were trying to consolidate their land power over the Italian peninsula. That sparked the First Punic War of 264–241 BC. The Second Punic War started a generation later, in 218 BC, when the Carthaginian prince Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees and the Alps with thirty-eight thousand men, eight thousand horses, and thirty-seven war elephants and attacked the Italian peninsula. While the elephants did not last long, Hannibal was a military genius who defeated one Roman army after the next. But when the Romans figured out that Hannibal was using the Iberian Peninsula as a base to rebuild his troops, they headed there and drove him back to Africa, in 201 BC.
The Romans established the province of Hispania in 197 BC. Hispania was their first overseas colony. (Rome had not yet conquered the land passage, which was the future province of Gaul.) By comparison, Gaul became a part of the empire 150 years later, and Dacia (the future Romania) 150 years after that. Though linguists debate the real effects of this on modern Spanish, one thing is certain: the Latin spoken in Hispania contained words that had actually disappeared in Rome by the time Rome started conquering its other territories. Relative to the other languages that grew out of Latin, Spanish, therefore, contains many words linguists label archaisms.
The Latin word cansar (to tire) was still being used when Rome began settling Hispania but disappeared 150 years later, when Caesar conquered Gaul. Spanish (and Portuguese) are the only Romance languages whose verb for “to tire” resembles cansar. The Spanish word cuyo (of which, of whose) comes from a Latin word that slipped into Spanish with an identical form and meaning but was gone by the end of the first century BC in Rome, so no other Romance language acquired it. The Spanish word además (above all), from the Latin demais, had also disappeared from Latin by then. At the time of the conquest of Hispania, querer meant “to wish.” The meaning later changed to “to seek.” The Roman poet Terence, who wrote in second century BC, uses querer in the sense of to wish, a sense it still has in Spanish, whereas the French quérir means to seek. Other words in Spanish, such as arena (sand), uva (grape), ciego (blind), and queso (cheese), descend directly from this older version of street Latin that never took root in France or Romania.
The Spanish words hablar (to speak) and preguntar (to ask) also have their roots in this Vulgar Latin spoken when Hispania was conquered. They come from fabulari and percontari (in Rome, these would later change to loqui and postulare). And Spaniards say mas (more) instead of plus or più like the French and the Italians because the custom in 200 BC was still to say magis instead of plus.
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Aside from their battles with the Carthaginians, the Romans were also drawn to the Iberian Peninsula by its silver. They weren’t the first. Many empires had ventured onto the peninsula to conquer Tartessos, a kingdom located in a triangle between Seville, Cádiz, and Huelva. The Tartessians were the superstars of antiquity. By the time the Romans arrived there, they had been practicing intensive agriculture for some five thousand years and silver mining for two thousand years.
There are references to Tartessos in the works of the great Greek geographer Herodotus—not to mention in the Bible, where it is known as Tarsis—that describe its rich copper and silver mines and its bronze production. Much of Tartessos’s mining wealth came from an area on the river then known as Luxia. Because its water was red and had a very high pH level, the river would later be known as río Tinto (Red River). And this is the origin of the name of the world’s largest mining conglomerate, the Australo-British Rio Tinto plc, which got its start when it purchased the old Tartessian mines in 1873.
But silver or no silver, the Romans still had doubts about whether to stay in Hispania. They spoke of the peninsula as “outside” the civilized world.
Then when the Romans decided to conquer the interior of the peninsula, they got more than they had bargained for. As the Roman troops tried to subdue local inhabitants, the Iberians, Celts, and Celtiberians discovered a common penchant for guerrilla warfare and joined forces—a first. They launched surprise attacks by night, then blended into the scenery by day. The rigid structure of the Roman legion made it hard to win wars against these highly motivated rebels who had the home field advantage.
But if the Romans considered leaving Iberia to the rabbits, they changed their minds when they realized what would likely happen in their absence: the free Iberians would head north, join the Gauls, and throw a wrench in Rome’s expansion plans in Gaul. There were other advantages to staying. In addition to silver, gold, and copper, the Iberian Peninsula was rich in wine, olive oil, and wood, commodities that were all beginning to run short back in Rome.
So the Romans fought on, advancing west and north across the peninsula, conquering one village at a time. The Romans didn’t fully break the Iberians’ resistance until 19 BC, when, two centuries after arriving on the peninsula, they subdued Cantabria. But they never totally got hold of that territory, which would always remain a core area of resistance in Spain.
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For linguists, the great puzzle of the Roman conquest is how the Romans succeeded in doing what no one had done before them. The Phoenicians had controlled the Iberian Peninsula for eight hundred years, but beyond giving Hispania its name, they didn’t leave a linguistic trace. The Greeks had established two trading posts in Iberia around 500 BC, but again, their language disappeared with them.
The Romans managed to get the entire peninsula speaking Latin in about 250 years, even though they were fighting the Iberians the whole time.
How exactly did the Romans pull this off?
Not by force but by offering incentives. The Romans lured Iberians to Latin by tying it into the perks of city life, cities having always been their forte. As they advanced through Hispania, they built Augusta Emerita (Mérida), Hispalis (Seville), Italica (Itálica), Corduba (Córdoba), Toletum (Toledo), Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza), and Salmantica (Salamanca). The Romans connected these centers with splendid highways and linked the open cities of the sea to the closed villages of the mountains.
As they showcased the strengths of their civilization, the Romans conscripted the Iberian nobles to carry out the administrative work of running towns. Nobles were happy to do it, but there was one condition: they had to learn Latin. On the whole, the Iberian nobles complied. There were lots of advantages to learning Latin—notably, it improved communication with the Romans. Speaking Latin also boosted Iberians’ status among their own countrymen. The Romans oiled the gears of the whole machine by offering to help build more cities and roads, and write laws and regulations—in other words, by creating more jobs for Latin speakers.
In short, the enterprising Iberians, Celts, and Celtiberians resigned themselves to the idea that learning Latin was the best way to prosper.
The Romans later used the same formula to spread Latin in Gaul, which Julius Caesar conquered in 51 BC, with equal success. Yet in Roman Britannia, which the Romans finished conquering in AD 77, the inhabitants never switched to Latin. Britannia’s Celtic population was more uniform linguistically. In Gaul and Hispania, where the populations did not have the same level of linguistic uniformity, the Latin language and culture became common bonds that united diverse groups.
In Hispania, Latin gradually progressed from the language of the upwardly mobile class to a common tongue across the peninsula. Everything suggests that the Celtic languages had died by the time the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century AD. The pre-Roman languages survived only in isolated areas like the extreme northwest (Galicia), where the Celtic tongue lasted until the seventh century. The only exception was, of course, the Basque land. Yet linguists today estimate that roughly half the Basque language consists of borrowings from Latin.
As the Romans slowly conquered the Iberian Peninsula from east to west, Latin absorbed new vocabulary along the way. About thirty of these Hispanicisms survived and became modern Spanish words, many even became part of mainstream Latin and were incorporated into the tongues of territories Rome later conquered. Pliny the Younger, a Roman magistrate and prolific letter writer who left behind many details of Roman life, claims cuniculus (rabbit) originated in Hispania (in modern Spanish, it’s conejo). Other Latin words that probably originated in Hispania include lancea (in Spanish, lanza, in English, lance), plumbum (lead; hence plomo), and minium (a lead oxide). The Latin gladius (sword) came from an Iberian weapon that the Roman legions adopted as they fought their way through the countryside trying to subdue the rebellious Iberians.
By the close of the first millennium BC, Hispania was no longer a rebel territory of the Roman Empire. It was producing its own crop of thinkers and statesmen, including Seneca the Elder (54 BC–AD 39) and his son Seneca the Younger (4 BC–AD 65), the last great Stoic.
In the middle of the first century AD, Hispania even produced its first Roman emperor, Trajan (r. AD 98–117) and then Hadrian (r. 117–138), the first Roman emperor who spoke the bourgeoning “native Latin” of Hispania.
It was Hadrian’s language that would evolve into modern Spanish.
Copyright © 2013 by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow