Galicians in Spain

Historical Background
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Peak Years


The Galician language conflict is a centuries-long competition between a dominant (Castilian Spanish) and a non-dominant (Galician) language. Galicia went through its ‘golden age’ at the very beginnings of Spanish history, before experiencing a millennia long decline until Galician was relegated to use in the home [Beswick, 2007: 58-59; D’Emilio, 2015: 362-64, 430]. Through the 19th century Rexurdimento (‘Resurrection’) and 20th century Irmandades de Fala (‘Brotherhood of Speech’) and Xeración Nós (‘The Generation of Us’)a burgeoning culture arose around the language, including newspapers and literature that promoted usage of Galician and its preservation [Beswick, 2007: 63-65, 67-68]. The destruction during, and oppression after, the Spanish Civil War reversed decades of Galician cultural progress. This reversal, however, proved to be relatively brief, as the 1981 Statute of Autonomy of Galicia, coupled with future acts to normalize and strengthen the protections granted by the national government to the now autonomous community, finally cemented the position of this regional language after centuries of unease, oppression, and loss [Share, 1986: 557; Xunta de Galicia, 2009; D’Emilio, 2015: 915].  

Today, the Galician language is diminished and endangered by the region’s dependence on the Spanish state, and a large monolingual Castilian population living in Galician cities, many of whose identity is now equal parts Spanish and Galician. Economically, Galicia’s development trails that of the Basque Country and Catalonia, two of the most prosperous regions in Spain, partly on account of its remote location and rural history, and so has struggled to keep up with these other regions in the protection and promotion of their language and culture. Although neofalantes, new speakers of Galician, have taken up the language and efforts such as Radio Galicia and inclusion of Galician in the education system have been implemented, Galicia has not seen the same magnitude of development and promotion of its language as have other autonomous language communities within the Spanish state [O’Rourke & Ramallo, 2015 pg. 148; O’Rourke, 2018; CRTVG, n.d.]. Still, Galician linguistic development has continued despite setbacks such as the difficulty they’ve had in encouraging its use among the younger generation. The language conflict in Galicia, therefore, centers on the struggle for the revival and maintenance of a language that, over the centuries, had suffered decay in a rural region with high outmigration.  

Historical Background

Over the centuries, Galicia has evolved from a patchwork of kingdoms into an autonomous kingdom of Spain. Prior to the Reconquista, Galicia was not culturally Latin; it was Visigoth and Celtic, which is seen in the traditions, folklore, and history of the region [D’Emilio, 2015; Silva, 2015; Warf & Ferras, 2015: 259-260]. Galicia was founded in 409, became part of the Visigoth Kingdom in 585, and was then united under the Kingdom of Asturias (a Christianized Visigothic entity) in the 8th century [Phillips, W.D. & Phillips, C.R., 2010]. This was a prominent starting point for the Reconquista: Pelayo, who formed the Kingdom of Asturias in an effort against the Moorish invaders of Al-Andalus, originated in the Cantabrian Mountains that span through Galicia, and was, according to Phillips and Phillips, “The first leader of Christian resistance to the Muslim conquest” [2010: 56]. However, Galicia’s early prominence was undercut by the greater and later success of Portugal and the rest of Spain[Keating, 2001: 226]. 

Galicia and Portugal were effectively a single region prior until the end of the 11th century [Warf & Ferras, 2015: 260]. By the end of the 12th century, the histories of Galicia and Portugal had thoroughly separated, and this separation would prove permanent [D’Emilio, 2015: 362-364; Warf & Ferras, 2015: 260]. In 1230, the Kingdom of Leon became united with the Crown of Castile and, from this point, Galicia began to suffer a long cultural and regional decline [D’Emilio, 2015: 364]. This was due in part to Galicia’s distance from the more influential eastern half of Spain, the domination of the western coast by Portuguese ports, and the rise of Castile as the flourishing center of the nation [Keating, 2001: 226; Newcomb, 2017: 72-73; Screti, 2018; Consello da Cultura Galega, n.d.]. Galicia’s language and culture became associated with the countryside and everyday speech while Castilian became primary language of the region. 

The Rexurdimento – a renaissance of Galician culture, literature, and language – began in 1863, and attempted to combat the decline of Galician. Throughout the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, efforts were established to slow the decline of the language. The freedoms imparted by the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) allowed Galician to become a co-official language of the region, along with Castilian, while the proliferation of groups such as the Irmandades da Fala (Brotherhood of Speech) and the Xeración Nós (“We Generation”) continued the work of the Rexurdimento by publishing Galician magazines and other literary works [Screti, 2018]. However, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the installation of the fascist Francoist government ended this growth via official restrictions on the use of any languages other than Castilian. 

Following the fall of the Francoist regime, the 1978 Spanish Constitution allowed for the creation of autonomous zones, leading to the 1981 Statute of Autonomy of Galicia. This statute once again grants Galician co-official language status and has led to a revitalization of the language and culture that continues today. While this has been a success, younger generations are increasingly choosing Castilian as their first language in hopes of finding better job prospects, leading to renewed tensions over the language's future.  


Galicia: The Seventh Celtic Nation?

a proposed flag of the Celtic nations
This is a flag that was proposed for the Celtic Nations. From top left, clockwise, are parts of the flags of Galicia [at 10 o’clock]; Ireland (Eire) [12 noon]; Scotland (Alba) [2 o’clock]; Cornwall (Kernow) [3-4 o’clock]; Isle of Man/Mann (Mannin/Ellan Vannin) [5-6 o’clock]; Wales (Cymru) [6-7 o’clock], and Brittany (Breizh) [8-9 o’clock]. The proposed inclusion of Galicia into the “Celtic Nations” is controversial, especially taking into account that Galician is a Romance language, and no Celtic language has been spoken in the region since the Middle Ages. Officially, Galicia is not included in the Celtic Nations, but there are many who, due to the culture of the region and the traditions, regard it as such. 

Galicia’s cultural heritage has a complex relationship to its linguistic heritage. Although Galician is a Romance language closely related to Latin, the language, as well as its culture, retains elements of Celtic mythos and linguistics [Herbert, 2014]. The name Galicia itself comes from the Gallaeci, a Roman-era Celtic tribe that inhabited northwestern Spain. However, as Celtic historian Peter Beresford Ellis states in an interview with Transceltic in 2013: “Celtic is a linguistic term; a Celt is one who speaks or was known to have spoken within modern historical times a Celtic language. That is central.” [McIntyre, 2013]. Because extant languages were significant criteria for entry, Galicia was denied entry to the Celtic Nations, despite both a revival of recognition of Celtic identity in the post-Franco period and an interest in the region’s Celtic roots [Mcintrye, 2013]. However, there is increased recognition that Galicia is a seventh Celtic nation, and that many of their traditions—bagpipes in traditional music; druids, spirits, and witches in folklore; and the focus on the natural world, to name a few—are reflections of a Celtic-rooted past [Silva, 2015].  

Camino do Santiago (Way of St. James)

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is an important pilgrimage site in Galicia. It is the reputed burial place of Saint James the Great, the apostle of Jesus Christ, and is one of the only three remaining churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus, 
Image Citation: stephenD [CC BY-SA (], 

The story of Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, originates in the 9th century. The story explains that the body of St. James of Compostela was buried in Galicia by his disciples after his death in the 1st century. After this tomb was rediscovered in 814, King Alfonso II ordered a small chapel be built to draw pilgrims to the land and to rival other major holy sites [Phillips, W.D. & Phillips, C.R., 2011: 58-59; D’Emilio, 2015: 7-10]. The pilgrims' journey to this chapel, Santiago de Compostela, opened Galicia to the rest of the Europe, bringing the Asturian and, later, Leonese, monarchies into contact with the outside world. 

Construction of the present-day cathedral began in 1075 and the importance of the structure as a holy site fueled pilgrimages from all around Europe. During the 12th and 13th centuries, it is estimated that 250,000 pilgrims visited the site annually [Camino Ways, n.d.].  However, the Reformation and the religious wars of the 14th and 15th centuries led to a decline in the number of pilgrims, and travelers did not return to the Camino de Santiago in the same numbers until the 1900s [Phillips, W.D. & Phillips, C.R., 2011: 58; Varela, 2020].  Today, the Camino de Santiago has multiple routes throughout Western Europe and the Iberian Peninsula that are popular with hikers. The existence and upkeep of the paths reflects the popularity and importance of this destination, both economically and culturally, for Galicia [Camino Ways, n.d.]. This most recent revival of the pilgrimage tradition began in the 1980s and 1990s, and, in 2018, 327,000 individuals received their Compostela (a certificate of completion) from their travels [Varela, 2020].  

Compare Language Similarities

Language name
Español, Castellano
Spanish, Castilian
Lexical properties
Western Romance
Western Romance
West Iberian
West Iberian
Loanword Sources
French, Occitan, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian
Latin, Germanic, Celtic, Spanish, Andalusian Arabic
Phonological properties
Special Features
Syllable Types
Any of last 3 syllables; lexical acute accent
Any of last 3 syllables; lexical acute accent
Morphosyntactic properties
Word Order
Word Formation
Orthographic properties
Characters/Special Characters
27 (total) / 1
27 (total) / 1

Linguistic Background

1. Genealogy/Relatedness 


Galician (Galego) is a Romance language in the Western Ibero-Romance branch and derives from Latin. It is the official language in Galicia, and is also spoken in the neighboring autonomous communities of Asturias and Castile and León, near their borders with Galicia. 

a map showing the parts of Spain in which Galician is spoken
Image “Map of Galician speaking areas” (2008) by Susana Freixeiro  adapted from 


The Galician language, unlike Catalan, did not develop as a variant of Spanish. Initially, Galician and Portuguese were a single language prior to the severance of Portugal from Galicia at the end of the 11th century [Warf & Ferras, 2015: 260]. In many books of medieval verse they were considered as, and are still known today, as Galician-Portuguese. By the end of the 12th century, the histories of Galicia and Portugal had thoroughly separated [D’Emilio, 2015: 362-364; Warf & Ferras, 2015: 260]. 

2. Phonetics/Phonology 


Galician includes seven vowel phonemes /a ɛ e i ɔ o u/ similar to Catalan and Italian [Regueira, 1996], and 19 consonants, whereas Spanish includes five vowels /i, u, e, o, a/ and 20 consonants [Martínez Celdrán et al., 2003]. 


3. Morphology and Grammar 


In Galician, like Spanish, all articles, adjectives, nouns and pronouns are classified according to their gender as masculine or feminine, and according to their number as singular or plural. There are formal and informal forms of pronouns: the informal ti (second person singular) and vós (second person plural), and the formal vostede (second person singular) and vostedes (second person plural). Galician verbs are comprised of a stem, a stem-vowel and endings that correspond to mood-tense and number-person. Galician syntax is typical of southern Romance languages, and the canonical word order is subject-verb-object (SVO) [Freixeiro & Ramón, 2006]. 


4. Lexicon and Vocabulary 


The Galician lexicon includes many words of Germanic origin, which were introduced into the language during the late antiquity, either as words that were borrowed into Vulgar Latin from elsewhere, or as words brought by the Suebi who settled in Galicia in the 5th century, or by the Visigoths who annexed the Suebic Kingdom in 585. Many other words were introduced into Galician during the Middle Ages from French and Occitan languages, as these cultures had a significant influence in Galicia during the 12th and 13th centuries. More recently other words were borrowed either from English or other Germanic languages or from Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or French. Most of this borrowed vocabulary in Galician is shared with Portuguese, although some spelling and phonetic differences are present [Ferreiro, 2001; Kremer, 2004]. 


5. Orthography/Writing System 


The Galician alphabet includes 23 letters and six digraphs (ch, gu, ll, nh, qu, rr). There are also a group of letters (j, k, w, and y) that are only used in foreign loan words. 

The modern official Galician orthography is based on the Orthographic and Morphological Norms of the Galician Language (1982), introduced by the Royal Galician Academy [Orthographic and Morphological Norms of the Galician Language, 2012]. In 2003, the Royal Galician Academy modified the language norms to promote some Galician-Portuguese forms that occur in modern Portuguese, hence supporting the reintegrationist perspective (which is a view that considers Galician to be a variant of Galician-Portuguese, as evidenced by the common origin, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, morphology and overall high level of mutual intelligibility). Today, that modified orthography is used by the government, majority of the media, cultural production and education. 


6. Discourse/Sociolinguistic Factors/Influences on Development/History 

The linguistic history of the Galician language is rooted in its borders and its relationship with Castile and Portugal. Prior to the 8th century, the region was inhabited by Celtic peoples who spoke what are now-extinct Celtic languages. However, only a few lexical traces of this previous group remain in the modern Romance language Galician. Traces of Celtic influence are restricted to folklore, some individual vocabulary items, and some regional traditions.  As speakers of Romance languages (i.e. linguistic descendants of Latin speakers) migrated into this region, Galician-Portuguese, the precursor language for Galician, began to develop.  

Galician-Portuguese remained a single language until the division of the territory in the 11th century. While Galician is widely associated today with rural parts of Galicia, it was historically connected more with the higher classes and the literary arts; Alfonso X of Leon wrote his court documents in Castilian, but he wrote his poetry in Galician-Portuguese [D’Emilio, 2015: 64; Rodriguez, 2017]. Many of the troubadours of the period, most of them outside of the regions that form modern Galicia and Portugal, also used the language in their art.  

After the 13th and 14th centuries, Galician went into decline. As Castilian Spanish became the language of court and official matters, Galician became the language of the countryside [Keating, 2001: 227; Fernández Rei, 2019: 440]. There was, and still is, some resistance to this decline, with efforts on the part of both the local educational establishment and local government to promote its use, as demonstrated in the rise of institutions such as the Royal Galician Academy and Radio Galega. Even in its own region, however, the position of Galician remains somewhat precarious. The rise of Spanish-Galician bilingualism and and the influx of monolingual Spanish speakers into Galicia proper has led to a decline in individuals who claim Galician as their first language [O’Rourke & Ramillo, 2015: 148-150; Fernández Rei, 2019: 441, 447-448]. 

There are today two dominant linguistic positions taken with respect to the Galician language: the isolationist view and the reintegrationist view. Isolationists consider Galician and Portuguese to be two distinct languages, although closely related. Those holding this position seeks to maintain different sets of writing and spelling rules for Galician and Portuguese, adhering more closely to traditional Spanish orthography combined with traditional Galician orthographic conventions. This is the position taken by the majority of the Galician public and the local government and its institutions, including Royal Galician Academy and the Institute for Galician Language [Minahan, 2000; Venâncio, 2006]. 

Reintegrationists consider Galician to be a variant of Galician-Portuguese, as evidenced by their common origins, grammatical features, vocabulary, morphology and mutual intelligibility. Those having this view of Galician-Portuguese support the use of orthographic conventions that are most similar to Portuguese. This view is supported by the Galician Association of the Language, Galician Academy of the Portuguese Language, Brazilian Academy of Letters, Lisbon Academy of Sciences, along with a number of other civic and cultural associations both in Galicia and in Portuguese-speaking countries. Supporters of the reintegrationist view hold that modern Portuguese originated in what is today Galicia, and therefore are in favor of stronger cultural and economic ties between Galician and Portuguese-speaking regions using a single language that is shared by both [Minahan, 2000; Venâncio, 2006]. 


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Images, in order of appearance

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Posted:  30 July 2021

Previous versions:  Feb 2020

Contributing Analysts:  Will Stallings

Editors: Gareth Rees-White, Elena Galkina