Spanish is an IberianRomance language, and the third or fourth most spoken language on the planet. It is spoken as a first language by about 352 million people, or by 417 million including non-native speakers (according to 1999 estimates). The majority of Spanish speakers live in Latin America.
With close to 100 million first-language speakers, Mexico boasts the largest population of Spanish-speakers in the world. The four next largest populations reside in Colombia (42 million), Argentina (39 million), Spain (c. 34 million) and the United States of America (c. 30 million).
In the United States, which has no officially recognized national language, Spanish is spoken by some three-quarters of its over 40 million Hispanic population. On a federal level it shares a privileged position along with the more dominant English. On a statal level, however, Spanish does hold co-official status in various states.
There are important variations in dialect among the various regions of Spain and Spanish-speaking America. In Spain the North Castilian dialect pronunciation is commonly taken as the national standard (although the characteristic weak pronouns usage or laismo of this dialect is deprecated).
Spanish has three second person singular pronouns Tú, Usted and in Latin America Vos. Tú is informal (for example, used with friends) and Usted is formal (for example, used with older people).
Vos is used in various regions of Latin America, and its use, depending on region, can be considered the accepted standard or reproached as sub-standard and considered as speech of the uneducated. The interpersonal situations where the employment of Vos is acceptable also differs between regions.
Many people think that Spanish is regulated by the RAE (Real Academia Española;). Actually, languages cannot be regulated, but RAE, in association with twenty-one other national language academies, exercises a conservative influence through its publication of dictionaries and widely respected grammar guides and style guides.
The initial /f/, that had evolved into a vacillating /h/, was lost in most words (although this etymological h- has been preserved in spelling)
The voiced labiodental fricative /v/ (that was written 'u' or 'v') merged with the bilabial oclusive /b/ (written 'b'). Contemporary Spanish written 'b,v' do not correspond to different phonemes.
The voiced alveolar fricative /z/ (that was written 's' between vowels) merged with the voiceless /s/ (that was written 's', or 'ss' between vowels), now written 's' everywhere.
Voiced alveolar affricate /dz/ (that was written 'z') merged with the voiceless /ts/ (that was written 'ç,ce,ci'), and then /ts/ evolved into the interdental /T/, now written 'z,ce,ci'. But in Andalucia, the Canary Islands and the Americas these sounds merged with /s/ as well. Notice that the 'ç' or 'cedilla' was in its origin a Spanish letter.
The voiced postalveolar fricative /Z/ (that was written 'j,ge,gi') merged with the voiceless /S/ (that was written 'x', as in 'Quixote'), and then /S/ evolved by the 17th century into the modern velar sound /x/, now written 'j,ge,gi'.
The consonantal system of Medieval Spanish has been better preserved in Judaeo-Spanish, the language spoken by the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century.
Spanish has a phonemicstress system — the place where stress will fall cannot be predicted by other features of the word, and two words can differ by just a change in stress. For example, the word camino (with penultimate stress) means "I walk" or "road" whereas caminó (with final stress) means "he/she/it walked". Also, since Spanish pronounces all syllables at a more or less constant tempo, it is said to be a syllable-timed language.
Spanish is written using the Latin alphabet, with a few special letters: the vowels can be marked with an acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú) to mark stress when it doesn't follow the normal pattern or to differentiate otherwise equally spelt words (see below), diaeresis u (ü) after g to indicate a [gw] or [gu] pronunciation, and n with tilde (ñ) to indicate the palatal nasal [J]. Traditionally, the digraphs ch, ll and rr were considered separate letters, but this is no longer the case.
Written Spanish precedes exclamatory and interrogative clauses with inverted question and exclamation marks, examples: ¿Qu;é dices? (What do you mean?) ¡No; es verdad! (That's not true!).
It is one of the few languages whose written form does so.
Written Spanish also marks unequivocally stress though a series of orthographic rules. The default stress is on the final syllable when the word ends in any consonant other than "n" or "s" and on the penultimate (next-to-last) syllable on words that end in a vowel, "n" or "s". Words that don't follow the default stress have an acute accent over the stressed vowel.
A word with final stress is called aguda; a word with penultimate stress is called llana or grave; a word with antepenultimate stress (stress on the third last syllable) is called esdrújula; and a word with preantepenultimate stress (on the fourth last syllable) or earlier is called sobresdrújula in which case there is a secondary stress towards the end of the word. All esdrújula and sobresdrújula words have written accent marks.
Also, in a number of cases, homonyms are distinguished with written accents on the stressed (or only) syllable: for example, te (object case of "you") and té ("tea"); se (third person reflexive) and sé ("I know" or imperative "Be"); como ("like" or "I eat") and cómo ("how?").
These rules are similar but not the same as those of Portuguese and Catalan languages.
The Spanish orthography makes it that every speaker can guess the pronunciation (adapted for accent) from the written form.
While the same pronunciation could be misspelt in several ways (there are homophones, because of silent h's, vacilations between b and v and among c/z/s), the orthography is more coherent than, say, English orthography.
In spite of that, there have been several initiatives to reform the spelling: Andrés Bello succeded in making his proposal official in several South American countries, but they later returned to the RAE standard.
Another initiative, the O.RR.L.I, remained a curiosity.
Gabriel García Márquez raised the issue of reform during a congress at Zacatecas, but, with all his prestige, he got attention but nothing going.
The Academies however from time to time change several tidbits.
Spanish is nicknamed la lengua de Cervantes (the language of Cervantes, the author of the Quixote).