Galician language: Galego

It’s the official language of Galicia: el galego. Written as Gallego with double ll in Spanish. Galego is a local Roman language and spoken by some 2,4 million people. That’s 70% of the inhabitants of Galicia.
The language is familiar to Portugese and many people experience the language as a mixture between Spanish and Portugese. Nevertheless, the Galician language originates back to the Middle Ages. Nowadays it’s all around in Galicia. It’s an official local language. For this reason you’ll see road signs in two languages, Spanish and Galego.

Origin of Galego

Galego is a Roman language. This means it comes from Latin. Other examples Roman languages are French, Spanish, Italian, Portugese, but also Catalan and Romanian. Many centuries ago those languages didn’t exist yet. There was a form of latin spoken by the people, and that language had different variants in the south of Europe. One of those variants was spoken in the northwestern part of the Iberian peninsula. This variant transformed to the early west-iberian language called Galician-Portugese. Around the year 600 this language was spoken in the Kingdom Galicia that roughly spread from Galicia to northern Portugal.

Galician language during the history

During the Middle Ages the power changed in the Iberian peninsula. The Castilians invaded Galicia and Portugal became a kingdom. This change in power influenced the development of the spoken and written languages. In Portugal the Galician-Portugese developed into Portugese, while Galicia was influenced by the Castilian (Spanish) speaking Castilians. And so the Galician language evolved. A new language was born. An own language, coming from the old Latin and influenced by Portugese and Spanish (Castilian).

The first Galician texts date from the 12th century. The are discovered in Latin scripts. From the 12th century on appear many writings in Galician. Between the 13th and 15th also songs appear. Suddenly, from the 16th century less Galician scripts have been preserved. It stays quiet for 2 centuries. In the 18th century there appear some Galician dictionaries. A clear sign the language is in use, probably mostly by voice. In the 19th century the language experiences a revival and appears in literature again.

In the 20th century, during the Franco regime, the Galician language experiences a low point. The language gets forbidden. Just like other local languages in Spain, like Catalan and the Basque language. Speaking, teaching and publishing in Galego was prohibited. Speaking the language was also forbidden, but difficult to monitor. Education and publication were strictly monitored, especially in the first years of the dictatorship.
After the Franco regime new opportunities arise for local languages. The Galician language is allowed again. Things change around the end of the 1970’s. Education in Galician is possible again, the language is visible again in the streets and you’ll hear it been spoken everywhere in Galicia. Since then, the usage of Galego has grown and also the knowledge of the language by the younger people in Galicia.

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A poster to promote the Galician language.
(Text: ‘More then ever, we want Galego’)

Official language

Galego is an official language and not accent. In 1978 the language is acknowledged and appointed as one of the five official regional languages of Spain. Those five languages are called ‘las lenguas españoles’, the Spanish languages.
In Spain Spanish (Castilian) is the only official language in the whole country. Besides Spanish there are four official regional languages: Basque in Basque Country and Navarra, Catalan in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, the Aranese language that’s been spoken by just 4000 people in the valley of Aran in Catalonia and to conclude the Galician langauge, el Galego in Galicia.

No discussion: Galego is a language and not an accent. However, this does not mean that people from Galicia don’t have an accent! Off course the have an accent when speaking Spanish. Wherever you are in Spain, the Spanish spoken sounds just a bit different everywhere. Just like the English language sounds different in the UK, United States and Australia. And even within these countries.

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Galician text in a typical Galian font

Use of the Galician language

When in Galicia, you definitely will hear Galego. Yet it’s not spoken everywhere and every time. About 70% of the inhabitants of Galicia knows to speak the language. The real use of Galego among it’s inhabitants varies.

  • 30% of people in Galicia always speaks Galego
  • 22% of people in Galicia speaks more often in Galician than in Spanish
  • 23% of people in Galicia speaks more often in Spanish than in Galego
  • 24% of people in Galicia always speaks Spanish

Curious about Galego? It sounds like this:

Just like on many places in the world the local language is more present in rural areas. This also counts for Galicia. In the biggest cities people often speak Spanish. The further you go down to small, remote villages, the greater the presence of the Galician language. Of the cities in Galicia the Galician language is most spoken in Santiago de Compostela. About 20% of the people of Galicia’s capital mostly speaks in Galego.

When in Galicia, you definitely get in touch with the Galician language. Road signs are bilingual, written in Spanish and Galego. This is required by the government (to protect the Spanish language). You will see this in Catalonia and Basque Country as well.
Galego is also present in the media. There’s a TV channel exclusively in Galician: Televisión de Galicia. The biggets newspaper of Galicia, La Voz de Galicia, is partly in Galego. The main articles are in Spanish but Galician is used in articles about culture and opinion. There are even articles that are bilingual. This happens when somebody’s interviewed and answers in Galego.

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Highway sign with Galician-Spanish bilingual text, near the airport of La Coruna. Galicia.
(Photo by Xurxo Lobato/Cover/Getty Images)

Almost everybody who speaks Galego also understands Spanish. Some times the differences between Galician and Spanish are small. See for example the road sign above: A Coruña (Galego) and La Coruña (Spanish). This also counts for the name of the language itself: Galego with a single l is in Galician, while Gallego with double ll is Spanish.

The Galician language also has it’s own holiday in Galicia: Día de las Letras Gallegas. This holiday is one of the biggest public holidays in Galicia. It’s celebrated yearly on May 17th. This date is chosen, because on this day in 1863 the first edition of ‘Galician Songs’ from the famous Galician writer and poet Rosalía de Castro got published.

My first encounter with Galego

One of my first encounters with the Galician language was at the University of Santiago de Compostela. When I had to choice my subjects I was told that classed could be given in Spanish and Galician. The choice of the language was up to the professor of the subject concerned. This made me to strategically choosing my subjects. Spanish was already very difficult for me in those days, let imagine another language as Galego!

Familiar words/sayings in Galego

Notable in Galego in comparison with Spanish is the usage of the X. Compare the words for ‘down’: abaixo vs abajo. You can see the difference, but also hear it.
Another difference between Spanish and Galego is the well known Spanish ñ. In Galego it’s written as ‘nh’ (compare: Espanha vs España). Clearly visible difference, but pronounced equally.

Opvallend aan het Galego ten opzicht van het Spaans zijn het gebruik van de X (abaixo vs abajo), dit hoor je ook daadwerkelijk. In de schrijfwijze gebruikt men in het Galego vaak nh waar het Spaans de ñ gebruikt (Espanha vs España). Dat betekent overigens niet dat de ñ (spreek uit: enje) niet voorkomt in het Galego, zie het onderste woord hieronder:

GalegoEspanolEnglish
MoitoMuchoMany
BenvidoBienvenidoWelcome
AdeusAdiosBye
ViaxarViajarTravel
A CidadeLa ciudadThe city
Boas NoitesBuenas NochesGood night
EuYoI
chuviaLluviaRain
Saúde!SalutCheers
CervexaCervezaBeer
ViñoVinoWine

And did you know, the Galician language has more then 70 words for rain!

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