22 Fun Facts About the Galician Language

Read my Galician crash course here to get up to speed in the language.

Galician is a Romance language (i.e., from Latin) spoken by about 3 million people in Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia. Although it’s most closely related to Portuguese—which is spoken south of the border—it shares many similarities with Castilian Spanish, including sounds and spelling.

A Coruña, Spain
A Coruña

If you’re planning on spending any time traveling or living in this unique corner of Spain, or walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that ends here, even a tiny knowledge of Galician will help you get around and navigate menus, maps, etc. If you happen to speak Spanish, you’re already 80% of the way to understanding Galician, and I’m serious! Getting a grasp on the grammatical and phonological differences will turbo boost you up to 90%.

To whet your appetite (both literally and linguistically), here’s a little selection from the Galician Wikipedia’s article on empanada, or meat pie:
Unha empanada é unha preparación culinaria consistente nunha masa e un recheo que se frixe ou coce no forno. Consiste nunha masa de fariña, elaborada máis ou menos como unha masa de pan rechea de carne ou outros produtos (tamén verduras peixes, ou mariscos variados), previamente cociñados de formas moi variadas segundo a gastronomía local, pero sendo con moita cebola frixida en aceite o modo tradicional en Galicia. Este é un tipo de alimento de orixe moi antiga que se da en case tódalas culturas.
And if you’re trying to get an ear for the language, listen to this advertisement from Galician supermarket Gadis:

Galician’s a really cool, unique language that’s really easy to pick up on if you take a little time to figure out what makes it different. Like I said, if you already know Spanish, you can basically figure out what Galician means, even if you can’t speak it yourself.

Fun facts

  1. Articles (think “the”) are simple vowels: o for masculine words and a for feminine ones. Where Spanish has el, la, los, las, Galician has o, a, os, as. Because Galician lost the initial L over the centuries as the Latin spoken by everyday people transformed into what we have today, this makes for some fun, and sometimes confusing, contractions.
  2. Contractions—Galician’s got a lot. I’ve used articles as the examples below, but pronouns also combine, too.
    • with a (“to”) and an article: ao, á, aos, ás
    • with con (“with”) and an article: co, coa, cos, coas
    • with de (“of”) and an article: do, da, dos, das
    • with en (“in, on”) and an article: no, na, nos, nas
    • with por (“by, for”) and an article: polo, pola, polos, polas
  3.  I love Galician pronouns: “I” is eu, “you” is ti, “he, she” is el, ela, “we” is nós, “y’all” is vós, and “they” is eles, elas

  1. And their possessive adjectives are even cooler, since the construction is literally “the my [thing]” and all the adjectives take gendered forms.
    • “my cat”: o meu gato
    • “my university” a miña universidade
    • “your mom” a túa nai
    • “his/their house” a súa casa
    • “our world” o noso mundo
    • “y’all’s apartment” o voso piso
  2. Galician has more vowels and different diphthongs than Spanish. For example, where Spanish has tierra (“earth”) and huerta (“garden”), Galician has the short vowels terra (“TEH-rrah” [ˈtɛ.ra]) and horta (“OHR-tah” [ˈɔɾ.ta]). Similarly, you will find two unique diphthongs (two vowels sounded together) all over the place in Galician: EI and OU. The word manera in Spanish (“way, manner”) is maneira in Galician—“mah-NAY-EE-rah” [maˈnej.ɾa], and otro (“other”) is outro in Galician—“OE-OO-troe” [ˈow.tɾo].
  3. Unlike Portuguese, Galician has lost the nasalizations of its sister language. In Portuguese, to greet someone, you might say bom dia (“BOENG DEE-ah” [bõ ˈdi.a]), but in Galician it’s a simple bos días—“BOES DEE-ahs” [bos ˈdi.as]. Similarly, a Portuguese “apple” is a maçã—“mah-SANG” [maˈsɐ̃] but in Galician it’s the un-nasalized mazá—“mah-THAH” [maˈθa].

A Coruña, Spain
A Coruña

  1. Galician is not a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, or any other combination of languages. In the Middle Ages, when the vernacular Romance languages were emerging, Galician was one of many languages that developed from the Latin once spoken in northern Spain—along with Astur-Leonese, Castilian, Aragonese, and Catalan. Portuguese began to break off from medieval Galician around the same time Portugal gained its independence from Castilla.
  2. Additionally, Galician is not a dialect of Spanish, nor is it badly-spoken Castilian. It simply shares a common source—Latin—with Spanish, just like French and Italian do. I’m comparing Galician with Spanish on this post because the two languages are very closely-related and many readers of this blog know Spanish. It just helps to point out where Galician is unique or different.
  3. There’s a little bit of rhotacization in Galician, a fancy word for “Ls-turning-into-Rs.” Where Spanish has plaza (“city square”) and blanco (“white”), Galician has praza and branco.
  4. In the shift from Latin to Galician, many Ls and Ns were lost in the middle of words. These medial consonants vanished in words like lúa (“moon”; cf. Spanish luna) and quente (“hot”; cf. Spanish caliente).
  5. Palatal consonants in Spanish—the LL and the Ñ—are often simply Ls and Ns in Galician. The Spanish word for yellow, amarillo, is amarelo in Galician, and pequeño (“little”) is pequeno.
  6. On the other hand, because of the extremely confusing process that nasalization and denasalization took in medieval Galician-Portuguese, where Spanish has a simple medial N, Galician often has a palatalized Ñ. For example, “wine” in Spanish is vino but is viño in Galician; “queen” is reina and raíña, respectively.
  7. The Galician letter X represents the “SH” sound /ʃ/: xente for “people” (cf. Spanish gente), dixo for “he said” (cf. Spanish dijo), and xaneiro for “January” (cf. Spanish enero).

Lugo, Spain

  1. “No” is non.
  2. Galician conserves the initial Latin F, whereas it was lost in Spanish. Compare the words for “oven”—forno & horno—“to talk”—falar & hablar—“flour”—fariña & harina—and “to boil”—ferver & hervir.
  3. Object pronouns are stuck to the end of verbs. So, “he told me” is díxome (from dixo + me), unlike Spanish, where it’s reversed: me dijo.
  4. Galician is as “lispy” as Spain Spanish. You pronounce Praza de Cervantes here in Santiago de Compostela as you would in Spanish, with the “TH” sound for the Z and the C.
  5. Galician has no compound tenses. Compound simply means you add an auxiliary verb like “have” to create a new, nuanced tense, like “I had gone to bed when you called.” Galician will have none of that, relying only on context for specifics.
  6. The Latin word multus (“much/many”) changed to mucho in Spanish but moito in Galician; similarly, the Latin lactus (“milk”) became leche in Spanish but leite in Galician.

Ourense, Spain

  1. It even has its own font! Inspired by traditional stone inscriptions, it’s often seen on hanging signs for restaurants or bars, and you can download it for free here.
  2. How to say thanks: graciñas (“grah-THEE-nyahs” [graˈθi.ɲas]). The diminutive ending in Galician, -iño, is adorable, and pops up in words like poquiño (“a little bit”).
  3. The plural ending is -S and that’s all there is to it. More than one constitución? Then you’ve got some constitucións. Watch out for words that end in L, though. In a phenomenon related to the whole losing-medial-Latin-Ls thing, they become semivowels (an I) and an S is added. For example: animal >> animais (cf. Spanish animales).

If you’ve ever encountered one of the many minority languages of Spain, what did you observe or find interesting about them? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!

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