The Galician Language

Learn about the language spoken where the apostle's tomb is located and all the routes of the Camino come together.

Galician language books (2021)Original Source: Secretaría Xeral de Política Lingüística. Xunta de Galicia

A language is the soul and identity of a people and their society. It encompasses a cohesive group of people, with their own customs, culture, and history, who see the world in the same way. Discover the fascinating history of Galician and its secret links to the Camino.

Foro do Bo Burgo de Castro Caldelas (1228)Original Source:

The origin of Galician: a language with eight centuries' worth of history

Galego, as it is known in Galician, is an Indo-European language belonging to the Romance branch of languages. As the native language of Galicia, it is spoken by 2.7 million inhabitants in Galicia, in regions bordering Galicia, and in Galician diaspora resulting from immigration, particularly in Latin America and Europe. The first preserved record of Galician text dates back to 1228.

Cathedral of Santiago of Compostela (1075)Regional Government of Galicia

Galician and Portuguese: sister languages

Modern Galician belongs to the Western Ibero-Romance language family. It evolved from Vulgar Latin, which was spoken in the Roman province of Gallaecia and later developed into Galician-Portuguese, which was spoken in the Kingdom of Galicia. Portuguese and Galician are therefore considered sister languages as they evolved from the same branch.

Parchment Vindel: manuscript of the cantigas de amigo by Martín Códax (13th Century)Original Source: The Morgan Library & Museum

Though there were significant differences between the Galician-Portuguese spoken in the north and south of the region, as seen in their rich and diverse literature, the two languages did not definitively separate from one another until the 14th century. Nowadays, Portuguese and Galician are mutually very well understood, and Galician is very close to the Lusophone language family, i.e., Portuguese.

Aerial view of Ribadeo and the mouth of the river Eo (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

Other regions where Galician is spoken

Galician is spoken in the surrounding regions of Eo-Navia (Asturias) and is officially recognized as Galician-Asturian (Eonaviego or Galego-Asturiano) by the Vegadeo City Council. It is also spoken in Bierzo and Sanabria (in Castile and Leon) and is taught in many of the region's schools. A special dialect of Galician called A fala can be heard in Jálama Valley in Extremadura.

Alfonso X, King of Castile (17th century) by William RogersNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

A treasure inherited and preserved to the present day

The history of the Galician language is not straightforward. It had a bright start as the literary language of the king's court in Galicia, and it had an extensive Medieval corpus. But following the separation of the country of Portugal, the Kingdom of Galicia declined. This was compounded by other damaging political and social actions backed by the Crown of Castile.

LIFE Photo Collection

The Séculos Escuros (Dark Ages)

Though Galician was still widely spoken, this change in power meant that the language used in judicial and administrative settings changed in favor of Castilian, and Galician disappeared from literary texts. This resulted in linguistic prejudice against Galician, some aspects of which can still be felt in Galician society. This period marked the start of the Dark Ages or literally Dark Centuries (Siglos Oscuros in Castillan and Séculos Escuros in Galician).

Exhibition on Rosalía de Castro (2016)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

The revival of Galician

A shadow was cast over Galician until the 19th century. Then, the intellectual classes developed a consciousness of giving dignity to their own language and culture. This realization was also spreading through the rest of 19th-century Europe, which would later be known in Galicia as Rexurdimento (The Resurgence). Written literature, journalistic writing, and research were once again composed in Galician.

Promotional poster of the 1936 Statute of Galicia (1936) by Camilo Díaz BaliñoRegional Government of Galicia

The dictatorship: a setback for Galician

The drive to normalize the Galician language, which was embedded in the Rexurdimento movement, saw success in the 20th century when the language was given social functions that had been forbidden up to that time. Promoted by Galician nationalist Castelao, the 1936 Statute of Autonomy of Galicia marked a turning point for the language. However, the Spanish Civil War and subsequent Franco Regime plunged Galician into what were known as the Dark Years (Años Oscuros).

Galician dictionaries (2021)Original Source: Secretaría Xeral de Política Lingüística. Xunta de Galicia

800 years of history, just four decades as an official language

The unrelenting Franco Regime saw the persecution of any language in Spain that was not Castilian Spanish, resulting in the de facto destruction of any progress made toward normalizing other languages. It was only following Franco's death, that a new Statute of Autonomy of Galicia was passed (1981), which officially recognized Galician and its widespread use in administration.

Galician language books (2021)Original Source: Secretaría Xeral de Política Lingüística. Xunta de Galicia

Milestones in the revival of Galician in the 20th century

Important milestones in the recovery of the Galician language include the Law of Linguistic Normalization of Galician (Ley de Normalización Lingüística de Galicia), which was unanimously passed in 1983; the creation of the Society of Radio-Television of Galicia (Corporación Radio e Televisión de Galicia), an independent media outlet that currently has one radio station and two TV stations in Galician; and Galician Literature Day (Día das Letras Galegas), which was inaugurated in 1963 in honor of Rosalía de Castro.

Porta Faxeira in Santiago de Compostela (2021)Regional Government of Galicia

What does the future hold?

Despite Galician being in good health today, as well as great advances in linguistic normalization, there are many structural problems. The main issue is that Galician is replaced by Spanish among the younger generations, which is a result of various sociocultural and economic factors.

Boys and girls in an activity to promote the Galician language (2021)Original Source: Secretaría Xeral de Política Lingüística. Xunta de Galicia

A thousand more springs for the Galician language

Only with adequate linguistic policies and collective consciousness and pride in a centuries-old legacy can this process be reversed. Doing so would honor the Galician writer Álvaro Cunqueiro, whose gravestone is inscribed with the epitaph, "Eiquí xaz alguén que coa súa obra fixo que Galicia durase mil primaveras máis" (Here lies someone who, with his work, made Galicia last a thousand more springs).

What does the Galician language sound like?

To give a Galician's answer, "It depends." Galician is spoken in many linguistic regions, and each has its own minor variations. Some people have also spoken Galician since birth, while others have adopted the language later in life as a result of social consciousness. There are also different accents—some strange, some surprising. There is so much linguistic wealth and diversity!

Galician on the routes of the Camino de Santiago

Along the different routes, travelers will meet amazing people called tesoros vivos (living treasures), who are important living records of life. They carry essential communal knowledge or demonstrate human activities that recreate elements of their intangible cultural heritage. Ana López, of the Winter Way, describes the job of a pulpeira, or specialist octopus chef.

Galician people of the Camino also make pilgrimages and see them as an intrinsic and deeply spiritual activity. Along the Silver Way, Antonio Fernández tells an emotional and heartwarming story about the richness of this language and the love of the people who speak it.

Yet Galician is also used in cultural, scientific, and administrative settings. One example is its use by the chemist and Camino-lover José Manuel Navaza, who published a guide on the water sources of the French Way, outlining their location and collaborating on the development of these essential resources for pilgrims.

Galicia has a strong, regal, feminine soul, which is reflected in its language and people. This characteristic of Galicia can be seen in the ancient legends of the enchanted female Mouras, mythical beings such as Queen Lupa, famous vigilantes like Pepa a Loba, and the nameless, selfless female workers of the earth and sea who were strong enough to support an entire family.

But women have constructed a Galician consciousness and extraordinary sisterhood with the Galician language in literature in particular, from the pilgrim Egeria (whose Galician provenance is a valid theory) to a legendary figure in Galician literature: Rosalía de Castro. The new generation of female Galician writers are especially supported by a well-established and unequivocal quality.

The language is linked to where it lives. Galician toponymy is astonishingly extensive in both number and variety due to its speakers' widely dispersed population. Even the smallest region where it is spoken has a name. Galician speakers share a deep and spiritual connection with the earth.

Language as a universal phenomenon: lullabies …

If anything is a sign of how healthy a language is, it is the language we speak to our children. The legacy of the lullaby is still alive in Galicia, though it has been waning in recent decades. There is nothing more beautiful than the universal language of lullabies. Their slow cadence sends babies into a peaceful sleep while also passing on hundreds of years of collective memory.

… and humor.

The Galician language carries an immense power and special quality in areas such as music, literature, and even humor, reaching almost philosophical levels in Galicia. Words about Galician humor have even been coined, such as retranca, which is a subtle and harmless funny expression where the speaker uses words that could have two meanings for intentional wittiness.

The essence of Galicia.

Travelers who enjoy a Camino loaded with Galician vocabulary and traditions will get to know its most enxebre side, that is, the most authentic and unaltered version of Galicia's region and character. Without a doubt, this experience will leave a trace on anyone who visits, as will many other adventures along the Camino.

Peliqueiro, traditional figure of the Laza carnival (2021)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

The Galician language is the greatest and most original collective creation of the Galician people. It is the true spiritual force that brings their community together. The language is a living patrimonial treasure and a legacy with a shared identity that must be protected and passed on to others. Galician ultimately serves as an essential link, a cultural connection, with the rest of the world, as it gives a unique perspective on life.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
¡Buen Camino!
Join Europe's iconic pilgrimage routes along the Camino de Santiago.
View theme
Google apps