The Asturian language: characterization and current situation

Asturian, also known as Bable, is the glottonym that the Asturian language receives in the region of Asturias, a language related to the traditional languages of the historical region of León (in León and Zamora, where it is called Leonese), and Miranda de Duero (in Portugal, where it is called Mirandese).

From a linguistic point of view, Asturleonese is part of the Western Ibero-Romance group (like Castilian or Galician-Portuguese), and arises from the particular evolution that Latin underwent in the ancient kingdom of Asturias (later called the kingdom of León). Internally, three main dialectal areas can be distinguished: the eastern one, which shares some characteristics with Cantabrian Highlander, constituting a stage closer to Castilian; the central one, considered the written language model for the Asturian language; and finally, the western one, which includes the dialects of Western Asturias, León, Zamora and Miranda de Duero. Also, in some areas of Salamanca and Extremadura, dialectal features are preserved that can be related to the Asturleonese language.

In view of this, it is important to emphasize that Asturian is a language distinct from Castilian or Spanish, and not a derivation or dialectal variant thereof. Asturian and Castilian are the result of the Latin spoken in Asturias and Castile (respectively) during the medieval period. The two languages emerged in a small corner of the northern Iberian Peninsula, and then spread south as the early Christian pockets of resistance gained ground against Islam. However, its speakers were not as fortunate.

Origin and history of the Asturian language

Castilian, and its neighbors Asturian and Navarrese, were born without any witnesses. We could say that the first transformations of Latin that would give rise to Castilian took place in the mouths of Basque, or perhaps Iberian, speakers. We know this because of two unmistakable features: the reduction to five of the varied Latin vowelism, and the loss of the initial f-, which today we remember with an h- in the spelling: hacer, harina, hormiga, which in Latin were facere, farinam and formicam; and which in Asturian are fer, fariña, formiga, despite the geographical proximity.

And if Castilian arose in Castile, Asturias gave shelter to the Latin dialect that in its extension towards the south was called Asturleonés, in the same way that the Latin derivation of the kingdom of Navarra was called Navarroaragonés (and, later, just Aragonese). Also the evolution of the language of the Romans in Catalonia was first called Catalan, and, further south, Valencian; that of Galicia, on the other hand, Galician-Portuguese.

The evolution of the Latin dialects in the Iberian Peninsula was conditioned by the political triumphs of Castile against the more moderate ones of other peninsular kingdoms.

Castilian influenced the weakness of Asturleonese and Navarrese-Aragonese, as well as Mozarabic, which is the development of the Latin spoken in the territories occupied by the Muslims. In this sense, Castilian would suffer the same fate as French in France, or Tuscan in the Italian peninsula, gradually imposing itself on its neighboring languages. Therefore, the causes that drove the speech of the rude Cantabrian shepherds, refugees in the mountains, to become one of the most important of humanity, respond to extra-linguistic factors, and, specifically, to the political and military preponderance of the kingdom of Castile during the Reconquest.

Galician-Portuguese, on the other hand, would not only be protected by the Portuguese administration, as an independent kingdom, or by the powerful Church of Compostela, but would also enjoy great prestige as a poetic language at the Castilian court.

However, the Asturian language, deprived of the political support that the former independent kingdom could offer, will be cornered in a peripheral territory whose nerve centers (León, Oviedo, Astorga) languish in the face of the definitive shift towards the south of the peninsular political, economic and cultural scene of the time. As a result, the Asturian language was exposed to greater instability and uncertainty, fundamentally due to a lack of promotion, aggravated by the progressive penetration of Spanish in its own historical territory.

Conservation of Asturian and the current situation

Despite the ‘marginalization’ of Asturian as a consequence of the political evolution of the Hispanic kingdoms during the Middle Ages, in Asturias this language was maintained with more vitality; and, since ancient times, its speakers have been aware of expressing themselves in a language other than Castilian. Thus, it was in the period between the 15th and 17th centuries that Asturians became aware of speaking a different language. Antón de Marirreguera is considered the author of the first literary work preserved in Asturian, the Pleitu ente Uviéu y Mérida pola posesión de les cenices de santa Olaya (1639). Likewise, in the 18th century, literature in Bable acquired a great impulse, thanks to authors such as Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, one of the greatest promoters of Asturian culture.

However, from the 19th century onwards, the process of Castilianization linked to the creation of the nation-state intensified, also in the north of Spain. Asturian society became mostly industrialized and, little by little, the population moved to the cities and mass schooling in Spanish began. The Asturian situation worsened even more with the arrival of the 20th century; during Franco’s dictatorship, Castilian was the only language allowed in education, administration, the media, commerce, etc.

The modern vindication of Asturian was born in the 1970s, with a group called Conceyu Bable, which brought together a new generation that appreciated Asturian and sought to recover and dignify it. As a result of this movement, the Academia de la Llingua Asturiana, a public institution linked to the Government of the Principality of Asturias, was created in 1980 (already in democracy). In turn, the Statute of Autonomy of Asturias, approved in 1981, explicitly mentions the recognition of the Asturian language, guaranteeing its protection and promotion. This resurgence of the language and literature in Asturian is known as Surdimentu.

In this regard, one of the objectives for which the Academy of the Asturian Language was created was to draw up regulations that would allow its use, especially in writing, by the entire Asturian-speaking community. This involved the development of various materials, including spelling and grammar.

However, the Statute still does not recognize Asturian as a co-official language of the Principality (together with Spanish), despite the fact that the Spanish Constitution allows it. Thus, the Government of Asturias has rarely been seen using Asturian in its interventions, official documents, publications or institutional messages. For its part, Asturian is not used in education as a vehicular language for teaching any subject, but is only considered as an optional subject.

However, although the presence of the Asturian language is still very limited, it is very common among the inhabitants of Asturias to see the use of a mixed speech between Asturian and Castilian, known as Amestáu. If you’ve ever been to the Principality, you’ve probably heard this type of expression:

  • Demonstratives: this car.
  • Preposition of the article in possessives: prestóme, hízote, quitáronnos.
  • Predominance of diminutives in -in, with plural -inos: perrinos.
  • Certain apellative interjections: ho (man), ne (woman) –
    ¿Qué ye, ho?
    (“What’s up, man?”)
  • Use of -u for masculine singular: paisanu.


Carlos Sánchez Luis