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El Camino de Santiago: How Pilgrimage Changed the Spanish Language

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Camino de Santiago (in English, the Way of Saint James) was one of the key pillars for the Christian Medieval Spain. This route supposed an entry gate for new peoples, cultures and ideas from the European continent. Santiago de Compostela soon became one of the main pilgrimage spots across the world. The city was very attractive for Christian believers from all nations, who accessed the Iberian Peninsula by crossing France. It’s obvious that this pilgrimage transformed religion, culture, foreign trade and the towns and villages surrounding it. But, how did it affect the Spanish language? Let’s discover!

The interesting origin of El Camino de Santiago

A legend tells us that when Saint James died circa AD 44, his remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain, where he was finally buried. Hundreds of years later, in the 9th century, an ordinary shepherd called Pelayo found these remains in a field near a cliff. The King Alfonso II was quickly informed about such discovery, and he ordered to build a small chapel in this holy place. He would later plan to build a much bigger temple to attract pilgrims from other parts of the world.

When the Church of Rome recognised St James’ remains, a huge pilgrimage began in Santiago de Compostela, making this town one of the most important places for Christianity along with Jerusalem and Rome.

From a religious experience to a linguistic phenomenon

The establishment of el Camino de Santiago had very interesting consequences from a linguistic point of view. For instance, many French clerks and copyists started working in Spanish territories, thus adopting new languages and dialects. Moreover, a large number of poets and trobadours participated in this pilgrimage, which led to the creation of new literary genres. It was the beginning of a golden era.

The arrival of foreign humanists affected the Spanish language, which adopted numerous terms from Occitan, a Romance language from the south of France. In this way, we adopted terms related to religion and everyday life too.

Religious terms: It’s the case of the words fraile (friar); monje (monk); and herejía (heressy).

Pagan terms: Many words that end with the suffix -aje in Spanish come from Occitan or Provenzal languages. Such is the case linaje (lineage); salvaje (savage); homenaje (homage); coraje (courage) or mensaje (message).

El Camino de Santiago: The reason why we are Spanish

It wasn’t until this golden era that we adopted the term “Spanish” to refer to our people. Interestingly enough, the word that denominates the people from Spain does not come from the Castilian language, but from the Occitan one. It was actually introduced by French immigrants.

It is not surprising that demonyms (word used for the inhabitants of a place) are usually created by neighbour countries, as they first experience the need of calling others. In this way, the term español started to be used in the south of France around the 11th century. By the 13th century, the term was well-established in the north of Spain. Interesting, right?

A roller coaster of pilgrimage

It is undeniable that the Way of St James is still one of the most unique pilgrimages in the world. Since the 2010s, it has attracted more than 200,000 pilgrims each year. However, this was not always the case.

For instance, lots of problems arose in Europe in the 14th century, which diverted pilgrims to other destinations. At this point, the Way of Saint James lost the great splendour it had achieved in previous centuries. This was due largely to wars, plagues, droughts, poor harvests, etc. In this time of crisis, the pilgrimage was simply forgotten.

Even though the religious experience lost relevance after the Middle Ages, everything changed in 1993. The Galician government decided to restore and update the route that led to Compostela, thus adding the tourism value the pilgrimage deserved. Now the aim was to provide a traditional, natural experience, similar to the medieval one.

Without a doubt, the 20th century marked a turning point for el Camino de Santiago. It soon gained the popularity it had lost, becoming a pilgrimage for both Christian believers and tourists.

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