I always thought the two could be used interchangeably (meaning "the Spanish language"). But I recently got into an argument with someone where they insisted there was a difference (although I didn't quite understand what that difference was).

So, is there a difference between "español" and "castellano"?

Siempre he pensado que ambos podían usarse indistintamente (queriendo decir "el lenguaje español"). Pero hace poco tuve una discusión con alguien que insitía en que había diferencia (aunque no pude entender bien cuál era esa diferencia).

Por tanto, ¿hay alguna diferencia entre "español" y "castellano"?

  • In most of the southern cone "castellano" is used instead of "español" when referring to the language spoken there. I don't believe there are any political agendas or statements when using it. I think it's just old school and left over like other words in that region such as anteojos and carbineros. Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 14:41
  • I always thought it was carabineros. Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 1:48

11 Answers 11


Let's check what RAE says about both of them:

For español:


  1. m. Lengua común de España y de muchas naciones de América, hablada también como propia en otras partes del mundo.

For castellano


  1. m. Lengua española, especialmente cuando se quiere introducir una distinción respecto a otras lenguas habladas también como propias en España.

  2. m. Dialecto románico nacido en Castilla la Vieja, del que tuvo su origen la lengua española.

  3. m. Variedad de la lengua española hablada modernamente en Castilla la Vieja.

RAE has given this excellent article about the topic:

Para designar la lengua común de España y de muchas naciones de América, y que también se habla como propia en otras partes del mundo, son válidos los términos castellano y español. La polémica sobre cuál de estas denominaciones resulta más apropiada está hoy superada. El término español resulta más recomendable por carecer de ambigüedad, ya que se refiere de modo unívoco a la lengua que hablan hoy cerca de cuatrocientos millones de personas. Asimismo, es la denominación que se utiliza internacionalmente (Spanish, espagnol, Spanisch, spagnolo, etc.). Aun siendo también sinónimo de español, resulta preferible reservar el término castellano para referirse al dialecto románico nacido en el Reino de Castilla durante la Edad Media, o al dialecto del español que se habla actualmente en esta región. En España, se usa asimismo el nombre castellano cuando se alude a la lengua común del Estado en relación con las otras lenguas cooficiales en sus respectivos territorios autónomos, como el catalán, el gallego o el vasco.

To designate the common language of Spain and many nations of America, and which is also spoken as their own language in other parts of the world, the terms castellano and español are valid. The controversy over which of these names is more appropriate is now outdated. The term español is more advisable for lack of ambiguity, as it unequivocally refers to the language spoken today by about four hundred million people. It is also the name used internationally (Spanish, espagnol, Spanisch, spagnolo, etc.). Even though it's a synonym of español, it is preferable to reserve the term castellano for referring to the Romance dialect born in the Kingdom of Castile during the Middle Ages, or the Spanish dialect that is spoken today in the region. In Spain, the name castellano is also used when referring to the common language of the state in relation to other co-official languages in their respective autonomous territories, such as Catalan, Galician, and Basque.

So both terms are used for Spanish because they are synonyms, but Español is less ambiguous; so it's preferable to use Español for "Spanish" and "Castellano" to refer to the Spanish spoken in the Spanish area of Castilla.

In Spain, "Castellano" is also used to refer to the official common language of the country as in some regions there are others official languages (e.g. Basque, Catalan...).

  • 4
    I find this answer simplistic. It obviates the fact that usage of these two terms is heavily loaded with politics and emotion for many people, at least in Spain. RAE may define things this way, but since history is written by the victors, and RAE is predominantly composed by Castilian speakers, they systematically ignore the perspective of the "losers". Please see my answer on this page for more details.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 22:20
  • 2
    @CesarGon: Doesn't RAE stand for "Real Academia Española"? And I think it was created in 1713, long before Franco.
    – user13560
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 9:52
  • 1
    Detailed analysis in Wikipedia: es.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user14163
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 18:28
  • This definition is correct only for Spain. When Latin America countries use "castellano" they don't mean the same thing, please add it to your answer. The proof is that they use "castellano" to talk about the language they speak, that is very different from the Spanish from Castille.
    – Quidam
    Commented Dec 27, 2019 at 13:05

This answer is about Spain, and only about some people in Spain. It is also an answer drawn from my knowledge and experience as a native speaker of Spain’s Spanish, a Spanish citizen and someone who has lived in Spain and overseas for extended periods of time.

This answer is also an extended and better version of a couple of comments I made to @hippietrail ’s answer, which have been unfortunately deleted by moderators. My comments were offensive in form, which I admit, and for which I apologise. But so is some of the content that I found on this page. Let me explain.

The first thing we need to understand is that Spain, like other countries in Europe, is a mosaic of cultures rather than a homogeneous mass. Maybe you think you already know this. And maybe you are right. But please keep reading just in case. I have lived overseas for years, and had the opportunity to interact with multiple people from different nationalities and backgrounds. I am always surprised that, for example, Canadians or Australians (and these are just examples, please don’t pick on them) think of their respective countries as being the epitome of multiculturalism. I agree that these countries are vibrant communities of diversity, but more often than not, these people miss an important difference: in Canada or Australia, nationalities and cultures have been "co-inhabiting" and brushing against each other for a few centuries, but in Spain or some other European countries, this has been happening for a few millennia. This is multiculturalism.

Specifically, Spain as a country was constructed in the 15th century, when different kingdoms and realms were united through political manoeuvring. As you can imagine, political union does not necessarily entail cultural union, especially when the different cultures are backed, as was the case, by different climates and geographical features, which in turn mean different crop and cattle raising habits and traditions, which in turn mean different lifestyles and economies. To this, we need to add the fact that up to eight languages coexisted in Spain. Castilian Spanish was the lingua franca imposed by the union.

The second thing we need to understand is that Spain went through a strict military dictatorship between 1939 and 1975. Amongst other values, this regime imposed the idea of unity, and to foster this it banned any language other than Spanish from Spain. The consequence was not, like @c4sh says in his/her answer, that Spanish became the only used language. How on earth would kids (and adults) that had been raised in Galician, Basque or Catalan, and who did not speak a word of Spanish, move overnight to speaking Spanish only? That’s ludicrous. What really happened is that those people became legally second-rate citizens, and often sent to jail, tortured and even killed. This happened just one generation ago, so it is still very alive in people’s memories. My parents did live this themselves, and I am only in my forties, so this is not ancient history. Kids at school who wouldn’t speak Spanish, which was the usual case for most kids in Galicia (the region where I come from), were sometimes forced to strip naked and walk under the rain like animals, since the teacher, following the precepts of the dictatorship, sustained that they could not speak properly and therefore were not people but just animals. And so on and so forth.

The imposition of a language on a community as an instrument of domination is a well-studied device, and the history of colonisation is full of examples. Spain is just one more.

I am finishing now. :-)

The term “Spanish”, to the mind of many people, means imposition, domination, banning of their native vehicle for communication. Jail, torture and dead relatives. “Castilian”, on the other hand, means a foreign language that you may or may not choose to speak.

You may argue that these are just words, and I can agree. But we should not forget that some people have gone through experiences that load words with intense meaning, and we might not be able to start imagining the power of such load.

Before we pontificate about something as complex as this, we are morally obliged to obtain a deep understanding of what we are talking about. I wouldn’t even dream of being opinionated about racial issues in the Deep South, aboriginal communities in Redfern, Sydney, or religious friction in the Balkans. I’d rather shut up, because stuff is too complex, people have suffered too much, and I’m too alien to those worlds. Similarly, I’d love to see a similar degree of respect elsewhere.

Just my two cents.

  • 5
    +1 I can only agree with this answer as it provides a very valuable point of view on the matter. But consider the following Cesar, Spanish is no longer a language localized to the iberian penninsula. The population that speak spanish in the penninsula is tiny compared to the hispanic world. There must be a unification of terms and that is the purpose of the RAE(which also envelopes the academies of all other hispanic countries), in this unification there must be many sacrifices for common understanding and standarization. Castellano is understood in the hispanic world in some regions [...]
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:51
  • 3
    but on others it is not. On the other hand Spanish is understood everywhere, even in countries that do not speak spanish. That's why Spanish should be used when referring to the language in a general sense. It means what you say to many people I don't deny it, but in these kinds of things not everything can be controlled and you can't blame people for using Spanish, not everyone is literate in the history of Spain. Using castilian to refer to the language outside of spain may get another meaning across (no offense) such as being pretentious or snobbish by refusing to use the word spanish. IMHO
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:54
  • 4
    @Joze I agree you and but I don't agree CesarGon. The dictatorship imposed the Spanish language, but it finished. It's quite unfair for all the Spanish that the term "Spanish" can be understood just as the language of the supporters of the dictatorship. Spanish existed before the dictatorship and was spoken not only in Castilla but also in the rest of Spain (it doesn't mean that there weren't others). Spanish is just a common language among all Spanish citizens and I don't want that all those supporters of the dictatorship can appropiate on the language. It's not theirs.
    – Juanillo
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 8:21
  • 3
    @Juanillo: Also, and wrt your statement that the dictatorship has finished, that is technically true, but have a look at any major Spanish newspaper any day. News about Franco's regime and it's consequences are all over the place. Other countries which went through dictatorships such as Germany or Italy achieved closure afterwards, but Spain did not. Dictatorship did end, but wounds remain open.
    – CesarGon
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 8:56
  • 3
    @hippietrail: I know, and I empathise. I lived and worked in Australia for a few years in heritage-related matters, and I know the situation relatively well. At least, the Australian government has officially apologised for the suffering caused (albeit cynically, perhaps); in Spain, there are ex-members of the dictatorial regime still holding public office, and the judge who tried to investigate crimes committed during this sad period of our history has been accused, harassed and removed from his post. See e.g. politica.elpais.com/politica/2012/02/08/actualidad/…
    – CesarGon
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 12:32

It mostly varies by region and pedantry.

Some people like to insist that it must be called castellano but calmer people accept both.

Most places use español more but some places including Argentina and Uruguay use castellano more. Places that have a history of suffering under Spanish dominion also seem to prefer to avoid español.

But castellano is ambiguous because it may refer to how Spanish is now or once was Spoken in Castile - and I'm not sure this region adheres to the RAE more strictly than anywhere else, or that the RAE bases its rules on the language of this region more strongly than anywhere else.

The RAE's position is that both are fine and acceptable variants but in their own documents they seem to always use español.

Note that where it's controversial, the controversy even sometimes spills over into English and whether to call the language Spanish or Castillian, and whether the latter should be used to refer to some official/standard/proper variant.

  • I have removed some comments that were considered offensive by some, and didn't really add to the answer. I still think an additional answer might be useful to provide some more context and history, and to flesh out @CesarGon 's view. But I'll leave that up to those who understand the context better than I do.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 18:58
  • Especially in Chile. The language is nearly always called castellano in Chile. Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 1:52

This is one of the distinctions which you will always get wrong, because native speakers disagree. In part it comes down to politics. For example, some pro-independence Catalans will say español because it's the language of Spain (and Catalunya isn't part of Spain); some pro-integration Catalans will say castellano because (Catalunya being part of Spain) they want to distinguish between castellano and the other Spanish languages (with Catalan usually being the pertinent one). Even that's too simplistic an analysis, but it serves to illustrate the point: just pick one and get used to people correcting you.

  • 2
    I lived in Catalonia for six years. It was always castellano when talking to Catalans. None Catalan residents didn't express a preference. In practice, there is no difference and it's only really locals making a dubious point.
    – Leo
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 16:59

It has some connotations, as people said before. Especially for places that suffered under Spanish rule and also for the regions in Spain that have autoctonous languages. One thing you have to consider is that some autochtonous languages of regions in Spain (like catalan) were banned by Kings or dictators in the past so that Spanish would be the only used language.

Therefore, there is a quite extended feeling in some regions of having been forced to use "castellano" and being persecuted for using their own language. This feeling makes it preferable to say "castellano" (associating it with the original region of the language") rather than "spanish" (which reminds of the forced centralism and unification).

This controversy is not at the point that someone could get offended if you choose either, but there are historical reasons for the exact choice, as you can see.

Of course, in most contexts, it just doesn't matter and both are used (even in these regions I mentioned).


En Chile no se hace la diferencia entre ambas palabras. En general se prefiere "castellano" a "español".

La asignatura escolar se llamó "Castellano" desde la organización del sistema educacional en la década de 1940, hasta la reforma de 1990.

En ese momento se acogió la distinción expresada en las otras respuestas a esta pregunta, vale decir, que el castellano es la variedad peninsular castiza del español, la que hace la diferencia entre s y z.

El debate fue bastante acalorado entre autoridades políticas y personajes del ámbito académico, incluso un poco ridículo. Como solución, y dándole un tono "new age" a la situación, se optó por denominar a la asignatura con el nombre más holístico de "Lenguaje y Comunicación".


It all comes down to times of Franco dictatorship. Back then there was (officially) only one language in Spain - Spanish (español), all other regional languages were strictly forbidden. The name suggest, that it's a language of whole Spain, while in fact many regions have their own languages or dialects. Hence now in Spain it's more commonly called castellano, to underline that it's not the only language for the whole population of Spain (I'd write Spaniards, but that's would again be controversial, as some separatists don't consider themselves Spaniards, even though they live in what's currently Spain).

On the other hand in the Americas, first of all there was no Franco dictatorship, secondly the only language from Spain used there is Spanish. Thus the term español is not at all controversial and accepted on par with castellano.

  • 1
    I can't agree with you about The Americas. In Mexico we almost always call it español but in Argentina (and I'm pretty sure at least also Uruguay) it's almost always called castellano. Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 10:44

"Castellano" or "Castilian Spanish" is also often used as a synonym for "Spain's Spanish", to distinguish it from "Latin American Spanish", especially when dubbing movies. See an example here: Let It Go in 25 languages


What I was taught in school (in Puerto Rico) is that Español Castellano (Castilian Spanish) is the Spanish spoken in Latin America. If memory serves me well, the Queen of Spain (Isabella of Castile) reigned during Columbus days and that Kingdom dominated in the Iberian peninsula centuries before and after.

It is also used to distinguish between other forms of Spanish (dialects) spoken in Spain.


A couple of quick observations/clarifications: First, the difference between the terms Español and Castellano is very much the same as the difference between the terms British and English. One could just as easily call refer to the English language as the British language. Why is this generally not done? Simply political/historical reasons. People in Britain just don't like the implications of doing that.

Beyond that, the argument that Castellano is more ambiguous than Español is pretty gratuitous. The RAE makes this argument for transparently political reasons. Español is at least as ambiguous in that it no more refers to a static entity than Castellano does. The term English could be considered even more ambiguous than Castellano as the English language has changed even more than Castellano.

The simple reality is that Castellano is the more specific term whereas Español is the more nationalistic term. Biased arguments aside, which one is more correct is really more a question of custom, which varies greatly across the Spanish-speaking world.


This is an exciting debate.

As a native Spanish speaker who has also lived abroad, I have to say that this reminds me strongly of the debate americano-estadounidense. That is, there are cultural, political and military aspects that lend themselves to the discussion which could not be ignored.

As a complex debate, I believe it should be given a holistic analysis, for example, as members of the Spanish speaking community, as members of European or the Americas, and from the view of people whose mother language is not Spanish. As someone pointed out well, there is no unambiguous answer to the difference español-castellano.

I wholly understand the point made by a few Spaniards in this forum, but I think the debate should not be done in terms of the official language imposed in Franco's times versus accepting that there are different dialects within that country. After all, even though the language originates in Spain, long gone are the days that Spain was the country to decide how the language should be named. Spanish is no longer "property" of Spain, and although the language has a logic inside that country, the Spanish language belongs to many countries and when someone from another country thinks of Spanish, they do not think of the differences in dialects within a single country, but of the common language of those many countries.

Thus, I believe the best word for the language is Spanish, and Castilian can be reserved when referring to the dialect.

As for speaking, in English, I find it only natural to say "I speak Spanish", I do not think anyone has ever said "I speak Castillan". And the same applies when speaking in Spanish, ever from my childhood, I was raised con el español como lengua madre, but I never ever said el castellano es mi lengua materna.

Someone pointed out that the Castilian stands for the Spanish spoken in Latin America, and I believe that is partly true, but not for the reasons that person brings forward. The fact of the matter is that the colonizers of Central and South America hailed mostly from Castille, and of course, spoke the Castilian dialect. Hence even though the language originally spoken in Latin America was Castilian Spanish, what is spoken nowadays and for about 400 years is not the same as what might be considered original Castilian Spanish.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.