Many years ago I made a trip to Gibraltar. At that time I was a post-graduate student at the University of Valencia, and one of the courses I took was about dialectology and sociolinguistics. We had to do some research as the final assignment of the course and in my group we decided to go to Gibraltar to do some field-work about the linguistic situation of this peculiar place. We spent three days there, with our questionnaires and interviews, and we also had time to do some sightseeing: we walked around the city, we saw the famous monkeys and we finally climbed the Rock, from where we had some spectacular views of both Spain and the African coast, which is a mere 14 km away. We can imagine that, throughout history and prehistory, many humans living on either side of the Strait must have felt curious to know about the land that they could see across the water, and this curiosity could have led to a significant movement of human populations in both directions.
The surprising fact, however, is that the Strait of Gibraltar has been a barrier for human migration in all ages, especially in prehistory. The main reason for this is geological: the Strait of Gibraltar has remained as it is now for the last 5 million years, even at the various glacial ages, where the sea level lowered significantly all over the world. We also have other types of evidence, e.g. the archaeological record, but the most important confirmation has come from population genetics. I recently read an interesting article about this subject: Bosch et al, 2001, High-Resolution Analysis of Human Y-Chromosome Variation Shows a Sharp Discontinuity and Limited Gene Flow between Northwestern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, American Journal of Human Genetics, 68:1019-1029). In this article, the authors analysed the genetic components of various populations in Spain and Morocco, combined with other evidence from archaeology and history, and reached a series of interesting conclusions. It seems for example that in both cases, the populations of today are mostly the descendants of the people who lived in these areas in the Paleolithic, with a minor impact of migration from the Middle East, probably associated with Neolithic expansion. On the other hand, the genetic components of Iberian and NW African populations show that they come from different origins. Human settlement in Iberia is connected with the expansion of modern humans into Europe from Eurasia or Anatolia, whereas the population of NW Africa is mostly connected with components that originated in the African continent. The gene flow across the Strait of Gibraltar is not considered relevant; it can be estimated at about 5%, and it could, at least partially, show the traces of some recent historical phenomena, like the expansion of the Roman Empire or the Arabic conquest of Iberia. There’s no doubt that the Strait of Gibraltar, as a natural barrier, has played a decisive role in the distribution of human populations, both for modern humans and for older types of hominids. Instead of crossing the 14 km stretch of water that separates Africa from Europe, it took humans a few thousand years to go all the way to the Middle East and eastern Europe until they reached the Iberian Peninsula. This is what I would call a ‘Grand Tour’.
Now, what are the linguistic consequences of all this? Is there also a linguistic barrier as well? Has this language barrier existed from prehistoric times? In a previous post I wrote about the expansion of Arabic as a consequence of the Islamic Empire. The main conclusion I reached was that Arabic dialects are spoken today only in areas where other Afro-Asiatic languages (formerly known as Hamito-Semitic) were already spoken before the arrival of the Arabs, and not in areas where there were other types of languages, e.g. in Persia or Iberia. I’m not sure if anyone had realised this simple fact before, but it looks quite clear in my opinion. The important factor here is affinity. The language of the conquerors (in this case Arabic) has a varying degree of influence on the languages of the conquered depending on the affinity between them. When the Arabs arrived in northern Africa they found Berber-speaking populations, and Berber languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic group. The subsequent process of hybridization led to the linguistic situation that we find in the area today, with a series of dialects which are considered regional variations of Arabic (with the exception of the areas where Berber languages have survived until today). What about Iberia? The languages spoken in this territory were quite different from Arabic; they were connected with Latin, an Indo-European language belonging to the Italic group. The Islamic conquest brought about a process of hybridization, with a significant exchange of linguistic (mainly lexical) material in both directions, as can be seen in the vocabulary of Spanish, Portuguese and other Ibero-Romance languages, and also in many features of the Hispano-Arabic dialect. However, Arabic and Romance languages were always perceived as something different. There were not enough opportunities for hybridization to produce significant hybrids between them; people spoke one of the languages, or both, but not a mixture of them (except perhaps in some local, pidgin-like cases). Another example of the importance of affinity in situations of language contact can be seen in the Roman conquest. The influence of the Romans was linguistically relevant in the Iberian Peninsula, where there was already a background of Indo-European languages, whereas it was rather insignificant in northern Africa, with no Indo-European background (see this post for more details and some maps).
It seems therefore that the population/language distribution in NW Africa and Iberia corresponds to a pattern that dates back to Paleolithic times, when modern humans arrived in these areas via different routes. The Strait of Gibraltar, as a natural barrier, was the main factor behind the whole process, limiting the possibilities of genetic or cultural exchange. Later developments, associated with the rise and fall of empires and the expansion of religions, were not strong enough to change the overall picture.
Notes on the illustrations:
- First picture: The Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. Source: OjoDigital (here).
- Second picture: The Strait of Gibraltar and the Alboran Sea. Source: NASA (here).