Language in Gibraltar: A Tale of the Tongue of Two Errant Mothers

by Craig Evans

A warm summer’s stroll along a typical British high street, familiar shop facades passing by -Mothercare, BHS, Monsoon – and then the sudden loud report of cannon fire: ‘I just wanna pop into Marks and Sparks!’ The broad Yorkshire accent sounded unreal, as if it were being put on, but there was nothing in the flushed solemn face of the speaker to suggest that she was pretending. I paused to listen out for others. Fragments of Estuary English drifted by, but mostly my ears were met with a sea of Spanish, or at least what sounded like Spanish. The British high street receded from my thoughts, and then I remembered where I actually was: the south coast of Spain, on a small peninsula poking out towards Africa. This is Gibraltar, mid-October.



The ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ dominates the peninsula


In Gibraltar, the print environment consists almost entirely of English. On shop fronts, road signs, posters, a-boards, menus: English dominates. Where there are exceptions, usually when information is intended for tourists, that information is translated into several languages: Spanish, French, German. Conspicuous by its absence is any prominence given to just Spanish; after all, this was the language that most people seemed to be speaking. I had arrived for the first time only moments earlier on Gibraltar’s busy high street, and my first impression of the place was one of incongruity; it was as though the language and culture of Britain was being imposed on local Spanish inhabitants.


Of course, anybody who has experienced Gibraltar for longer than a few moments will know that the language situation is far more complex than what can be gathered from a first impression. Amid the throng of bustling shoppers, I had overheard only brief chunks of private conversation. In shops, bars and restaurants, however, it quickly became apparent that English was more widely spoken, especially between staff and customers. There was still plenty of Spanish too, such as it seemed was being used by two friends chatting animatedly at a nearby table. I had stopped for a drink at a pub called The Gibraltar Arms. The babble of the friends blended with other background noises, but every so often I felt a pang of recognition as they uttered something in English amongst the Spanish: ‘of course’, ‘lovely’, ‘Wednesday afternoon’.


Back on the high street, feigning interest in shop window displays while listening to the talk around me, I noticed further occurrences of code-switching. But of all my firsthand observations of language use in Gibraltar, the one that perhaps piqued my interest most was observing how adults communicated with children. In a single stretch, I counted five instances of adults with thick Spanish accents addressing young children in English. By all appearances, these adults seemed to be the children’s own parents, and were probably local Gibraltarians speaking a regional variety of English as their first language. A few of them were also bilingual, a fact made evident when they turned to speak to other adults in what sounded like Spanish. At the time, it struck me as curious that adults should have one language to use with each other, and another to use with their children.

* * *

These are my impressions of the use of language in Gibraltar. After a few hours exploring, I found that the more I discovered, the less it made sense to me linguistically. Firstly, I wondered why written or printed language was almost exclusively in English, even though the majority of people I encountered seemed to be speaking Spanish. That said, there was also a considerable amount of variation, not just between languages (in addition to Spanish and English, I also heard German, French and Arabic), but also between levels of proficiency, accents, and the amount of code-switching. In a place of less than 30,000 people occupying 2.6 square miles, I would have expected close contact to have meant language convergence and therefore less variation; perhaps even the development of a creole. However, variety persists in Gibraltar, which raises the question: does Gibraltar have its own distinct language, or is it just the sum of its various parts?


To understand the language situation in Gibraltar, it is necessary to know something about its history. For centuries, Gibraltar’s position at the mouth of the Mediterranean has made it a key location for trade. In 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Anglo-Dutch forces captured Gibraltar, and afterwards, complete control of the peninsula was ceded to the British. Since then, it has been an important strategic position for British military campaigns, with a continuous stream of new soldiers arriving on the shores and bringing with them British varieties of English. The establishment of English as the only official language has also helped it to take root over the years. At the same time, the close vicinity of Spain has meant that Spanish language and culture has continued to have an influence over Gibraltar’s Spanish-speaking natives. Together, these conflicting forces of language influence have led to Gibraltar developing into a bilingual community.



Morocco to the left, Spain to the right: the mouth of the Mediterranean


Many other languages have also been introduced to Gibraltar over the years – Portuguese, Arabic, Maltese, Italian, Hebrew –  with new settlers having been attracted by its growing status as a trading port. Out of this multilingual melting pot emerged the local Gibraltarian dialect of Llanito, which includes many borrowed as well as newly coined words. Speaking on the documentary film ‘People of the Rock: The Llanitos of Gibraltar’, Tito Vallejo Smith, author of ‘The Yanito Dictionary’, provides a number of examples of these, including the word ‘la calamita’ (the magnet). Vallejo Smith explains how the word came into being because neither the Spanish nor English word was known to Llanito speakers. It is a contraction of the description ‘calador de meter’ (a mixture of Spanish and English), meaning ‘penetrator of meters’. This refers to the identifiable function of magnets for locals, which was to reset electricity meters when they were first introduced to Gibraltar.


Llanito consists mostly of Spanish and English, and is characterised by code-switching between the two. Of the code-switching, another interviewee for the ‘People of the Rock’ documentary, Dennis Beiso, describes how there is ‘no formality to it’:


I can be speaking to a friend in Llanito and use a Spanish word for something and he can use the same in English – it’s just a question of what we feel like using at a particular time. When I swear I usually swear in Spanish. It’s more forceful – there’s more aggression to it. English is more our intellectual language, so to speak – we use it in the workplace, we use it at schools, we use it in more formal settings… Spanish is (speaking from an entirely personal point of view) when you’re getting more worked up about things and when you need to argue with someone about something or debate a point…There are some Gibraltarians who I know who are very fond of speaking English, particularly when they are perhaps talking about politics or they’re trying to make a political point.


The Llanito dialect represents an important part of national identity for Gibraltarians, with many now regarding themselves as Llanitos. In the past, and to some extent still today, it has been common for the people of Gibraltar to see themselves as British. After years of attempts by Spain to reclaim Gibraltar, through sieges and sanctions, it is easy to understand why this would be the case: Britain has, after all, protected Gibraltar’s existence as a separate territory. However, in its diplomatic relations with Spain, Britain has also sometimes acted as a colonial master, such as when negotiating joint sovereignty with Spain, without consulting Gibraltarians themselves.


Spain and Britain’s treatment of the people of Gibraltar has encouraged many inhabitants to want complete independence from the two ‘motherlands’. Others believe that Gibraltar is a small occupied territory with residents who represent a mishmash of different cultures and languages, while not sharing one that defines them collectively as Gibraltarian. A claim to the contrary is that, through the local dialect Llanito, Gibraltarians have their own unique way of communicating with each other that distinguishes them from outsiders. But in practice, how true is this? With a variety of code-switching choices, and the tendency among bilingual Gibraltarians to have a preference for either Spanish or English, Llanito seems to reflect speakers’ individual identities more than it reflects any national one.



  1. ‘Calamita’ is the Italian word for ‘magnet’. It probably entered Llanito via Gibraltar’s Genoese settlers, although Tito’s explanation is a lot more fun!

  2. Ah, so presumably the non-Italian speaking Tito deduced the origin of the word from his knowledge of Spanish and English alone. Well, let not the truth get in the way of a good anecdote 🙂

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