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Gaudí's Casa Batlló in Barcelona | © ChristianSchd / WikiCommons

7 Things We Should All Know About The Catalan Language

Tara Jessop

Anyone who has spent any length of time in Catalonia will know that hablar español will not get you very far if you really want to get to know the local people and their customs. More than just a sign of respect, getting to know the Catalan language provides key insights to the history, habits and humor of the Catalan people. Here are 7 facts to set you on your way to parlar català.


Approximately 9 Million People Worldwide Speak Catalan

Recent censuses suggest that there are over 9 million people who can speak Catalan across the globe, of which over 4 million speak it as a native language or mother-tongue. Catalan is spoken natively in parts of Spain (in Catalonia, Valencia,  and the Balearic Islands), France (in the area of the Pyrénées-Orientales), Andorra and even Italy, in the city of Alghero on the island of Sardinia. Of those who speak it natively, nearly all are bilingual, speaking either French, Spanish (castellano) or Italian as well, depending on where they live.

Catalan Is In Many Ways More Similar To French Than Spanish

Although Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and other European languages all have their origin in Latin (what are known as Romance languages), each has evolved in its own way and there are plenty of similarities and differences between them. However, despite mostly being spoken in Spain, Catalan actually shares many more similarities with French, and more so still with the Occitan language which is spoken in certain southern parts of France, Spain and Italy, than it does with Spanish. For example, the Catalan word for morning is matí and the Occitan equivalent is matin, whereas the Spanish equivalent is mañana. In fact, one study that measured the degree of similarity between Catalan and other Romance languages found that whereas there was 80% similarity with Spanish, there was 87% similarity with Italian.

The Catalan Language Wasn’t Influenced By The Moorish Conquest In The Same Way As Spanish

The Spanish language as we know it was profoundly influenced by the Arabic language as a result of the Moorish conquest of the 8th century. As a result, many words used in Spanish today are imported directly from Arabic or have been heavily influenced by it. Ever noticed how many Spanish words start with ‘al’? That’s simply the Arabic word for ‘the.’ For example, the Spanish albóndiga (meaning ‘meatball’) is believed to be from the Arabic al-bunduqa meaning ‘the ball.’ However, whereas Catalan was also influenced by the Arabic language, it didn’t evolve with the same tendency to add the Arabic prefix ‘al‘ to its nouns. For example, the Spanish word for ‘artichoke’ is alcachofa, whereas the Catalan equivalent is carxofa. The Spanish word for ‘cotton’ is algodón, and the Catalan equivalent is cotó. Think about it next time you order ‘the the-meatballs.’

There Are As Many As 6 Dialects Of Catalan

Those that don’t know any better might think that Catalan is nothing more than a Spanish dialect. However, not only is Catalan a fully-fledged language in its own right, it in turn is broken down into 6 dialects of its own, broadly divided between two groups: Eastern and Western Catalan. The six dialects correspond to specific areas, from west to east: Valencian (spoken in Valencia), Northwestern Catalan (spoken around Lleida, parts of Tarragona and La Franja), Central Catalan (spoken around Barcelona and Girona), Rousellonese (spoken in the Roussillon area of France), Balearic (in the Balearic Islands) and Alguerese (in the city of Alghero).

The 19th Century Saw A Cultural Revival Of Catalan Known As ‘La Renaixença’

After the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) during which Catalonia lost its independence to King Philip V and the crown of Castille, Catalan culture underwent a period of decline, exacerbated by new laws imposing the use of the Spanish language. However, the beginning of the 19th century saw the emergence of a wave of artists, authors and playwrights who wished to revive the Catalan language. This period, known as ‘La Renaixença’ saw the re-establishment of a Medieval tradition called Jocs Florals, or ‘floral games,’ a competition in which Catalan poets would compete for recognition in various categories: best love poem, best patriotic poem, etc.

Catalan Was Officially Banned In Spain Until As Recently As 1975

In attempt to promote a universal Spanish nationality, General Franco banned all other languages apart from Spanish from being used within Spain. This included Catalan, which had only been recognized as an official language as recently as the Second Spanish Republic of 1931-1939, following a period of Catalan literary revival in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result of the ban, no newborns were allowed to be given Catalan names, streets and monuments with Catalan names were given Castilian names instead, all television, film and music was to be produced in Spanish, and speaking Catalan in public was severely frowned upon and even punished.

Catalan Is The Only Official Language Of Andorra

As much as Catalan may be the preferred  language of choice among the local population of Catalonia and other Catalan-speaking areas, in Andorra Catalan is the sole official language. In Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, Catalan is co-official alongside Spanish (castellano), meaning that all official communication must be available in both languages. The subject of language choice is deeply divisive and contentious, often linked to questions of Catalan independence.


By Tara Jessop