There are over 9 million people who can speak Catalan across the globe, with over 4 million who speak it as a native language or mother-tongue, according to recent census. 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. Of those who speak it natively, nearly all are bilingual, speaking either French, Spanish (castellano) or Italian as well, depending on where they live.
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. However, despite mostly being spoken in Spain, Catalan actually shares many more similarities with French. For example, the Catalan word for morning is matí and the French equivalent is matin, whereas the Spanish equivalent is mañana.
Spanish as we know it was profoundly influenced by the Arabic 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.
Those who 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 can also be 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).
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.
In an 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.
As much as Catalan may be the preferred language of choice among the local population of Catalonia, 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.