Are there differences between Castilian Spanish vs Catalan?
A Spanish student arrives to Barcelona, gets out of the plane and the first thing they notice is that… they don’t recognize the words in the signs! Were all their lessons rubbish? No: the signs are in Catalan! (Actually, in the airport Spanish and English are also featured in the signs, but in a smaller font size).
Many travelers are surprised to see that Catalan is so prominent in the local society. They didn’t expect it would be so different (and yet so similar) to Spanish. People born and raised in Barcelona are fluent in both languages, because we learn both at school. Then each individual tends to use more one or the other, depending on their family origins, their work and friends circles. The private guides at ForeverBarcelona often get asked about it, and we love talking about it. Want to learn more about it?
Why you should never say "Catalan dialect":
Is Catalan a dialect? The answer is no.
According to Wikipedia, a “dialect is a a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language’s speakers. And that is not the case of Catalan. Catalan is not a way of speaking Spanish, but a complete language on its own, with different grammar, sounds and words.
Some people call Catalan a dialect in a pejorative way (it is well known that Spanish and Catalan communities don’t always like each other much, unfortunately…). But from a philological point of view that’s completely incorrect.
This is a silly video I recorded some years ago for a family I showed around that were very interested in Catalan language and asked me to learn some basic words. Yes, it’s a bit cliché, but… I find it very cute!
Origin of Catalan and Spanish languages
Both Spanish and Catalan are an evolution from Latin, brought by the Romans more than 2000 years ago. But it took almost 1000 years for Latin to break apart and become the current European Romance languages. Catalan and Spanish but also Portuguese, Italian, French and Romanian are all cousin languages. And the origins of Castilian Spanish vs Catalan are already diverse. The center of Spain (Castilia) was more in touch with Iberian and Celtics, whereas Catalonia was more open to the Mediterranean sea and connected to the Occitan world beyond the Pyrenees.
The oldest complete text in Catalan is the Homilies d’Organyà, a religious piece from the end of the 1100’s. Researchers have also found some shorter fragments from a century earlier. As for Spanish, the first text is the Glosas Emilianenses (late 900’s) found in the monastery of San Millan de la Cogolla in La Rioja. And in Valpuesta (Castilla y León), they also found some other shorter texts in a very archaic Spanish from a century earlier.
Number of speakers and territory
Through the Spanish domination after the conquest of America, Spanish rooted in most of Central and South America. So the word Spanish applies to any variety of Spanish language, spoken in Latin-America or in Spain. Instead, Castilian or Castellano is the way it’s spoken in Spain, the Spanish from Castilia, to be more precise.
Spanish is the second most spoken language by mother tongue (after Chinese), with over 463 milion native speakers – 47 milion of which in Spain. Catalan speakers are bilingual. Catalan is a co-official language in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia. It is also the sole official language in the tiny country of Andorra. And it is also spoken in the Pyrénées Orientales area of the South of France, as well as in the town of Alghero in Sardinia. All in all, it’s hard to calculate the number of speakers but it moves between 9 and 10 million.
Interestingly, the number of people who can understand Catalan but don’t speak it would be around 11 million. And that’s explained because it’s common to find Spanish, French or Italian speakers in Catalan-speaking areas that don’t speak Catalan, but not a Catalan speaker that doesn’t speak the main language of their country. As for Andorra… people born and raised there are usually trilingual. Being a tiny country located between France and Spain and heavily depending on tourism, speaking both languages is a must for them.
So many different sounds and letters
One of the main Catalan and Spanish differences are sounds (or what linguists call phonemes). This is specially visible when examining vowels. In Spanish there’s only one sound for each vowel, while in Catalan there are two sounds for “e” and two sounds for “o“.
The close-mid e sounds like the e in dress in British English) and the open-mid e sounds more like dress in American English). Don’t get frustrated if you don’t get the difference: my brother had a hard time picking it up for school, even if he’s a Catalan native and pronounces the difference e correctly!
Same happens with o: there are two phonemes in Catalan for o: the open-mid o like thought in English, and the close-mid o like goat in American English. To this we must add the Schwa (the infamous “vocal neutra”, feared by Catalan students who always have a hard time to figure out if they should write an a or an e. In English you find it in words like comma. And there’s also very subtle variations when two vowels combine in diphthongs – but discussing that would be too much for the scope of this blog post.
As for consonants, Catalan doesn’t have the voiceless velar fricative (sorry, I’m getting too freak here: have you heard Spaniards say “jamón“? or can you say “loch” in a very strong Scottish accent?). In Catalan g is pronounced like English does the s in measure (a sound that doesn’t exist in Spanish, except for a dialect spoken in Argentina and Uruguay). The Spanish letter ch doesn’t exist in Catalan, although its sound (like in English cheap) does happen in other letter combinations (x-, -tx-, -ig) and depending on the dialect. Catalan does use the English sound for sh (but used when x is written), but in Spanish you’ll only hear it in some areas of Andalusia, Argentina and Uruguay.
And while the letter ñ does not exist in Catalan, we use the combination ny to pronounce the same sound (that doesn’t seem to exist in English). The Spanish z is pronounced like the th in English in thigh, a sound that does not exist en Catalan as we pronounce z as in English zap (this sound existed in ancient Spanish but it’s not used anymore). Finally, in Catalan we do use the letter ç (non existent in modern Spanish), but it’s pronounced like an s. And sorry! The rolled r sound that is so hard for English-speakers to learn… is used in both Spanish and Catalan!
Grammar and orthography
Ok, I’m aware that the previous point was pretty dense, and talking about grammar and orthography risked getting twice as dense… So let’s be very basic. In many aspects, Catalan grammar is more similar to French and Italian than to Spanish (what makes it easier for Catalan speakers to learn these languages, woohoo!). A good example of that is the use of weak pronouns like hi and en, non existent in Spanish.
Also, Spanish orthography is pretty straight forward, with few exceptions. Instead, learning Catalan language means memorizing lists and lists of exceptions. An interesting fact is that the English word “and” is “y” in Spanish and “i” in Catalan (both pronounced like English “e”). Catalan native speakers writing in Spanish often write “i” instead of “y”, not because lack of knowledge but because of writing on auto-pilot.
Want some Catalan and Spanish examples?
Many words in Catalan and Spanish are similar because they have common Latin roots. That’s also true when compared with other Romance languages discussed before). But completely different words aren’t rare.
My favorite example, and one that I use often in my tours when I’m asked about how is Catalan compared to Spanish, are the words for cat and dog. While the words for cat are very similar (gato in Spanish, gat in Catalan), the words for dog are completely different: in Spanish we say perro, while in Catalan we say gos.
And you know the funniest thing? Dogs in Spanish bark “guau guau”, while in Catalan they bark “bup bup”! (maybe we had smaller dogs in the past?). Lol.
Were you aware of the differences of Catalan vs Spanish?
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