There is sometimes a common misconception that Spanish and Catalan are basically the same thing, or even that Catalan is a regional dialect of Spanish. But they are in fact two very distinct languages, with rich cultural heritages and histories.
In fact, there have been influential figures in both languages. Some have provided some interesting quotes in Spanish, whilst others have contributed to the world's of art and architecture from Catalonia.
The Catalan language itself is associated with north-eastern Spain and the area of Catalonia, whereas the history of the Spanish language shows that it is mainly associated with central and southern Spain, such as the cities of Madrid, Seville, and Granada.
They do have similar roots, so you will see some similarities in the vocabulary, but a lot of people say that Catalan is more similar to Portuguese or Italian than it is to Spanish.
If you are deciding which of the two you want to learn as a second language then you'll need to decide what you need the language for, and the speakers who you will primarily talking to.
Similar Origins for the Catalan Language and Spanish
An introduction to the Spanish language will tell you that it is, alongside Catalan, a romance language. They both derive from vulgar Latin, which the Romans took to the Iberian peninsula when they invaded in the 3 century BC. By the 9th century AD, both languages had started developing in their own right, but in different ways and different places.
Spanish developed as Castilian in central and northern Spain, with the variety that was being spoken in the city of Toledo in the 1200s becoming the basis for what we have today. Catalan was developing at the same time, except on both sides of the eastern Pyrenees, in north-eastern Spain.
Both languages went on to spread outwards as the regions where they were spoken expanded. Catalan reached Valencia (where it came to be called Valencian), and Castilian Spanish expanded further south and east.
The crucial point for the rise of Castilian and the decline of Catalan was the uniting of the Castille and Aragon crowns in 1479. This gave Castilian Spanish more prestige, and it took on a more important role than Catalan.
Its rise to prominence coincided with Spanish exploration of the new world which took Castilian Spanish far an wide. Within a couple of hundred years it had started influencing Catalan literature, and most writers and traders had become bilingual.
Where is Catalan Spoken and Where is Spanish Spoken?
The geographical distributions of Catalan and Spanish differ enormously. As the language of Spanish crown in the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish benefited from the global expansion of the Spanish empires. Today, it is spoken as an official language in 20 different countries on three continents:
- Costa Rica
- Plus many more
Catalan is one of four different Co-official Languages of Spain (alongside Basque, Galician, and Occitan) and therefore didn't benefit from the way that the Spanish empire reached all four corners of the globe in the same way that Spanish did.
It is spoken as an official language in Andorra, as well as three communities of Spain; the Balearic Islands, Catalonia, and Valencian Community.
This means that, generally speaking, Spanish is spoken all over Spain, but Catalan is only spoken in certain parts. However, in the areas where Catalan is spoken, you will find it is much more prevalent than Spanish. For example, it is often the language of choice between friends and family in Barcelona meaning that you will hear it being spoken in the street, and in cafes and restaurants.
But don't worry if you would prefer to learn Spanish and you want to visit or live in Barcelona. Catalan is the preferred language for all regional matters, but in a city as important internationally as Barcelona where many businesses and events extend being being regional, Spanish is found all over.
In fact, most people in Catalan speaking areas speak Spanish too. It is only in the more remote and smaller towns and villagers where this might not be the case.
Catalan and Spain: A Clash of Cultures?
The language and culture of Catalonia are very distinct from other parts of Spain, to the extent that there is a strong independence sentiment in parts of the semi-autonomous province.
Catalonians are viewed as being hard-working with a strong business acumen, but who are perhaps less exuberant and less outgoing than in other parts of Spain.
It is also a region that is very proud of its gastronomy. Spain is held in very high regard when it comes to its food due to dishes such as paella and tapas.
But Catalonia is very proud of regional dishes which tend to differ from those in Madrid due to the proximity to the sea, and the influence from neighbouring France. Some Catalan favourites include:
- Butifarra (a cinnamon pork sausage)
- Fideuas (noodles)
- Calçots (spring onions)
- Pa amb tomaquet (toasted bread with tomato, olive oil and salt)
What's more, Catalonia celebrates certain dates and festivals that aren't celebrated elsewhere in Spain. These include Sant Joan (24th July), La Diada (11th September), Sant Esteban (26th December).
So as you can probably see, the language and the culture it is often celebrated with great pride in Catalonia. Some nationalists choose to only speak Catalan, partly to push forward the independence movement, but also as a response to the repress that Catalan has suffered at various points throughout history.
None is remembered as vividly as during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco when his Spanish government banned all use of Catalan in schools and public buildings. This was part of his attempts to promote the dominance of Spanish over all regional languages in Spain.
As part of this, FC Barcelona had to change their name from Catalan to Spanish, and Joan Manuel Serrat was forbidden from singing a song in Catalan at the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest.
When Spain returned to a democracy after Franco's death in 1975, schools in Catalonia were once again given the right to teach in Catalan, and the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan government) was restored and its autonomous powers were given back in the Spanish constitution of 1978.
The keys differences in culture between Catalonia and other parts of Spain are embodied in this romance language. It is used as a tool to promote Catalonian culture, and as a method of remembering the history of the region.
However, in the same way, Spanish and the culture of Spain are connected in more ways that we probably know, and this contributes to identity in other parts of Spain.
The Differences Between Spanish and Catalan
Both of these two languages possess their own individual characteristics:
- Different grammar (Catalan has its own grammar books thanks to the creation of the Institut d’Estudis Catlans in 1907)
- Different way of spelling similarly sounding words (window is finestra in Catalan and ventana in Spanish), as well as the use of the double “s” or the “ç” in Catalan
- A specific intonation: in Spanish the accents all go in the same direction while in Catalan, there are grave tonal accents (such as À) and acute accents (such as É)
- Spanish has 5 vowel sounds, where as Catalan has 8. What's more, they can be open, closed, or neutral depending on whether they are stressed, unstressed, or neutral
- A masculine vowel in Spanish that is absent in Catalan (caballo/cabal)
- Spanish is a completely phonetic when written, meaning that each letter has a sound when it is read. Catalan is similar to English in the sense that it is not
- Catalan uses voiced and unvoiced vowels, and it shares the Portuguese L. Spanish does not.
An In-Depth Look at Pronunciation
Remember, there are different Spanish accents around the world, so pronunciation can differ slightly from place to place. But in general, Spanish is distinct from English because of the syntactical construction, and the frequent use of the subjunctive. Of course, vocabulary also contributes to creating large differences with English although certain words seem similar.
For example, television, banda (band of delinquents), momento (moment), problema (problem), but numerous words have nothing to do with English and don’t share the same root (like mesa for table). In Spanish, la jota (j) is pronounced differently, as well as the letter “c.”
The most difficult part is without doubt the conjugation, but there is no age limit to learning Spanish! Numerous people choose late in life to take private spanish lessons.
Catalan does not have as many similarities with English as Spanish does, and even less so when it comes to phrases. For example, in Catalan "tens nens?" means “Do you have children?”
We don’t have time here for an exhaustive course on the Catalan language, but you can observe a bit of the proximity of some numbers: zero for zero, un for one, sis for six.
In Catalan, all the letters are pronounced, notably two vowels stuck to each other (a diphthong) like in the phrase a raveure (goodbye).
The Tone Accent in Spanish and Catalan
The two languages have what is called the tone or pitch accent which does not exist in English. There are different rules for the correct pronunciation.
As you know, sometimes there is a written accent that signals a stress, and sometimes you have to accentuate the second to last syllable; this exists in Spanish and Catalan.
In Spanish, there is a stress on the second to last syllable of a word that ends in a vowel or in the consonants “n” and “s” and the last syllable when the word ends in other consonants.
In Catalan, every word with more than one syllable has that famous tone accent. The third to last syllable can also be accentuated in the case of proparoxytones.
This is one of the particularities of Spanish accents.
What are the Similarities Between the Catalan and Spanish Languages?
Just like Spanish and Portuguese share similarities and differences, so do Catalan and Spanish. And for all of the differences that we have mentioned here, they do share some similarities. This is largely due to their shared origin as romance languages. When it comes to grammar in particular we can see certain similarities:
- Two genders for nouns (male and female)
- Singular and plural forms for nouns
- High inflection meaning the verb changes depending on tense, person, number, gender etc
- The pronunciation of the letter "v" is pronounced as a "b" in both languages
- Some verbs are very similar, such as the important verbs of ser/estar in Spanish, which translate to ésser/estar in Catalan
It is estimated that there is an 85% lexical similarity between the two languages meaning that a lot of vocabulary is shared by them both.
If you are reading this and considering which one you should learn, or if it is possible to learn them both at the same time, you should ask yourself what you are going to use the language for. If you are going to Catalonia, then Catalan might be of more use, but even so learning beginners Spanish before travelling will be useful as situations where it is required may still arise, even though you might be spending the majority of time with Catalan speakers.