The Iberian peninsula is a vast and vibrant region with a storied history of balkanization and reunification. Over the course of this history, there have been an entire host of different kingdoms, cultures, and languages that have all developed alongside each other. One of the better-known languages, aside from Spanish, is Catalan, the language of Catalonia.
But the question is, what is the difference between Catalan and Spanish? How are these two languages different, and how are they the same? Can they be learned side-by-side? How common is Catalan within Spain?
While it is a fairly simple question with a relatively simple answer (that is, a lot) there is a large amount of historical and linguistic information that surrounds the language of Catalonia, and as students of language, we would be remiss to not educate ourselves in such a history, especially if we are interested in learning Catalan.
History of Catalonia And Spain
Catalonia was first settled during the Middle Paleolithic era, and was occupied by the Iberians and Greeks prior to Roman conquest starting in 220 BCE. It was also under Visigothic rule for a time after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, and was occupied by Mohammedans of the Ummayad Caliphate until they were pushed back by Charlemagne around the year 800 CE. In the 10th century, the County of Barcelona became independent.
After the marriage of Ramiro II of Aragon to Petronila of Barcelona, the County became an official part of the Kingdom of Aragon. This is when the region of Catalonia began developing the culture and autonomous polity that we can recognize today.
Since then, the Iberian peninsula has been an important location for European politics, and the eventual formation of the Spanish Empire solidified the culture of Spain (and, by extension, Catalonia) as a major mainstay of European culture. Despite becoming part of Spain, and receiving substantial influence from Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and other cultures, Catalonia (and the Catalan language), have managed to retain an identity and sound quite unique among the other romance languages in the area.
How Common is Catalan in Spain?
This is a pertinent question for those learning Catalan, or people who are curious about whether or not they should learn it. Is Catalan common enough to bother learning? Is it unique enough to be interesting? Can’t you just learn Spanish? How different is it from Spanish, all things considered?
First things first, Catalan actually has a relatively large presence within Spain. The region of Catalonia contains Barcelona, a major city and attractive tourist destination, where the majority of people speak Spanish. Outside of Barcelona, however, many may be surprised to find that most people actually use Catalan in their every day lives. This comes as no surprise, since it has been the dominant language in the region for hundreds of years.
The people of Catalonia also have a certain amount of cultural pride, and are very vehement about keeping their culture unique from that of Spain as a whole. Some of you may remember the debate about Catalonian independence a few years back, which should solidify the idea in everybody’s mind that Catalan is very different from Spanish.
But how is Catalan different from Spanish? Well, in order to delve into this topic, we will need to first study how Catalan and Spanish are actually similar to one another.
In linguistics, languages are divided into families based on their history, grammar, pronunciation, and affect on each other. One of the most well-known language families is the Romance family. These are languages that can trace their roots back to Vulgar Latin, the language commonly spoken within the western Roman Empire before its fall.
The most well-known romance languages include Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian. Catalan itself belongs to the subfamily of Occitano-Romance languages. This subset also includes Occitan (the language of Oc), as well as Gascon. These languages are less well-known to most people, but still have a number of native speakers in Northern Spain and Southern France.
Since Spanish is part of the Ibero-Romance group, along with Portuguese, Catalan has less in common with Spanish as it does with French, which may come as a surprise to some people. However, the more you study Catalan, the more obvious this connection will become.
So, How Different are Catalan And Spanish
In many ways, Catalan and Spanish are very similar. You can see the obvious influence from Vulgar Latin in both languages, and speakers can recognize certain similarities in each other’s speech and writing, to a degree. That being said, there are a few key ways in which Catalan differs from Spanish, and a lot of these differences come from the extensive French influence that the Catalan language has received.
As a student of language, the first difference that you will probably notice is in the pronunciation. Off the cuff, Catalan sounds almost like Portuguese. This perceived similarity comes from a few different ways that Catalan is pronounced compared to Spanish.
The first difference that most learners will probably notice is that written Spanish is entirely phonetic, and can be spelled based on how it sounds. This is not true of Catalan, and words will often be spelled differently from how they sound, as they are in French or English.
Another difference is the presence of consonant clusters. Spanish does not cluster consonants together to form different sounds, and is generally more flowing and percussive than Catalan, which sounds rougher and less rhythmic. There are also differences in how the letter L is pronounced in Catalan compared to Spanish, resulting in sounds like the li in the English word million.
Another important difference here is the tendency in Catalan for pronunciation to change based on context, which happens far less in Spanish. Basically, like in French, certain endings of Catalan words will change based on how they flow into the next word. A good example would be ‘fins aviat’ (see you soon), in which the s becomes more like an English z.
On that note, the Spanish language essentially does not have a sound like the English z (a voiced sibilant, for the linguists in the audience). Catalan, by contrast, does have a z sound, and many Spanish speakers learning Catalan often have difficulty learning this pronunciation.
Aside from pronunciation, there is an extensive system of differences based on etymology and influence. The best way to demonstrate these differences, as well as their complexities, is to take a look at the numbers one through ten in each language, side-by-side:
Special thanks to Cale of Velabas.com for the insight that went into this section.
As you can see, there are a few areas where the similarities kind of blur between Spanish and French. Sometimes Catalan sounds more like French, and other times, it sounds more like Spanish. This is actually more complex than it may seem from this table, since words like quatre, even though they are spelled more like the French equivalent, are actually pronounced closer to their Spanish counterpart.
This demonstrates a lot of the complex differences between Catalan and Spanish, and hopefully illustrates the types of differences language students will generally encounter when studying or comparing languages from closely-related linguistic families.
So, What Is The Difference Between Catalan And Spanish?
The fact of the matter is that they are two different languages. Although they are within the same linguistic family, they remain vastly different from each other, and continue to develop in different directions. If you’re curious about learning Catalan, or you live in Barcelona and you’re curious about the Catalan you hear around you, learning the history and differences between Catalan and Spanish will probably be a huge advantage to your studies.
Even with the similarities to Spanish, Catalan retains a distinct French flavor that simultaneously demonstrates a certain closeness to French, while also demonstrating a distinct uniqueness from the other Occito-Romance languages. Noticing differences like these, and being able to learn and participate in their development, is one of the essential backbones of a living language. If we did not study the difference between Catalan and Spanish, as well as other language pairs and entire linguistic families, we would have no hope of shaping the development of language in a positive direction.
Languages change when people learn them, or when the people that speak them learn other languages. This is how influence between languages is shared, and studying the history of how this happens gives us a very good insight to how language works, and how human communication moves forward. Hopefully we can keep this in mind, as language learners, as we move forward grinding through our grammar and vocab day after day.