Catalan belongs to the Occitano-Romance branch of the Romance langua­ges. It is largely spoken in eastern Spain, particularly in the autonomous communities of Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. It is estimated to have 4.1 million native speakers and over 10 million speakers overall. I studied it for two years at university, and wrote my honours thesis about a book written in Catalan, Amb ulls de nena. Unfortunately my Catalan is very rusty now!

In the Middle Ages, Catalan (along with its French twin, Occitan)1 was a prestigious language spoken in much of the western Mediterranean and used in many literary, legal and other works. However, after the 1479 union of Castile and Aragon (with Catalonia being part of the mediaeval Kingdom of Aragon), it gradually came to be eclipsed by Spanish. The Nueva Planta decrees mandated the use of Spanish in all legal documents, but there was still a nineteenth-century Renaixença in Catalan literature, and Catalan continued to be the language of Catalonia’s mercantile class. After a brief period of liberalisation under the Second Republic, Catalan was heavily repressed under the Franco dictatorship. Following the return to democracy in Spain, Catalan has returned to a position of prominence. All school students in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands and most in Valencia learn in Catalan-medium schools, so even those from Castilian-speaking families are fully fluent. Catalan is the dominant language on signage and used heavily in the media, business and politics. It is, however, still only a minority language in Rousillon or Alguer.

Much of its core vocabulary is more similar to Gallo-Italic languages than to Iberian ones, e.g. parlar for “to talk”, menjar for “to eat”, formatge for “cheese”. However, as Catalonia has been part of Spain for centuries, much of its higher-level vocabulary is now more like Spanish’s. It is grammatically quite similar to Spanish; some differences are its tendency to use a peri­phrastic past tense (e.g. vaig pensar instead of pensí)2 and its use of the clitics en and hi (like French). Some regular sound changes include the loss of word-final -o relative to Spanish, the subsequent devoicing of final consonants, and the fronting of -as to -es, so that (as one example) Spanish amigo, amiga, amigos, amigas are cognate to Catalan amic, amiga, amics, amigues.

The major dialects of Catalan are:

  • Eastern Catalan
    • Central Catalan (spoken in provinces of Barcelona, most of Girona, eastern half of Tarragona – also forms the basis of Standard Catalan)
    • Balearic dialects of Catalan (spoken on the islands of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formenter)
    • Northern Catalan (spoken in Roussillon, France and in a little transition zone into Girona)
    • Alguerese (spoken in Algher, Italy)
  • Western Catalan
    • Valencian (spoken in most of Valencia)
    • Northwestern Catalan (spoken in Andorra, the provinces of Lleida and the western half of Tarragona and La Franja of Aragón)

There are a number of vocabulary, phonological and even grammatical differences between the dialects. I think one of the most immediately apparent differences is the treatment of unstressed vowels. In Eastern Catalan there are only three: /ə/ (spelt ⟨a, e⟩), /i/ (spelt ⟨i⟩) and /u/ (spelt ⟨o, u⟩). In Western Catalan there are five: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. Travelling in the Països Catalans, you can also tell when you’ve crossed the border from Catalonia into Valencia because the “exit” signs at train stations start saying eixida instead of sortida.

The Partido Popular – who generally oppose efforts to promote Catalan anyway – have attempted to claim that Valencian and Balearic are completely separate languages with no shared heritage with Catalan, in order to “divide and conquer” the language.

  1. Catalan and Occitan diverged a fair bit after the Middle Ages, particularly phonologically, but at the time they were very much dialects of the same language. ↩︎

  2. Although the simple past is still used in writing, and in Valencian they still regularly use the simple past in speech. ↩︎