What’s the difference between Spanish and Catalan languages?

As you travel around the world, it’s important to remember that the official language of a country is not always what the locals are speaking. And Spain is a prime example!

Castellano (Castilian Spanish, or Spanish as we know it with the familiar ‘th’ sound of the ‘z’ and ‘c’ letters) is the only official language of Spain at a national level. However, there are several regional languages: BasqueGalicianAranese, and Catalan.

In some regions these languages are spoken by most of the people, so it is worth taking the trouble to recognise them.

Catalan is only a semi-official language in Catalonia. This includes much of North Eastern Spain and Eastern Spain as far down as Valencia, plus the Balearic Islands. It is the official language of Andorra only. In other parts of the world it is spoken in a minor capacity in Alghero, Sardinia and in the French area of the Eastern Pyrenees

Are Catalan and Spanish the same?

Catalan is recognised as a separate language from Spanish – i.e. NOT a dialect of Spanish. They are both Western Romance Languages but come from different branches. Spanish is from Iberian-Romance (which includes Portuguese) and Catalan is from Gallo-Romance (which includes French). 

Both Spanish and Catalan date back to the Romans. Although Spanish culture and literature is well known, Catalan also has a fine cultural and literary tradition dating back to the early middle ages.

Catalan is spoken by 11 million people. It is actually completely different to Spanish. If you start to read a little Catalan, you will see just how much that is true. Although it has some small similarities to Spanish, it is also a bit like French.

What are the most significant differences between Spanish and Catalan?

1. The simple past tense

Catalan has a simple past tense different from other Romance languages. It is formed with the present tense of the verb ‘anar’ (to go) plus the infinitive of the main verb. So ‘I sang’ is ‘vaig cantar’ – literally ‘I go sing’. But in Catalan ‘vaig cantar’ means ‘I sang’ rather that ‘I am going to sing’, as it would in Spanish (voy a cantar) – and in English, for that matter. See how one word can make such a difference!

2. The pronoun ‘en’

Which means ‘of that’ (or ‘that which has been mentioned previously’). There are similar pronouns in French (en) and Italian (ne), but these do not exist at all in Spanish. For example, in Catalan ‘Tenim cinc tomàquets. En menjaré dos’  translates to the Sapnish “Tenemos cinco tomates. Me comeré dos de ellos’. In English, this literally means ‘We have five tomatoes. I will eat two of them.’ Like the Spanish, we have to go to the trouble of adding ‘of them’ to the end of the sentence.

3. Affricates tz, tg:

These are quite harsh, explosive sounds with two hard consonants together. Catalan has some which are not used in Spanish at all. For example in ‘dotze’ (‘doce’ in Spanish, ‘twelve’ in English) and ‘metge’ (‘medico’ in Spanish, ‘doctor’ in English).

Why is there controversy about speaking Spanish or Catalan in Spain?

The history of Catalonia is somewhat turbulent! This has resulted in gains and losses to Catalonia’s autonomy over the last thousand years.

In 1936 the dictatorship of Francisco Franco completely abolished all regional autonomy in Spain. His desire was to unify Spain and bring it all under his control. Despite Franco himself being Galician, his government revoked the official statute and recognition for the BasqueGalician and Catalan languages that the Republic had granted them for the first time in the history of Spain. The former policy of promoting Spanish as the only official language of the state and education was resumed. Even though millions of the country’s citizens spoke other languages. The legal usage of languages other than Spanish was forbidden.

After Franco’s death in 1975 and the return of democracy in Spain, Catalonia regained its autonomy within Spain.

Today, Catalonia is an autonomous region and perhaps the richest part of Spain. There is a strong movement to obtain total independence from Spain, so far rejected. Regardless of whether Catalonia becomes independent or continues to be part of Spain, its strong regional character is certain to stay.

What advice can you give about Catalan?

It is important to recognise the sensitivity of travelling in Catalonia. Spanish is spoken in most of Barcelona, ??but in some provincial cities, Catalan is now the dominant language. Addressing people in Catalan instead of Spanish is very well received, in my personal experience.

Street names, road signs, notices and instructions that you see in Catalonia are usually written in Catalan first and foremost. To the uninitiated, it can be hard to work out if things are written in Catalan or Spanish.

Use the following seven tips to identify if you are reading Catalan or Spanish.

  1. Catalan uses consonant clusters whereas Spanish requires a vowel sound between consonant sounds (most of the time).
  2. Catalan often leaves out vowels -o, -a, or -e that are common in Spanish; – “gato ” in Spanish is “gat” in Catalan.
  3. Catalan leaves out the “n” in many nouns, e.g. “formación” is “formacio” in Catalan and “catalan” is “català” in Catalan.
  4. Catalan changes “o” at the end of a verb, such as “ocupado” which becomes “occupat” in Catalan.
  5. Catalan uses “ny” corresponding to Spanish “ñ”, in Portuguese “nh”, or French / Italian “gn”; e.g “manyana”.
  6. Catalan uses both accents, the grave and the acute, such as á, ò, è: anglès, francès; Spanish uses only the acute as in “café” 
  7. Catalan sometimes uses a dot within two “L” letters, for example, in the word “paral·lel”, which does not exist in Spanish.

We hope that the above has been useful! If you are thinking of learning Spanish, check out Talk Languages’ free Tempting Tasters to receive lessons and exercises by email for 10 weeks. If you are thinking of learning Catalan, Talk Languages may be able to help you find a personal tutor.


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