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What Distinguishes Spanish from Catalan?

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Spanish > What are the Differences Between Spanish and Catalan?

People often wonder what distinguishes Spanish from Catalan.

In reality, there are multiple answers spanning many levels (political, cultural, linguistic, historical, etc.)!

To a person who doesn’t know either language, the two might seem similar, but in reality they don’t have that many characteristics in common.

Learning Spanish is not the same thing as learning Catalan!

Let’s do an overview on what distinguishes Spanish from Catalan without forgetting their similarities!

diffrerences spanish catalan Two flags in the wind!

An Overview of Castilian Spanish

Spanish as we know it today corresponds is the dialect known as Castilian, of Latin origin and classified as an Indo-European language.

Spanish is the official language of 20 countries in the world and is spoken by more than 400 million people throughout the globe.

When we talk about Spain and Latin America, we are speaking about the Spanish language.

It’s the official language of Spain, as opposed to the regional languages, which include Catalan, Basque, and Galician.

There is proof of the use of Castilian Spanish as early as the 15th century, in official and legal documents, as well as in Spanish diplomacy throughout the world. This hasn’t changed, despite the existence of bilingualism.

The Differences Between Spanish and Catalan

These two languages, completely distinct, each possess their own individual characteristics:

  • A different grammar (Catalan has its own grammar books thanks to the creation of the Institut d’Estudis Catlans in 1907)
  • A different vocabulary (window is finestra in Catalan and ventana in Spanish), as well as the use of the double “s” or the “ç” in Catalan
  • The defined zones where they are spoken (Spain and Spanish-speaking countries for Castilian, and Catalonia as well as a few specific regions in Europe for 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). Castilian has 5 vowels while Catalan has 8!
  • A masculine vowel in Spanish that is absent in Catalan (caballo/cabal)
  • Castilian derives from a dialect of the Kingdom of Castile dating from the 15th century. Although we often think Catalan is a dialect, it’s actually a language in its own right!

In Europe, Catalan is spoken more than Spanish because all its speakers are concentrated in the same area.

In fact, Catalan is the most spoken language of a nation without a state! Interesting, isn’t it?

An In-Depth look at Pronunciation: Differences Between Spanish and Catalan

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 no 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 phrases even less so. 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.

Other Common Characteristics Between Castilian and Catalan

In addition to sounds, Catalan and Spanish share a few similarities in terms of how the language works. For example, the presence of a verbal couple ser/estar in Spanish, and ésser/estar in Catalan.

The letter “v” is pronounced as “b” in both languages.

Catalan, a Language Forbidden Under Franco, Unlike Castilian

Before 1936, people were fighting to reintroduce Catalan into schools, and it had already started being used again more and more in the media. Franco’s victory resulted in a ban on using any language other than Spanish in the Spanish territory.

Catalan leaders were imprisoned, such as the politician Jordi Pujol, and there were numerous cases of discrimination against the Catalan people. It wasn’t until 1975, the year of General Franco’s death, that Catalan was unmuzzled.

Upon Spain’s return to democracy, Catalan is once again considered an official language, and the Generalitat of Catalunya is written into the Spanish constitution.

Today in Catalonia, which represents only 6% of the Spanish territory, all the inhabitants have the right to learn and speak the two languages (Castilian and Catalan).

Which constitutes a true cultural richness and which also makes it easier to learn other languages. If you’re interested in the subject, check out this excellent article on the Catalan language.

Catalan: the main language learned in school in Catalonia?

Catalan is today without a doubt dominant in Catalan territories. Catalan is in fact the language used in academia, from primary school to graduate school. It is spoken by around 9 million people, mainly in the north of Spain.

In Catalonia, Catalan is the language used in the administration and in the workforce, but bilingualism with Spanish remains common. Catalan speakers are also fluent in Spanish, although the inverse isn’t true. Nevertheless, Catalan is an official language in Catalonia just like Castilian.

Is Catalan a Dialect of Spanish?

Catalan is not merely a dialect of the Spanish language, but its own language composed of around twenty dialects.

Its origin is derived from the vernacular Latin of the 2nd century. It appears in the Middle Ages, around the 12th century, and is influenced by the language of the troubadours. It then evolves autonomously like French or Italian.

Good to know: Catalan is very similar to Provençal, also known as Occitan, with which it shares an ancient literary tradition, like twin languages.

Where is Catalan spoken?

  • In the Balearic Islands
  • In Andorra (you know, that little country where you can stock up on alcohol and cigarettes). It’s been the official language there since 1993.
  • In Roussillon (France’s Catalonia)
  • Valencia and its surroundings
  • In Alghero, an Italian village located in Sardinia, where 20% of inhabitants still speak an ancient Sardinian-influenced Catalan.

The rivalry between those from Madrid and those from Catalonia is historic and resurges today very clearly in the rivalry between the two emblematic soccer teams (Réal and Barça).

catalan language spanish lessons Are you rooting for Messi or Ronaldo?

Though Catalan and Spanish have their differences, they are still two languages derived from vernacular Latin with a certain number of common characteristics! Much like the differences and similarities that can be found between Portuguese and Spanish.

Are you trying to travel to Spain anytime soon? Also dicover this guide to Spanish culture and language.


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