Barcelona is known for its beautiful coastline, unique architecture and sensational food. Most people know all that, but few people are aware that the language spoken most commonly in this part of Spain is not Spanish. It’s Catalan.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing this. In this article, we bring you some clarity on the subject, providing you with answers to the most common questions we hear about these two beautiful languages.
First thing’s first, we’d like you to remember the following:
Catalan is a language in Spain, not a dialect of Spanish. What’s more, while both Catalan and Spanish originated from Latin, they are not mutually intelligible. They make look similar on paper, but Catalan and Spanish possess different sets of grammar rules, lexicon, sounds and even alphabet.
By the end of this article, you’ll know all about that. We’ll also take you through:
What both languages sound like (video below).
The main similarities and differences between Catalan and Spanish.
Where Catalan and Spanish are spoken, their origin and key facts about both.
One thing before we get started: If you’re serious about learning to speak Spanish or Catalan then you can chat with a native tutor via italki, a site full of language tutors and students. Every Spanish or Catalan learner that signs up here will receive $10, enough for a 1 hour lesson. Tap this link to find out more.
Where is Catalan spoken?
Spain has 17 different autonomous regions that fall under its umbrella. Of these 17 regions, there are three major autonomies where Catalan is common. These areas are Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands.
Outside of Spain, Catalan is the official language of Andorra. You will also hear Catalan spoken in some French regions, although it is not an official language of France.
In total, approximately 9.5 million people speak Catalan, whilst 11 million understand it. It is considered a Gallo-Romance language, which means it originated more from France’s geographical region.
This makes its origins different from those of the Spanish language, which originated in the Iberian Peninsula.
How Different is Catalan From Spanish?
In order to understand the differences between Catalan and Spanish, it is important to look at the history of both languages.
Meanwhile, Castilian Spanish – known in Spanish as ‘castellano,’ came from what is now Northern and Central Spain.
From around the 8th century, Arabic and Moorish invasions influenced this language more than Catalan. In fact, many Spanish words today are written and pronounced similarly to the Arabic words from which they derive.
An example of this is ‘al‘ which means ‘the’ in Arabic. Today, more than 8,000 Spanish words begin with al! Interestingly, when you listen to Catalan, you’ll notice its resemblance to French (as well as Spanish).
When you take into account the region of Catalonia’s proximity to France, it is unsurprising that both languages are so similar. Indeed, Catalonia is separated from France only by the Pyrenees mountains.
Catalan vs Spanish – Linguistic Differences
Now that we know the historical origins of both languages, we can see how different they sound.
Below are a few key themes that diverge between Catalan and Spanish.
In the context of language, ‘phonetic’ refers to a direct correspondence between symbols and sounds. Put more simply, the pronunciation of the language is as written.
Spanish is more phonetic than Catalan, which (typically) makes it easier than Catalan to learn and pronounce for foreign learners.
In Spanish, the pronunciation of a word does not usually depend on the word before it.
In Catalan, this is different, with more liaisons between words; we see this in the French language too.
For example, Catalan speakers will pronounce a ‘z’ sound between a word that ends with ‘s’ and another that begins with a vowel (i.e.in the phrase els agrada, which means they like it’).
Vowels and Consonants
Spanish has five vowels: A, E, I, O, U. In comparison, Catalan has seven: À, È, É, Í, Ò, Ó, and Ú.
As for constants, Spanish has the letter ñ, while Catalan writes the same noise as “ny”.
This is demonstrated in the spelling of Catalonia in both languages. In Castilian Spanish, the spelling is ‘Cataluña,’ whilst in Catalan it’s ‘Catalunya‘.
Additionally, the Catalan language contains a ‘z’ sound, whilst Spanish does not.
In fact, a ‘z’ in Spanish is pronounced as an “s” (more typically in Latin America) or as a “th” (more typically in Spain).
The placement of consonants can help to distinguish between Catalan and Spanish, too.
For example, in Spanish, vowels are placed between consonants, whilst this is not always the case in Catalan.
You’re more likely to see a greater variety of consonant combinations in Catalan, such as ‘gts’ and ‘ks.’
Catalan vs Spanish: Language Examples
Plenty of words will help you to recognize the main differences between Catalan and Spanish.
Some of them are similar because they share the same Latin or Arabic-influenced roots.
Other words are entirely different, as we’ll see in translations for strawberry, for example. Here is a list of nouns, verbs, and phrases translated between English, Spanish, and Catalan.
Below, you’ll notice that Catalan uses the letter ‘x’. In Spanish, you can pronounce an X like the English ‘ks’ sound, or ‘h’ as in ‘hot.’ In Catalan, the x will make a ‘sh’ sound instead.
Strawberry: fresa: maduixa.
Car: coche: cotxe.
Cheese: queso: formatge.
You’ll notice that the last Catalan word for cheese ‘formtage’, much resembles the French word for the same meaning – ‘fromage.’
To like: gustar: agradar.
To mix: mezclar: barrejar.
To speak: hablar: parlar.
The Catalan word ‘parlar’ resembles the same French verb ‘parler’ and Italian’s ‘parlare.’
The same verb in Spanish – ‘hablar’ – derives from the Latin word fabulare, which means to chat, converse, or make up a fable.
Medieval Spanish used the ‘f’, but likely pronounced it as an ‘h’, eventually reflecting this in writing. In contrast, the Latin word parlare meant to speak.
This root formed the basis for Catalan’s parlar.
For the following phrases, you’ll notice Spanish uses an inverted question mark at the beginning of each question.
Keep in mind that Catalan also uses the inverted symbol, but not for short phrases. For Catalan, you’ll tend only to use the symbol if it’s in a long sentence.
Hello: Hola: Bon dia.
Thank you: Gracias: Merci.
Can I see the menu?: ¿Puedo ver el menú?: Puc veure el menú?.
How much does this cost?: ¿Cuánto cuesta?: Quant costa això?.
Catalan vs Spanish: Which one should you learn?
Overall, both Catalan and Spanish are great languages to have in your repertoire, but Spanish is obviously more useful in the vast majority of cases.
Remember, you will never lose from learning more than one language.
What’s more, although both Catalan and Spanish are different languages, the ability to speak one will help you to learn and understand the other.
If you are planning to visit Latin America or any part of Spain then Castilian Spanish will, undoubtedly, be of greater use to you; about 470 million people speak Spanish as a native language, which makes it the second most spoken language in the world.
However, if you’re planning to visit Catalonia, particularly more rural areas, then possessing the ability to speak Catalan could prove to be a great advantage.
Whilst both Catalan and Castilian Spanish are official languages of the region, native Catalonians will appreciate the gesture and are proud of their first language.
For many professions, you will also need to be able to speak Catalan if you plan to live and work in Catalonia.
Finally, remember that when you’re learning any language, you need to be able to dedicate a good amount of time to study. Often, this comes to us in the most unexpected ways, such as the commute to work with language apps or online with a tutor.
We hope this Catalan vs Spanish comparison article has been useful to you.
Be sure to check out our list of Spanish Language Resources, many of which enable you to learn Catalan as well as Spanish. Good luck on your language learning journey!