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What is the difference between Spanish and Catalan?

Suzannah Riddell
Written by Suzannah Riddell

Whether it’s a short break or a long stay, it’s a good idea to try and pick up a bit of the local language wherever you are going. Even if it’s just “please” and “thank you”, a little goes a long way. A long term move, however, does require more serious thought into learning the language of your new home. Coming to Barcelona, or anywhere in Catalonia provides an extra complication; which language do you choose? Spanish or Catalan? Is one more spoken that the other? Is one easier to learn? If you learn one, will it be easier to learn the other? How similar are they? Let’s take a look.

Similarities between Spanish and Catalan

Spanish and Catalan are both Romance languages. This means that, as is the case across the linguistic group, the two languages share many similarities. Spanish and Catalan grammar share many features: both languages are highly inflected (the verb is changed according to grammatical categories such as tense, person, gender, number, etc.); in each language nouns have two genders (male and female), and two numbers (singular and plural); the pronouns of each language also use a neuter gender. Beyond common grammatical elements, the two languages have a lexical similarity of 85%, meaning that there is considerable overlap between vocabularies.

Mutually intelligible languages?

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In the bustling metropolis of Barcelona, the languages live side by side as co-official languages. Here, it’s unlikely you’ll find anyone who speaks only Catalan and it’s common to see two people conversing with one speaking Spanish and the other Catalan, with no problems of comprehension. We know that the grammar and vocabulary are similar: ipso facto Spanish and Catalan are mutually intelligible, right?

It’s not quite that simple. The further you travel from Barcelona, the harder it will be to find people who speak both languages. Though most Catalans probably know Spanish, it may be in the way that they once learned a language in school but they never used it after they left. Classes are taught in Catalan; Spanish is learned as a subject. Many Spanish speakers from the rest of Spain or Latin America coming to the region say they can’t understand the language before you’ve spent some time around it or made an effort to learn it.

So, in fact, the two may not be as similar as it first appears. While they are both Romance Languages, this is quite a broad umbrella term which includes French, Italian, and Portuguese. Linguists disagree on whether Catalan should be categorized as Iberian Romance Language, like Spanish; Gallo-Romance, or Occitan Romance, and in fact, many people say that Spanish is much more similar to Portuguese than to Catalan.

Related article: An introduction to the Catalan language

Differences between Spanish and Catalan

A few key differences between Spanish and Catalan for keen linguists;

  • Photo via Pixabay

    Written Spanish is entirely phonetic, each letter you read has a sound. Catalan (like English), is not.

  • Spanish has five vowel soundsCatalan has eight which may be open, closed or neutral, depending on if they are stressed, unstressed or neutral.
  • Catalan uses constant clusters whereas Spanish requires a vowel sound between consonant sounds (most of the time).
  • Catalan uses linkage. Pronunciation of a word depending on what comes after it
  • Catalan uses voiced and unvoiced vowels.
  • Catalan shares the Portuguese L, Spanish does not.

Examples

English Spanish Catalan
house casa casa
brother hermano german
To go Voy anar
I went Fui Vaig anar

Related article: A taste of Catalan

In what areas of Spain is Catalan spoken?

Beyond Catalonia, Catalan is spoken, and holds official status, in the Balearic Islands, and Valencia (as a distinct variant known as Valencian). It is spoken but without holding official status in Aragon (La Franja), and Murcia (Carche). It is also spoken in southern France, Sardinia, and it is the official language of Andorra.

What other languages are spoken in Spain?

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While Spanish (or Castilian) is the official national language of Spain, there are four co-official languages, and numerous non-official languages and dialects. Catalan is one of these four, the other three being  Aranese, co-official in Catalonia, spoken mainly in the Pyrenean county of the Aran Valley in north western Catalonia; Basque, spoken in the Basque Country and northern Navarre (this is the only non-Romance language spoken in Spain); and Galician, which is spoken in Galicia, and without official recognition in western parts of Asturias and Castille and Leon.

Minority, non-official languages spoken in Spain are Aragonese, spoken in Aragon; Asturian, spoken in Asturias; and Leonese, spoken in Castille and Leon. Aside from this wealth of languages, a number of dialects can be found in Spain including Andalusian, and Canarian.

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About the author

Suzannah Riddell

Suzannah Riddell

Suzannah is a writer, dancer, and alternative therapist living in Barcelona.

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