Catalan is a Romance language, which means it is closely related to other languages that were derived from Latin such as Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian. Although it was once banned in Spain, Catalan has experienced a revival of sorts, and today you’ll find more than 4 million native speakers of the language. However, Catalan is the native tongue of only about 35.6% of the Catalan-speaking population . Most Catalan speakers, who reside primarily in Catalonia, País Valencià, Balearic Islands, and the Aragon Strip, also speak Spanish .
While Catalan has some similarities to Spanish and Italian, it is its own language and not considered a dialect of Spanish. Its history can be traced back to the vulgar Latin used by the Romans, and the Catalan language has developed independently of Castellano or Castilian Spanish in the region. Catalan has its own different dialects, most notably Eastern and Western Catalan. The Catalan language also sounds similar to Galician, which is a Romance language in the same region.
Most Catalans boast being bilingual with equal fluency in both Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is the co-official language of Catalonia alongside Spanish. In Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, 98% of the population speaks Castilian Spanish , a term that sounds similar to Catalan but refers to the standardized form of Spanish used in the northern and central regions of Spain. In contrast, only 50-60% of Barcelona natives speak Catalan.
Like many languages, Catalan began as a spoken language that gradually became a written one around the 15th century. In the 16th and 17th century, the use of Catalan waned as the popularity of Castilian Spanish grew. Many of the grammar and spelling rules Catalan enjoys today were not implemented until the 20th century by Pompeu Fabra , a Catalan engineer and linguist.
During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, every Spanish citizen was required to use Castellano or Castilian Spanish in public life, and all other languages were banned. The Catalan language and cultural identity were suppressed by this mandate until 1977 when Franco died, and the Catalan government was re-established.
As a co-official language, Catalan is now taught in schools and used in publications. Both Catalan and Spanish co-exist in the region, although Catalan enjoys less influence because there are far more Spanish speakers. Spanish has exerted a heavy influence on Catalan, especially in bustling, diverse cities like Barcelona where the two languages intermingle daily.
Catalan and Spanish are similar, and communication between native speakers is possible, albeit challenging. Because both languages are derived from Latin, you’ll find the greatest similarities in vocabulary, while many speakers say in terms of grammar and pronunciation, Catalan more closely resembles Portuguese or Italian.
Catalan has a broader array of sounds than Spanish and a tone or pitch that does not exist in English. Unlike Spanish, which is mostly phonetic, Catalan also has significant irregularities. You’ll see this pop-up in differences between how Catalan and Spanish speakers pronounce Barcelona . Those who have learned Spanish might be tempted to pronounce the “c” in Barcelona as a “th,” but Barcelona natives pronounce it as the Catalans do where the “c” sounds like an “s.”
As a cultural and culinary center of Spain, Barcelona is a favorite destination, and it makes sense to learn a bit of the Catalan language in order to immerse yourself in the culture. Locals always appreciate when a foreigner goes the extra mile to pay respect to the traditions and culture of the people by learning the language. For practical purposes, however, you’ll find speaking Spanish will work just fine in a majority of the situations you might encounter in Barcelona and beyond.
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