How is Catalan Different from Spanish

The Catalan flag blowing in teh wind.

The Catalan flag, of which there are many in Barcelona.

I’ve been in Barcelona for nearly two months now and still I do not speak Catalan, despite it being similar to Spanish. Anyone who speaks Catalan also speaks Spanish, which becomes the default language if they suspect that you’re not Catalan–this is a contributing factor to my slow start in learning the language. In France, you have to speak French. Here, you have to speak Spanish, so Catalan becomes only secondary.

The reason I must learn Catalan is because I will have classes taught entirely in that language come second semester. The idea of learning a new language had also been a reason why we came to Spain in the first place. I learned Portuguese in less than two months, but the difference was that I was using it every day, all day. Here, I’m lucky if I can dedicate an hour to it per day.

This article is meant to give some similarities and differences between Spanish and Catalan, and to try to understand why, in fact, I may not continue Catalan classes after all.

 

Catalan and Spanish are from the same family of language

They’re both romance languages. They share vocabularies, grammatical structures, some expressions, etc. If you’re unfamiliar with language families, then read this Wikipedia article about it. Other languages in the Romance Family include French, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. There are others as well, including Valencian and Galician (also spoken in Spain). Galician is closer to Portuguese than Spanish, but Valencian and Catalan are closer to Spanish first and French second. All Romance Language share similarities.

 

What are the principal phonetic differences between Catalan and Spanish?

My girlfriend doesn’t care much about nailing the pronunciation of Catalan from the beginning. She’s right to suggest that we wouldn’t be able to pronounce Catalan natively, but she’s wrong to think that it shouldn’t be on our minds. When I started learning Spanish I couldn’t pronounce the ‘r’ for the life of me, but I knew that eventually I’d be able to. Now they roll off my tongue.

So, the main differences. Keep in mind that so far, I’m a novice Catalan speaker. But my Spanish and French are fluent and my Portuguese intermediate, so I cleave a bit of linguistic authority that way. So here are some things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. Written Spanish is wholly phonetic while Catalan is not: This means that when you read, each letter you see has an accompanying sound. English, for example is not phonetic. Why? Bekuz.
  2. Catalan shares the ‘L’ of Portuguese: Spanish speakers have trouble with this L, which exists in the Portuguese word for ‘woman’, for example: mulher. In English, the closest sound is the ‘L’-ish sound you make in the word million.
  3. Final consonants are often silent: Like in Portuguese, the final ‘r’ of an infinitive verb is dropped. Also, in other cases such as “Ara fant,” which is pronounced “ara fan”.
  4. In Spanish, there is no ‘z’ sound, but in Catalan there is: Often this sound, like in English, is represented by an s.
  5. Catalan uses consonant clusters where Spanish does not: ‘ts’ ‘ks’ ‘gts’ ‘ls’ are consonant clusters, among others. Spanish requires a vowel sound between consonant sounds most of the time.
  6. Catalan employs linkage: The pronunciation of Catalan words can change depending on the syntactical context in which a word appears. For instance, ‘fins aviat’ (see you soon) creates that ‘z’ sound between the words, because the Catalan speaker links them. English does this, but Spanish does not (even though really fast speakers sometimes make it seem otherwise).
  7. Catalan has stress-marked vowels that change: Spanish has stress on vowels, but Catalan is more complicated. At least in this part of Catalonia, if one vowel is stressed in a word with several others, those others have different sounds. For example, the word “teléfon” in Catalan has one stressed vowel (marked by the accent) and two unstressed vowels. When the ‘e’ is not stressed, in Barcelona it is pronounced ‘uh’. The unstressed ‘o’ is pronounced ‘u’ or ‘ooo’. Tuh-lay-foon.

 

Catalan vocabulary versus Spanish vocabulary

Most words that exist in one romance language are recognizable in another. There are always exceptions, and as we’ve seen, languages within a single family tend to be more similar to one or two rather than to all the others equally. From what I’ve seen so far, most vocabulary in Catalan comes from Spanish. When I say ‘comes from’, what I truly mean is that they share those aspects equally. French comes in a near second in terms of words in common. Look at the numbers:

  • Spanish – French – Catalan
  • uno – un – u
  • dos – deux – dos
  • tres – trois – tres
  • cuatro – quatre – quatre
  • cinco – cinq – cinq
  • seis – six – sis
  • siete – sept – set
  • ocho – huit – vuit
  • nueve – neuf – nou
  • diez – dix – deu

Looks can however be deceiving, as we see in the similarity of the number ‘4’. Although the Catalan [coo-ah-tr-ah] four appears to be closest with French [kaa-tr] orthographically, phonetically it’s closer to Spanish [coo-ah-tr-oh].

I’m still learning new words, but so far cardinal numbers seem to give a level understanding of the relationship between these languages.

 

How does speaking English already help in learning Catalan

English speakers are used to articulating consonant clusters, and we’re also pretty good with linkage between words. English is also a mash-up between old French and old Germanic Saxon, so we already share a lot of the same vocabulary as Catalan.

Spanish speakers will still have an easier time learning Catalan because of the grammatical structures. Sentences in Catalan are formed much like they are in Spanish. The posessive pronouns are formed the same way as those in Portuguese, requiring a definite article before the pronoun itself. And Catalan shares a typical adverbial pronoun that exists in French, the y (French), versus Catalan’s ‘hi‘.

 

I’m still learning. With full-time degree courses, it’s hard to dedicate the brain power to a new language. I still believe that if it’s your principal goal to learn a language, then the best way to do it is to hitchhike in the areas it’s spoken. Hitchhiking is a better way of learning a language than in academia. Is this a good way to end such a blog post?

23 Responses

  1. Zachary Kirkpatrick says:

    I might just make a short comment – “telèfon” in Català uses the open accented e, not “teléfon” as written here.
    Also, I’m not sure what is meant here by “ara fant” ?

    • Velabas says:

      Good comment, this will help bring value to people interested in this. I have always been lazy about accents. I still write formal emails at work without using accents! I can’t remember for the life of me what I meant by ara fant. It was meant to point out that the t is dropped. By all means share a better example for the other readers :). This post gets enough traffic that your input will be valuable!

      • Zachary Kirkpatrick says:

        No worries! I’m also a foreigner living here in Barcelona and enjoy speaking Catalan. I always like to see other people interested in the language. I’ll be following to see what kind of content you’ll be putting out. Cheers!

      • Igneek says:

        Hey, Catalan here 🙂 “Ara fant” is spelled incorrectly. It’s spelled “Ara fan” actually. If you want an example of a final t not being pronounced, look at all the gerunds of verbs. “Caminant” is pronounced “Caminan”, “Parlant” is pronounced “Parlan”.

        For a normal word, look at “Vent” which means wind. It’s pronounced “Ven”.

        • Velabas says:

          Hey Igneek, thanks for the input! To keep this comment relevant, I’m not going to change the spelling, so people will come and see a commenter with authority lay it out how it is!

          • CaiNaReal says:

            Would anyone care to stress the differences between Catalan and Mallorquin? Thanks in advance!

          • Velabas says:

            I’d also like to know this. And also the subtleties between Catalan and Andorran and Valencian. Anyone?

      • Jonny says:

        Castellano (what we refer to as Spanish) employs only the acute accent ´ to indicate primary stress on a vowel that would otherwise not be stressed; however, Catalan primarily uses the grave ` accent but also the acute accent with the vowels e & o. The accent marks in Catalan are used to mark stress and to differentiate between different pronunciations of e & o.
        Basically, one of the more important differences between the languages that you left out, is that Spanish has 5 vowels, while Catalan has no less than 8 when spoken (depending on dialect), although just 7 when written. The importance of vowels, particularly in Romance languages should not be underestimated.
        There are a number of other phonetic differences between the two languages which you should make note of (the absence of λ in Castellano- as others have noted- is not one of them in most of Spain!). Catalan has a number of phonemes (sounds) and combinations/strings/clusters of sounds that you will not hear in Castellano.
        Also, I would highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and utilize it for the description and comparison of sounds in a language or dialect as it will eliminate the vague, ambiguous and imprecise terms that cause confusion and misunderstanding- of which this page has become a prime example. The IPA is a fantastic tool and system for precisely representing even the slightest variation in pronunciation of every sound that the human vocal apparatus is capable of producing- or at least any sound used in any known human language. Plus it is very easy to learn and use!
        I do not mean to sound harsh or overly critical, and I certainly do not intend to offend you or make you feel bad! I appreciate the time and effort you have put in to making and maintaining this blog. But I firmly believe that if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right!

        And along that theme… (this is just a general piece of unsolicited advice, not specifically relating to the content of this blog- but very relevant to the topic of language and communication in general) concerning communication and word choice: instead of merely expressing an idea or thought is such a way that someone can understand what you mean, strive to express your thoughts & ideas carefully constructing them choosing words that will make it impossible (or at least difficult) to MISunderstand what you mean- not just possible to understand! This is particularly relevant and important for written communication.
        If everyone (or even a significant portion of people) in this world maintained this concept as a goal whenever writing or speaking, there would be significant and major decrease in conflict; because I have learned that a great deal of conflict actually stems from misunderstanding and miscommunication, which becomes interpreted as disagreement or a conflict in ideas or goals which actually doesn’t exist.

  2. aharon says:

    #2 is wrong that sound (lh/gl) is common in European Spanish its Ll as in llave (lyah-beh) the catalan L that spanish doesn’t have is the dark L

    • Velabas says:

      I know of no one who pronounces ‘llave’ with the same sound as English ‘MilLIon’. What do you mean by the Dark L?

      • Dufflepud says:

        The “ly” sound was originally the sound made by the cluster ll in Spanish. In the speach of the vast majority of speakers it has changes, but some people do still pronounce it this way. You’ll hear it a lot if you listen to Catalans speaking Spanish or “Castellano”. I’ve heard many Catalans say “Castelyano” or “me lyamo” or “lyave”, pronouncing the ll just as they would when they say it in Catalan.

        As for the dark “l”, this is one of the two “l” sounds you’ll hear in English. You’ll hear it when catalans say “hola” (this sounds different from the “hola” in castellano).

  3. Kyle says:

    Dude if you think you can learn Portuguese in just two months try to read the short stories of Guimarães Rosa.

  4. Nuha Muhammad says:

    Thanks for this amazing blog ,I learning spanish now and I want to ask you something that if learning spanish first then learn catlan make it easier?

  5. jjjj says:

    Hey, i’m catalan and what does it mean “Ara fant”? And catalan and valencian are the same language (valencian is a dialect).

  6. derper101 says:

    5 in catalan is spelled as “cinc” and not “cinq”. So the text is in this blog is wrong.

  7. Tetris melecio says:

    Hello! I’m a graduating music student from the Philippines. I recently was given a piece called “6 catalan folk songs” by roberto gerhard. My mentor explained that I must look for someone who is Catalan or can at least fluently speak it to teach me how to properly say the words as I sing the music. Can anyone here advise me or suggest what I can do to pull off this beautiful piece? I have a friend who is Spanish but lives here now and he suggests I just learn the song in Spanish and then we’ll just tweak some words. Any thoughts? Looking forward to your help, thanks!

    • Jonny says:

      Probably too late by now… But I would strongly warn against “learning the song in Spanish and then tweaking some words”. Catalan is not just a dialect of Spanish- not at all! Catalan is pronounced significantly different than Spanish, listening to the same person saying the same thing in both languages one can get an appreciation of just how different the two languages are.
      As a music student, you must also know that singing a language can be significantly different than speaking it. But a Catalan speaker would certainly be helpful. There are a number of resources available online (which I’m sure you’ve found) which are dedicated to learning & speaking Catalan. It does have some tricky sounds and it is not written exactly phonetically, but it follows fairly easy to understand patterns and rules.

  8. Velabas says:

    There are errors in the article. It’s by no means “linguistic misinformation”. It’s observation from a learner. Did you not read that I’d been in BCN for only 2 months and “do not speak Catalan”? If you want authority and to learn Catalan you shouldn’t be here. This is a travel blog.

  9. Eric says:

    When I was in Barcelona I tried to find a Catalan phrasebook, either Spanish/Catalan, or English/Catalan. No way. Nowhere. So bizarre. Never been a place where one was for sale, not in the tourist shops, not in the bookstores. I asked, in Spanish. Weird

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