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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- In Spanish, there is no ‘z’ sound, but in Catalan there is: Often this sound, like in English, is represented by an s.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?