Catalan Language

General Overview

Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Catalan (Català) is a Western Romance language spoken in eastern and northeastern Spain, chiefly in Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Isles, the eastern fringe of Aragon (La Franja) and in some municipalities of Murcia. Outside of Spain it is also spoken in the Roussillon region of France, in the northwest Sardinian city of Alghero (l'Alguer), in the small state of Andorra and among the emigrants in the USA.

Catalan covers an area of 68,000 square km with a population of 10 million. It has 7,353,000 speakers or more in the world distributed as follows:

It is estimated that some other 3,000,000 people in Spain speak Catalan as their second or third language, with 2 million more understanding but not being able to speak it.

The official language of the kingdom of Aragon between 1137 and 1749, Catalan is now co-official (with Spanish) in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Isles. It is the only official language in the state of Andorra.

Origin and History

Catalan developed from the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis. The disintegration and fall of the Roman empire brought about several successive invasions. The Visigoths (414 AD) and the Arabs (Moors) (711-717 AD) subjugated the entire peninsula, but their languages had a little impact on Catalan. In 778 the Franks of Charlemagne conquered a narrow strip southward of the Pyrenees with Barcelona and established there the so called Marca Hispanica (Spanish mark) as a buffer state against the muslims. The local Romance idiom since then evolved in close relations with the language of Southern Gaul (see Occitan language). In this period Provençal was considered a language of prestige and was adopted by the Catalonian troubadours also. In spite of the various influences from Gaul, Catalan, however, never assumed the two-case declension system, unique to Old French and Occitan.

By the end of the 10th century Catalan was already a fully-formed language, clearly distinguishable from its Latin origins. It appeared for the first time in written documents in the second half of the 12th century (a charter and six sermons); the Homilies of Organyà, written in the late 12th or early 13th centuries, is the first extant text written originally in Catalan. Catalan poetry flourished from the 13th century, before which time Catalan poets wrote in Provençal. The first true Catalan poet was Ramon Llull (c. 1235-1316), and the greatest Catalan poet was Ausiàs March (1397-1459), a Valencian.

During the 13th and 14th centuries Catalan reached its high point of geographical expansion in the Iberian peninsula through the conquest of the kingdoms of Valencia and Murcia. The language also spread around the Mediterranean through victory over the kingdoms of Majorca, Sicily, Sardinia (even today there remains a Catalan-speaking popuation in the of Alghero), Naples, Athens and Neopatria in Peloponnese. Catalan came to be spoken, even if not always as a first language, in five states around the Mediterranean which were governed by Catalan dynasties. Due to the Royal Chancellery, whose style was strongly influencing for all Catalan writing, the prose of the 14th and 15th centuries was marked by a high degree of uniformity.

Catalan retained its vigour until the union of the Aragonese and Castilian crowns in 1474. After that, although mainly grammatical works appeared, it gradually entered a period of decline. Following the War of the Spanish Succession (1705-1715), Philip V abolished all the government institutions then existing in Catalonia and implemented Spanish laws. Catalan went through various periods of prohibition and even of repression, beginning with the Decretos de Nueva Planta (Decrees for a New Political Order) of 1716.

The Catalan renaissance (Renaixença) began in the late 19th century with the economic progress of Catalonia. Catalan was reborn as the language of literary culture through the poetry contest known as Jocs Florals (Floral Games). In 1906 the first Catalan Language Congress attracted 3,000 participants, and in 1907 the Institut d'Estudis Catalans was founded. In 1913 it published Normes ortogràfiques (Spelling Rules) and in 1917 the Diccionari ortogràfic (Spelling Dictionary).  The Gramàtica catalana (Catalan Grammar) by Pompeu Fabra appeared in 1918. During the Second Republic (1931-1939), Catalan was restored to its official language status, but this promising development was checked by the Civil War and its consequences. The use of Catalan in public was forbidden and the language retreated into the home. Yet not until 1944 was there a course in Catalan philology at the University of Barcelona; a chair of Catalan language and literature was not founded there until 1961. Ever since the restoration of democratic institutions, there has been a process to re-establish the use of Catalan.

Problems of Classification

It is much disputed whether Catalan is more closely related to Gallo-Romance or to the Ibero-Romance languages. Medieval Catalan was so close to Lemosí, the literary dialect of Occitan in southern Gaul, that it is thought by some to have been imported from beyond the Pyrenees in the resettlement of refugees from the Moors.

In more modern times, Catalan has, however, grown closer to Aragonese and Castilian, so that its family-tree classification becomes less relevant. It was occasionally called Llemosí by 19th-century Catalan revivalists, however, who wished to emphasize its independence from other Iberian tongues by stressing its relation to Occitan.


Although in the Middle Ages there is no evidence of dialectalization, perhaps because of the standardizing influence of its official use in the Kingdom of Aragon, since the 16th century the dialects of Valencia and the Balearic Isles, especially, have tended to differentiate from the Central (Barcelona) dialect. Nevertheless, some degree of uniformity is preserved in the literary language, which continued to flourish.

There are two main dialect groups in modern Catalan: Occidental, subdivided into North-West Catalan and Valencian; and Oriental, subdivided into Central dialect, Balearic, Roussillonnais and Alguerese (the dialect spoken in Alghero, Sardinia, where Catalan was introduced in the 14th century). Each of these dialects, except for Alguerese, is in turn divided into subdialects, of which up to eighteen have been identified.

These various dialects differ only in minor respects (details of pronunciation, vocabulary, and verb conjugation) and are easily mutually intelligible. The dialectal differences are not usually reflected in the written language. The Institute of Catalan Studies is responsible for establishing and updating the standard language, which is based on the Barcelona dialect with some admixtures from Valencian. No one spontaneously speaks the standard, but it is used in writing and by the media.

Valencians -- except for the intellectual elite -- are inclined to consider their speech a separate language. For a number of historical and other reasons, a sector of the Valencian people are deeply distrustful, if not overtly hostile, to Catalans. The ultra-rightist party Unió Valenciana supports this sentiment, and among other things it called for linguistic secession by establishing a separate orthography.

The Present situation of Catalan

Catalan is taught as a separate subject and is used as the teaching medium at all levels of the education system in Catalonia. Children whose mother tongue is not Catalan learn the language at school in the so-called immersion programs. The Generalitat de Catalunya (Catalan autonomous government) enjoys full control over the elementary schools, the secondary schools, and the nine universities in the region.

The situation in Valencia and the Balearic Islands is different. Since democracy was restored in 1977, the Balearics have been ruled by pan-Spanish (i.e., non-nationalistic) parties, which, while not opposed to introducing the Catalan language at school, are not particularly eager to do so at a fast pace either. As for Valencia, the linguistic conscience there is weaker than in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Although the Valencian government controls the education, its efforts aimed at increasing the use of Catalan at school, as well as public support for such initiatives, have both been thoroughly inadequate. In addition to this, some Valencian groups are engaged in challenging the unity of the Catalan language, as part of an integral campaign of anti-Catalanism.

TABLE: The knowledge of Catalan (1986-1991). Population over the age of two.




The Balearic Islands


Percentage (1986)

Percentage (1991)

Percentage (1991) 

















  Total population





The Legal framework for the Catalan language

The legal framework on language in Spain is to be found in the 1978 Constitution, mainly in article 3, and in the statutes of autonomy of Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Aragon. It is implemented in Catalonia through the 1998 law on language policy (which replaces the 1983 law), in the Balearic Islands through the 1986 law on language policy and in Valencia through the 1983 law on the use and teaching of Valencian. In accordance with this legislation, Catalan is the language proper to Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia and is also an official language in these areas, alongside Spanish. In Andorra, Catalan is the only official language according to article 2 of the 1993 Constitution of the Principality of Andorra. Neither North Catalonia nor L'Alguer have their own law on language.

In addition, on 11 December 1990, the European Parliament approved the "Resolution on the situation of languages in the Community and on the Catalan language". This resolution recognizes the identity, current validity and the use of Catalan within the context of the European Union and proposes that Catalan be included in certain actions undertaken by European institutions.

Linguistic features

Phonology and Grammar

Catalan has seven vowels: a, open e and closed e, i, open o and closed o, and u. When unstressed, the vowels are reduced in the Eastern dialects, so that unstressed o and u sound both like u, while unstressed a and e sound both like a schwa vowel (similar to the English a in above). In the Balearic dialect, the schwa is also present in stressed syllables. Typical for Catalan is the switching of the post-tonic (unstressed) a to e when followed by a consonant. In this way the nouns singular and plural forms alternates, cf.:

  Singular  Plural  Meaning
  la ballarina  les ballarines  dancer(s) 
  el poeta  els poetes  poet(s) 
  la plaga  les plagues  plague(s) 
  el dia  els dies  day(s) 

Compared with Spanish, Catalan differs in the lack of rising diphthongs (such as ie and ue) and the abundance of falling diphthongs (such as eu, au, ou):

Phonetically Catalan differs from Occitan less than from Spanish but often uses different vowel sounds and diphthongs.

The consonant system is marked by palatalized and affricated sounds, cf.:

Under the influence of the Moorish speech the Latin s was often palatalized and written x, cf. L. simplex simple => Cat. ximple. The dialects have minor differences concerning the consonants also. Thus speakers from Valencia city do not distinguish between s and z.

Catalan retained the stress of the Latin 3rd conjugation verbs on the root (like in French), while Spanish and Portuguese moved it on the infinitive ending, cf.:

Note: The capitalized vowels are stressed.

Like the Ibero-Romance languages, Catalan constructs the compound tenses with haver to have only, except for a few districts in Northern Catalonia which use the auxiliary verb ser. Also there exists a distinction in the use of the auxiliaries ser and estar, both meaning to be; the essential difference is that ser is used with permanent qualities, which are not likely to be modified, while estar is used with qualities that are transient or that are the result of a transformation. Similarly to the Gallo-Romance languages and Italian, however, Catalan uses some adverbs like pronouns.


The most essential part of the vocabulary is inherited from Vulgar Latin. The Pre-Romance substratum is of much less significance than in Spanish. Catalan remained also aloof from arabization, as the Moorish domination was rather short. Review of Arabic vocabulary retained in Catalan, Castilian Spanish and Portuguese reveals a unique Catalan resistance to the agglutination of the Arabic article al- to the words, cf.:

  Arabic Catalan Spanish Portuguese Meaning
  al-harsufa carxofa alcachofa alcachofra artichoke
  al-qutun cotó algodón algodão cotton
  ar-rabd raval arrabal arrabalde suburb

Catalan, on the other hand, incorporated a good many Germanic, especially Frankish, loanwords, in which it closely parallels the Gallo-Romance languages, cf.

  Germanic Catalan Meaning Spanish Portuguese French German English
  *blao blau blue -- -- bleu blau blue
  *heriberga military quarters alberg  lodging albergue albergue auberge -- auberge
  *laith lleig  ugly -- -- laid leid --
  *lothr lloure  free -- -- -- Leute lewd
  *marka province marca  mark marca marca marche Mark marche
  *raubôn  robar  to rob robar robar dérober ausrauben to rob
  *rauba roba  clothes ropa roupa robe -- robe
  *reiks ric  rich rico rico riche reich rich
  *sape sabó soap jabón sabão savon Seife soap

Thus, the words for many everyday concepts do not coincide, even etymologically, in Catalan and the Ibero-Romance languages:

  Catalan Occitan French Spanish Meaning
  cadira cadièra chaire silla chair
  taula taula table mesa table
  finestra fenèstra fenêtre ventana window
  got veire verre vaso (drinking) glass
  terra tèrra terre piso ground
  sostre teulat; tech toit techo ceiling
  noi dròlle garçon muchacho boy
  dona femna femme mujer woman
  oncle oncle oncle tío uncle
  cosí cosin cousin primo cousin
  nebot nebot neveu sobrino nephew
  net net net limpio clean
  brut brut; bochard sale sucio dirty
The number of Spanish loanwords in spoken Catalan is over 2,000. Scholar Ivan Tubau has even spoken of a “Mestizo Catalan” as different from the pure, theoretical Catalan of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans. Indeed, many of those today claiming to be able to speak Catalan would be better described as speakers of Spanish structures with part-Catalan, part-Spanish words, with a few phonetic and morphological adaptations that make them sound non-Spanish (though not quite genuinely Catalan).

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