What’s the Difference Between Spanish & Catalan?

“Ey! ¿Todo bien?” or “Ei! Tot bé?”


While these two opening phrases may seem deceptively similar at first glance, they are, in fact, two separate languages. The first is in Spanish, while the latter is in Catalan, and both translate to “Hey! All good?”

There is a lot to learn about the differences between Catalan and Spanish. Many aren’t always aware of the fact that there are some pretty crucial discrepancies, despite being linguistically similar in many respects.

Languages themselves are more than the sum of their parts, and Spanish and Catalan are no different. Beyond phonetics, vocabulary and pronunciation, languages are also heavily influenced by the histories that produced them, and the cultures that make them theirs. 

Both languages have significant cultural relevance. So, let’s take a look at what differentiates these two rich languages beyond words alone. 

A Brief Overview of the Two

 

Spanish is:

  • A Western Romance language with its origins in Vulgar Latin that arrived on the Iberian Peninsula with the Romans around 200 BC
  • The official language of 21 countries, namely Spain, Equatorial Guinea and 19 other countries in The Americas
  • Spoken by 534.3 million people, counting native and non-native speakers
  • The fourth most widely spoken language in the world 

 

Catalan is:

  • Also a Western Romance language derived from Vulgar Latin
  • The official language of Andorra and the co-official language of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia (where it’s referred to as Valencian)
  • Spoken by over 10 million speakers, even in certain parts of Southern France and Italy’s Sardinia

So Where is Catalonia?

Many people are already aware that Spanish has its roots in Spain, but fewer people know about the autonomous region of Catalonia in Spain’s northeast coast. In Barcelona, its capital city of 1.6 million, nearly 60% of inhabitants are Catalan speakers. In spite of the fact that Catalan speakers are widespread among the capital, the region, and the neighboring islands, 98% of inhabitants are Spanish speakers as well.

While Spanish is spoken in this diverse region, they also speak Catalan and take great pride in doing so. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly every publication and public sign is in Catalan. Visitors to the region are often surprised to realize all the sign postings are found in three languages in the following order: Catalan, Spanish and English. 

As Catalonia is its own region with its own customs and language, the issue of whether it will remain as a part of Spain is a hotly debated issue. 

With that in mind, what are some of the main differences you’ll find between Catalan and Spanish?

Catalan vs. Spanish


Round 1: Phonetics & Pronunciation

While the two share some overlap, there is a definite difference in pronunciation. In all, Spanish is more or less uncomplicated, with an easy to follow pattern and consistent pronunciation. Catalan, on the other hand, while potentially more intriguing for language enthusiasts, offers greater complexity in its pronunciation. 

Vowels: 

Spanish is more simple in that each vowel is pronounced in one specific way and silent letters in words don’t exist. Vowels often have an accent mark, depending on where they are located in each word, to help mark emphasis and word stress.

Catalan boasts up to eight phonetic notes marked by different orientations of the accent. The stressing of one vowel in any given word can dramatically change how other, non-stressed vowels in the same word are pronounced.

Consonants:

In Catalan, final consonants are, for the most part, silent. Consider “Estació” vs. the Spanish “Estación”. Both have the same meaning (“Station” in English) but in this way, Catalan can be more similar to Portuguese. 

Another similarity Catalan shares with the country on the other side of the Iberian Peninsula is the special pronunciation of the double ‘L’. This sound comes from the tongue slipping down the back of the front teeth while pushing against them to pronounce the normal ‘L’. The closest approximation of this in English is with the double ‘L’ in words like “million”, but it’s far from the heavier sound the Catalan version produces.

Pronunciation of /s/ vs. /θ/:

A final key difference is Catalan’s absence of the soft “th” sound that is characteristic to Spanish. This sound results from the combinations “za”, “zo”, “zu”, “ce”, and “ci”, but is nowhere to be heard in Catalan. 


Round 2: Vocabulary 

Beyond phonetics, in just reading Catalan and Spanish, there still lies confusion about the differences between the two languages given that their respective vocabularies share a fair amount of overlap. But what is unique about Catalan is that it shares plenty of vocabulary with French, too.

English  Spanish Catalan French
To arrive llegar arribar arriver
To ask preguntar demanar demander
To say decir dir dire
To give dar donar donner
To eat comer menjar manger
To carry/bring llevar portar porter

 

Round 3: Historical Context

The history behind the formation of each language is possibly the most significant shaper in how they are spoken today. While both languages share roots in Latin, modern Spanish can attribute some of its vocabulary to its Arabic influence, as well the many lands it colonized over a collection of centuries. The modern Spanish spoken today has enjoyed relative stability since the 16th century.

However, the Catalan culture and language underwent two significant periods of decline brought about by the imposition of the Spanish language:

  1. In 1714, when Catalonia lost its independence to King Philip V after the War of Spanish Succession
  2. More recently, in 1975, under the rule of General Franco who banned all other languages in Spain to be written or spoken publicly, making Spanish the universal official language of the country.

Both periods resulted in a strong initiative to revive the Catalan language and cultural identity, led mostly through the arts and strong literacy initiatives across the region.

There are more than a few differences between these two distinct, yet very beautiful languages. The words they use and the way they are spoken, all speak to very distinct cultural experiences that are fascinating to learn about. 

If you’d like to learn more about how to get your message translated and localized into any of these languages (or more besides), get in touch. Our language experts can help you navigate the nuances of any language, and will be happy to do so with you!