Many visitors to Barcelona (or Catalunya) weigh up the investment of learning Catalan versus Spanish, itself a difficult language to master.
People wonder when considering going deeper in Spanish vs Catalan:
- How different or similar are Catalan and Spanish linguistically?
- How hard is it to learn Catalan if you already speak Spanish?
- How much new grammar, vocabulary, and sounds with their mouths would they have to learn?
We’re here to put those answers to rest, with an analysis (from a learner’s perspective) of all the similarities and differences between Spanish and Catalan: grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and more.
In this guide…
- A brief overview of Catalan’s modern history
- Whether Catalan is easy to learn for Spanish speakers
- Spanish and Catalan Vocabulary — a look at similarities and differences
- Grammar comparison between Spanish and Catalan
- Spanish vs Catalan Pronunciation (it’s mostly the same… but it’ll still trip you up!)
Overview (and a brief modern history of Catalan)
Catalan is a distinct language spoken by about 10 million people, mostly in Spain. Around six million of these are in Catalunya, around 4 million in the Valencian county, and a few hundred thousand in other parts of the country.
Catalan also the official language of Andorra, a country in the mountains between Spain and France.
Catalan’s accent and a couple of pronunciation rules vary by major region (broadly east vs. west), but the language is the same. In Catalan, the language is called català. In Valencia, where the language is the same despite pronunciation differences (though sometimes it’s called a dialect), the language is called valencià.
Catalan is a distinct language in Spain, far more than a dialect or accent. Surprisingly, some non-Catalunyans Spanish people told me Catalan is a dialect and not a language — but I interpreted this as a political statement (it’s definitely not true), or perhaps just a different understanding of the word “dialect”.
Catalan has its own grammar, dictionary, and is mostly mutually unintelligible to the uninformed Spanish speaker — especially those who learned Spanish as a second language (like us).
Catalan is a Latin language, similar to Spanish, French, and Italian. In terms of pronunciation, it’s most similar to Spanish.
Note that in this article, I’ll refer to the Castilian language as “Spanish”. It is commonly known as Spanish in English, even in Latin America. But of course, there are other Spanish languages, including Catalan.
There’s vocabulary overlap between Catalan and Spanish, but a lot of everyday words are different — enough that with the pronunciation difference and conjugation differences unfamiliar speakers will be tripped up.
And Catalan has a few grammatical features seen only in French and Italian, and some that are unique to Catalan (to my knowledge — some other, smaller Latin languages may have them).
Speaking Catalan is a matter of familiarity and regional pride in Catalunya. The reasons are varied, but I was interested (and disconcerted) to learn that under Franco’s rule, the language was suppressed.
So speaking and publishing in the language today is an expression of revolutionary freedom that was not afforded to the population just forty years ago.
Overall — is Catalan easy for Spanish speakers?
Yes, I’d say Catalan is easy for Spanish speakers, and particularly if you know one other Romance language as well as Spanish. Catalan would also be relatively easy for Italian speakers.
In fact, if you live in Catalunya, learning Catalan would be the easiest language to learn. Apart from the similarity between Spanish and Catalan, you’ll get so much positive reinforcement from local Catalan speakers that your job will be much easier.
The best thing about learning Catalan is that like with any minority language, learning a little Catalan goes a long way. People respond with much more familiarity and happiness, particularly as you get more rural in Spain. So the effort to learn a couple of hundred words and phrases will get you outsized results!
The caveat is that even though it’s the easiest, Catalan is still not “easy”. Catalan is entirely unique. You need to dedicate time to it and to get resources to learn it properly.
Spanish vs Catalan — Vocabulary similarities and differences
The majority of Spanish and Catalan’s vocabulary is quite similar. They’re both Latin-derived languages, so many words would be familiar to the Spanish speaker.
In general, the differences in spelling and vocabulary of most words between Spanish and Catalan, combined with the uniqueness of many words to Catalan, means that you have to learn the vocabulary from scratch. However, knowing Spanish or another Latin language gives you a huge advantage.
The table below is a small snapshot of how similar the vocabulary of Spanish and Catalan can be. If you look through a Catalan-Spanish dictionary, the vast majority (it seems > 75%) of words are related.
Examples of words that are similar/identical between Spanish and Catalan:
|English||Spanish (of Spain)||Catalan|
|hour, week, day, year||hora, semana, día, año||hora, setmana, dia, any|
|orange, watermelon, banana, peanut, beer||naranja, sandía, plátano, cacahuete, cerveza||taronja, síndria, plàtan, cacauet, cervesa|
|car, train, cloud, street, building||coche, tren, nube, calle, edificio||cotxe, tren, núvol, carrer, edifici|
|fresh, tall, short, spicy||fresco, alto, corto, picante||fresc, alt, curt, picant|
|hello, goodbye, sorry||hola, adiós, perdón||hola, adéu, perdó|
Looking at that list, you might think — wow, I got this! I just have to adjust my pronunciation a bit and I’m fine.
But you’d be wrong to think that Catalan vocabulary is basically the same as Spanish (and many Catalan speakers will be offended as you’d imply that Catalan is just an accent).
Many common Catalan familiar words will be unfamiliar to Spanish speakers. In the vast majority of cases, Catalan words will be reminiscent of words from other Latin-derived languages like Italian and French (and others with which I’m not really familiar).
Sometimes, the Catalan word will be similar to a less frequently-used Spanish word, but still of Latin origin. For example, “red” is rojo in Spanish, but vermell in Catalan. The word vermell might remind you of “vermilion” in English. This word is also of Latin origin and exists in other Latin languages in various forms.
Here are some Catalan words that are related to common words in other Latin languages (other than Spanish). I’ve grouped them with similar words, e.g. foods, verbs, adverbs, adjectives.
Examples of words similar between Catalan and other Romance languages (but not Spanish):
|poma (like French, pomme)|
porc (like French, porc)
formatge (like French, fromage)
ou (like French, des oeufs)
|menjar (like Italian, mangiare)|
voler (like Italian, volere)
parlar (like Italian, parlare)
posar (like uncommon Spanish, posar)
prendre (like French, prendre)
|petit (like French, petit)|
vermell (like uncommon Spanish, bermellón)
blau (like Italian, blu)
feble (like French, faible)
net (like French, net)
|home (like French, homme)|
dona (like Italian, donna)
oncle (like French, oncle)
cap (like Italian, capo)
|sota (like Italian, sotto)|
abans (like French, avant)
a dins (kinda like French, dedans)
al voltant (looks familiar…)
|molt (like Italian, molto)|
encara (like Italian, ancora)
mai (like Italian, mai)
sovint (like French, souvent)
But sometimes, there are Catalan words that (as far as I know) are purely Catalan!
The rows in the following table have their origins purely in Catalan from what I can tell. By this, I mean that these words are in common use in Catalan, but don’t have an obvious equivalent in common use in other Latin languages.
Disclaimer: While I speak a few Latin languages and have lived in countries that speak them, I don’t know Latin languages at native level, and I don’t know Portuguese yet. If you see a word below and think “hey that reminds me of a word!”, I’d love to know.
Examples of words unique to Catalan (and not even other Romance languages):
en vez de
en comptes de
sobre (also used in Catalan)
només (no más is Spanish slang)
to take hold of
to be hungry
agradar (used indirectly, like gustar)
boira (in French, brouillard)
With verbs, the difference goes beyond just the difference of a root. Grammar is similarly complex in Catalan and Spanish, which means there are many conjugations of each verb.
Like in Spanish, irregular and often-used conjugations in Catalan are also the ones most likely to trip someone up. We’ll look at that a bit in the grammar section below.
Pronunciation differences between Spanish and Catalan
The pronunciation of Spanish and Catalan is largely the same, relative to other languages. But nonetheless, they’re quite different from people switching between them: Catalan has more vowels, which can be open and closed, and it has a broader range of consonants.
One effect of the different pronunciation of Catalan is that people in Catalunya have their own accent of (Castilian) Spanish. It’s just a regional accent, and not that different.
The Catalunyan accent of Castilian Spanish is about as different as e.g. Midwestern American English to Pacific North-Western American English — you note the accent is there and guess where someone is from, but you spend almost no extra effort to understand it.
Compared to English, the similarities between Catalan and Spanish pronunciation are mostly quite similar:
- There is near 1:1 correlation between reading and writing Catalan, just like Spanish.
- Generally, there are as many syllables as vowels in both languages. There are a few exceptions, like “qu” and “gu” before “e” and “i”, which form a hard c or g sound. E.g. guerra, which means “war” in both languages.
- Stress is on the next-to-last syllable unless there’s a written accent. Small note that the accent in Catalan is a reverse one on the letter a, like in màquina.
- The letter h is silent in both, making my last name a devil to spell out to people!
- The letter r is trilled in both languages.
Pronunciation differences between Spanish and Catalan exist in both vowels and consonants.
- Unstressed a and e vowels are relaxed: The first thing I noticed in Catalan was that some short vowels are unstressed. Spanish doesn’t have this concept — short vowels are consistently pronounced. For example, entrar is pronounced with a normal e (like in bed) in Spanish, but more like “antrar” in Catalan.
- The letter ç as “s”: Exists only in Catalan (and other Latin languages) and is pronounced like an s in Spanish. It’s quite common, e.g. feliç for “happiness” (feliz in Spanish, whose pronunciation varies between parts of Spain) or adreça for “address”.
- The letter x sometimes like “sh”: Many Spanish-speakers visiting Catalunya will immediately notice words with x in them. As well as the Spanish pronunciations like a soft ks (taxi), or a hard gs (èxit, “success”), the letter x in Catalan is sometimes pronounced “sh”, like in anxova (“anchovy”).
- Softer letter j or g (when before an e or i) in Catalan: These letters follow the same general rule in both languages, but are softer in Catalan than in Spanish. In Catalan, they’re more like the soft g of the French word rouge, rather than in Spanish, where they’re more of a hard j.
- Catalan uses ny instead of ñ: For example, Catalunya! In Spanish they call it Cataluña.
- A reinforced l via l.l in Catalan. In contrast with the letter ll (which is pronounced similarly in Spanish and Catalan), when words call for a stronger l sound, they separate them with a period or dot. For example, “intelligent” is inteligente in Spanish, but intel·ligent in Catalan.
- The compounds ig and tx which are pronounced like the ch in “touch”. For example, cotxe (“car”), for which in Spain they make do with coche, or passeig, a path or promenade and a word seen all over Barcelona.
- The compounds tz, tg, and tj. These aren’t used in Spanish (at least not commonly). The first is pronounced like ds in English, and latter two like dge in “bridge”.
There are still more examples, but those are the main ones. The other examples are minor and might even be mispronounced by a Spanish speaker learning Catalan, and it’d be fine.
Catalan also has word liaison, just like in French. Spanish does not — every word is pronounced distinctly. Catalan liaison is not written, though. There is just a convention to run words together when certain situations occur.
You most often hear liaison when
- There is a vowel at the end of a word, followed by a word beginning with another vowel, e.g. sang i aigua or porta oberta
- A final consonant of a word followed by a vowel, or vice versa, e.g. els agrada (pronounced like el zagrada)
- Some final letters, like a final r (usually silent), or when a final t or b isn’t pronounced after [vowel][consonant][t/b], like the final letters in content, amb, molt, and many other common words.
Spanish vs Catalan Grammar
By and large, Spanish and Catalan grammar are fairly similar, but with some unique elements in each. I’d say the difference is roughly the same as between Spanish and Italian.
I won’t analyse this at an academic level, but just at a functional one, for the Catalan learner.
The similarities (when contrasting either with English or Chinese) between Spanish and Catalan grammar vastly outweigh the differences. They include
- Grammatical gender: a male and female (and no neuter)
- Conjugated verbs. These look almost the same in Catalan. They’re even roughly grouped in the same conjugation patterns as in Spanish: type 1 ending ar, type 2 in er, type 3 ending in ir.
- Sentence order: Roughly the same in Catalan as in Spanish, as well as a preference to not use pronouns.
The differences between Spanish and Catalan grammar are roughly the same as the differences between Spanish and Italian or French. In fact, some features seem to come from Italian, and some are in common with French.
- The simple past tense is not used in spoken Catalan and people prefer what’s called the periphrastic (“roundabout”) past tense. The situation is similar to French, where the simple past tense is more literary. In Catalan, to say anything about the past that’s finished, you conjugate anar (“to go”). E.g. “I arrived yesterday” is Vaig arribar ahir. Warning! This looks and sounds a lot like the future tense, Vaig a arribar (demà), which looks and sounds nearly identical.
- The “position” place marker hi. These exist as a place marker, hi, which can replace any phrase that has a in it (Vas sovint al teatre? No, no hi vaig mai), or to indicate position (like hi ha temps?). It works like ci in Italian or y in French, but Spanish has no equivalent.. Hi ha temps?
- The “of” marker en. You use it to refer to a phrase that has de in it. For example in the dialog “De tomates, quantes en vols? En vull dos quilos”. This works like ne in Italian or en in French.
- Written liaison sometimes. For example, the object particles are combined with a verb starting with a vowel: T’estimo means “I love you”, rather than Te estimo (incorrect).
- Definite article before names: like la Carla, el Miquel are frequently heard. Spoken Italian does this, though it’s basically never done in Spanish.
- Definite articles before possession of nouns. In Spanish for “my car” you’d say mi coche, whereas in Catalan it’s el meu cotxe. Italian does this too, e.g. la mia macchina.
- A “question” preposition, que: You form a question in Catalan with a que (distinct from què, for “what”, also in pronunciation) by starting with que. E.g. Que vols un cafè? means “Do you want a coffee?” It works conceptually like est-ce que in French.
There are many other minor differences between Spanish and Catalan, but those are things you pick up along the way. They’re not major conceptual differences.