First Impressions Of The Catalan Language

A few weeks ago, I wrote a basic introduction to Catalan, having never heard it spoken before. Now, after spending a week immersed in it, I have a few new impressions.

As I mentioned before, it's common to think of Catalan as a dialect of Spanish. In fact, I've though that myself. But I can say confidently that anyone who thinks that has never actually heard it spoken. It's definitely not Spanish.

If you made a triangle between Rome, Paris, and Madrid, Catalonia would be close to the center, and yes, linguistically Catalan is well-described as a blend of Italian, French, and Spanish. But it's also a little more than that. There are definitely some uniquely Catalonian traits.

Every language has a set of sounds that distinguish it - a sort of signature. The first thing I noticed about Catalan was that its set of sounds has an eastern European feel, with a lot of words ending on sh, definitely not a sound I expected to hear much in Spain - or really anywhere in western Europe.

Immersion learning

I sat in a cafe one morning eating breakfast, and I noticed all the signs were only in Catalan. Because of my experience with other Vulgar Latin language, it didn't take me long to figure out what I was reading, and I was able to learn a lot about Catalan just by observation.

*Cafè
Cafè sol
Cafè Americà
Cafè amb llet
Cafè tallet*
*Te
Te amb llet
Xocolata
Aigua amb gas
Aigua sense gas*

Just looking at this small sample of items commonly found on menus, a person with absolutely no experience of Catalan, but who is familiar with other Vulgar Latin languages, can quickly and easily reason out some new vocabulary.

First, I figured out that amb means with. Next, I figured out that llet is similar to leche and latte and lait. So Cafè amb llet is coffee with milk, and Te amb llet is tea with milk.

And this is how my week in Barcelona went. I would see certain words over and over, and their meanings would start to become clear. Gradually, I reached a point where I would find myself understanding a lot of what I saw and heard, even without ever having studied the language. (Though learning the rules of the alphabet was helpful.) This is a great example of why immersion is the best way to learn.

After a few days, I decided I liked it enough to try to learn some. It's probably not necessary to be fluent in Catalan (unless I live there one day) but I want to know it just for myself, and for use on return trips. So I found a bookstore and bought two books: an introduction to Catalan written in Spanish, and a three-way Russian-Spanish-Catalan phrasebook/dictionary. If I'm going to learn some catalan, I'm going to do it in a way that strengthens those languages I already know. I'm not going to make a big effort of it, but I'll pull those books out when I'm bored or need a change of pace.

Overall

My overall impression of Catalan is that it's pretty cool. It's got enough style and character to make it an interesting member of the Romance language family. It's got more pizzazz than Spanish without being as complicated as French. It's got a lot of the character of Italian, but with its own unique personality.

If I could justify it, I would move to Barcelona right now and spend 3 months becoming fluent in Catalan. Of course as it turns out, my boss isn't nearly as excited by that idea as I am.


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  • While I was in the Czech Republic, I bought a book teaching Czechs to German speakers for the same reason. Not only can I work on my Czech, but I can also work on improving my German (which was good enough to make the book useful). I also find that I pick things up quicker when taught in another language... maybe it's because you don't have English there as a support so you feel like you can't translate to English. I won't theorize about the psychology behind it, but I know it works for me.

  • ...and next time I post a comment, I'll be sure to read it over first, haha.

  • hahaha

  • I always remember one of my high school teachers (who was from Catalonia) getting so angry when someone said Catalan was just a really strong Spanish dialect. Being 16 and not really that concerned with languages, I just chalked it up to a big of Catalonian pride. I'm sure she'd be happy to know that you've set me straight ;)

  • Glad to be of service!

  • The people who try to say that Catalan is a dialect of Spanish might use an example like this:
    'Animals are prohibited in the building, but my neighbors have a cat anyway'CATALAN: Els animals estan prohibits a l’edifici, però els meus veïns tenen un gat de totes maneres.
    SPANISH: Los animales están prohibidos en el edificio, pero mis vecinos tienen un gato de todos modos.The people who want to show how different Catalan is from Spanish might use this:
    ‘I want to eat eight small apples’CATALAN: vull menjar vuit pomes petites
    SPANISH: quiero comer ocho manzanas pequeñasSo, if you only got told about the 'animals' example, you would think that Catalan is a dialect of Spanish.
    But, if you only got told about the 'apples' example, you would think that Catalan is very different from Spanish.
    Both of these conclusions are false because the two examples are extreme cases. Catalan is of course not extremely different from Spanish but it is also not extremely similar, it is somewhere in between. They are simply related languages, just like Spanish and Italian are related. Nice post.

  • I like the triangle definition of Catalan, it seems to suit perfectly for the language, although I think it trivialize its culture a little bit. Concerning the dialect-language issue, I think it's just about labeling things. Catalans often get so upset about it because they don't want their strong nationalist culture to be diminished, while in Italy we have a different dialect every 50 km, even very different from each other and sometimes quite similar to Catalan. It's always very delicate to face the separatism issue, but I can easily admit that Catalan has a strong history, identity and a fascinating culture, even if I always want things to work out together instead of always trying to divide ourselves. Utopian, as I am!
    I hope I'll find a chance to leave all my preconceptions apart and give Catalan language and culture a try one day, too! No matter if it will be under the Spanish or the Catalan country...

  • The different sound you heard strikes me as coming from Catalan's leaning towards giving consonants preference, whereas most other Latin languages give vowels an important position in words. The other languages rarely end in a hard consonant like 't' for example and that definitely gives it a different twist to it.Glad you liked the language! I enjoyed immersing myself in Catalan 4 years ago.

  • I think you might be right about that. I definitely noticed that after just a few days of being there, I could detect by a person's accent whether or not they were a native Catalonian... mostly by listening for exactly what you're referring to: stronger vowels or consonants.Of course this was perhaps a little more interesting for me, since the bulk of my Spanish experience is with Mexican Spanish, so everyone sounded foreign to me!

  • This is something I've seen in myself and other language learners: once you've studied languages enough, you actually learn how to learn a language really, really well (I can't think of another way to put that, I hope that makes sense), and consequently you'll be able to look at or listen to a language you've never studied and pick it up seemingly by magic...you 'just know' what something means and you'll go and ask a native speaker what it means and 80 or 90% of the time you're right. It's very cool :DObviously this is much more pronounced when the language in question is related to one you've already studied. I've noticed that I'm strangely capable of reading French now, it's very odd, and I attribute that almost entirely to my current study of Spanish (and the general language-learning skills I've acquired) instead of my prior study of French in high school a decade ago.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Yes and no. I think your second point is the important one: Catalan is a Vulgar Latin descendant, just like French and Italian and Spanish, and a large portion of English.That word amb was very frustrating to me on billboards and street signs, but once I saw it on a menu it made perfect sense. It appears repeatedly between two nouns, which makes it some sort of joining word... and I know ambos from Spanish and ambo from Italian, and I know words like ambidextrous mean able to use both hands.Knowing how to learn languages played a big role here, of course, but without some point of reference, some cognate or clue, it would have remained a conundrum. After all, to amble is to walk... :)

  • I agree that you do get better at learning languages after learning the first few. I am learning Basque and the other day, this happened:
    In a basque language forum, I was trying to follow a conversation and someone had written this:
    arrazoi duzu.
    I only knew one of the words, duzu (you have) but from the context of the conversation, I wondered if this may mean 'you are right'.
    I knew this in Catalan (tens rao) and in French (tu as raison). I checked arrazoi in a Basque-English dictionary and I was right (arrazoi dut ;-)arrazoi is vaguely similar to raison and rao so there may be some word loaning going on there. But still, if I didn't have any idea about how languages work, I couldn't have done this.
    Jim

  • This sentence in Catalan:"vull menjar vuit pomes petites" proves its striking similarity to French.For instance: "(je) veux manger huit petites pommes"

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