Introduction To Catalan: A Beginner's Guide

If you imagine a triangle, with Spanish, French, and Italian on the three points, Catalan would be the center of the triangle. That's the description that was given to me by Benny. And from what I've seen, I can't think of a better way of describing it.

I've always thought of Catalan as a dialect of Spanish. In fact, I've often heard those two names together in one phrase: Catalan Spanish. So having never had a reason to go to the region or learn anything about it, I never realized that Catalonia is really an autonomous nation within Spain, and Catalan is her language.

Of course that all changed when, on a whim, I decided last week to book a week in Barcelona for the end of this month. Since that decision, I've learned that Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, and that both Catalan and Spanish are spoken there as official languages. And I suppose this means it's time for a language profile on Catalan!

Alphabet

The Catalan alphabet consists of 27 letters: all the same 26 letters of the English alphabet, with the addition of ç. The pronunciations of those letters are all pretty similar to Spanish as spoken in Argentina or Spain, with a bit of an Italian twist thrown in.

  • B and V are roughly equivalent, both producing a sound that falls roughly half-way between their English counterparts.
  • C is soft, like an English S when preceding an E or I, but is hard like a K all other times.
  • Ç is always soft, but usually only seen in places where a regular C would have been hard.
  • D is like a normal English D, except between vowels, when it sounds more TH, or at the end of a word, when it sounds like a T.
  • G is like an English G, unless it precedes an E or I, when it sounds more like an English J.
  • H is silent.
  • QU makes the hard K sound in places where a C would have turned soft, but at all other times it makes the QU sound like in English.
  • R is rolled heavily at the beginning of a word or when doubled up, is lightly rolled (flapped) in the middle of a word, and at the end of a word (following a vowel) it is not pronounced at all.
  • S is a soft S most of the time, but sounds more like an English Z when between vowels.
  • X is usually pronounced like SH, except in the combination ex- where it is pronounced like GZ, and in other cases where it is pronounced like KS.

That's an interesting bunch of sounds! It's already easy to start to see Catalan as the center of that Spanish-French-Italian pyramid.

Stress works just like in Spanish, falling on the penultimate syllable in words ending in a vowel or a vowel+s, -en, and -in. In all other cases, it falls on the last syllable, unless there is an accent mark, in which case the stress is on the marked syllable.

Grammar

Typical of any descendant of Vulgar Latin, nouns have two genders: masculine and feminine. There is no declension. Plurals are formed by adding an s to the end.

Nouns are usually preceded by an article, which can be either definite (el/la) or indefinite (un/una), singular or plural (els/les), and must match the gender of the noun it describes. There is also a special article (en/na) only for use with names.

Adjectives also have gender, which must match the noun they describe. Masculine adjectives generally end in a consant, and their feminine counterparts typically just add -a at the end.

Verbs are conjucated across more than a dozen verb tenses which are all very similar to those used in Spanish, French, or Italian, with one peculiar addition: the periphrastic simple preterite, which uses a conjugated auxiliary verb plus the infinitive to form a simple past. It's kind of like Italian's passato prossimo, but even easier because you don't have to learn the participle!

Infinitives end in -ar, -er, and -ir, and occasionally -re. Favored verb endings are:

jotuell/ellanosaltresvosaltresells/elles
-o-s*-em-eu-en

Instead of a T-V distinction, Catalan uses the address vostè similar to the Spanish Usted.

Impressions

Just based on my initial research of Catalan, I find it rather interesting. The pronunciation and grammar is similar enough to Spanish to be easy, but has enough of the panache of French and Italian to make it ineresting. And there are a few details that make pronunciation a bit more comfortable to a native English-speaker's tongue. I wouldn't mind taking the time to learn to speak Catalan. I can't imagine that it would be particularly difficult, and I think it would be fun.

For a language with only about 10 million speakers in the world, there are surprisingly many resources online for both learning and using the language — much more, on first look, than Esperanto, in spite of really only being used in the Catalonia region. (No doubt this is due to the fact that Barcelona is an incredibly popular tourism destination, whereas Esperanto-land doesn't even exist!)

Similar to Esperanto, Catalan combines (though perhaps not by design) interesting features of several languages. It would be an excellent gateway to learning French, Spanish, Italian, and/or Portuguese. And more importantly, unlike Esperanto, Catalan has a native land — somewhere in the world where you can go to actually use it... and it doesn't hurt when that place happens to include beautiful Barcelona!


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  • Right now I'm in the Czech Republic and I enjoy it very much, but I can't help but be jealous of your trip to Barcelona, haha. I'd have to say Catalan is my favorite of the Romance Languages and it's the official language of Andorra (which I'm sure you came across in your research). I'm not sure I would suggest a trip to Andorra unless you want to go hiking or skiing... I've heard sightseeing isn't the best and it tends to be a duty-free shopping utopia in the cities. You can't find much culture in a shopping mall, haha.

  • I don't really understand the comparison of a natural language with a constructed one....Of course there is no land where Esperanto is official language, but the diversity of Esperanto is one of the most strong around the globe...Even in Catalonia Esperanto is more popular that any other region in Spain. Of course you can not buy a ticket in Esperanto, neither approach a beautiful girl...but you can use it certainly on meetings, congresses or other events , not less to travel and visit your Esperantists friends worldwide...

  • What's not to understand? They're both languages! But one has a place where you can hear it and speak it any time of year, and the other requires huge amounts of organization just to provide a small window into speaking it with a handful of people. :)The thing is... I am not aware of any city in the world with street signs printed in Esperanto, or train schedules, or metro instructions, etc. I'm not aware of any place in the world where in-flight announcements are made in Esperanto.I guess my biggest problem, though, is that when you arrange to gather Esperanto speakers together, and then go there to speak Esperanto, you're stuck with those people - whether it's a couch-surfer or a congress. But in any natural language, you always have the freedom to go find someone else if you don't like the people you're talking to.

  • I wish it was more popular. It's hard for me to justify learning Catalan without living in or near Catalonia... but I can see how you would say it's your favorite of the Romance languages. On first look, it seems very likable! (But I'm still not ruling out Romanian!)

  • Romanian's a great gateway for those who want to learn a Slavic language but have only ever dealt with Romance Languages, but I can't say that it interests me at all. Galician (I think that's what it's called) is also spoken in Spain and it's a great mix of Spanish and Portuguese, that's probably another one of my favorites. I know what you mean, though, I haven't touched either of those languages because of my apprehensions about their usefulness to me because, when you come right down to it, it's a lot of effort and time that you don't want wasted.

  • No need to invent the wheel ...Everybody knows that Esperanto is not an official language , there are not menus, timetables...etc ...you may not find such things also in other natural minority languages , but this doesn't make them less valuable or learning worthy that others.Concerning your last argument, I would agree with you that you have the freedom not to speak whoever you like ..But why to learn Esperanto if you don't like Esperantists in the first place?

  • I don't think I'd call that time wasted! For me, it's just the fact that I'm going to be learning many languages already, but I want to learn languages that I'll get a lot of use out of. That's why I said I'd be more inclined toward Catalan if I lived in Spain. Or, I suppose, if I had a friend from there. Still, I think I'd recommend it before I'd recommend Esperanto! :)Yeah, Romanian seems like a nice bridge between Vulgar Latin and Slavic languages. And since I'm into both (I actually prefer Slavic) you can imagine my interest in Romanian.

  • Mhm, in that case Romanian is the language of all languages. I guess I can't call Catalan a "waste of time" because I'm learning Czech which only has a couple million more speakers and isn't of any particular use to me, haha.

  • Why learn anything then?People all over the world are learning English, even though they hate Americans, or British, or whomever. (Mostly Americans!)There are many reasons for learning a language. And for some of us, there are reasons for learning many languages! But I will continue to argue that Esperanto is not a language -- it's a religion.

  • Just wait! After you get your head around Czech, you're going to discover a fascination with Polish and then Russian (with, perhaps, Ukrainian in between).And then you'll be forever drawn to Slavic languages and lose all interest in those boring old Romance languages. How do people survive without noun endings?!!

  • Esperanto is a living language, therefore a natural one. Why nitpick ? You could also claim that English language imperialism is a religion also.Just google the word Esperanto and see how many hits you.No need to be afraid of an easily learned non-national international language. Just accept it. The guys here https://www.ikso.net enjoy the experience.No need to be afraid of Esperanto :)

  • Nobody's afraid of Esperanto. But I have to admit, every day I grow more and more scared of the people who speak it.

  • Why is that?

  • I've seen plenty of cults in my time. I know what they're capable of, and they all scare me.

  • I kind of understand it in this case, because it seems that Catalan and Esperanto are similar in that they are a sort of meld of several Romance languages.Personally I don't object at all to learning constructed languages - maybe my interest leans more toward the language itself than in actually using it to communicate - I'm not much of a traveller. I'd rather learn Quenya though :)

  • I think your comment is apposite. However "normal" people live in Esperanto land as well

  • I guess my point is, nobody has to defend the "normalcy" of speakers of any other language. Catalan, for example, is a really interesting language, similar to several other languages, it's easy to learn, and you don't have to be a vegan or a hippie to speak it.

  • Romanian is a Romance language, one of five, it's about as Slavic as Spanish.

  • I'll be the first to admit that I don't know much about Romanian. However I know enough to say that your statement is incredibly unfounded.First, to say that there are only five Romance languages is insane. I can name more than that off the top of my head!Second, 20% of Romanian words can be demonstrated as havind Slavic roots... which can not be said about Spanish.And third, Romanian has a neuter gender and uses noun declension... concepts that the average Spanish speaker has never even heard of, but which are old news for Slavic languages.https://en.wikipedia.org/wik...

  • Esperanto's sole purpose is for bored language nerds to entertain themselves with it, it's mental masturbation and has next to no utilitarian purpose, it's about as useful as a shit-flavored lollipop.
    I love languages, I AM a language nerd, and proud of it, I hope to become fluent in a dozen languages or more eventually, but for me my reason for learning languages is to be able to communicate with the people of a particular country that I want to visit and live in for a time (my plan is to travel around and live in a country for 6 months to a year at a time before moving on to the next one, please see my 'About' page on my blog for more details; pardon my self-promotion, Randy) which causes me to put Esperanto down at the very bottom of languages that are USEFUL and that I therefore would believe are worth spending my time to learn.
    Yes, there are over a million Esperanto speakers in the world but: 1) I HIGHLY suspect that number of being very generous and including nearly anybody who has EVER spent ANY time studying Esperanto, regardless of their current abilities (meaning someone who studied it 20 years ago for 2 weeks and says so on a survey is going to get counted); and 2) They're all spread all over hell--sure, you can always find a very, very, very, very, very small number (relative to the total population) of fluent Esperanto speakers in each country, but when 99.9% of the natives of ANY country do NOT speak Esperanto, you mean to tell me that you think the fact that 0.1% DO qualifies Esperanto as "useful", or a language really worth bothering with at all?! You're nuts!
    The only argument I've heard in favor of learning Esperanto that convinced me that maybe it IS actually "useful" in some context was that made by Benny where he said that spending two weeks learning Esperanto would advance your progress in other ACTUALLY USEFUL languages (such as Spanish or French or what-have-you) by several months. Therefore its only possible utility comes in helping you learn a language that you can use to communicate with the majority of the natives of a certain country (unlike Esperanto, which can't do that in any country).
    This isn't to say you shouldn't learn Esperanto: many people learn a language not because they intend to use it, or at least not entirely because of that, but for aesthetic purposes. Plenty of people are math nerds who do math in their spare time despite the fact that they don't and never do intend to use it in their occupations or for anything "useful" (they could be a manager or a mechanic or a psychiatrist or whatever) and that's perfectly fine. If you want to learn something, no matter how "useless", for fun, then you should feel free to do so. My problem is people trying to sell something as useful that really isn't--learning Esperanto is never really going to directly help you communicate with people who don't speak your native language (sure, on very, very rare occasion it might, with a tiny number of people who are in your special little Esperanto club, but that's the odd exception to the rule), though it may be able to help you learn a language that DOES allow you to do that, as Benny pointed out.
    I don my Nomex suit and await the onslaught of flaming :)
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • I might have resisted the "shit lollipop" reference, but I agree with everything else. Hahahaha.For some reason, every time I think of Esperantists, I can't help imagining a room full of vegans and hippies. Girls who own too many cats or who don't shave their legs, and guys who have an uncomfortably deep knowledge of Babylon 5, and Linux, and Lord of the Rings.

  • I'm sorry, there aren't 5 Romance languages, there are 6 (I forgot Catalan) and that's primary (there are a bunch of ancillary ones like Corsican and Sicilian), but it's still solidly a Romance language, not a Slavic one, despite whatever bits and pieces it may have borrowed from the Slavic languages over the years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wik... (it's right there, listed as one of the big 6).Sorry, my only point is that Romanian is, officially, a Romance language, not a Slavic one, and it has far, far more in common with Spanish or Portuguese than it does with Russian or Czech.

  • Well, I haven't exactly fallen in love with Slavic languages as you say you have, but I'll admit, as skeptical as I was of the case system and as much as I hated it at first, it does come in useful. I dabbled in Estonian for awhile (which has 11(?) cases) and loved it a lot, but it wasn't really practical for me so I abandoned it. Someday I'll go back because I think that's the closest feeling I've ever had to the "love at first sight" feeling you said you had with Russian.

  • "Babylon 5, Lord of the Rings, Linux, etc."You know you just made me realize there's another language just like Esperanto with a very, very similar group of people, and about the same utility for the same reasons (hey, lots of people speak it!!):
    Klingon.
    Check this out, they've even got their own language institute: https://www.kli.org/
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • The point wasn't to classify it as a Slavic language. I think we all know it's a descendant of Vulgar Latin, just like Italian. The point was simply that it's a nice gateway language from one language family to another.And I still think it's irresponsible to say there are only 6 Romance languages. The first paragraph of the Wikipedia link you provided ends thus: "Among numerous other Romance languages are Corsican, Lombard, Occitan, Gascon, Aromanian, Sardinian, Sicilian, Venetian, Galician, Neapolitan and Friulian." (My emphasis)

  • If it was truly love at first sight, you wouldn't have abandoned it! :)Give cases a chance. You'll wonder how you ever lived without them!

  • Ok, well that I can get behind, if you're transitioning from Romance languages to Slavic ones then I can understand how you would say that Romanian could sort of function as a gateway to doing that since it (apparently--I did not know this) borrows a bit from the Slavic tongues.

  • Nice article. I am learning Catalan now and I would recomend learning it before Spanish if you are going to live in Catalonia. It really is what everyone speaks. Although, if you are going to live in Barcelona itself, maybe people should learn the two in parallel or something.

  • >> Catalan and Esperanto are similar in that they are a sort of meld of several Romance languages.
    I don't think that Catalan is a meld of other languages any more than say Spanish.
    You could say:
    Catalan is a mix of Spanish, French and Italian.
    But you could also say:
    Spanish is a mix of Catlan, Italian and French.
    The only reason we don't say the second sentence is that Catalan is smaller, but it is just another language that is closely related to the others.

  • And one more thing,
    If you going to Barcelona, here are some basic FREE Catalan lessons with audio:https://www.mylanguagenotebo...Que vagi be!

  • I don't think Lan'dorien was implying that Catalan had been constructed as a melding of those other languages, just that to a person who is interested in those languages, Catalan would be an interesting blend of details from all of them.But I do see your point, and agree that it's worth making. In fact, that's why I've so carefully chosen my words throughout this post (and my replies), to say things like "shared features" or "similarities", so as not to ignore the fact that Catalan is a full language, developed naturally along with those others which we tend to know better. :)

  • Thanks, I'm glad you liked my post!Yeah, it seems like Spanish is present enough in Barcelona that a person could skip learning Catalan. But then again, I'm tempted to think you could get by in almost any big city just on English if you really had to! :)Personally, I prefer to speak to locals in the local language. I don't know how much Catalan I can pick up in 2 weeks. We'll see!

  • Cool, I'll check those out today!

  • >> Personally, I prefer to speak to locals in the local language.
    Totally, I live in Paris and I speak French. Next year, I am planning to live in Barcelona and I will speak Catalan. My girlfriend is from a town near there and it is all Catalan (you don't need Spanish at all). In Barcelona, I think the reality is that you would need both if you wanted to live there, so I will have to learn Spanish.
    But for a holiday, I know the Catalans will love you if you speak to them in their own language! Have a good one.

  • I have another reason why esperanto could be useful!I actually know the bloke (Ronny) in this video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watc...
    He used to have a small used car lot just outside Coventry (this is true) and my mate worked for him valeting and driving cars. Anyway, my mate told the stories about him. Ronny had just come back from Thailand with yet another thai bride and apparently she could not speak a word (not a word) of English and obviosly Ronny couldn't speak a word of thai.
    Of course it would have been doomed even if she had spoken English, but the fact is that she didn't. So they basically just smiled at eachother and she usually sat in the office just crying (can't blame her).
    Anyway, she started learning English but it would take her at least six months to be conversational and she would have died of boredom in the mean time.
    So my idea is that they should both have started learning Esperanto when they first met. Then after say a month they would be able to talk to eachother. I know it is hypothical because there may not be any esperanto lessons in thai but in theory it would have been good for them.
    After a while she would have learned English anyway but in the mean time...
    If you watch the video, you will see why it was doomed anyway, but it is just a thought.
    Happy ending! She went back home after a month.

  • Ahhh, I've been meaning to watch that documentary for so long now! You've made me really want to see it now, I'll have to watch the whole thing later tonight after I get back from the gym.I'll give it to you, as strange as that is, I suppose it is a viable use for Esperanto :DCheers,
    Andrew

  • There's an excellent interactive FREE website for learning Catalan, which is funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya. It's definitely worth checking out for anyone who wants to learn Catalan. You just have to create a user name and password, and it's completely free. The URL is: https://www.parla.cat

  • I have a problem with any web site that makes my passport number, date of birth, and address required fields. I can't imagine why that information would be necessary, and I don't feel safe giving it out.Still... I put in fake information in all those fields and registered without problem. I'm going to try out the site. Thanks for the tip!

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