What is Catalan: a Language, or a Dialect of Spanish?

What is Catalan: a Language, or a Dialect of Spanish?

Edward W. Goodson

Lawyer, San Ramon, California

January 27, 2013

Catalan is a Romance language; it is derived from colloquial, or “vulgar,” Latin, the language spoken by the common people of the Roman Empire.  This was not the same Latin used by the upper and well-educated classes of the Empire, known as Classical Latin, though it was based on Classical Latin.

Colloquial Latin probably differed a bit from region to region across the Empire, taking on traits of the languages of the various peoples whose lands had been conquered.  The regional differences increased markedly, however, with the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the 400s, and the large migrations of Germanic and Slavic tribes.  Each new group brought its own language, creating a new mix of colloquial Latin and recently arrived languages.

With the new language mixing, from the 300s to the 700s colloquial Latin broke up first into dialects, and then into several discrete languages that were not mutually intelligible.  People could no longer understand each other without study or effort, especially people in far-off regions.  Thus French initially developed in what is now northern France, standard Italian near Florence, Portuguese in northwestern Spain, Spanish in north-central Spain, and Catalan in northeastern Spain and southern France.  Each language was shaped by many influences, and the popularity of some languages – or the military force behind them – inevitably led to the demise of other languages. Such changes are illustrated in this animated chronological map showing linguistic changes from the year 1000 to the present.

According to Ethnologue, currently about 28 million residents of Spain speak Spanish and 11.2 million speak Catalan, making Catalan the largest minority language in Spain. Basque, currently with only about 580,000 native speakers, pre-dates the Roman Empire and is not related to any other language of Europe.  Galician, a Romance language closely related to Portuguese, has more than 3 million speakers.   Ethnologue lists 10 additional living languages of Spain, several of them Romance languages with very few speakers.

In Spain, one doesn’t have to look far for controversy regarding the Catalan language.  The government of dictator Francisco Franco banned the use of Catalan in many settings and even argued that Catalan was a dialect not fit for use in Spain, though academics consistently consider Catalan a separate language.  Even within Catalan there is controversy: some residents of the Valencian community argue that Valencian, their version of Catalan, is a separate language.

The view from the United States is very different.  Few Americans know anything about the Catalan language or culture, unless they happened to learn it by watching FC Barcelona soccer games.

To Americans, the Catalan language usually seems like a mix between Spanish and French, or maybe Italian.  While those Romance languages have very different histories, they all derived from colloquial Latin, and as a result have many words in common, or as linguists might say, they have a high rate of lexical similarity.  Studies by Ethnologue indicate that the lexical similarity between Catalan and Italian is 87%, that is, there is an 87% overlap between the vocabulary sets of the two languages.  In contrast, the language with the highest lexical similarity to English is German, at 60%.  (I have found no data for English-Dutch, which must also be very high.)  While Ethnologue provides no data for Catalan-French, it gives the lexical similarity between Catalan and Spanish as 85%, and the same 85% for Catalan-Portuguese.  French is even more similar to Italian, at 89%, but less similar to Spanish and Portuguese, at 75%.  So it seems that Catalan has great similarities to French, Spanish, and Italian.  But which one does it resemble the most?

You be the judge.  Watch some of the excellent live programming on Televisió de Catalunya by clicking here.  Does it sound more like French? Spanish? Italian? Portuguese?  If you speak one of those languages, can you understand Catalan without any effort?  If you are like me – I speak English and Spanish – you will be able to read Catalan much more easily than understand conversations, but even for reading you will need to use a translation application such as Google Translate.

In summary, Catalan is a language (not a dialect) that is closely related to other well-known Romance languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, but it is not mutually intelligible with any of them.

Edward W. Goodson

San Ramon, California

January 27, 2013

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Posted on January 31, 2013, in BY COUNTRY, BY DATE, BY LANGUAGE, BY SOURCE, Edward Goodson - American Lawyer, English, January 2013, United States of America. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. the animated chronological map does not show any change on the area of france during this long period. strange, isn’t it?

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