Mallorca Monday: Catalan

Not all of Spain speaks Spanish as their preferred or first language. While Spain is just about the size of Texas, it has a dozen or so languages.

Some of the languages are “endangered”, and probably won’t be around much longer, but it’s still impressive.

The five largest languages in order of fewest to largest number of native speakers are…

  • Aranese (4,700 speakers) spoken in a very tiny bit up north where France and Spain touch
  • Asturian (350,000 speakers) spoken up north in Asturias
  • Basque (550,000 speakers) again up north by France
  • Galician (2.4 Million speakers) up north above Portugal
  • Catalan (5 Million speakers) spoken on the whole eastern coast (Barcelona) and in the Balearic Islands
  • Castellano  (AKA “Spanish”) (490 Million)

Everyone who speaks the other languages ALSO speaks Castellano (Spanish). To make it easier on you I’ll just refer to Castellano as Spanish from here on out.

What do they speak in the Balearic Islands?

The primary language is Catalan.

But wait! Do they also speak Spanish? Yes, of course. But the majority prefer Catalan, and (according to a co-worker of mine) they all think in Catalan, and when they have to speak Spanish they translate from Catalan to Spanish.

How prevalent is it?

Very! Extremely! In school all classes are taught in Catalan. The students typically speak Catalan to one another, which kind of sucks for us. We got used to being able to listen in on our students which was nice because it let us know if they were confused/being rude.

Adults (especially older adults) generally speak it to one another on the streets. Generally when we go up to the cashier to pay for our groceries they try Catalan with us first. Everyone can speak Spanish as well, though, just as fluently as anyone else in Spain.

There are many people who have moved here from mainland Spain and Latin America. Some of these people learn Catalan, but most don’t. Their children usually pick it up in school, but it’s far from guaranteed.

What do young people think of it?

If the other languages are going extinct, how is Catalan faring with the future?

I’ve talked with many of my students about the two language system used here, and I’ve found three points of view. On one extreme side are students who couldn’t care less about Catalan, and seem to resent the fact that they have use it. On the other extreme, there are students who see Spanish as the language of the mainland (the mainland they say oppresses them with unfair taxation). The third viewpoint is right in the middle and includes the vast majority of young people. This group speaks both languages without a problem, but maybe prefers to speak Spanish. Why? Because the best music, TV series, and movies are all in Spanish. It’s hard to find good entertainment in Catalan.

How different is it from Spanish?

If you have a good grasp on Spanish, you might be able to read some Catalan, but good luck understanding more than that. Catalan is based more off of Latin, so there are similar words, but they take some thinking to understand.

The local museum was only in Catalan so we took a long time trying to understand each sign. (Of course they had print-outs in Spanish, English, French, and German for the tourists if you don’t want to try Catalan).

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The local museum

Similarities to Spanish

  • Jo soc una nena / Yo soy una nina. (I am a girl)
  • Gràcies / Gracias (Thank you)
  • Jo cuino esmorzar / Yo cocino almuerzo (I cook breakfast).
  • Totes les direccions / todas las direcciones (All directions [on a street sign]).

Similarities to French

Some things look more familiar if you speak French: Catalan/French/Spanish (English meaning)

  • Bon nit /Bonne nuit/ Buenas Noches (Good night)
  • Adéu/ Adieu / Adios (Goodbye)
  • Si us plau / S’il vous plaît / Por favor (Please)
  • Jo parlo Angles / Je parle anglais / Yo hablo ingles (I speak English). Looks much closer to French.

Similarities to Latin

  • Suc / Suci / Zumo (Juice. No they don’t say jugo in Spain, that’s Latin American Spanish).

Lack of Arabic Loanwords

Spain used to be almost completely governed by the Moors. So the language has many loanwords from Arabic. Catalan just ignored these loanwords. (Hint if a word starts in Al- it’s probably a loanword from Arabic as “al” is just “the”).

  • boliña/ albóndiga (meatball)
  • carxofa/ alcachofa (artichoke)
  • coixí/ almohada (pillow)
  • cotó/ algodón (cotton)

Catalan is basically a mishmash of all the Romance languages, with a stronger connection to French. They even combine articles with nouns under certain circumstances, just like French, so that La Avia (The Grandma) is correctly written as L’Avia.

What does the dog (gos) say? Bub! Bub!

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This is what a Catalan dog (gos) sounds like.

For a huge list of simple phrases in Catalan, click here!

Does it sounds like Spanish?

No, it sounds totally different. (I, Kaeti, think is sounds better, smoother). Every now and then we hear a word that is shared between Spanish and Catalan, but even those words are pronounced differently. Here is an example of Spoken Catalan. The hard consonants at the end of many words makes it sound super alien to us after living in Peninsular Spain for a solid year. The majority of words in Spanish end in A or O so that changes the sounds a lot.

Why does it even exist?

A long time ago Spain was ruled by Rome. During this time the people spoke (mostly) Latin, but the crappy kind of Latin that the common people and soldiers spoke aka “vulgar Latin”. After Rome stopped existing, Spain was divided into many different kingdoms, most of which continued to speak Latin. But since they were all on their own without big brother Rome to tell them right from wrong, their versions of Latin started to differ from one another.

One of these kingdoms was Castilie, and they spoke (you guessed it) Castilian (Spanish). Since they became the most powerful kingdom in Spain, their language is the one that everyone uses, and it’s the version that was transported to the New World (to Mexico and South America). Catalan belonged to the second most powerful kingdom, Aragon. Aragon went on to conquer the Balearic islands during the reconquista, which is why it’s spoken on the islands today.

Should you learn it?

If you want to go to eastern Spain (Barcelona) or the Balearic islands, and you want to impress the heck out of local strangers, sure. People love when outsiders show that they are interested in their culture, and it could provide you with a few noteworthy experiences. But you don’t need it to visit the Balearic Islands or anywhere else. Everyone speaks Spanish as well and most everyone else speaks English/German.

We are making a small attempt to learn a few words, mostly just to help us get by in our schools. The signs and schedules are all written in Catalan

My schedule – days of the week Dilluns, Dimarts, Dimecres, Dijous, Divendres

Our coworkers are more prone to speaking it than Spanish. It would be nice to listen in (for fun). It would also be helpful for our students as they chatter in Catalan and I would like to know if “no entenc” or “què fregit està dient?”

But keep in mind that Spanish will get you by just fine, and also that Catalan will be useless in other places (like Andalucia). But 5 million speakers can’t be wrong, though, so if you do learn it you aren’t learning a dead language.


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