Introduction To Catalan: A Beginner's Guide
- Mille Larsen •6 mins read
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!
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.
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:
Instead of a T-V distinction, Catalan uses the address vostè similar to the Spanish Usted.
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!