Located in the northeastern corner of Spain, Catalonia is a freethinking region with a distinct history, culture, and even its own language. This wealthy region is well urbanized and is home to Barcelona, the second most populated Spanish city after Madrid. Some call Catalonia Spain’s economic powerhouse because of the enormous amount of manufacturing that takes place there, including textile-making and metalworking. But it’s also an astonishingly popular travel destination, no doubt due to the diversity of the region. Sunbathers can enjoy the Mediterranean beaches in Costa Brava, city-lovers can explore Gaudí architecture in Barcelona, and hikers can head toward the Pyrenees mountain trails. The variety is unparalleled and it’s why so many are itching to make Catalonia their next travel stop. Before you hop on a plane, read on to learn a little about what makes Catalonia so special. Number one on the list is the Catalan language.
What is Catalan?
For starters, Catalan is a Romance language, and while it has similarities to Spanish and French, it’s just as different from them as they are from each other. Like other Romance Languages, Catalan evolved from Latin, and it can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
Of all the global languages, Catalan is most related to a language from southern France called Occitan and second most to Spanish. That’s right, even though the majority of Catalan speakers live in Spain, the French language is the closer relative. For example, the Catalan language uses pronunciations of j, z, tj, tz, and x that don’t exist in modern Spanish. While both Catalan and modern Spanish display obvious influences from Arabic due to the Moorish conquest of Spain in the eighth century, the ways in which Arabic affected these languages are quite different. The Arabic word for “the” is “al,” which appears at the beginning of many Spanish words, such as “alcachofa” meaning “artichoke.” However, in Catalan, the prefix of “al” is not used, such as in “carxofa” for “artichoke.”
It’s easy to understand why some would think of Catalan as a regional dialect of Spanish, but it is its own, full-fledged language. In fact, it even has its own dialects. There are two distinct dialect groupings in the Catalan language, West and East Catalan, and they include Valencian, Northwestern Catalan, Central Catalan, Rousellonese, Balearic, and Alguerese.
The history of Spain has had a great influence on Catalan, and even included periods of repression of the Catalan language that led to its deterioration for a time. When Catalonia lost its independence during the War of Spanish Succession in the 18th century, Catalonia also lost some of its defining cultural features. Laws made Spanish the only official language and restricted the use of Catalan.
Later, during the 19th century, literary artists banded together to revive Catalan as a respected literary language for use in poetry, plays, novels, and more. They called this period the Catalan Renaissance, or “La Renaixença,” but it was an unfortunately brief revival. After the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 and General Franco gained full power as a military dictator, Catalonian culture and the Catalan language were fully suppressed. Laws forbade the use of the language in public spaces, children weren’t allowed to be given traditional Catalan names, and previously named streets, monuments, and buildings with Catalan titles were renamed with modern Spanish.
Thankfully, this restriction of Catalan has lifted increasingly since the 1970s, after General Franco died and the 1978 constitution created a more democratic parliamentary constitutional monarchy. Catalan is now considered an official language, and — through an immersion program — all students now learn Catalan in schools throughout the region. Today, Catalan is spoken by about 9 million people in Spain, and 4 million consider it to be their native language, mostly within the Catalonia and Valencia areas. Smaller groups also speak it in France, Italy, and Sardinia.
Essential Catalan phrases for getting around
Catalonia is used to foreign travelers and welcomes them, and as such, any English-speaking traveler to Catalonia would fair well without being fully or even minorly fluent in Catalan. That being said, there’s a special connection formed when you speak a little of the native language. There’s something about the words rolling off your tongue that can let you convince others, and maybe even yourself, that you’re a local. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. Here are just a few essential Catalan phrases any traveler could put to good use.
1. Bon dia Good morning
Bona tarda Good afternoon
Bon vespre Good evening
2. Disculpi Excuse me
Use when you’re trying to get someone’s attention.
3. Com ho faig per arribar al centre? How do I get to the downtown?
[kohm oo FAHCH puhr ah-ree-BAHR uhl THEHN-treh]
4. Accepteu targes de crèdit? Do you accept credit cards?
[ahk-THEHP-teh-oo TAHR-zhehs deh KREH-deet]
Catalan phrases for meeting new friends
It can be a little scary to meet new people while abroad, but making friends with locals, asking questions about their hometown and country, favorite regional dishes and events, and sharing a bit about yourself will only make you feel more comfortable wherever you travel. Don’t let a language barrier stop you. These few Catalan phrases can help start a conversation with any shop owner, guide, or city wanderer.
5. Com es diu? What is your name?
[kohm uhs THEE-oo]
This is the formal version — good to use if you want to make a nice impression.
6. Em dic ______ My name is ______
7. Molt de gust! Nice to meet you!
[mohl thuh goos]
Catalan phrases for when you’re hungry
When you’re hungry, thirsty, and wanting a delicious break in a fun-filled day of sightseeing, you don’t want language getting in the way. Meals are also a great time to learn from restaurant owners, servers, and chefs. Having a few Catalan phrases up your sleeve will you help you ask about the house speciality, for example, so you never miss out on the very best tastes around.
8. Puc veure el menú, si us plau? Can I look at the menu, please?
[pook beh-OO-reh ehl meh-NOO, see oos plow]
9. Teniu cap especialitat de la casa? Is there a house specialty?
[TEH-new kahp ehs-peh-THYAH-lee-taht deh lah KAH-sah?]
10. Em pots dur un got de vi negre/blanc? May I have a glass of red/white wine?
[ehm pohts door oon goht deh bee NEH-greh/blahnk]
11. Fotem un cafè? Let’s go for a coffee?
[foh-TEHM oon kah-FEH]
Literally meaning to “make love to coffee,” this common phrase is used to get your friends to join you for a hot cup of java.
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