Spanish vs Catalan: Crucial Similarities And Differences

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Spanish vs Catalan: Crucial Similarities And Differences

Catalan and Spanish.

They’re both spoken in Spain, and they both have linguistic similarities.

But they’re are also significant differences.

If you’re curious to discover more about how Catalan and Spanish compare, read on.

Here are the similarities and differences between Catalan and Spanish.

How similar is Catalan to Spanish and other languages?

The level of lexical similarity between Catalan and Spanish is quite high as you might expect.

They have a similarity level of ~85%.

But Catalan also shares some similarities with other languages.

Since it is spoken in a Spanish region that borders the south of France, it also shares many lexical similarities with French.

It is also ~87% lexically similar to Italian.

Where is Catalan spoken and how many Catalan speakers are there?

Catalonia

You can expect to hear Catalan spoken in Catalonia, which is a region in the northeast of Spain.

There are other locations in which Catalan is spoken as well, including Andorra, parts of France and parts of Italy.

There are roughly 9 million Catalan speakers.

Are Spanish and Catalan mutually intelligible?

Since Catalan and Spanish (Castilian) are both spoken in Spain, some might think that Catalan and Spanish are mutually intelligible.

But a Spanish speaker who hasn’t learned Catalan, who is visiting Barcelona and would like to have a conversation with a native Catalan speaker from Catalonia would still find it a challenge to understand Catalan.

The written versions of Catalan sentences are possibly slightly intelligible to native Spanish speakers and readers since some words are lexically similar.

On the other hand, since Spanish is taught in Catalonia it’s expected that some Catalan speakers can understand Spanish without much difficulty, but this depends on the education they have received.

How are the origins of Catalan and Spanish similar and different?

Though these two languages are separate - i.e. Catalan isn’t a dialect and is a language in its own right - Catalan and Spanish have the same roots and origins.

Catalan and Spanish are both Romance languages, meaning they originate from the Romans, but they are different Romance subdivisions.

While Catalan is classified as a Gallo-Romance language, Spanish is called an Iberian-Romance language.

Grammatical and pronunciation differences between Catalan and Spanish

There are several key grammatical differences between Catalan and Spanish.

Here are the key ones you should keep in mind:

  • The use of the simple past tense in Catalan differs when compared with Spanish
  • In Catalan, definite articles are used before a name or noun and can be contracted. In Spanish, this doesn’t happen
  • Catalan uses voiced fricatives whereas Spanish uses these much less

The simple past tense: Catalan vs Spanish

Whereas the Spanish language uses the simple past tense, Catalan uses a periphrastic tense for the simple past.

Consider the difference between these examples:

  • English: Yesterday I cooked an apple and blackberry cake.
  • Spanish: Ayer cociné un pastel de manzana y moras.
  • Catalan: Ahir vaig cuinar un pastís de pomes i mores.

You’ll notice that the Spanish simple past tense is indicated by the verb cociné, where the accented é shows this sentence is written from the perspective of the first person. The Catalan version of the sentence is different.

It uses a compound, periphrastic verb construction using the verb anar.

In the Catalan example above, this verb is vaig, which is followed by a verb in its infinitive form cuinar (to cook).

Contractions and definite articles: How do these differ between Catalan and Spanish?

In Catalan, there are many more contractions between definite articles and nouns.

If a noun begins with a tonic vowel (one that is stressed), an apostrophe can be used to omit the vowel of the masculine article el or the feminine article la.

However, keep in mind that you have a noun that starts with an unstressed vowel, you cannot use an apostrophe in Catalan.

In nouns that start with a growing diphthong or diftong creixent, never use an apostrophe to contract these definite articles and nouns.

This is simply because the letter that starts the noun doesn’t sound like a vowel.

For instance, the word el iogurt (the yogurt) starts with a growing diphthong (which is the initial -io), so the rule is that you cannot use an apostrophe to contract the definite article and the noun here.

All of the above is completely different in Spanish. Why? Well, there simply aren’t any apostrophes in Spanish. This is mainly because we use the word de to indicate belonging.

For example, if you wanted to say “I’m going to Laura’s house”, you wouldn’t use an apostrophe.

Instead, you’d say:

Voy a la casa de Laura.

When you add that there are far fewer contractions in the Spanish language when compared to Catalan, you can see that Spanish has little need for apostrophes.

Voiced fricatives: Catalan vs Spanish

When compared to Spanish, Catalan has voiced fricatives and the pronunciation of the letters z and s are different.

But they can sound the same. The letter “s” in Catalan can be pronounced with a voiced fricative. This means it can sound like an “English” z when combined with a noun that begins with a vowel.

One example of this is the phrase més amics, in which the letter s in més would be pronounced as a voiced fricative.

In Spanish, the only voiced fricative you’ll find is in the words yo and mayo, where the letters “y and o” combined should be pronounced in a similar way to the letter j or “zjo”.

But there are some more similarities and differences to be aware of, so let’s take a look at some of the others.

Article/noun gender agreement Catalan vs. Spanish

In both Catalan and Spanish, nouns and articles must agree with each other in terms of their gender.

In Catalan, you can tell that a noun is masculine if it ends in a stressed vowel. And, you guessed it, if the noun ends in an unstressed vowel, it is a feminine noun.

Using the word ‘en’ in Catalan compared with Spanish

The Catalan language has a handy word, which is en. It means ‘of that mentioned before’ and is ideal for succinctly expressing an idea about a noun that has been talked about previously. Here’s an example of the word ‘en’ being used in a sentence:

Tinc quatre pomes. Me’n menjaré dos i te’n donaré dos.

I have four apples. I’ll eat two of them and give you one.

Did you notice how en was used? It comes before the verb and, in these examples, means the speaker is referring back to the manzanas they’ve mentioned in the first sentence. The English equivalent in this sentence is “of them”.

The word en, in Catalan, can be used in a similar way to its Spanish equivalent (en) and can mean “on” or “in”.

The letter ñ in Spanish vs the Catalan equivalent

If you’re fluent in Spanish or learning the language, you’ll be aware of the trademark letter ñ.

It’s frequently used in Spanish and is pronounced eh-nyeh. If you’re wondering if you’ll find the letter ñ in Catalan, you won’t.

Catalan uses the letters “ny” to phonetically represent the letter ñ. Instead of the word español, in Catalan, you can expect the word espanyol to be used.

Or, instead of the word señal (meaning signal), you can expect the word senyal.

Phonetically different: Spanish vs. Catalan

If you’re learning Spanish you have the benefit of knowing that once you’ve learned how each letter of the alphabet is pronounced, it’s a phonetic language.

You’ll find it easy to pronounce new words and phrases as you can sound out each letter.

Catalan, on the other hand, is not an entirely phonetic language.

In terms of its phonology, there are eight different vowel sounds (compared to the five, mostly-closed vowel sounds of the Spanish language - A, E, I, O and U).

The vowel sounds you should bear in mind for the Catalan language are:

  • The stressed À
  • The unstressed À
  • The open È
  • The closed É
  • The closed Í
  • The opened Ò
  • The closed Ó
  • The closed Ú

Verb conjugations: Similarities between Spanish and Catalan

If you’re interested in the differences between Catalan and Spanish verbs, here’s a bit of positive news: conjugating verbs in Catalan and Spanish follows a similar process.

To prove it, here’s how to conjugate the verb cantar in the present simple tense in both Catalan and Spanish:

EnglishCatalanSpanish
I singJo cantoYo canto
You singTu cantesTu cantas
He/She/It singsEl/Ella cantaEl/Ella canta
We singNosaltres cantemNosotros cantamos
You all singVosaltres canteuVosotros cantaís
They singElls cantenEllos/Ellas cantan

Cardinal and ordinal numbers: Catalan vs Spanish

Finally, although they bear some resemblance to some French numbers, cardinal and ordinal numbers in Catalan are also very similar to those of the Spanish language.

Here’s more on this.

Catalan cardinal numbers and Spanish cardinal numbers

In the table below you’ll find the cardinal numbers in Catalan and the cardinal numbers in Spanish.

Can you spot the similarities and differences between the two?

Cardinal Numbers in CatalanCardinal Numbers in Spanish
UnUno
DosDos
TresTres
QuatreCuatro
CincCinco
SisSeis
SetSiete
VuitOcho
NouNueve
DeuDiez
OnceOnce
DotzeDoce
TretzeTrece
CatorzeCatorce
QuinzeQuince
SetzeDieciseis
DissetDiecisiete
DivuitDieciocho
DinouDiecinueve
VintVeinte

The main differences here are between the Catalan and Spanish numbers from ten until twenty.

Whereas the Catalan language uses the letter z to spell out its cardinal numbers, Spanish favours the letter c.

After quince and up to veinte in Spanish, you’ll also notice how each cardinal number is made from the number diez and the appropriate ones unit.

So, dieciocho combines diez and the number ocho.

Catalan does something similar, but the spelled-out version of each number is shorter.

For instance, the spelled-out number diviut combines the numbers deu and vuit.

Catalan ordinal numbers and Spanish ordinal numbers

Again, there are many similarities between Catalan ordinal numbers and Spanish ordinal numbers. The table below compares the Catalan and Spanish ordinal numbers:

Ordinal Numbers in CatalanOrdinal Numbers in Spanish
PrimerPrimero
SegonSegundo
TercerTercero
QuartCuarto
CinquèQuinto
SisèSexto
SetèSéptimo
VuitèOctavo
NovèNoveno
DesèDécimo
OnzèUndecimo
DotzèDuodecimo
TretzèDecimotercero
CatorzèDecimocuarto
QuinzèDecimoquinto
SetzèDecimosexto
DissetèDecimoséptimo
DivuitèDecimoctavo
DinovèDecimonoveno
VintèVigésimo

The main difference here is that Catalan numbers feature a grave accent mark above the final letter after the ordinal number cinquè.

They’re also shorter which, in this sense, might mean they’re slightly easier to pronounce.

The Spanish ordinal numbers all end in an o and after décimo (up to “twentieth”) they combine the Spanish ordinal number décimo or “tenth” with the appropriate ordinal number as a sort of suffix.

Learn Catalan and Spanish with confidence using this advice

A dedicated learner can pick up Spanish and Catalan without too much difficulty.

It takes practice, but there are enough similarities to make your language learning journey exciting, and enough differences to ensure you push yourself when learning each language.

These are the pieces of advice you will need to develop your understanding of each language:

  • Study a Spanish and Catalan course (see Glossika or Cudoo) to learn the basics of each language.
  • Spend some time in the country or region of your target language. This will help you immerse and surround yourself with native speakers of each language.
  • Learn about each culture. The political evolution of the Catalan language is rich. Though it was prohibited in the era of Franco, Catalonia has regained its cultural and linguistic autonomy. Learning about the history of the region in which the language is spoken can help you understand how to use it and how it has evolved.
  • Use lists to help you build a strong vocabulary for each language.
  • Be aware of the false cognates of Catalan and Spanish.
  • Listen to audio recordings, films, and podcasts and watch YouTube channels to develop your listening skills.

Keep at it and you’ll soon develop your comprehension level and level of expression without much difficulty.


Have you got any other similarities and differences between Catalan and Spanish that you’d like to add?

Share your contribution below in the comments section!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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