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Classification: Indo-European, Italic, Romance.

Historical Overview. Catalan is a Romance language developed from a variety of Vulgar Latin spoken in a small area on either side of the eastern Pyrenees. After centuries of Visigothic and Moorish domination, this territory was politically consolidated during the Carolingian empire as a buffer zone between it and the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus. Later, this region gained independence, starting with the separation of the county of Barcelona in 988 CE.

    Incorporated into the kingdom of Aragon, Catalonia became a maritime power expanding into Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Sicily and Sardinia. But after the union of Aragon with Castile, initiated in the 15th century, Catalonia lost its autonomy and Catalan came under increasing pressure from Spanish, being influenced by it at many levels. It was not until the 19th century that a Renaissance of the Catalan language and culture, promoted by Romanticism, took place which, despite periods of repression (particularly during the Franco regime), still continues today.

    Catalan's history explains its geographical distribution and close relation to the Occitan language of southern France and to Spanish.

Distribution. Catalan is spoken in eastern and northeastern Spain (Catalonia and Valencia, La Franja in Aragon, and the Balearic Isles), France (Roussillon region), Andorra, and in Alghero, a city of northwestern Sardinia, Italy.

Speakers: about 9.4 million of which 9.1 million in Spain (5,800,000 in Catalonia, 2,500,000 in Valencia, 710,000 in the Balearic Islands, 45,000 in Aragon), 150,000 in France, 78,000 in Andorra, and 20,000 in Italy.

Status: In Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and the Valencian community, Catalan is co-official with Spanish. In Andorra, Catalan is the only official language but in France it has no official status. Almost all Catalan speakers are bilingual. In Catalonia it is the principal language of politics, education and the media.

Varieties: Catalan dialects are grouped into Western and Eastern. The Western Group includes North-Western Catalan (in western and southern Catalonia and eastern Aragon), and Valencian. The Eastern Group includes North Catalan (in the Roussillon region of France), Central Catalan (in eastern Catalonia), Balearic, and Alguerès, the dialect spoken in Alghero, Sardinia.

Oldest Document: Homilies d'Organyà, a collection of sermons dating from the 12th or early 13th century.  


Vowels (8):


Consonants (26). Catalan has 26 consonant phonemes, including 10 stops and affricates, 6 fricatives, 4 nasals, and 6 liquids and glides. The stops, affricates and fricatives present a symmetrical distribution, each having contrasting voiceless and voiced varieties. The liquids are two laterals (one dental, one palatal), one trill and one flap.


Script and Orthography

Catalan is written with a Latin-derived script composed of 27 letters (below each one, is shown its equivalent in the International Phonetic Alphabet):


  1. mid-vowels are distinguished by acute and grave accents only when an accent is required: é is [e], è is [ɛ], ó is [o], ò is [ɔ].

  2. [ts] is written with the digraph ts.

  3. [dz] is written with the digraph tz.

  4. [tʃ] is represented by tx or ig.

  5. [dʒ] is represented by g or j.

  6. [ʃ] is represented by x.

  7. [ʒ] is represented by j.

  8. [ɲ] is written with the digraph ny.

  9. [ŋ] is written with the digraph ng.

  10. the trill [r] is represented at the beginning of a word by r and within a word by the digraph rr; the flap [ɾ] occurs only within a word and is represented by a single r.

  11. [ʎ] is written with the digraph ll.


  1. Nominal

  2. gender: masculine, feminine. The masculine is unmarked, the feminine is marked by the suffixes -a, -na or -essa. Some nouns have contrasting forms, others have irregular feminines and others have a common gender.

  1. number: singular, plural. The singular is unmarked, the plural is made by:

  1. addition of -s  to words ending in consonant (other than s or x) or in an unstressed vowel (other than a).

  2. replacement of final unstressed a by -es.

  3. addition of -ns to nouns ended in a stressed vowel or an unstressed e.

  4. addition of -os to words ending in s or x.

  5. adding a written accent to nouns ending in en.

  1. pronounspersonal, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, relative.

  2. Personal pronouns are of two types: stressed and unstressed (clitics). The stressed pronouns are used as subject pronouns or as strong object pronouns after prepositions. The only formal difference between them is in the first person singular. The unstressed or weak object pronouns are clitics, used for direct or indirect object, which have to be placed immediately before or after the verb.


  1. Both series of weak pronouns (before and after verb) have two forms each: a full one before/after consonant and a reduced one before/after vowel.

  1. Third person weak pronouns have different forms whether they function as direct or indirect object. Direct object forms distinguish gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) but there is a single, common gender form, for the indirect object.

  1. Possessive pronouns and adjectives are the same. They have stressed and weak forms. For the first person they are respectively: el meu/mon (ms), la meva/ma (fs), els meus/mos (mp), les meves/mes (fp).

  1. Demonstrative pronouns have two forms, for proximal and distal, which are inflected for gender and number. Proximal: aquest (ms), aquesta (fs), aquests (mp), aquestes (fp). Distal: aquell (ms), aquella (fs), aquells (mp), aquelles (fp).

  1. The interrogative pronouns are qui (‘who’), què (‘what’), and quin (‘what/which’). The last one is inflected for gender and number (quin, quina, quins, quines).

  1. The relative pronouns differ if they are preceded or not by prepositions. Without prepositions que is used for both, subject and object. After prepositions, què is used for things and qui for persons. There are also compound forms: el qual (ms), la qual (fs), els quals (mp), les quals (fp).

  1. articles: indefinite, definite. Both are inflected for gender and number. The indefinite articles are: un (masculine singular), uns (masculine plural), una (feminine singular), unes (feminine plural). The definite articles are: el/l' (masculine singular), els (masculine plural), la/l' (feminine singular), les (feminine plural).

  1. Verbal

  2. person and number:  1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense: present, imperfect, preterite, future, conditional are the simple tenses. Each of them has a compound form made with the auxiliary verb haver (‘to have’) + past participle: perfect, pluperfect, past anterior, future perfect and conditional perfect.

  1. There are three conjugation types of which conjugation I includes most verbs (about 78 %). Conjugation-I verbs have infinitives ending in -ar, conjugation II contains most of the irregular verbs, and their infinitives end in -re, -er, -r, verbs of conjugation III have infinitives in -ir.

  1. We show next the conjugation of the type I verb cantar (‘to sing’) in all tenses of the indicative; the first block includes the simple tenses, and the second block their corresponding compound tenses:


  1. mood: indicative (all tenses), subjunctive (present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect), and imperative (present). For example:


  1. voice: active, passive.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, gerund, past participle. For example:

  1. infinitive: cantar

  2. gerund: cantant

  3. past participle: cantat


The basic word order in Catalan is Subject-Verb-Object, but it is quite flexible because the final position in the sentence carries the most important informative elements. Subject pronouns may be dropped. In fact, some sentences have no subject at all (impersonal). Catalan uses prepositions to establish syntactical relations. Direct object precedes the indirect one. Attributive adjectives most often follow their nouns. They agree with them in gender and number. The verb agrees in person and number with the subject.


Catalan vocabulary has more in common with Occitan of southern France than with Spanish. It shares about 70 % of its lexicon with the first and about  20 % with the second.

Basic Vocabulary

one: u

two: dos

three: tres

four: quatre

five: cinc

six: sis

seven: set

eight: vuit

nine: nou

ten: deu

hundred: cent

father: pare

mother: mare

brother: germà

sister: germana

son: fill

daughter: filla

head: cap

face: cara

eye: ull

hand: mà

foot: peu

heart: cor

tongue: llengua

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Gramática Histórica Catalana. A. M. Badia i Margarit.  Noguer (1951).

  2. -Història de la Llengua Catalana (2 vols). J. M. Nadal & M. Prats. Edicions 62 (1982–1996).

  3. -'Catalan'. M. W. Wheeler. In The Romance Languages, 170-208. M. Harris & N. Vincent (eds). Routledge (1988).

  4. -Catalan: A Comprehensive Grammar. M. W. Wheeler, A. Yates & N. Dols. Routledge (1999).

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