Language of the Month: Catalan

     It goes without saying that language is an inherent part of identity. Words we use can change how we perceive the world or even ourselves.When a language is part of a regional identity, this feeling is only amplified. Nowhere is this truer than the case of Catalan.

     While Catalan is mostly associated with Spain, in particular Barcelona and the Catalonian region, it is also spoken in neighboring areas of France and Italy. Most interestingly, and a fact that many are not aware of, is that Catalan is also the only official language of Andorra, a small nation north of Spain.

     Linguistically, the language shares many traits with its neighboring French and Spanish. Standard Catalan has 7 unique vowel sounds and 28 consonant sounds, and, like Spanish, is largely phonetic. However, the language has evolved over time to be one with some of the most monosyllabic words, mostly due to a feature of the language called “final obstruent devoicing” in which some letters become “voiceless” after voiceless consonants. One of the most common examples you may hear is a female friend being called an “amica,” but a male friend simply being called an “amic”, instead of the more typical o/a division in other Romance languages. 

     Beyond being a language rich in linguistic history, it has taken shape as a language of a national identity, particularly in the past few years. Since the unification of Spain, Catalan has been regarded as a minority language, and, particularly in Europe, many of these regional languages tend to be seen as “backwards” or “provincial,” as noted by Kathryn Woolard (please see link below for further reading). 

     However, in recent years it has been viewed by both heritage speakers and those who have learned it as a second or third language as a point of national identity. To speak Catalan is in many ways an act of defiance, saying that Catalonia still retains some degree of independence from the government of Spain. While it will be hard to quantify the direct impact, many point to language as an identity as helping promote the idea of Catalonian independence in the referendum vote of 2017, with over 90% of those who turned out to vote in favor of independence. 

     If you have ever only lived in an area where you speak the majority language, you may take for granted just how critical language is to communicate and feel included in society as a whole. But language is one of the most powerful tools we have for binding together as a community and creating an identity of self. As we’ve seen, sometimes language can change a political landscape, or create power in a people who otherwise may have none.

Further Reading:

Catalan language, identity, and independence