Updated September 25, 2011.
Catalan is a Romance language that is most closely related to Occitan. Although Occitan-Catalan started forming in 700-800, Occitan and Catalan are usually thought of as splitting from 1000-1300. However, scholars such as María del Candau de Cevallos and others present evidence that Catalan was already breaking away from Catalan-Occitan as early as the 700’s-800’s.
An alternate method is to see Catalan as part of something called Ibero-Romance together with the Romance languages of the Iberian Peninsula and to put Occitan in Gallo-Romance together with French and related tongues. It’s better to just avoid this and create a whole new category called Catalan-Occitan.
There is a common notion running about that Catalan speakers can understand Occitan. Although surely it differs with exposure, in general, Catalan speakers have a hard time understanding Occitan. Intelligibility between the two languages is probably on the order of 50%. But after only a few weeks of close contact and some intense coaching, they should be able to understand each other pretty well. On this basis, Occitan and Catalan are surely not dialects of a single tongue. However, Catalan and Occitan are very closely related languages.
The same type of folks (I call them “everyone can understand everyone” people or lumpers) also insist that Castillian and Catalan are mutually intelligible. If this were the case, there would be no grounds for a political fight in Catalunya from the Castillian speakers who do not wish to have Catalan shoved down their throats.
The truth is that Castillian speakers can only understand about 40% of written Catalan. Some estimates are that spoken Catalan and Spanish have less than 60% intelligibility. The actual figure may be even less. Catalan is surely not a dialect of Castillian.
There are claims that Catalan and Portuguese are mutually intelligible. This is not the case.
Catalan is also not intelligible with Aragonese. In the Medieval Period, Aragonese and Castillian were considered to be unintelligible to Catalan speakers in the Catalan region. Aragonese is not even intelligible within itself. Why would they be able to understand Catalan too?
Catalan, when spoken, sounds like a cross between Castillian and French.
There is a lot of intense language politics swirling around Catalan. It is the language of an autonomous region of Spain called Catalunya. The fascist Franco tried to kill the language by forbidding its use.
Spanish nationalists are just as horrible as French nationalists, if not worse. As an example, there is a tiny part of Portugal that Spain has occupied for hundreds of years. As per a treaty of 1812, Spain was required to hand over this bit of territory. In the 197 years since then, they have flatly refused to do so. An imperialist Spain continues to occupy a few small islands of frankly Moroccan territory off the coast of Morocco in defiance of Moroccan insistence that they are Moroccan territory.
After the fascists were toppled, Spain was arm-twisted into making Galician, Basque and Catalan into official languages. During the dictatorship, Galician and Catalan were referred to as dialects of Castillian. Recently, Aranese, an Occitan dialect, was also recognized. There are other languages in Spain such as Asturian, Leonese, Murcian, Andalucian, Extremaduran and Aragonese. These are not yet recognized by the imperialist Spanish state.
There are problems in Catalunya. At home, about 1/2 the population speaks Catalan and 1/2 speaks Castillian. However, 95% can understand Catalan, 81% can read Catalan, 78% can speak Catalan and 62% can write Catalan. The Catalan government, understandably, has been mandating the amount of use of Catalan on billboards, the percentage of foreign films translated into Catalan, the number of hours of school instruction that must be in Catalan and the hours of foreign language study in Catalan or Castillian.
For this, Castillian speakers have called them “fascist,” but it’s only normal for them to try to save their language, which is not necessarily doing all that well.
In Andorra, the official language is Catalan, and this is also the most widely spoken language. It is the only officially independent Catalan speaking country on Earth. French and Castillian are also widely spoken.
All dialects of Catalan are said to be mutually intelligible.
However, people say that about the Occitan lects, about Dutch and German, about the Scandinavian languages, about Spanish and Portuguese, on and on, so that is not very reliable.
Further, there is a strong politicization movement similar to Occitan whereby a language in trouble wants to see its various lects as unified under a single language. The notion is that splitting will further endanger a troubled language. Hence, there is a tendency for Catalan nationalists to scream that they can easily understand every variety under the sun. That’s ultimately a politicized response, and it is not scientific.
It’s only natural to wonder whether Catalan is more than one language, so an investigation was undertaken.
Method: Literature and reports were examined and Catalan-speaking informants were interviewed to determine the intelligibility of the various dialects of Catalan. >90% intelligibility was considered to be a dialect of Catalan. <90% intelligibility was considered to be a separate language. The emphasis was on intelligibility rather than structural factors. Overtly political argumentation was ignored.
Results: The result of this investigation was to split Catalan from 1 to 2 languages. Below, separate languages are in bold, and dialects are in italics.
Discussion: Catalan is a very tight-nit language family. The vast majority of Catalan lects can more or less understand each other with few problems. The Blaverist Movement is politically motivated and is not linguistically justified.
There are many dialects of Catalan.
Some are: Rousillonese (Northern Catalán), Valencian (Valenciano or Valencià), Balearic (Balear, Insular Catalan, Mallorqui, Menorqui and Eivissenc), Central Catalan, Alghuerese, Northwestern Catalan (Pallarese, Ribagorçan, Lleidatà and Aiguavivan).
Northern Catalan is actually spoken in France by about 100,000 speakers. It receives no support from the Jacobin French state. Northern Catalan is a very divergent Catalan dialect, although Catalan speakers say that they can understand it just fine. It has a lot of French influence in the lexicon. Northern Catalan sounds very much like French to Southern Catalan speakers. About 40% of the population can speak the language.
Rousillonese is the main dialect of Northern Catalan spoken in France. It’s in better shape than many say it is, but the future prospects are probably not too good.
Rousillon is close to the Occitan language Languedocien.
There is a tremendous to-do over Valencian. Valencian activists, the Blaverists, insist that Valencian is a separate language from Catalan. This is a political issue, not a linguistic one. Linguistically, it is long settled. Valencian is simply a dialect of Catalan, and the two varieties have about 93% intelligibility. There is no scientific grounds for splitting Valencian into a separate language.
Balearic, Alghuerese and Rousillon (Northern or French) Catalan are much further from Central Catalan than Valencian is.
Balearic is spoken in the Balearic Islands and is said to be quite different. Majorca Catalan is somewhat hard to understand for Valencians. It is even hard for Barcelonans to understand. Central Catalan speakers say they go to the islands and communicate without problems, however others say that the old Catalan language of Ibiza is hard for Barcelonans to understand. Some Balearic speakers, like Valencians, say they speak a separate Catalan language.
Intelligibility between Balearic and Catalan Proper is said to be about the same as between Catalan and Valencian, which would mean that Balearic is a dialect of Catalan. We will tentatively split this off due to reports of intelligibility issues, but this remains very controversial. The best way to sort this out would be through intelligibility studies as have been done with Valencian.
Central Catalan is the main variety and is the most widely spoken. This is the variety of Barcelona, and this is what the literary language is loosely based on. Catalan TV usually uses this dialect.
Northwestern Catalan is extremely divergent.
Ribagorçan is transitional to the Aragonese language and is sometimes called a dialect of Aragonese. The truth is that the eastern part is Catalan transitional to Aragonese, the western part is Aragonese transitional to Catalan and the central part is Benasques.
Pallarese is also spoken in the same area and is said to be very different.
Aiguavivan is spoken in high valleys of Pyrenees and is very different. Related varieties called Chapurriau are spoken in Castellote, Torrevelilla and Matarraña nearby in Aragon and across the border in Valencia. These are mixtures of Old Castillian, Castillian, Valencian, Aragonese and a bit of Catalan. The Valencian element predominates. Although these lects are intelligible with Catalan proper, the speakers insist that they do not speak Catalan.
Benasquese is spoken in the same region as Aiguavivan and is often said to be a Catalan dialect. It is not. It is either a transitional lect between Catalan and Aragonese, a divergent Aragonese dialect, or a separate language in between Aragonese and Catalan. At any rate, however we wish to characterize Benasquese, it is not a Catalan dialect.
All of NW Catalan appears to be intelligible with the rest of Catalan.
At last we come to Algherese, spoken in Sardinia in the town of Alghero. This language is dying out, but there are still 20-30,000 speakers, mostly older people.
Many say that structurally, this is by far the most divergent variety of Catalan, created when Catalans landed on the island over 500 years. Algherese has been split from Catalan for over 500 years now. The lect sounds like Medieval Catalan and furthermore, lots of Sardinian language has gone in. Catalan speakers say it sounds like Italian.
Reports indicate that Catalan travelers to Alghero can still understand Algherese quite well, albeit as a somewhat Medieval form of Catalan.
However, the venerable Encyclopedia of Endangered Languages treats Algherese as a separate language, as all of the lects listed are treated as languages. However, this treatment will rely on intelligibility alone, and on that basis, Algherese is a dialect of Catalan, not a separate language.
- Candau de Cevallos, María del C. 1985. Historia De La Lengua Española. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica.
- Gulsoy, Joseph. 1982. “Catalan”, Chapter in Posner, Rebecca, Green, John N. Trends in Romance Linguistics and Philology, Volume 3. La Hague, Paris, New York: Mouton.
- Moseley, Christopher. 2007. Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages. Abiding, UK: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
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