During the 12th century, the Catalan language enjoyed a period of power as the official language of the Kingdom of Aragon. Since that time, however, Catalan has faced periods of oppression that stalled the language’s development for centuries. It was not until the late 20th century that a revival of Catalan language and culture led to a formal standardization of the modern Catalan language.
Classification of the Catalan Language
Catalan is classified as a peninsular romance language. The exact origins and family ties of the Catalan language have been debated for many years. Initially, many linguists believed that Catalan had developed from the Occitan language of France (also known as Provencal) during the Middle Ages. While theorists came to identify Catalan as a completely autonomous language, many still emphasize a close relationship to Occitan.
An alternate theory argues that Catalan has a much closer relationship to modern Hispanic languages than it does to Occitan. While Medieval Catalan was most likely closely related to literary Occitan, modern Catalan has evolved to develop close ties to Aragonese and Castilian.
Written Catalan Language
The earliest surviving examples of written Catalan date to the 12th century and consist of a religious charter and six sermons. Since this time, the Catalan language has developed a rich literary history. An era of Catalan poetry flourished throughout the 13th century, led by Ramon Llull, who is considered the first Catalan language poet.
Catalan Language in the Kingdom of Aragon
The Catalan language is believed to have originated in the northeastern region of modern-day Spain now known as Catalonia. Because Catalan served as the official language in the Kingdom of Aragon throughout the 12th century, the language gained power and flourished well into the 15th century.
A landmark event took place in the 14th century with the formation of the Generalitat de Catalunya, a regulating body charged with the task of standardizing the Catalan language. A union forged between the rulers of Aragon and the Castilian royalty in 1474 marked the start of a decline in the Catalan language’s power.
Decline of the Catalan Language After the Kingdom of Aragon
Catalan literary development stalled after 1500, as the primary Catalan language texts that appeared were grammatical works.
Catalonia became a French possession in 1640. While this initial control lasted only until 1659, additional periods of French possession recurred for more than 150 years.
With the loss of Catalonian independence, the Catalan language suffered severely. The language came to be spoken almost solely in rural areas, and any literary development essentially ceased. In 1714, King Philip V ended any official use of Catalan, installing Castilian Spanish as the official language of the region.
The Early 19th Century: Catalan Language Renaissance
In the late 19th century, a renaissance of Catalan language and literature took place. The first Catalan Language Congress was held in 1906, and one year later the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (Institute for Catalan Studies) was founded.
This progress ground to a halt under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera from 1923 to 1930. Rivera banned the use of all languages other than Castilian. Many members of the Catalan literary community subsequently fled abroad, while political oppression prevented those who remained from undertaking any significant literary activity.
Repression of the Catalan Language Under General Francisco Franco
With the formation of the Second Republic in Spain in 1931, the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan language’s governing body) was reinstituted. Catalan was restored as an official language in the same year.
New barriers to the Catalan language’s development arose with General Francisco Franco’s ascension to power at the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Throughout Franco’s rule, promotion, development and preservation of the Catalan language and culture was repressed. Despite the oppression felt under Franco’s reign, Catalan literary movements progressed as many writers began to address current social issues of the time.
Autonomy for Catalonia: Significance for the Catalan Language
As Catalonia began to achieve greater autonomy in the late 1900s, the Catalan language underwent a period of revitalization. In the late 1970s, administrative changes in the Spanish government resulted in Catalonia’s officially being declared a “comunidad autonoma” or autonomous community.
In 1977, the Generalitat de Catalunya was again reinstated and took measures to standardize the modern Catalan language. Catalan soon became the primary language in education, politics and public life throughout Catalonia.
Relationship Between Catalan and Valencian
The relationship between Catalan and Valencian is politically charged and has often been a topic of dispute, especially for Valencian speakers. Most linguists technically classify Valencian as a sub-dialect of the Occidental dialect group of the Catalan language.
Since the end of Spain’s Civil War, however, the Valencian community has been very adamant in its promotion of Valencian as a distinct language from Catalan. Valencian and Catalan are very similar, differing primarily in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation and details of verb conjugation.
Two primary dialects can be identified within the modern Catalan language, Occidental and Oriental, with a number of sub-dialects existing within each of these groups. In the 1500s, a number of notable dialects – including Valencian – began to evolve and differentiate themselves from the central dialect of the areas surrounding Barcelona.
There is no evidence of varying dialects until the 16th century, and some linguists have theorized that the use of a standardized Catalan throughout the Kingdom of Aragon prevented the development of distinct dialects before this time.
Modern Catalan Language
An estimated 6.5 million Catalan speakers live in Spain today, primarily located in the regions of Catalonia and Valencia where it serves as an official language. In Catalonia, Catalan serves as the primary language of education, and many media outlets broadcast in Catalan.
At least an additional 210,000 Catalan speakers can be found in the Roussillon region of France. Other areas where Catalan can be found include the Balearic Isles, Sardinia and Andorra, where it serves as an official language.
Catalan Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Català, Catalán, Bacavès, Catalonian
Language Family: Indo-European, Italic, Romance, Italo-Western, Western, Gallo-Iberian, Ibero-Romance, East Iberian.
Official Language of: Andorra
Spoken by Approximately 6,565,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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