All about the Catalan language

Image of protest in Barcelona

Image of Camp Nou“Més que un club” is the first Catalan phrase that many people in the world associate with Barcelona. It’s the motto of the FC Barcelona team, proudly displayed on the East Stand of the Camp Nou. That single letter – é in place of the Castilian á – has an awful lot of history to it.

Catalan is a Romance language, with influences from Italian, French, Portuguese and, of course, Castilian (‘Spanish’ to most foreigners). The language is the seventh most widely spoken in the EU, with 11.5 million native speakers across Catalonia and the one country where it is the only official language – tiny, landlocked Andorra. Together with Castilian, it’s the official language of Catalonia.

Catalan and the Franco regime

The years of Franco’s dictatorship were one of Catalonia’s darkest times. The Catalan-speaking population suffered greatly as Franco’s policies were aimed towards the whole nation speaking one language. Minority tongues such as Catalan, Basque and Galician were banned in schools, the press, and on road signs, while the use of Castilian was championed in all social and legal affairs. Franco’s regime even banned all non-Castilian names for new-borns, including the extremely popular name Jordi, the name of Catalonia’s patron saint.

Although Franco became more tolerant towards the end of his time in power, there was still controversy in 1968 when Spain entered Catalan singer Joan Manuel Serrat in the Eurovision Song Contest. Serrat refused to sing La La La in Castilian, leading to him being replaced by eventual winner Massiel, who beat Cliff Richard to first place. When Franco finally died in 1975, acceptance of Catalan began to grow and the efforts to revive and preserve Catalan began in earnest.

Catalan literature

Image of book marketCatalan boasts a very strong literary tradition – in fact, Catalonia was one of the first areas of the world to use the printing press. The first book published in the region appeared in 1473, with the first book printed in Catalan printed one year later. That means that there’s over half a millennium of Catalan literature out there!

You can see some of this vast literary heritage for yourself every Sunday morning at the Mercat de Sant Antoni, located just off the Raval district of Barcelona. It’s a hugely popular book market and worth a visit even if you don’t understand Catalan. You can pick up a centuries-old book for just a few euros – a history lover’s paradise!

Catalan revival and its modern-day place in Spain

image of two woman talkingSince the 1980s, Catalan has been the language of instruction in all Catalan schools, with Castilian taught as a foreign language in the same way as English. And since 2011, Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper has been printed daily in both Catalan and Castilian, making it the most distributed Catalan newspaper in the world. There are also plenty of popular Catalan television channels, such TV3, which further represent the growth of the language.

A more modern twist to the renaissance of Catalan is the recent announcement that Twitter will translate its micro blogging site into the Catalan language – which will make it the 29th official language on the site. This came about after the success of the #twitterencatala hash tag, which was strongly backed by the influential FC Barcelona.

There’s no doubt that Catalan is thriving on the streets, especially in the more urban areas, and it’s also in favour with young people. Chances are that you’ll hear a lot more Catalan spoken in Barcelona than Castilian, making it worth the effort to learn at least a few basic phrases before your trip to the city.

And avoid the uncomfortable language barrier in restaurants by taking a look at our guide to understanding Catalan menus. Simply follow this link, click the box on the right-hand side, pop in your email address and you’re ready to go!


  1. Article gave excellent context for our sojourn. It lead us to the Institvt d’Estvdis Catalans, where I would recommend sending your writer on a research visit lending further context to this piece.

    • Hi Keith,
      The Institvt d’Estvdis Catalans is certainly fascinating! Not only do they continue to study the Catalan language and culture, but they also contribute to scientific and technological research.
      We hope you enjoyed your visit!

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