“History is the memory of States.” - Henry Kissinger

Learning to speak a foreign language is often considered an essential step for many different careers. However, people rarely learn the history of the language that they’re learning to speak.

Catalan is spoken by 10 million people across Spain, France, and Sardinia, with 6.3 million of them living in Spain.

While a lot of people mistakenly believe that it’s a dialect of Spanish, Catalan is a language in its own right, so let’s learn about the history of the Catalan language.

The Origins of Catalan

The story of Catalan begins in the Classical antiquity. During the Neolithic period, the Iberians settled in Western Europe. Some historians believe they settled near the Ebro in Catalonia (known locally as Catalunya). This was known as the Iberus and it’s thought to be the reason the peoples were referred to as Iberian.

What are the origins of the Catalan language?
Catalan evolved from Vulgar Latin as spoken by Romans and locals in the area. (Source: jackmac34)

Under the Roman Republic (3rd Century BCE), the Romans referred to the Iberian peninsula as Hispania. The Roman conquest of Spain began in 218 BCE with the second Punic war against the Carthaginians. The Roman troops took Emporion (Empuries) and started their conquest of Hispania from Tarragona.

During this time, the Latin spoken on the coast differed from that on the rest of the peninsula. This coastal Latin would lay the foundations for the linguistic evolutions that would lead to the Catalan language.

The Gothic and Frankish Influence

The Roman Empire fell in 476CE and Hispania became easy prey for Germanic invasion. The Vandals invaded in 409 followed by the Alans and the Suebi.

In 414, the Visigoths allied with Rome and took Barcelona as the capital of their new kingdom. In a few decades, the Visigoths were ruling the whole Iberian peninsula and the southwest of France from Gibraltar to the south of the Loire.

Did you know that the name of Catalonia comes from the name given to the region by the Visigoths: Gotholonia, the “Land of the Goths”?

Profiting from the fall of the Roman Empire, they occupied what is now Spain until the end of the 5th Century. However, they never really imposed their language on the region. Instead, they adopted the language that was already spoken in the region, a version of Latin that had evolved over the centuries.

Without the rule of the Roman Empire, various versions of Latin had evolved from what was once the empire. The Visigoths assimilated into the population through mixed marriages with the local populations and left their mother tongue behind.

By the 7th century, Gothic and Latin were dead languages and the Romance languages were born. Vulgar Latin, Gothic, and Frankish heavily influenced the Catalan and Spanish languages.

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Find out more about learning to speak Catalan.

The Moorish Influence on Catalan

The Moors arrived in Gibraltar in 711 and took advantage of the fall of the Visigoths. Catalonia was conquered the following year, the Kingdom of Valencia in 714, and Barcelona in 717. Arabic became the official language across the Iberian peninsula until the Middle Ages.

How long were the Moors in Spain?
For nearly 800 non-consecutive years, the Moors ruled over large parts of Spain. During this time, they left their mark on the languages and the landscape. (Source: dkatana)

Castilian, Catalan, and Aragonese, which are Romance languages, were heavily influenced by Arabic. Catalan was less influenced by Arabic than Castilian as a portion of the Christian population fled the Arab-occupied territories.

Today, there are hundreds of words that come from Arabic such as “arròs” (rice), “sucre” (sugar), matalàs (mattress), and “guitarra” (guitar).

The Franks defeated the Moors in Poitiers in 732, leading to incursions to the south of the Pyrenees. Pepin the Short (715-768) liberated Narbonne and took Septimania (now Languedoc-Rousillon).

Charlemagne (742-814) took Girona from the Arabs in 785, Barcelona in 801, and all of Old Catalonia from the Pyrenees to the Llobregat River. Catalonia under Charlemagne was part of the Carolingian Empire.

The Birth of the Catalan Language

During the Muslim occupation, European languages began to standardise. This is especially the case with Castilian, the langues d’oïl in northern France, and the langues d’oc in southern France.

During the Middle Ages, Catalan was part of the langues d’oc. Catalan emerged around the end of the 7th century and beginning of the 8th century. At the time, Catalan and Occitan were the same languages.

When was Catalan born?
Catalan and Valencian started existing independently at the same time. (Source: papagnoc)

Catalan became distinct from Occitan around the start of the 9th century but was only spoken and had no written form. After the death of Charlemagne in 823, the Catalan cities were integrated into France as part of the Francia Occidentalis (Western Francia) territory. At the time, Catalan was closer to Occitan than it was to Castilian.

In 985, Barcelona was ransacked by the Moor Al-Mansur and the Count of the City, Ramon Borell II, did not receive the help he expected from Hugh Capet, the king of France. As a result, he broke away from the crown in 995, the date considered by Catalans to be the birth of their nation.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Catalan kings expanded their territories into Languedoc and Provence. They took the Balearic Islands in 1114.

This is when the first examples of written Catalan can be found in the Greuges de Guitard Isarn.

The growth of cities also led to Catalan moving away from Latin, Occitan, Castilian, and Aragonese.

The Expansion of Catalan in the 13th Century

The 13th and 14th centuries marked the expansion of Arago-Catalan across the Mediterranean. Marriages allowed Catalan counts to control regions in French Cerdagne, Provence, the Pyrenees, and Toulouse. In Spain, the counts took Tarragona, Tortosa, and Lleida.

After having conquered the historic regions of Catalonia, the Catalans expanded into Andorra, Rousillon, Majorca, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia, and the Duchy of Athens.

The Middle Ages saw Catalan expand across the Mediterranean basin to Aragon, north of the Pyrenees, the Valencian Community, the Balearic Islands, and Sardinia.

Find out why you should learn Catalan.

The Decline of Catalan

The black plague in 1348 led to the decline of Catalonia with 25 million deaths across Europe. Nine epidemics between 1348 and 1401 decimated 2/3 of the population of Spain. Plagues, revolts, and political instability weakened the Catalan nation. Heavy losses from the plague led to fewer speakers of the language.

The civil war between Aragon and Castile under the reign of John II of Aragon (1398-1479) further weakened Catalonia and when France intervened in the conflict, Rousillon and Cerdagne were lost to the French. In 1469, the marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, putting an end to the Catalan dynasty.

By the end of the Reconquista in 1492, the Castilian dominance over Calatan was absolute. Catalan was sidelined in Spanish politics and economics during the 17th century and the discovery of the New World and Spanish-speaking conquistadors further marginalised the Catalan language.

Find out how you can learn Catalan.

The Catalan Renaissance

The annexation of Catalonia by Napoleon I in 1812 furthered nationalist sentiment and gave rise to a Catalan independence movement. The beginning of the 20th century saw the creation of the regionalist league (Lliga Regionalista) with the goal of Catalan self-determination. A better quality of life and the promotion of Catalan culture only furthered the desire for independence.

In 1907, the Institut d'Estudis Catalans codified the Catalan language and published Catalan dictionaries and grammar guides. The Second Spanish Republic in 1931 allowed Catalonia to be recognised as an autonomous community in Spain with Catalan holding official language status. The recognition of the language increased support for Catalan independence, especially since the demands of workers weren’t being met by the central powers in Madrid.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the coup d’état in 1936 shattered the Second Spanish Republic. Extreme-right Nationalists led by General Franco opposed Republicans (who were in the majority in Catalonia). Franco’s victory put an end to Catalan autonomy. Under his dictatorship, Catalan was banned from being used in public until Franco died in 1975. During this time, the cultural and linguistic influence from Castilian Spanish was unchallenged.

After the return to democracy in 1978, the Spanish constitution recognised the existence of other languages in Spain through various divulged powers between 1979 and 2006.

When did speaking Catalan become legal again?
Since the end of the dictatorship in Spain, Catalan speakers have been given more freedoms in terms of how they use their language. (Source: Manminder)

Even though Spanish is the official language of Spain, any citizen has the right to learn and use languages with regional official status. Today, Catalan is further divided with variants in the Pyrénées-Orientales, the Valencian Community, the Balearic Islands.

Find out where else Catalan is spoken.

Separatists are looking to form a legitimate and sovereign Catalan government while the Spanish central government is hoping to quash the desire of some its citizens to break away. In 2017, Catalonia unilaterally declared independence from Spain.

More to follow...

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