This blog post was originally posted on August 20, 2014, and was updated on November 15, 2017.
Planning on brushing up on your Spanish before arriving in Barcelona? If you really want to impress the locals, why not learn a few Catalan phrases?
So you’re visiting Barcelona and you’re brushing up on your 8th grade Spanish. Donde está el baño, you murmur to yourself on the plane. La cuenta, por favor, you nervously repeat again and again. All the while, imagining the delicious tapas dinner you will eventually enjoy on your trip.
But little do you realize that upon arriving in Barcelona, you could possibly find yourself stammering all over again! Sure, Spanish is an official language here, but it’s not the only one. Catalan is similar to castellano in its roots but is a completely different language. Furthermore, it’s not just a dialect, it reigns the region and its people. Here is some basic knowledge to help you feel confident, cool and maybe even like a local when visiting Barcelona and Catalonia.
Local’s Tip: 9.99 out of 10 times you will be greeted with a smile in English, Spanish and/or Catalan. However, we think it’s nice to learn the local language anyway! Also, in some smaller Catalan villages there are still people, especially the older generation who find it tricky to communicate in Spanish. Plus, we just love some of these handy Catalan phrases!
What is Catalan and where did it come from?
Contrary to what many may think, Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish. In fact, it is yet another spin-off of vulgar latin like Spanish, French or Italian, and in its heyday was actually a very predominant language in the Mediterranean. Despite its prevalence in the Iberian peninsula, it actually shows more similarities grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation-wise to Italian and French than to Spanish and Portuguese. Today, Catalan or some form of it is spoken not only in Catalonia but also Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Andorra, Northern Catalonia (France) and some small towns in Sardinia, Italy.
Why should we learn it?
Regardless of the oppression Catalan has faced in the past, it still remains alive and well and is a source of national pride for native speakers. In the last few hundred years, Catalan has been banned on two different occasions. One of them as recent as 50 years ago during the Franco dictatorship, and it still faces hardship in an ongoing political battle between Madrid and Catalonia. Furthermore, as a minority language that has struggled against repression, Catalan is revered as a beloved, well-protected tradition, and its people are beyond delighted to hear foreigners and visitors promoting the use of it.
Bon dia, Bona tarda, Bona nit
By now you’re biting your lip in nervous anticipation. You thought your basic Spanish skills would be enough to get by, but now you have yet another language to learn?!
However, don’t sweat. Remember that it doesn’t take advanced conversation skills to buy tickets to the Sagrada Familia, and even the slightest effort will win you smiles of appreciation. When in doubt, a nice salutation beyond Hola!, like saying Good morning, evening, afternoon etc, will already make you feel more natural. And guess what? Almost no tricks on the pronunciation (just keep in mind, the vowel sound in nit of bona nit is like the English word cheese). Also, once you master a few of these Catalan phrases—adding them to the rest of your Spanish will gain you big points amongst the locals, we promise!
Sisplau i Moltes Gràcies
There is nothing worse than an impolite tourist. Of course, thank you and gracias are always Catalan phrases that are appreciated but dare yourself to say it in Catalan for the extra brownie points. Here is another expert pronunciation tip. In Catalan, the letter E is more often than not neutral, which means that it sounds more like an A for English speakers. So, moltes gràcies should sound something like moltas gracias. Also, don’t try to lisp the C when speaking Catalan; this sound does not exist.
A quin carrer estic?
You’re roaming the streets of Gracia and you realize you are totally lost. You then ask someone for directions in a jumbled confusion of Spanglish and they casually respond in Catalan (this isn’t likely but if it does happen, assume that you have pretty darn good Spanish). Here are some things that might help you get by:
- Carrer—-This word means street. You will see it everywhere. Expert pronunciation tip: in Catalan, final R sounds are never pronounced.
- On esta…—-Here we have the interrogative word where: on. Drill yourself on asking where different places are: On esta el restaurant? On esta la catedral? And the always important On esta el lavabo?
- Estic perdut—-Always good to know when you’re lost.
Fer el Vermut
Finally, for the foodies out there. If there was just one thing you had to know when in Barcelona for culture and cuisine, it would be the sacred tradition of having a vermouth. And of course we have some Catalan phrases to learn to help you enjoy it in all its glory! Around 1 pm, before lunchtime and treated as a sort of aperitif, it is very common to have a cool glass of vermouth, neat, with olives, chips or some other salty snack. So much a ritual of daily life, they literally call it doing the vermouth. Remember, the final R in fer is not pronounced. Try this one—On puc fer el vermut? Rough translation—where can I have have a vermouth? Watch the video below to find out how to enjoy it like a local.
Adéu i Fins Aviat
So now that you have all the Catalan phrases and secrets to feigning linguistic expertise, breath deeply, relax and enjoy all that this beautiful region has to offer. And like they say here, fins aviat, see you soon!
Want more insights into Catalan culture, food and history? You’ll love our new online experience, Cook a Medieval Recipe and Taste Catalan History! Get ready to take a deep dive into European culinary history and make a recipe that has stood the test of time—from the first European cookbook not written in Latin (yep, it was Catalan!).