benvingut a Catalonia

After connecting through Frankfurt I arrived in Barcelona around 7:30. This seemed pretty late to me (i.e. by German standards), but things were apparently just getting started in Barcelona; those restaurants not geared explicitly towards tourists don’t even open until 9 pm, and the trains run till at least midnight all days of the week.

The airport was sleek, white, and modern, unfolding into a wide arcade with plenty of clear glass and sparkling shop facades featuring all your well-known brand name designers. I would see older parts of the city later, but my bus ride from the airport through some of the newer parts reaffirmed that much of the city was built like this. Like Paris, Barcelona is a “horizontal” city with wide streets and a bias towards open places.

The bus landed at Plaça de Catalunya, one of the main thoroughfares in the old city center, and I headed for the subway. The subway was clean, and the trains new, quiet, and well-run. The interior of each station was furnished in emerald green with reassuring white Helvetica text proclaiming the name of each station. The signs were often trilingual, in English, Spanish, and what I assumed was Portuguese; I later found out that language was Catalan, which I had never encountered before.

Like other romance languages, Catalan has much in common with Italian, Castilian Spanish (here just called Castellano), and French. Compare: benvingut / benvenuto / bienvenidos / bienvenue, welcome. But I recognized cognates of many French words which didn’t quite line up with their Spanish counterparts: an arrow pointing to the exit of the subway was marked sortida in Catalan, closer I thought to the French sortie than the Spanish salida.

Local friends of mine would later claim that the Catalans believe their language is closest to “the original” Latin, but I have my doubts: the Roman Empire was too far-flung to prevent the proliferation of dialects of vulgar Latin, and everyone in its former footprint wants to lay claim to the legacy of Caesar as well as their own unique heritage. Other small regional romance languages I’ve heard of (without looking them up, at least not before putting these links in) include Walloon (sharing Belgium with Flemish), Provençal (which is properly called Occitan and is very similar to Catalan), and the regional dialect of the Guernsey islands, Dgernesnais. Hell, even Romanian, heavily influenced by contact with Slavic languages, is actually a Romance language. I’m not even sure how Church Latin or Classical Latin would stack up against what was actually spoken in the streets of Rome.

edit, 1 October: Sorry folks, I was wrong; the Roman province making up present-day Romania was not Dalmatia, but Dacia.

Also, Wikipedia has an interesting page on Vulgar Latin which describes the evolution of various languages from what was spoken by subjects of the Roman Empire. Since Vulgar Latin had no official orthography and is more a blanket descriptor for whatever it was the locals spoke, we don’t have much way of knowing what it actually sounded like or how it compared to Classical Latin, just as I wondered above. The closest we can come is “Proto-Romance”, which is a theoretical construction created by linguists describing the “most recent common ancestor” of the modern Romance languages.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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2 Responses to benvingut a Catalonia

  1. clau2002 says:

    Romanian has nothing to do with Dalmatian.Google province of Dacia and eastern Romance and you will find out!Dalmatian was in fact extinct for almost a century and was a Romance language in its own right.All neolatin languages(or Romance)are derived from vulgar Latin(different from classical Latin or medieval church Latin) which was the Latin spoken on the streets of Rome as well as in all provinces of the Roman empire. Cesar spoke vulgar Latin like everybody else and wrote in Greek like all educated people of his time.

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