Phonological history of Catalan

As a member of the dialect continuum of Romance languages, Catalan displays linguistic features similar to those of its closest neighbors (Occitan, Aragonese). The following features represent in some cases unique changes in the evolution of Catalan from Vulgar Latin; other features are common in other Romance-speaking areas.


Catalan is one of the Western Romance languages; it is most closely related to Occitan and only diverged from it between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries[1] after the cultural ties with France were broken. In time, Catalan became more tied to the Ibero-Romance languages in Spain; because these languages are significantly more conservative than French (which has been the most important influence over Occitan in the last several hundred years), most of the differences between Catalan and Occitan are due to developments in Occitan that did not occur in Catalan.

Common features with Western Romance languages, but not Italo-Romance

  • Voicing (and lenition) of intervocalic -p-, -t-, -c- into -b-, -d-, -g- (capra 'goat' > cabra, catēna 'chain' > cadena, secūrvs 'safe' > segur).
  • Loss of gemination in stop consonants.
  • Development of /ts/ (later /s/) instead of /tʃ/ from palatalized /k/. For example, caelvm ('sky, heaven') > Old Catalan cel /tsɛl/ > modern [ˈsɛɫ] (cf. Italian cielo /tʃɛlo/).
  • Development of c in ct, cs into palatal /j/ (vs. /tt/, /ss, ʃʃ/ in Italian).
  • Apicoalveolar pronunciation of /s/ and /z/. (This was once common to all Western Romance languages, but has since disappeared from French, some Occitan dialects, and Portuguese.[2])

Common features with Gallo-Romance languages

  • Loss of final unstressed vowels except -a (mūrum 'wall' > *muro > mur, flōrem 'flower' >flor); cf. the maintenance of all final vowels except -e after [ɾ, s, ts] in Spanish and Portuguese, e.g. muro but flor; Italo-Romance maintains all final vowels (Italian muro, fiore). The resulting final voiced obstruents undergo devoicing: frigidvs ('cold') > fred [ˈfɾɛt] or [ˈfɾet]. However, final voiceless fricatives are voiced before vowels and voiced consonants (regressive voicing assimilation): els homes 'the men' [əɫs] + [ˈɔməs] > [əɫˈzɔməs]; peix bo 'good fish' [ˈpe(j)ʃ] + [ˈbɔ] > [ˈpe(j)ʒˈβɔ]. (The same final-obstruent devoicing occurs in all of the Western Romance languages to the extent that obstruents become final, but this is fairly rare in Ibero-Romance. Cf. Portuguese luz "light" /lus/ vs. luzes "lights" /ˈluzɨs/, /luzis/, Old Spanish relox "(wrist) watch" /reˈloʃ/ vs. relojes "(wrist) watches" /reˈloʒes/.) (Apparent maintenance of -o in first-person singular and -os plurals are likely secondary developments: Old Catalan had no first-person singular -o, and -os plurals occur where they are etymologically unjustified, e.g. peixos "fishes" < PISCĒS, cf. Portuguese peixes.)
  • Diphthongization of /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ before palatal consonants (with subsequent loss of middle vowel if a triphthong is produced). Spanish and Portuguese instead raise the vowel to become mid-high; in Spanish, this prevents diphthongization. (But diphthongization between palatals does occur in Aragonese.) Latin coxa 'thigh' > */kuoiʃa/ > cuixa (cf. French cuisse but Portuguese coxa). Latin octō 'eight' > */uoit/ > vuit (cf. French huit but Portuguese oito, Spanish ocho; Old Occitan both ueit and och). Latin lectum 'bed' > */lieit/ > llit (cf. French lit but Portuguese leito, Spanish lecho; Old Occitan both lieig and leit).
  • Preservation of initial pl-, cl-, fl- (plicāre 'fold' > aplegar 'to reach', clavis 'key' > clau, flamma 'flame' > flama); cf. palatalization of these initial clusters in Spanish llegar, llave, llama Portuguese chegar, chave, chama. In the Italo-Romance group this slenderization generally replaces the second consonant with -i- [j]; hence Italian piegare, chiave, fiamma.

Common features with Occitan, French, and Portuguese, but not Spanish

  • Initial /ɡ/ + yod or /e/ or /i/, /d/ + yod, /j/ > [dʒ]* > [ʒ] or [dʒ], rather than Spanish /j/. Sound is preserved in all cases, rather than lost in unstressed syllables: gelāre ('freeze') > gelar [ʒəˈɫa] or [dʒeˈɫa] (cf. Spanish helar /eˈlar/; but Portuguese, Occitan gelar). iectāre ('lay down') > *gieitar > gitar [ʒiˈta] or [dʒiˈta(ɾ)] (cf. Spanish echar; but Portuguese jeitar, Occitan gitar, French jeter).
  • Old /dʒ/ remains as modern /dʒ/ or /ʒ/, rather than Spanish /x/.
  • Voiced sibilants remain as such, whereas in Spanish they merge into voiceless sibilants.
  • Initial /f/ remains as such, whereas in Spanish it becomes /h/ before a vowel (i.e. unless preceding /r/, /l/, /w/, /j/[dubious ]). (Gascon actually develops /f/ into /h/ in all circumstances, even before consonants or semi-vowels.)
  • Intervocalic /l/ + yod (-li-, -le-), -cl- > ll [ʎ] rather than j ([(d)ʒ] Old Spanish, [x] modern): muliere 'wife' > muller, oricla 'ear' > orella, veclu 'old' > vell. Cf. Spanish mujer, oreja, viejo (but Portuguese mulher, orelha, velho, Occitan molher, French oreille, vieil).
  • Development of -ct- only to /(j)t rather than further development to /tʃ/. Both Spanish and Middle Occitan have /tʃ/, but Gascon and Languedocian dialects near Catalan, French, and all other Ibero-Romance languages (Portuguese, Leonese, Aragonese) have /(j)t/. E.g. lactem > *lleit > llet (Cf. Spanish leche, Southern Occitan lach, Northern Occitan lait, Occitan near Catalan lèit, French lait, Portuguese leite).

Common features with Occitano-Romance languages

  • Preservation of Vulgar Latin stressed -e- and -o- (short ⟨ĕ⟩ and ⟨ŏ⟩), [ɛ] and [ɔ] respectively (terra 'land' > terra, mele 'honey' > mel, focum 'fire'> foc [ˈfɔk], bovem 'ox'> bou [ˈbɔw]); cf. Spanish diphthongs in tierra, miel, fuego, buey. French diphthongizes in open syllables, hence miel, Old French buef (modern boeuf /bœf/), but terre without diphthong. This same preservation also occurred in Portuguese (terra, mel, fogo, boi). Note also that Occitan, but not Catalan, diphthongizes these vowels before velar consonants, i.e. /k/, /ɡ/, /w/: terra, mel, but fuec, bueu.
  • Development of late-final /v/ into /u/: navem 'ship' > nau (cf. Occitan nau, French nef, Old Spanish non-final nave); brevem 'brief' > breu (cf. Occitan breu, French bref, Old Spanish non-final breve).
  • Loss of word-final -n: panis ('bread') > pa, vinvm ('wine') > vi. (In some Occitan dialects, e.g. Provençal, the consonant was not lost.) Unlike in Languedoc and Northern Catalan, plural forms conserve this [n]: pans, vins.
  • Merger of Proto-Western-Romance /ð/ (from intervocalic -d-) and /dz/ (from intervocalic -ty-, -c(e)-, -c(i)-). The result was originally /z/ or /dz/, still preserved in Occitan and partly in Old Catalan,[dubious ] but in modern Catalan now developed to /w/ or lost.

Common features with Spanish, but not Occitan

  • Preservation of Western Romance /u/ and /o/ as [u] and [o], rather than Gallo-Romance [y] and [u], respectively. Latin (lūna) 'moon' > lluna [ˈʎunə] or [ˈʎuna/ɛ], Occitan luna [ˈlynɔ], French lune [lyn]. Latin (duplum 'double' > doble [ˈdobːɫə] or [ˈdoβle], Spanish doble [ˈdoβle], Occitan doble [ˈduble], French double [dubl].
  • Development of -au,ai- to /ɔ, e/ rather than preservation as /au, ai/ (but Portuguese has /ou, ei/). For example, caulem 'cabbage' > col, paucum 'not much' > poc. (The same development occurred in French.)
  • Palatalization of -x- /ks/, -sky- /skj/, -ssy- /ssj/ to [(j)ʃ] (also in Portuguese). Latin coxa 'thigh' > cuixa, Portuguese coxa vs. French cuisse. Latin laxāre 'to loosen' (later 'to let') > Catalan and Portuguese deixar, Old Spanish dexar, but French laisser, Old Occitan laisar. Latin bassiāre 'to lower' > Catalan and Portuguese baixar, Old Spanish baxar, but French baisser. (In Occitan dialects near Catalan and Gascon, there is palatization too: baishar, daishar.)
  • Intervocalic -ll- > ll [ʎ]: caballum ('horse') > cavall (cf. Spanish caballo with [ʎ] still preserved in conservative rural districts in Spain; Portuguese cavalo, Occitan caval, French cheval, all with simple /l/). In a few cases, /l/ appears as a result of early simplification of -ll- after a long vowel: vīlla 'town' > vila; st(r)ēlla 'star' > Western Catalan estrela, Eastern estrella (cf. Spanish estrella, Portuguese estrela < -ll- but French étoile < -l-).
  • Reduction of consonant cluster -mb-m: camba 'leg' > cama, lumbum 'loin' > llom, columbum > colom (cf. Spanish lomo, palumba > paloma but Portuguese lombo, pombo/pomba). Occurs in some Occitan dialects (Gascon and southern Languedoc).

Features not in Spanish or (most of) Occitan, but found in other minority Romance languages

  • Reduction of consonant cluster -nd- to -n- (ambulāre 'to stroll' > andar 'to go' > anar, mandāre 'to send, to lead' > manar). Compare reduction of -mb- to -m-. Also found in Gascon and southern Languedoc.
  • Palatalization of initial l- (lūna 'moon' > lluna, lvpvs 'wolf' > llop). This feature can be found as well in the Foix dialect of Occitan and in Astur-Leonese.
  • Palatalization of -sc- before -e,i- to [(j)ʃ]. Especially visible in verbs of the third conjugation (-īre) that took what was originally an inchoative infix (-ēsc-/-īsc-), e.g. servēscit 'serves' (present tense, 3rd person singular indicative) > serveix/servix. Found in Aragonese, Leonese and in some Portuguese words. (In Portuguese, piscem 'fish' > peixe, miscere 'to mix' > mexer 'to shake', but most verbs in -scere end in (s)cer, e.g. crēscere 'to grow' > crescer, nascere 'to be born' > nascer, *offerescere 'to offer' > oferecer.)

Unique features, not found elsewhere

  • Unusual development of early /(d)z/, resulting from merger of Proto-Western-Romance /ð/ (from intervocalic -d-) and /dz/ (from intervocalic -ty-, -c(e)-, -c(i)-); see note above about a similar merger in Occitan. In early Old Catalan, became /w/ finally or before a consonant, remained as /(d)z/ between vowels. In later Old Catalan, /(d)z/ lost between vowels:
    • pedem 'foot' > peu
    • crucem 'cross' > creu, crēdit 'he believes' > (ell) creu
    • Verbs in second-person plural ending in -tis: mirātis 'you (pl.) look' > *miratz > mirau > mireu/mirau
    • ratiōnem 'reason' > *razó > raó
    • vicīnum 'neighbor' > *vezí > veí
    • recipere 'to receive' > *rezebre > rebre
  • Partial reversal of Proto-Western-Romance /e/ and /ɛ/, according to the following stages:
    • (1) Stressed /e/ > /ə/ in most circumstances
    • (2) Stressed /ɛ/ > /e/ in most circumstances
    • (3) Stressed /ə/ maintained as such (in the Balearic Islands); /ə/ > /ɛ/ (in Eastern, hence standard, Catalan); /ə/ > /e/ (in Western Catalan).
  • Secondary development of doubled resonant consonants (/ll/, /mm/, /nn/, /ʎʎ/): septimāna ('week') > setmana [səmˈmanə], cutina from cvtis ('skin') > cotna [ˈkonːə] ('pork rind'), modulum ('mold') > motlle/motle [ˈmɔʎːə]}/[ˈmɔlːe] ('mold, a spring'). Later augmented by learned borrowings from Classical Latin (latinisms): athlēta ('athlete') > atleta [əɫˈɫɛtə], intelligentem ('intelligent') > intel·ligent [intəɫːiˈʒen(t)]. Italian has doubled consonants of all sorts, but for the most part these represent direct preservations from Latin rather than secondary developments. Vulgar Latin geminate /ll/, /rr/, /nn/ and sometimes /mm/ develop differently in the various Western Romance languages from the corresponding single consonants, but in divergent ways, indicating that the geminate forms must have been preserved in the early medieval forms of these languages even after geminate obstruents were lost. Some dialects of Aragonese (a sister language to Catalan) still preserve /ll/ as the reflex of Latin /ll/. Catalan modern geminate resonants do not descend from these early medieval geminates (/ll/, /mm/, /nn/ > /ʎ/, /m/ ,/ɲ/), but the development of secondary geminate resonants may have been influenced by nearby dialects that still maintained the original geminates or by other secondary geminates that must have existed at one point (e.g. duodecim > proto-Western-Romance /doddze/, where the outcome of resulting /ddz/ is distinguished from single /dz/ in Catalan, Occitan and French and where the French outcome douze, with no diphthongization, clearly indicates a geminate consonant).
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