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Gallego, Catalan and Basque: Spain's Other Dialects

written by: Laura Wise • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 9/11/2012

Castellano Spanish may be the official language of Spain, but Gallego, Catalan and Basque are three other dialects spoken in different Spanish provinces. Each has its unique linguistic characteristics and history.

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    Location of Galicia Gallego (pronounced "guy-EH-go") is a dialect of Spanish so distinct it is nearly a separate language. Gallego is spoken in Galicia, a province in the northwestern part of the Spanish peninsula, and its speakers are called "gallegos." The name for "Gallego" or "Galician" derives from the word "Gaelic." In a curious historical and linguistic twist, Gallego is a hybrid of Spanish and Irish Gaelic. Centuries ago, Gaelic-speaking immigrants from the British Isles landed on the northwest portion of the Iberian Peninsula. The following intermarriage and cultural blending resulted in the unique dialect, culture and racial makeup of Galicia, a region that to this day is different from anywhere else in Spain.

    Gallego, like Castellano, is one of the "romance" languages, meaning it is derived from Latin. It is also more closely related to Portuguese than to standard Spanish. When spoken, Gallego sounds very similar to Portuguese. While Castellano sounds somewhat harsh in comparison, spoken Gallego is much softer on the ear due to the unique X sound, which is pronounced like the "sh" in the English word "shoe."

    It's estimated that approximately 3 million people today speak Gallego, but not all of them live in Spain. Many gallegos emigrated during past centuries because of famines and poverty. Galician heritage and dialect is present in other Spanish-speaking countries where Galician immigrants arrived --- for example, in Cuba.

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    Rosalia de Castro and the Gallego Renaissance

    In the 19th century, Gallego enjoyed a revival as a literary language. Poetry and novels were written entirely in Gallego, and a famous representative of this movement is the poet Rosalia de Castro. She was born in 1837 in Santiago and wrote poetry in both Gallego and Castellano. Here is a short excerpt from one of her poems called "Soia" ("Alone"):

    "Tomou un dia lene

    Camino do areal

    como naide a esperaba

    ela non tournou mas."


    "One fine day

    she walked toward the beach

    and because nobody waited for her

    she never returned."

    The essence of this poem about a lonely young woman who commits suicide by drowning is reflected in two uniquely Galician expressions: morina and saudade. Neither can be properly translated into English, but they express a mixture of sadness, melancholy and longing that personifies Rosalia de Castro's work.

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    Location of Catalunya (which in Catalan is spelled not with a tilde n but with a y) Much more widespread than Gallego is Catalan, a dialect spoken primarily in the Spanish provinces of Cataluña (hence the term "Catalan"), Valencia and the Balearic Islands among others. It's estimated that catalan is spoken by about 7.5 million people, most of them living in Spain or the French regions of Roussillon and Andorra.

    Catalan has its origins in vulgar Latin, as spoken in the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis during the Roman Empire's occupation of Spain. In 1716, King Philip V forbade the dialect altogether, along with all things Catalan. Like Gallego, however, Catalan saw a literary revival in the 19th century. Unfortunately, this short-lived revival was curtailed by the Spanish Civil War. Democracy in Spain saw the re-establishment of the Catalan dialect, which today is officially taught in every school in Cataluña. Catalan also has several subdialects and retains the influence of Latin and French words.

    In many ways, Catalan is more similar to French than Castellano. For example, fenestra means window in Catalan; which is similar to fenetre for window in French. Contrast those words with ventana, the Castellano word for window. Also, net means clean in both Catalan and French, but the Castellano word for clean is limpio.

    Like Gallego, many works of literature have been produced in Catalan. Two modern representatives of the dialect are Carles Ribes and playwright Jordi Casanovas.

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    Basque is a small province in the north of Spain. Basque is spoken in the Basque region of Spain and also in certain regions in the south of France. At the end of the 20th century, a standardized form of Basque called Batua was created. The language is also known as "Euskara," and was used as a secret language during World War Two. Like the Navajo Code used in the United States, it allowed codes and messages to be sent in a language which was entirely unique. Even if intercepted, a translator would have no reference point from which to decipher it.

    This is because Basque is not a dialect; is a separate language. A prehistoric language, it is classified as a language isolate because it does not have any roots or connections with the languages spoken in the surrounding countries. It seems to have developed on its own. The following two proverbs in Basque clearly show that the language has no resemblance to any other spoken in Spain:

    "A, zer parea, karakola eta barea."

    "Ah, what a pair, a snail and a slug." This refers to people who share common unpleasant habits.

    "Adiskide onekin, orduak labur."

    "Time flies if you are in the company of your friends."

    Because Basque is relatively obscure, not many authors write in it. Bernardo Atxaga is one of the few who does. His work, as well as that of Gallego and Catalan speakers, keep these tongues alive and preserve their people's unique form of expression.