Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region of Spain that has continuously tried to become independent from Spain; how this has come to be requires a look back into Catalonia’s history. Although who exactly founded Barcelona is unclear, one theory says that Carthaginians founded the city in the late 3rd century BC, and legend claims that it received its name after their leader Hamilcar Barca. At the time, the city was little more than a trading post, but after driving the Carthaginians out of Spain around 200 BC, the Romans developed the settlement into a real town. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths from Germany took it over in the 5th century AD, but were later expelled by the Arabs who moved into Spain in the early 8th century.
In 801, Charlemagne’s son Louis conquered Barcelona and made it the capital of this corner of Spain under the rule of the Count of Barcelona. This area, designated as the March of Spain, was the borderland or “march” between France and Arab Spain. The city was also known as Gothia or “land of the Goths” and it is believed that “Gothialand” was what eventually evolved into “Catalonia.”
During the next 300 years, the Counts of Barcelona extended their rule over the northeastern corner of Spain and it was during this time that the Catalan language and the sense of a distinctive Catalonia began to develop. However, after a Count of Barcelona married a princess of the adjacent Spanish province of Aragon, their son became the ruler of the merged territories in 1162 and Barcelona began to decline in importance. This was further hastened when Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella I of Castille in 1469; Catalonia became a little more than one of several provinces of Spain, and Madrid began to emerge as Spain’s central power. Catalonians, however, did not cease to separate themselves from the rest of Spain and in 1640 actually revolted against King Philip IV. For the next decade, the Catalans fought under French vassalage, but by 1652 they were back under Spanish rule.
Napoleon’s French forces moved into Spain in 1808 and before they were thrown out in 1813, they left Catalonia severely devastated. Catalonia slowly recovered and grew into the industrial powerhouse of Spain. By the 20th century, Barcelona – and Catalonia overall – had become more radical than other parts of Spain. During the civil war that ensued in 1936, after Francisco Franco and his forces moved to overthrow the government, Barcelona became a center of resistance and even briefly served as the Loyalists’ capital. After Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces in January 1939, and following the final defeat of the Loyalists that April, Franco became the virtual dictator of Spain, and as such, forbade the use of the Catalan language in any public settings and abolished any institutions that reflected Catalonia’s distinctive history and culture.
This all changed of course with the death of Franco in 1975 and the restoration of democracy, while this new freedom motivated some Catalonians to demand total independence. Although total independence seems unlikely, there has been an effort to encourage the use of the Catalan language in both literary and popular writings, as well as a general promotion of and pride in Catalonia’s distinctive history.
The Catalan language is more than a mere dialect, it is basically a language based on the same Latin that gradually evolved into French (to Catalonia’s north), and into Spanish (to Catalonia’s west); Catalan is a first cousin to these languages. It is also spoken – and has survived to some extent – in the adjacent region of southeastern France, in what became the tiny Principality of Andorra, as well as on the Balearic Islands, and in a few isolated cities in nearby regions of Spain. Most Spanish speakers, especially those who have learned Spanish as a second language, find Catalan to effectively be a foreign language, so don’t feel bad if your knowledge of Spanish doesn’t help you to understand Catalan. Don’t worry though, almost everyone in Catalonia also speaks the Spanish spoken throughout the rest of the country.