CAT > EN: Barcelona, La Troba Kung-Fu

The recent attack in Barcelona reminded me of a song that I learnt about in Catalan class in college.

I’ve translated the song into English, and I’ve “shown my working”, so to speak — there’s a literal translation, which hews as closely to the original Catalan as I can stand, and there’s a less literal translation, which departs from the Catalan in literal meaning, but hopefully expresses the figurative meaning better. They’re not that different, but one shows the structure of Catalan better, and the other is more readable.

Even though I’ve written about Catalan a bit, I don’t have a strong grasp of the language, and this translation is consequently a bit shaky. It’s worth remembering that I usually do these translations as a way to learn a language or about language. This isn’t a literary translation, and you can’t really sing the words to the tune.

This song is Barcelona, by La Troba Kung-Fu. Enjoy it.

Thanks to Elena for helping out with the translation.


Sento una veu dins meu,
que no sé si és mora o és gitana.
Sento una veu dins meu,
que no sé si és jueva o catalana.
Sento una veu que és trista
però que olora amb pólvora feta de vida.

Literal Translation:

I feel a voice within me,
that I don’t know if is Moorish or is gypsy.
I feel a voice within me,
that I don’t know if is Jewish or Catalan.
I feel a voice that is sad
But that smells of powder made of life.

Less Literal Translation:

I hear a voice within me,
I don’t know if it’s Moorish or gypsy.
I hear a voice within me,
I don’t know if it’s Jewish or Catalan.
I hear a voice that’s melancholy
But that smells of a perfume full of life.

As a Mediterranean port, Barcelona has been a place of interchange for centuries. The narrator of the song hears a voice with streaks of the various cultural identities that have passed through Barcelona through the ages: Muslim, Gypsy, Jewish, and of course Catalan.

Sorry, “powder” just isn’t a very evocative word, so I had to do something to it.


Sempre vaig Rambla avall
i tombo pel carrer Hospital,
puc remar pel Raval
o bé arribar-me a la Reial.
I a cada cantonada
sento dins la fosca que una veu s'amaga,
sento una veu que plora,
que plora pels carrers de Barcelona.

Literal Translation:

I always go down the Rambla
and turn through Hospital Street.
I can row through the Raval
Or go to the (Plaza) Royal.
And at every street corner
I feel in the dark a voice that hides itself,
I feel a voice that cries,
that cries through the streets of Barcelona.

Less Literal Translation:

I always go down the Rambla
and turn down Hospital Street.
I can wade through the Raval
Or go to the (Plaza) Royal.
And at every street corner
I hear in the dark a voice that’s hiding,
I hear a voice that cries,
that cries through the streets of Barcelona.

La Rambla, Carrer de l’Hospital, El Raval and Plaça Reial are all smack in the city centre, and they’re all tourist hotspots. This Barcelona is the Barcelona that most tourists know.

For the longest time I wondered about “cantonada”, which refers to a street corner. It didn’t seem to relate to any word in any related language I knew. Of course, Canton is the traditional romanisation for the Chinese city of Guangzhou, but that doesn’t seem relevant here. A canton is also a political division in Switzerland, and I suppose there’s a spatial relationship between spaces and corners…

If you’re a fan of flags (perhaps you are a Hello Internet listener?), though, you might know that in vexillology, a canton is the upper left corner or quarter or region of a flag… and there you have the semantic link between Catalan “cantonada”, street corner, and the Swiss political division of a canton.

There’s a lot to be found down this particular rabbit hole, but I’m going to move on. If you’re curious, though, I suggest you look up the etymology of “cant”, as in “decanter” or “canted angle”.

If I knew more about Proto-Indo-European declension, I would be able to tell you if you could etymologically make your way from “canton” to “camera”, but I don’t.


Tiro cap a esquerra i dreta,
sempre per la banda estreta,
no em puc fiar de la vista
si faig el camí del turista.
I sento la veu més dolça, que em diu:
“Vine, perde't pels carrers de Barcelona".
I sento la veu més forta, que em diu:
“Vine, deixa la por, perd la vergonya!".

Literal Translation:

I shoot to the left and right,
Always by the narrow path.
I cannot trust the view
If I do the tourist’s walk.
And I feel the softest voice, that tells me,
“Come, lose yourself in the streets of Barcelona.”
And I feel the loudest voice, that tells me,
“Come, leave fear, lose shame!”

Less Literal Translation:

I barrel left and right
Always down the road less travelled.
I can’t trust what I see
If I see only the tourists’ sights.
And I hear the gentlest voice telling me,
“Come, lose yourself in the streets of Barcelona.”
And I hear the boldest voice telling me,
“Come, don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed!”

For the first time in this song, a line is drawn between the touristy Barcelona and the “real” Barcelona.

“Cap” is an interesting word in Catalan. It can be a noun meaning “head” — in fact, it is cognate with English “head”: both words ultimately descend from Proto-Indo-European *káput. PIE *káput became Proto-Germanic *haubadam, then Old English *heofod, and eventually Modern English “head”. The Catalan lineage runs from PIE *káput to Proto-Italic *kaput, to Latin “caput”, and eventually to Catalan “cap”.

Anyway, back to the point — “cap” can be the noun “head”, or it can be a preposition meaning “towards”, or it can be used as a pronoun or adjective that means “nothing” or “none” (to put it simply — maybe one day I’ll dig into this a bit more.) I can see how the prepositional meaning of “towards” might have come about — when you’re going in a certain direction, you’re pointing your head that way — but I have no idea how the “nothing”/“none”/negation meaning came about.


Il-luminat amb boja pèrdua
sempre tombo cap a mar,
allà on tota ciutat comença
i on el cau no han foradat.
I espero que arribi la fosca
per veure si la veu és balladora,
i és que Barcelona s'amaga,
però de nit l'he vist ballar
com una gitana.

Literal Translation:

Illuminated by crazy loss
I always turn towards the sea
There where the whole city begins
And where they have not penetrated the hideout.
And I hope that the darkness arrives
To see if the voice is a dancer
And it’s that Barcelona is hiding
But by night I’ve seen her dance
Like a Gypsy.

Less Literal Translation:

Animated by a maniacal emptiness
I always turn towards the sea
Where the whole city begins
And where tourists can’t disturb the peace
I hope that darkness falls soon
So I can tell if it’s a dancer’s voice I hear
Barcelona is hiding now
But by night I’ve seen her dance
The way a Gypsy dances.

I’m really shaky on this verse, and I’m happy to welcome explanations or alternative translations. I’m especially unsure about the first four lines (which you can probably tell by how different the two translations are).

Catalan “cau” is cognate with English “cave”, both of them being descended from Latin “cavus” (hollow). In Catalan, “cau” has acquired the meaning of a den, refuge or hideout (which you do see in English, too — consider “mancave” or “batcave”).


"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
cantonada a cantonada.
"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
pels de fora es posa guapa.
"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
cantonada a cantonada.
"Vine cap aquí, vine cap aquí!",
jo la busco i ella s'amaga.

Literal Translation:

“Come over here, come over here!”
From street corner to street corner.
“Come over here, come over here!”
For those from outside she makes herself pretty.
“Come over here, come over here!”
From street corner to street corner.
“Come over here, come over here!”
I’m looking for her and she’s hiding.

Less Literal Translation:

“Come over here, over here!”
From corner to street corner.
“Come over here, over here!”
For the tourists she cleans up.
“Come over here, over here!”
From corner to street corner.
“Come over here, over here!”
I’m looking for her but she’s hiding.

That’s the voice the narrator hears inside him/her, if you can’t tell. The narrator wants to find the real Barcelona, not the touristy one, but she seems elusive.

The pun on clean up is fully intended, albeit admittedly not very good. There are many different ways to express that idea — Barcelona dresses up, Barcelona puts on a show, Barcelona puts on a pretty face for outsiders.


Té molta cara,
té poca vergonya,
com camela quan remena, Barcelona.

Literal Translation:

She’s got much face,
She’s got little shame,
Like sweet talk when she stirs, Barcelona.

Less Literal Translation:

She’s got a pretty face,
She’s got no shame,
Just like sweet talk, when she stirs, Barcelona.

I love this song because it captures the complexity of Barcelona so well — it’s a city with a storied history and many faces.

I don’t really know how to end this post, except to say… I guess I want to say that language is a big part of how we transmit ideas and culture. The act of translation is not about translating syntax and words, but about translating ideas and cultures.

This is my small contribution to a world riven by walls and division: an exploration of one thing, language, that has the capacity to connect us to one another.

Development of the Catalan Periphrastic Past Tense Construction

Despite the name, Indo-European Syntax at NYU is much more of a historical linguistics class than a syntax class, reflecting the expertise of Professor John Costello.

This essay is a review of the development of Catalan's unusual periphrastic past tense form. It's a little denser than most of the other posts on this site and assumes some prior knowledge of syntax and morphology. If you have any questions, please ask.

In the Catalan language, there are three important periphrastic constructions that can be formed with the auxiliary verb anar (“to go”). One is the anar + present participle construction, which is functionally and formally equivalent to the Spanish ir (“to go”) + present participle construction. This construction has the same tense as the tense in which the auxiliary anar is conjugated, and has a progressive aspect. Another construction is the anar a + infinitive construction, which is formally equivalent to the Spanish ir a + infinitive construction, but has a slightly different function: instead of functioning as a periphrastic future tense, as in Spanish, the Catalan construction carries the same tense as the conjugated anar and has an inchoative aspect. The third periphrastic construction with anar is the one that interests us here: it is formed with a non-standard present tense conjugation of anar followed by the infinitive, and functions as a periphrastic past tense. In this essay, I will provide a brief overview of the characteristics of this construction that make it unusual from a linguistic perspective, and outline Antoni Badia’s argument of the development of the periphrastic past tense.

The periphrastic past tense construction is of interest to us for several reasons. Firstly, the conjugation used is not the standard present tense conjugation of anar. Anar in the present tense normally conjugates as follows:

Standard present tense conjugation of anar

1st person singular (1s)vaig1st person plural (1pl)anem
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)aneu
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)van

The irregular conjugation is due to syncretism of the Latin verbs amnare and vadere as they evolved into Catalan; an ir- root also appears in the future and conditional conjugations of standard modern Catalan, derived from Latin ire. (“anar”, Diccionari) This syncretism can also be found in many of the Western Romance languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese ir (syncretism of Latin ire, vadere and the perfect forms of esse) and Italian andare (syncretism of Latin amnare and vadere). However, when anar is used as part of the periphrastic past tense, it conjugates as follows:

Present tense conjugation of anar in periphrastic past tense

1st person singular (1s)vaig1st person plural (1pl)vam
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)vau
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)van

Besides the non-standard conjugation, this periphrastic construction is also significant because of its function. Other Western Romance languages have a formally similar construction that is functionally distinct. In French, for example, the aller (“to go”) + infinitive construction is formally equivalent to the Catalan periphrastic past, but this construction in French serves instead as a periphrastic future tense, rather than as a past tense. The same happens in Portuguese with a periphrastic ir (“to go”) + infinitive future tense construction. As mentioned previously, Spanish has an ir a + infinitive construction that functions as a future tense. Among the major Western Romance languages, Catalan is the only language to form a periphrastic past tense with a present tense form of the auxiliary verb “to go”.

Historically, the preterite form was preferred to the periphrastic form. However, in the written language, the periphrastic past tense now occurs in free variation with the simple past (preterite), and in the spoken language, the periphrastic past tense has virtually replaced the simple past, except in the Balearic Islands, where the simple past continues to be used in speech. Grammars of Catalan are very emphatic in saying that the periphrastic past and the simple past are semantically identical, even if one form may be preferred over the other for stylistic or historical reasons. Antoni Badia, for example, says that “today literary Catalan employs both tenses equally, such that the choice has become a stylistic device… It need not even be said that meaning of the two perfect forms is always identical” (Gramática Catalana, 277). Alarcos Llorach, in his Estudis de Lingüística Catalana, mentions several times while analyzing the preterite form portí (“I carry”, from portar, “to carry”) that it is equivalent to vaig portar (125, 130, 132).

Another reason the periphrastic past tense construction is of interest to us is that the Catalan periphrastic past tense has undergone formal changes since its first appearance in writing. In the earliest written texts such as the Libre dels feyts del rey en Jacme, also known as the Crònica del Jaume I (written in the 13th or 14th century), it appears that the periphrastic past tense might not have been formed with the present tense of anar, but with the preterite conjugation. In Gramàtica Històrica Catalana, Badia points out that the phrases van ferir (with the auxiliary in the present tense, third person plural) and anà’l ferir (with the auxiliary in the preterite, third person singular) both appear in the Crònica. He argues that since the Provençal and Castilian of that era had periphrastic present tense anar + infinitive and ir + infinitive constructions respectively, it seems likely that van ferir was a periphrastic construction for the present tense, and the periphrastic past tense construction could instead have been anà’l ferir. (370) This suggests that at some point, while the Spanish and Provençal forms involving the conjugated present tense either fell out of use or, in the case of Spanish, evolved to become a periphrastic future tense, in Catalan the periphrastic construction evolved in the other direction to become a periphrastic past tense. How did this evolution happen in Catalan, given that it did not happen in any other Western Romance language?

Badia has reconstructed, using “traces that are found in the texts”, a possible early form of the conjugation of anar as used in the periphrastic present and past tenses (Gramàtica Històrica Catalana 370):

Possible historical present tense conjugation of anar

1st person singular (1s)vau1st person plural (1pl)anam
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)anats
3rd person singular (3s)va / vai3rd person plural (3pl)van

Possible historical preterite conjugation of anar

1st person singular (1s)aní / ané1st person plural (1pl)anam
2nd person singular (2s)anist2nd person plural (2pl)anats
3rd person singular (3s)anà3rd person plural (3pl)anaren

Badia suggests that as the preterite form became replaced by the periphrastic form, the fact that the 1pl and 2pl forms of anar in the present tense and simple past were identical, coupled with the “constant mix of the historical present and the perfect in old texts”, caused the present tense to be substituted for the preterite in the auxiliary verb anar, resulting in a conjugation that corresponds to the one still used in the modern Algherese dialect of Catalan (Gramática Històrica 371):

Present tense conjugation of anar in modern Algherese, used in the periphrastic past tense

1st person singular (1s)vaig1st person plural (1pl)anam
2nd person singular (2s)vas2nd person plural (2pl)anats
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)van

Badia postulates that once the periphrastic past tense became a definitive substitute for the simple past tense, Catalan speakers began to treat, for example, va venir (“he came”) as a single unit, almost as if it were a synthetic form of the verb with an inflected prefix (Gramàtica Històrica 371). Thus, he argues that the 1pl and 2pl forms became regularized to vam and vau to match the other conjugated forms, resulting in the modern standard Catalan conjugation of vaig, vas, va, vam, vau and van (Gramàtica Històrica 371). Because the regularization was tied specifically to the use of anar as an auxiliary, this did not affect the standard conjugation, creating the distinction we see today in the two different conjugations of anar.

There is an alternative conjugation, used only in the periphrastic anar + infinitive construction, that occurs in free variation in Central Catalan with the conjugation shown above in the first verb table:

Alternative present tense conjugation of anar in periphrastic past tense

1st person singular (1s)vàreig1st person plural (1pl)vàrem
2nd person singular (2s)vàres2nd person plural (2pl)vàreu
3rd person singular (3s)va3rd person plural (3pl)varen

The variant forms vàreig, vàres, vàrem, vàreu and varen, Badia argues, came about because if the present tense 3pl conjugation van were a regular conjugation, this would yield a preterite 3pl conjugation of varen, and consequently a var- root propagated into the 1s, 2s, 1pl and 2pl forms with varying degrees of incidence (Gramàtica Històrica 371). This argument seems plausible because if varen were indeed the preterite 3pl form of a verb var, the preterite 3s form of the verb would remain va (compare preterite 3s conjugation cantà for the verb cantar). Badia also notes that of the var- forms of the verb, the 1s vàreig is the least commonly used, which lines up with his hypothesis of a regularized var- form; in this conjugation, vàreig would be an irregular form (compare preterite 1s conjugation cantí for cantar) and it makes sense that it occurs less often than the others. (Gramàtica Històrica 371)

There remains much to be studied in the Catalan periphrastic past tense construction. Given that there are two different conjugations for the same periphrasis in free variation, and the periphrastic form itself is still in free variation with the synthetic form of the verb, at least in the written language, it seems likely that a shift towards one form over the other two will eventually occur, although it will be a slow process. Moreover, it would be instructive to study similar processes of verbal periphrasis in closely-related languages, particularly Occitan, to see if there were any unique linguistic characteristics that caused this periphrasis to develop in Catalan but not in any of its neighboring languages.

Works Cited

  • “anar.” Diccionari català-valencià-balear. Palma de Mallorca: Editorial Moll, 1980-3. Print.
  • Badia i Margarit, Antoni M. Gramática Catalana. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1980. Print.
  • Badia i Margarit, Antoni M. Gramàtica Històrica Catalana. Valencia: Biblioteca d’estudis i investigacions, 1981. Print.
  • Llorach, Alarcos. Estudis de lingüística catalana. Barcelona, Editorial Ariel, 1983. Print.

Cognates and False Friends

Language learners are often taught that cognates are sets of words that look or sound similar in different languages that mean the same thing.

English: much
Spanish: mucho

False friends on the other hand, are words that look or sound similar in different languages that mean different things. “They are not cognates,” some language teachers will tell you sternly.

English: constipated
Spanish: constipado -- to have a cold

I understand why language teachers say this. Even when they know better, this explanation is usually much more useful than the real explanation, at least from a language learning point of view.

The problem is, it’s just not true. It’s also much less interesting than the correct definition of a cognate.

Cognates are sets of words in different but related languages that share an etymological origin: that is, they descend from the same word.

In the examples I gave above, English “much” and Spanish “mucho” are in fact false cognates: words that look like cognates and have similar meanings but are not related. They just happen to look like each other. English “much” traces its lineage to Proto-Germanic *mekilaz and to Proto-Indo-European *meg-, while Spanish “mucho” goes back to Latin “multus” (from which English gets “multi”) and Proto-Indo-European *mel-.

Taking a look at some Romance languages:

Meaning: to hurt, to injure
Catalan: ferir
French: férir
Portuguese: ferir
Spanish: herir
Latin: ferīre

Meaning: to do, to make
Catalan: fer
French: faire
Portuguese: fazer
Spanish: hacer
Latin: facere

Meaning: oven
Catalan: forn
French: four
Portuguese: forno
Spanish: horno
Latin: furnus
English: furnace

Meaning: to flee
Catalan: fugir
French: fuir
Portuguese: fugir
Spanish: huir
Latin: fugere

These are all cognates, by both the linguistic and “common” definition of a cognate. It's fairly obvious what's happening here, since we know that Latin is the parent language of Catalan, French, Portuguese and Spanish. We have lots of Latin texts, obviously, and we can trace how each of these languages developed from Latin over time. But supposing we didn't know what Latin sounded or looked like, we could still make a pretty good guess -- we could guess that Latin had the initial /f/ that disappeared somewhere along the way many areas of what is now Spain. Once you know this, finding these types of cognates in these Romance languages is a doddle.

If you have enough data, you can use the lexis, grammar and phonology of the child languages to reconstruct the most recent common ancestor of the two languages using the comparative method( Round up all the Romance languages, run them through the comparative method, and you can reconstruct their most recent common ancestor: Latin.

If the most recent common ancestor is not attested, then the reconstructed language is called a proto-language( We don’t have proof that a given proto-language exists, but we can be pretty sure that at some point, a language (or possibly a collection of languages) like it must have existed in order for its descendants to have the phonology, grammar and vocabulary they do.

Here are some cognates in English, Dutch and German:

English: do
Dutch: doen
German: tun

English: door
Dutch: deur
German: Tür

English: day
Dutch: daag
German: Tag

Again, there's a regular pattern here, and this is just one of many patterns that you can find when comparing English and German. Gather a large enough corpus across enough related languages, and you can reconstruct Proto-Germanic( (I'm simplifying things a little, mainly because the actual work of linguistic reconstruction is well outside my limited expertise.)

Let’s dig a little deeper. What about cognates in Spanish and German? In theory, with enough data, you could reconstruct the nearest common ancestor of those two languages:

Spanish: pie
German: Fuss

Spanish: padre
German: Vater


Spanish: pie
Catalan: peu
Latin: pedis
English: foot
Dutch: voet
German: Fuss

Spanish: padre
Catalan: pare
Latin: pater
English: father
Dutch: vader
German: Vater


What you’re seeing here is part of Grimm’s Law(, one of the most famous laws in historical linguistics, both for being the first systematic sound change to be detailed and for the fact it was discovered by that Jakob Grimm(, half of the pair of brothers who wrote about rather creepy things when you think about it. Among other things, Grimm’s Law says that in Germanic languages, sounds that were voiceless stops in Proto-Indo-European become voiceless fricatives in Proto-Germanic. PIE /p/ becomes /ɸ/ in Proto-Germanic.

Damn. Now I have to finish writing Articulatory Phonetics 101, I say, only slightly upset.

But yes, if you run all these languages through the comparative method, supplemented by other related languages, you eventually get the reconstructed language known as Proto-Indo-European.

Why don’t we compare all the languages of the world and try to reconstruct a sort of Proto-Babel, the language from which all human language descends?

Because if you take, say, English and Mandarin and use the comparative method on them, what you get is — nothing.

Semantic drift

Here’s a set of cognates for you:

Spanish: actual
Catalan: actual
German: aktuell
Dutch: actueel
English: actual

Wait a second — one of these is not like the others.

Spanish: actual — current
Catalan: actual — current
German: aktuell — current
Dutch: actueel — current
English: actual — actual

Or, more famously:

Spanish: preservativo
German: Präservativ
English: preservative

Just so you don’t make this mistake in Spain or Germany:

Spanish: preservativo — condom
German: Präservativ — condom
English: preservative — preservative

What happened here? These are true cognates but false friends, just like “constipated” and “constipado”: they share an etymology, but at some point, the meaning attached to one or both of the words shifted, leaving very confused language students in their wake.

If you can remember that cognates do not have to have the same meaning, you can have a lot of fun with cognates, though. They reflect a language’s history and the agility of the human capacity for language in a myriad of ways: consider the mental leaps that must have happened for this change to happen:

German: wollen -- to want
Dutch: willen -- to want
English: will -- future auxiliary

Or this one:

German: sterben — to die
Dutch: sterven — to die
English: starve — to starve

To come back to the whole “cognates for language learning” thing: I’m not saying, don’t use “cognates” or “false friends”. I am saying that understanding what cognates actually are is, in my not-so-humble opinion, a much more expansive and stimulating way of engaging with a language.