Discovering the language the Val d’Aran: Some insights into Aranese

When arriving in the Val d’Aran end of October 2018, I noticed announcements along the road that had a clear Romance touch, but they were neither French nor Spanish nor Catalann – they were different. For example:

  • Restaurant and others: Eth Triton, Tauèrna Urtau, Era Coquela, Apartementos deth Camin Reiau, Musèu dera Val d’Aran
  • Street names : Carrèr dera Hònt, Carrèr des Banhs, Carrèr Espitau, Carrèr deth Centre
  • Rivers : Arriu de Salient, Arriu de Valarties, Barranc des Pales, Saut deth pish

This sign is somewhat familiar and somewhat unfamiliar. “Neighbours” are “voisins” in French, “vecinos” in Spanish and “veís” in Catalan. Obviously, they are “vesins” in Aranese.


The origins of the Aranese language

The servant at the bar of our parador in Arties is from Barcelona. “Oh yes”, she says, “I can understand the people in the Val d’Aran, they speak a local dialect of Catalan.” “No, no, the language of the Val d’Aran is not a local dialect of Catalan, it is a different language deriving from Gasconian”, Ursula replies. Our servant frowns: “Really? That sounds interesting.”

In the Musèu dera Val d’Aran in Vielha, the elegant lady at the reception desk switches seamlessly between French and Spanish. She proudly explains to us: “You will see the language tree in the video of our museum: Latin is the main trunk, the Occitan languages are one branch, then Gasconian branches off and from the Gasconian branch the Aranese language derives.” I tried to capture that tree flying by on the screen – Aranese can be seen on the very righthand side branching off from Gasconian.

“We, the people in the Val d’Aran are fluent in four languages, Aranese, Spanish, French and Catalonian”, the friendly lady at the museum reception adds. Madeleine and Françoise Besson confirm that the people here speak four languages, in former times even without having attended school: „… eux qui, pour les générations anciennes surtout, savent parler quatre idiomes: l‘aranais, le castillan, le français et le catalan. Un professeur de langue … se rappelle que sa grand-mère n‘était jamais allé à l‘école et parlait quatre langues (tome I, p. 35).“ Some speak in addition several local dialects of the neighbouring valleys.

 Let us approach the Aranese language to understand the expressions at the beginning of this blog.


Eth, era, deth, dera , des

What I first noticed were the words “eth”and “era” as well as “deth”, “dera” and “des”. They appeared in the names of streets and restaurants: Eth Triton, Era Coquela, Carrèr deth Centre, Musèus dera Val d’Aran, Barranc des Pales.

“Eth” and “Era” are the articles, masculine and feminine. They can be combined with “de” to make “of the”. Hence:

  • Eth Triton = The Triton
  • Era Coquela = The Saucepan/Casserole
  • Carrèr deth Centre = Street of the Centre
  • Musèus dera Val d’Aran = Museum of the Val d’Aran
  • Barranc des Pales = Canyon of the Shovels (Bessons, Tome II, p. 79; pales or pelles in French)

Actually “eth” and “era” derive from Latin “ille” and “illa” (Wikipedia).


About the orthography

In the past, Aranese was just spoken, but not written down. The people of the Val d’Aran had to agree, how to write their language. There were several approaches, that, if I understand correctly, were settled in 1982 (Conselh Generau d’Aran: “Normes ortografiques der Aranès”). Some rules are:

  • “lh” = Spanish or French “ll” (Vielha = Viella = central city of the Val d’Aran, calhau = caillou = pebble, familh = famiglia = famille)
  • “nh” = Spanish ñ/ni/ny or French “gn/in” (banhs = baños = bain = baths, senho = señor = seigneur)
  •  u = v between two vowels (escriuer = escribir = write, shivau = caballo = cheval = horse)
  • Final “l” becomes “u” (mau = mal = bad)

(Sometimes the Aranese word is closer to French, sometimes more to Spanish).

Now I understand

  • Carrèr des Banhs = street of the baths
  • Carrèr Espitau = street of the hospital
  • Arriu = river

Saut deth pish is composed of “saut” (= forest, related to Spanish “selva”) and “pish” = waterfall (in Spanish cascada). This must be the forest of the waterfall.


About the etymological correspondence if “f” and “h”

When I started to learn Spanish, I noticed that the Latin “f” often transformed to “h”, but remained “f” in French. Examples are:

  • formica (Latin) = hormiga (Spanish) = fourmi (French) = aunt
  • fornax (Latin) = horno (Spanish) = four (French) = oven
  • ferrum (Latin) = hierro (Spanish) = fer (French) = iron

…but not always:

  • Fons (Latin) = fuente (Spanish) = fontaine (French) = source or fountain


The Aranese language transformed “f” into “h” as well, but sometimes Spanish keeps the “f”:

  • hormiga (Aranese) =  hormiga (Spanish) = fourmi (French) = aunt
  • horn (Aranese) = horno (Spanish) = four (French) = oven
  • hont (Aranese) = fuente (Spanish) = font (French) = source/fountain
  • hum (Aranese) = humo (Spanish) = fumée (French) = smoke / fume
  • haria (Aranese) = harina (Spanish) = farine (French) = flour
  • haus (Aranese) = hoz (Spanish) = faucille (French) = sickle
  • huec (Aranese) = fuego (Spanish) = feu (French) = fire
  • hesta (Aranese) = fiesta (Spanish) = fête (French) = festivity
  • heira (Aranese) = feria (Spanish) = foire (French) = fair / exposition

but sometimes the “f” remains in Aranese:

  • forquilla (Aranese) = tenedor (Spanish) = fourchette (French) = fork
  • faucon (Aranese) = halcón(Spanish) = faucon (French) = falcon

and sometimes the Spanish word is totally different:

  • hormatge (Aranese) = queso (Spanish) = fromage (French) = cheese
  • horment (Aranese) = trigo (Spanish) = froment (French) = wheat

Now I understand that Carrèr dera Hònt is the Fountain street.


The Aranese – officially recognised by Catalonia

Since 2010, the Aranese has been one of three official languages in Catalonia, besides Catalan and Spanish. Since 1984 it has been taught at schools in the Val d’Aran. According to a census of 2008, about 80% of the inhabitants in the Val d’Aran understand Aranese and about 60% speak it s well. I do hope that the federalistic solution for the Aranese language will continue to flourish.


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