Rossetta Stoning Catalan Names

On my penultimate day in Barcelona, I finally figured out how to identify Catalan names, and the equivalents of popular Catalan names in other languages. I did this by a process that I describe as “Rossetta Stoning”.

As you might already know by now, the way James Prinsep deciphered the hieroglyphic script was finding this stone inscription (now known as the “Rossetta Stone”) which had essentially the same text in both hieroglyphic ancient greek (the latter language was known and understood). By comparing the two texts, Prinsep could develop a one-to-one mapping between them and thus decipher the unknown text.

In Barcelona I lived close to “Avinguda de Josep Taradellas”. Now, it is well known that the Spanish form of “Joseph” is “Jose”, so where did Josep come from? Sid Lowe’s book, which I partly read on my way to Barcelona and finished in Barcelona, mentioned that Taradellas was a Catalan politician who got exiled during and after the Spanish Civil War. Lowe talks about Taradellas’s return in 1976, and compared it with Pep Guardiola holding the European Cup at the same venue as Taradellas’s “return rally” (Placa Sant Jaume) a couple of decades later. So that established that Josep is likely to be the Catalan version of Joseph (Pep Guardiola’s real first name is also Josep). But more mapping was needed.

What was this “Pau” that I saw in several names in Barcelona? And was “Joan” definitely Catalan? All these questions were answered when I visited the Barcelona Cathedral, dedicated to the virgin Saint Eulalia, in the middle of the Gotico district of Barcelona. It is an absolutely beautiful and breathtaking cathedral, built in French Gothic style, and done up really well on the inside. And it is free to enter, as long as you don’t go around a service time (in which case you can’t enter at all).

The Barcelona Cathedral reminded me of Hindu temples, where there is the main deity in the middle of the temple, and then you have a number of “subordinate deities” and statues of other gods and goddesses arranged all round the temple. You are supposed to go around it clockwise, paying your respects to all these “peripheral” (in a physical sense) deities before you come round to worship the main deity in the middle.

The Barcelona Cathedral is somewhat similar – there is the crucifix in the middle (below which is the crypt of St. Eulalia) and then there are statues and paintings of various Christian Saints all round. Some of the paintings are really well done, and well preserved. It was a treat going around the Cathedral (I did it clockwise, like you are supposed to do in Hindu temples, though I found several people doing it anti-clockwise – maybe because they drive on the right side of the road in Barcelona). And accompanying each little “garbhagudi” (can’t find a better word  to describe those) was a little sign board indicating the saint whose pictures or statues were there.

And this was the Rossetta Stone that I was looking for, to map Catalan names to Spanish names. All boards were in both Catalan and Spanish, and some were in English, too. This allowed one to build a complete one-to-one mapping of the names.

And so I found that:

  • Josep = Jose = Joseph
  • Pau = Pablo = Paul
  • Pere = Pedro = Peter
  • Joan = Juan = John

And of course, Jordi = Jorge = George.

(in Catalan, btw, J is pronounced as J, and not as H like it is in Spanish).

I know it is a roundabout way to figure out some basic aspects of a country’s culture, but this is only a trivial instance I’m quoting here. Three and a half years back, touring Greece, I managed to learn to read Greek signboards by “Rossetta Stoning” them with comparable English signboards (it helped, of course, that I was familiar with the Greek alphabet thanks to their extensive use in mathematics).

And so I found out that “tau” is used for the hard T sound (as in Tank) while “theta” is used for the “tHa” (as in Thomas, or ratHa) sound (there are no other related t sounds, so Karthik can’t be written accurately in Greek). I also found out that Eta (H) is used to represent the long i sound (as in cheese) while iota (I) is used to represent the short i sound. And so forth.

But there is one constraint to this process – you need to know the script. It helped immensely that both Spanish and Catalan are written in Roman, and that the Greek script is quite popular. When I went to Thailand or Sri Lanka, for example, I didn’t figure out anything at all from their scripts. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough!

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