For Sardinian language, (almost) all work is yet to be done

Sardinia is considered one of the most unknown, exotic, and backward places in the Mediterranean. It is a well-established prejudice that has spread the image of an island trapped in time, where features of vanished civilizations can still be observed. Sardinian is considered to be a relic of that past —even saying that it is the Romance language that differed least from Latin. Today, however, that theory is criticized by Sardinian philologists who argue that the language has evolved like other languages, and that insularity is not synonymous with immobility. That discussion shows how, over the last 20 years, a lively debate has developed around the language. Without going into it, we will see what the features of Sardinian are, what its history is, and what its current situation is.

An archaic language?

Although the first study of Sardinian dates back to the 16th century, it is still largely unknown. When we speak of Sardinian, we refer to a language with many variants, roughly grouped into two families: Logudorese and Campidanese. In reality, the situation is even more complex. Throughout history, the island has been colonized several times, leaving significant linguistic minorities: Catalan, Tabarchino (a variant of Ligurian), Gallurese, and Sassarese (variants of Corsican). It would be more accurate to say that Sardinian is one of the island's languages.

According to a survey carried out in 2007 by the Autonomous Region of Sardinia (RAS), Sardinian has approximately one million speakers. During the 20th century, linguists such as Max Leopold Wagner or Eduard Blasco i Ferrer devoted critical studies to it, presenting Sardinia as an archaic land. At the same time, Wagner showed that Sardinian was an autonomous language and that it had been considered a dialect of Italian only for political reasons. This was nothing new, since even Dante considered Sardinian to be a language distinct from Italian —and inferior to it.

The first documents appeared in the 11th century, when Sardinian was the official language of the four “kingdoms” that ruled the island (judicados, in Sardinian). This linguistic homogeneity was short-lived. In fact, during the Middle Ages, Sardinia was subject to the expansionism of various thalassocracies, which arrived with their linguistic baggage. First Tuscan and Ligurian, then Catalan, and finally Spanish. The Iberian languages in particular had an influence that is still evident today. But it would be a mistake to think that Sardinian is a mixture of Catalan and Spanish on an autochthonous basis. Sardinian adopted many linguistic borrowings, without this detracting from its structure.

Sardinian remained the majority language of the island until the second half of the 20th century. The process of Italianisation began in the 18th century, when the island passed into the hands of the Savoy family. At the same time, some saw Sardinian as a national language and proposed to standardize it. This spirit came to an end during the Risorgimento, when Italian was slowly imposed throughout the territory. That process ended between the years of Fascism (1922-1945) and the post-war period, when compulsory education, emigration, and the spread of the media definitively changed the linguistic situation. Today, despite this dense and complex history, Italian is the dominant language in Sardinia.

The current situation

When talking about Sardinian, it is surprising that there are few surveys. The most recent, and the only one promoted by Sardinian institutions, is from 2007. The data —much criticized— show a non-negative picture: 68.4% of those interviewed speak one of the Sardinian languages and 29% have passive knowledge, while only 2.7% declare themselves to be Italian monolinguals. In reality, the situation is worrying: the language is scarcely present among young people and almost absent in urban areas. In particular, Sardinian and the other Sardinian languages are perceived as informal, while Italian is the dominant language. Sardinian is not the language of information, culture, universities, or politics.

The lack of institutional interest is very revealing. Despite the situation of diglossia, until the 1970s nobody was concerned. Italian was making progress: it was the language of education and social prestige, and it was also the language of cinema, radio, and music. In this case, it is important to recall that, unlike Roman or Tuscan, speaking Italian with a Sardinian accent is considered to be the language of ignoramuses or criminals. Sardinian society was transformed, and the Sardinians themselves perceived their accent, their own identity, as a sign of backwardness. It was at this point that generational transmission was interrupted.

It was then that some considered the language to be in danger, and demanded that it be made official and protected, as established in article 6 of the Italian Constitution. However, the first success would come after 20 years, thanks to the European institutions. Sardinians lack well-structured organizations for the defence of the language: they are few and struggle to make themselves heard. The first success came in 1992, with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which was never ratified by Italy. In 1997, however, the RAS passed a law to revalorize the island’s culture and languages. This was an important but partial step since it introduced the teaching of and in the language in public schools, but only as an optional activity for a few hours per week. In 1999, finally, the Italian state recognized Sardinian, Catalan, Tabarchino, Sassarese, and Gallurese as linguistic minorities.

Since then, Sardinian has slowly gained visibility. Local television stations, which used to broadcast almost everything in Italian, now have part of their programming in the language, but there is still no station entirely in Sardinian. The presence of Sardinian in the media is minimal, and apart from the local press and a few radio programmes, there are only a couple of news programmes in Sardinian. Where it has gained more ground is on social networks, thanks to linguistic activism, which has led to achievements such as the creation of a spellchecker or the translation of platforms such as Telegram. Positive signs are also coming from film and music, thanks to crowdfunding or local festivals. In the literary field, the picture is disconcerting: according to the Italian publishers’ association, 8.5% of books sold on the island were in Sardinian in 2018.

Linguistic promotion has an underlying difficulty: the lack of a universally accepted model. Over the last twenty years, the institutions have codified a written language model (Limba Sarda Comuna, LSC), which is now being used in public events and institutional communication. An action plan has also been established to promote the language in different areas, with the support of an ad hoc institution. The RAS gave impetus to the language for the first time, which generated a vivid debate. The problem is that the LSC is based on Logudorese, the variant considered to be the "purest" but least spoken. Moreover, instead of using it as an exclusively institutional language, the RAS employs LSC as a standard for all fields. Campidanese speakers felt excluded and accused the RAS of centralism. Protests even led to the formulation of an antagonistic model, adopted by the Province of Cagliari, already a deadlock. Today, tensions have subsided, but the debate does not seem entirely resolved.

The divisions do not help a language in danger of extinction. It is worrying that the languages of the Sardinians do not have the social prestige that Catalan has in Catalonia. Most Sardinians do not consider their language useful for formalities, teaching, or cultural activities: it is still an informal and familiar language. However, 78.6% agree with its teaching, and only 2.3% say they feel uncomfortable when someone speaks to them in one of the Sardinian languages. And this is a good starting point.