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The Languages of Sardinia - Sì, More Than Just Italian!


I'm something of a language geek, and I'm particularly fascinated by the linguistic patchwork of Europe. I mean, many of us know about Spain's regional languages like Catalan, Basque, and Galician. But when it comes to, say, Germany, Italy, or France, I've found many people tend to assume everybody speaks only German, Italian, and French.

They forget , though (or maybe never knew), that such countries were formed from a, yes, patchwork of regions with sometimes quite distinct cultures and languages, and linguistic conformity was imposed later on. That brings me to the  lovely island of Sardinia. Part of Italy. Right? Well, yes, of course. But in Europe, nothing is ever quite that simple. Sardinians certainly grow up speaking Italian just like their countrymen on the mainland. But before Mediterranean’s second largest island became part of Italy in 1861 and started speaking and teaching standard Italian, it had already had a long, complex history that left this sunny piece of real estate barely the size of New Hampshire (or, if you prefer, a bit bigger than Wales) with not one but at least three languages.

So what’s up with that? Well, Sardinia was a province of the long-ago Roman Empire, and as in other such regions, as the island’s post-Roman rule passed to Visigoths; Byzantines; local kingdoms; the Iberian kingdom of Aragon/Catalonia; then the united kingdom of Spain, ancient Latin evolved into a Romance language, as did Italian, Spanish, and French. In this case, it was sardu (Sardinian).

Kinda neat, no? Yet for many years, Sardinian was belittled by many elsewhere in Italy as a mere “dialect” of Italian. It is, however, actually a distinct language, a bit Spanish-influenced, with four local dialects. Here are a few words and phrases to compare — and of course use, when you’re on-island:

Good day!   Bonas dies! (compare with Italian buon giorno!)
How are you?   Comment’istadese? (Come sta?)
Please   Pro piàghere (Per piacere)
Thank you   Gràtzias (Grazie)
Sorry   Mi dispiaghede (Mi dispiace)
Goodbye    Adiósu (Arrivederci)

And that’s not all – in and around Alghero, quite a few locals also speak Algherese, which is a dialect of Catalan, the language of Spain’s Balearic Islands and Catalonia/Valencia regions, a remnant of a period of Catalonian rule from the 14th to 18th centuries. It’s a slight variation on what’s spoken in Spain. Here again, some key phrases:

Good day!   Bon dia!
How are you?   Com està vostè?
Please   Per plaier
Thank you   Gràcies
Sorry   Me desplau
Goodbye   A mos veure

Today both Sardinian and Catalan are still spoken by a significant chunk of Sardinia’s population, but sadly are somewhat in decline due to the aging population and because Italian is more practical economically and culturally. But for now at least, they’re still very much around, and a fascinating part of the local cultural fabric - not to mention catnip for language geeks like me.

Photo | Lucia Cantone/iStockphoto


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Tags: Europe, Italian, Italy, Sardinia, cultural tourism, cultural travel, languages

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Comment by Susan Frost on October 13, 2014 at 11:49pm

Sardinia, one of my favorite places. Fond memories. Loved the beaches and brilliant, sparkling cyan water everywhere. Fascinating, enchantingly beautiful, historical island. Did anyone say Nuraghe, almost cave-like dwellings constructed of white blocks? Language? Well, I had my son and daughter-in-law as translators and tour guides so I didn't notice the nuances of the language. David, interesting linguistic observations! 

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