How an Island in Italy Is Fighting ... Italian?

How an Island in Italy Is Fighting ... Italian?

An aerial view of Sardinia.

SourceDeAgostini/Getty

Why you should care

Because an English-speaking globe would be so boring.

Languages are usually like species: They evolve or die out. But the picture gets more mysterious when you consider the words spoken on a beautiful island off the coast of Italy.

Beloved by billionaires and VIPs for its tropical-like sands and pristine nature, Sardinia might even be the lost city of Atlantis. The landscape is dotted with mysterious miniature Stonehenges and nuraghes, dwellings built by early cavemen, found nowhere else in Italy. But Sardinia thinks it has one more critical feature to preserve: its unique dialect, Sardo. Indeed, in an unusual step, it’s now trying to teach Sardo to its primary and middle school students, hoping to ensure it doesn’t go the way of the dodo bird. Earlier this year, UNESCO warned that half of the world’s languages will be gone by the year 2100.

In all, Sardinia has invested more than 900,000 euros on this endeavor, from a total budget for the whole island of roughly 8 billion euros in 2015. “We strongly feel the need to recover our identity through the use of our native language,” says regional education councilor Claudia Firino, who is recruiting dialect teachers to place in the schools.

Interestingly, although Sardina is part of Italy, Sardo has nothing to do with Italian. A totally different language that predates Latin, it has Phoenician and Greek elements as well as some Spanish influences that go back to when the isle was colonized by the Spaniards, in the 1500s. “It’s a proper, independent language with a structure of its own,” says Firino.

The magic word is independent. There’s a secessionist spirit to this heritage preservation. Locals define themselves as “islanders” and call the mainland boot “the continent,” and they tend to be short, stout and black-haired. Ever since the creation of the Italian kingdom in 1861, Sardinians have opposed the central government. For centuries Sardinia’s inner wild mountains were lairs of bandits and outlaws who bitterly fought against national authorities. Locals have never accepted “foreign” rule (including that of Italy) and have always felt different. “Our particular language has always been exploited as an instrument of battle, ever since the unification of Italy,” says Firino, who says even today it’s a political tool that embodies “our distinctive trait against Italy.”

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Sardinia has long used Sardo as a political tool.

Source Ana Del Castillo / Shutterstock

Similar linguistic battles are playing out elsewhere in Italy. The German-speaking majority in the northern autonomous province of Bolzano wants to reunite with Austria and aims to launch a referendum for self-determination. In Valle d’Aosta, a northern region at the border with Switzerland and France, people speak three different languages and many would like to separate from the boot. “I feel Valdostana, neither Italian nor French. At home I speak Patois, and I am proud of this,” says Grazia Osella, manager of the Hotel Lac Bleu in the popular ski resort of Cervinia. In southern Italy, Albanian- and Greek-speaking communities live as linguistic “clusters” within the country’s internal rugged hills. The same is true in Spain, in the region of Catalonia and in the so-called Basque Country in the Pyrenees mountains, and in France on the island of Corsica.

“Our Albanian ancestors were mercenaries,” says Antonio Ferrara, a native of San Paolo Albanese in the Basilicata region, where residents speak an Albanian-sounding dialect called Arberesh and regularly meet with Albanian authorities to discuss common heritage. He says his ancestors fled across the Mediterranean from the Turkish invasions in the 1400s and received land as a reward for their loyalty in battle from the King of Naples. Traditional Albanian-style weddings are celebrated; old foods and folklore music have been kept alive. In the town of Campomarino in Molise, road signs are written in Italian and Arberesh, surnames are of Albanian origin and wall paintings depict Albanian tales.

In Spain the people of the separatist regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country speak different languages and have always been fighting for independence — the Basque even through terrorism attacks in the past. Catalonia dreams to separate from Madrid and is pushing for a referendum, which the Spanish authorities do not wish to grant. Yet the region has already won an important battle: Catalan has been recognized as one of the European Union’s official languages.

What’s unique about Sardinia is above all its geography and demographics. “We are not a linguistic and cultural enclave stuck within a region,” says Firino, pointing out that Sardinia is separate from the mainland. Firino would love to spread Sardo teaching to all schools, not just elementary and middle. So far, several dozen have introduced Sardo; others will do so in coming months.

Although this represents an intriguing possible renaissance for teachers, much as the surge in demand for Russian and Chinese speakers did in the 1980s and 1990s, dialects and small languages like this are never likely to thrive outside their geographical enclaves. But perhaps now, that’s enough.

Firino has further ambitions: to have a few school courses taught in Sardo, like geography, math or history. Practically, a Sardo school. Sardo should not just be used or looked upon as “a plain language course,” she says. “That would be far too reductive.” She says the requests from students who want to speak Sardo not just at home but also at school are coming in an overwhelming flood. “They even gather to sing in Sardo, and that tells it all.”

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