Sardinian in Italy
Institut de Sociolingüística Catalana
Sardinian in Italy
  1. Introduction
  2. The language in the country
    1. General information on the language community
    2. Geographical and language background
    3. General history and history of the language
    4. Legal status and official policies
  3. The use of the language in various fields
    1. Education
    2. Judicial Authorities
    3. Public Authorities and services
    4. Mass media and Information technology
    5. The Arts
    6. The business world
    7. Family and social use of the language
    8. Transnational exchanges
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

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2. The language in the country

2.1. General information on the language community

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2.2. Geographical and language background

The Sardinian language is spoken on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, which lies to the south of Corsica and to the west of Italy. The population of Sardinia, according to the last census (1991), is 1,628,690. The population density, at 68 inhabitants per km, is below the average figure for the major regions of Italy. One-quarter of the island's total population lives in the four provincial capitals of Cagliari, Nuoro, Oristano and Sassari. One of the island's characteristics is its high emigration rate, mainly to Italy and the more industrialized EC countries, which peaked in the fifties and sixties.

The main internal demographic upheaval took place during the sixties, following the adoption by the public authorities of the Piano di Renascita Sarda (Sardinian Renewal Plan): around 43% of the island's population moved to a new place of residence between 1955 and 1975 (especially men aged between 20 and 35).

With regard to the linguistic demography of Sardinia, no reliable data are available from the Italian censuses, but the number of people with a command of Sardinian is estimated at about 1.3 million, making it the largest linguistic minority in Italy. Sardinian speakers thus account for 80% of the entire population of the island. There are, however, indications that since the seventies families have stopped passing on the language en masse to their children.

In economic terms, Sardinia has traditionally been associated with agricultural activities: livestock farming in the mountainous northern regions and crop farming in the southern plains. Its traditional economic structure has changed considerably since the adoption in 1948 of the Sardinian statute of autonomy, particularly between 1960 and 1980. The aims of the statute were to implement agrarian reform and to achieve better use of the island's natural resources with a view to initiating the modernization of its economic structures. To that end, the Sardinian Renewal Plan involved, among other things, the creation of oil refineries in 1962. The purpose of this venture was to check the growth in unemployment and to halt the flood of emigration by Sardinians to Italy and the other Common Market countries. The accelerated industrialization of the Sardinian economy provoked a rural exodus to the new industrial centres and a demographic restructuring, accompanied by gradual urbanization of the countryside. This reinforced the social and economic division of the island; on the one hand, there were the regions with a supraregional economic structure and on the other hand the regions in which local economic structures prevailed. The gradual loss of human resources from the southern regions caused by the increasing industrialization of the north led to the transfer of most private capital and investments to the northern regions.

2.3. General history and history of the language

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Sardinia was invaded by the Vandals. From the year 534, however, the Byzantines gained control of the island, although it remained relatively autonomous within the Empire until the 9th century. The Saracen incursions of the 11th century led to intervention by the Genoese and Pisans, to whom the islanders had appealed for help. They established trading posts, which served as a means of bringing the whole of Sardinia under the control of the mainland powers. The Italian influence was political and administrative, but it was also linguistic. The southern dialect, Campidanian, acquired a great many Italian words, which the Logudorian dialect of central Sardinia, for example, did not.

There followed a period of struggles between the Italian colonizers as well as the Iudicati, which did not end until the island was conquered by the Aragonese in 1326. Catalan became the language of administration and culture, while Sardinian began a process of degeneration into a dialect, especially in the southern parts of the island, where Catalan was fairly widely spoken. Despite the replacement of Aragonese cultural hegemony by Spanish from 1469, Catalan continued to be the official language until the 17th century, when it was replaced by Spanish for administrative and cultural purposes. Nevertheless, during the periods of Aragonese and Spanish domination, the people continued to speak Sardinian, the official languages being the preserve of the governing classes.

It is from this era that the division of Sardinia into urban Sardinia and rural Sardinia dates, since the towns were governed in accordance with the Catalan (and then Spanish) model, whereas the country areas had their own traditional statutes, which had been in force since 1421. Under the Peace of Utrecht, Sardinia passed into the control of the House of Savoy in 1720, and Italian was declared to be the official language there in 1764.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the first literary texts emerged in Sardinian as part of a purist-inspired bid to develop a cultivated Sardinian language on the basis of the Lugudorian dialect. Some time later, in 1827, Sardinian legislation was abolished for all time, which meant that, once Sardinia became part of the Kingdom of Italy, the Italian language had all the more scope to develop at the expense of the local language. Despite that, the first Sardinian grammar books and glossaries made their appearance in the first half of the 19th century, which triggered off an intense debate on standardization of spelling, vocabulary and grammar.

The linguistic situation in Sardinia remained relatively stable until the first half of the 20th century in the sense that the relationship between the language of the people and the language of the élite settled into a stable pattern of diglossia in which the communicative functions of the two languages remained distinct.

This stable linguistic situation underwent profound change after the Second World War as the rigorous promotion of literacy pursued in Sardinia by means of compulsory schooling helped Italian to blossom as the supraregional code of communication. This process was reinforced by the profound changes that occurred in the Sardinian economic framework; the replacement of traditional forms of production and the opening of the island to industry and tourism resulted in a widespread desire to imitate the Italian cultural model in areas of human interaction in which Sardinian had hitherto been the predominant vehicle of expression.

Although considered to be a Romance language in its own right, Sardinian does not have a codified standard version. Sardinian consists in fact of two major dialectal groups, each serving as a koine to one of the two parts of Sardinia: in the north there is the Logudorian dialect, comprising numerous dialectal variants, while in the south there is Campidanian with its far less distinguishable variants. This has been at the root of an age- old linguistic imbroglio concerning the establishment of one single standard language. To that must be added the barriers to communication between different dialectal groups that this represents, the differing levels of prestige enjoyed by the diverse variants of Sardinian and the scope for Italian to assert itself increasingly as the lingua franca. Whereas Logudorian is at the top of the social-prestige scale because of its long literary tradition and its linguistic conservatism, Campidanian clearly bears the stigma of a socially inferior variant. Although the issue of standardization remains unresolved today, numerous efforts were made during the seventies to identify the corpus of the language and to enhance its status and to conduct research into ways in which the Sardinian language might be extended to other forms of social interaction (the media and literature).

From the start of the seventies, the Sardinian autonomist movement began to include the language issue in its political demands, since the autonomy statute of 1948 had not addressed the language issue (the aim of the statute having been socioeconomic restructuring and not linguistic reform). One of the first demands made in relation to the Sardinian language was formulated in a resolution adopted by the University of Cagliari in 1971, calling upon the national and regional authorities not only to recognize the Sardinian people as an ethnic and linguistic minority but also to recognize Sardinian as the national and official language of the island.

During the seventies the Partito Sardo d'Azione launched numerous campaigns with a view to persuading the regional authorities to put Sardinian on an equal footing with Italian. It also called for the introduction of Sardinian into the education system and for a reform of Sardinian spelling. In 1978 the Comitau Limba Sarda presented the Regional Council with a petition signed by 15,000 electors demanding recognition of the Sardinians as a linguistic minority, official Sardinian-Italian bilingualism and protection of the various Sardinian dialects as well as of the Catalan spoken in the town of Alghero. In 1980, the PCI group in the Regional Council also tabled a Sardinian People's Language and Culture Protection Bill.

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2.4. Legal status and official policies

The constitutional status of the Sardinian language in Italy is that of a regional language under the protection of the State pursuant to Article 6 of the Italian Constitution. A bill was tabled in 1985 with a view to defining the precise nature of that protection in respect of the following languages: Albanian, Catalan, German, Greek, Serbo-Croatian, Slovene and the Ladin, Franco-Provençal and Occitan dialects (State protection would also apply to the populations of Friuli and Sardinia). However, although the majority of the Italian parties represented in the Chamber of Deputies expressed their agreement with the bill, it has not yet been adopted.

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3. The use of the language in various fields

3.1. Education

The Sardinian educational system is governed by the laws and decrees of the State and mirrors the national educational model. Italian has been compulsory at all levels of education as a subject and as a teaching vehicle since the Casati Law of 1859. The various educational reforms that have taken place in the course of the 20th century made only passing reference to the local languages and dialects, which did not amount by any stretch of the imagination to a recognition of pluralism in schools. Since 1985 the State has recognized the right to learn the local language at primary school and in the lower years of secondary school.

Given the absence of an official policy and detailed legislation, Sardinian plays a minor role at every level of education. Sardinian children enrolled in nursery school, for example, have no opportunity to learn Sardinian or to be taught in it.

Some primary schools allow children to take Sardinian as an optional subject if their parents have so requested. However, the pupils who choose that option cannot obtain text books or other learning materials in Sardinian. Teachers too are well aware of the problems involved in teaching Sardinian under these conditions.

The situation is exactly the same in secondary schools as in primary schools. Only a few schools teach Sardinian on a voluntary basis, while in the domain of technical training Sardinian is conspicuous by its absence.

The departments of Sardinian linguistics at the universities of Cagliari and Sassari have offered courses in Sardinian linguistics since the fifties, as have certain Departments of Romance Philology at other European universities (Bonn and Vienna, for example).

Sardinian language training for teachers has long been one of the main demands voiced by the various movements of Sardinian-speaking teachers. The shortage of teachers with a good command of the Sardinian language and the lack of teaching materials in Sardinian have meant that most of the teachers' desired objectives are unattainable. The situation has changed somewhat since August 1993 by virtue of the decision taken by the Regional Council of Sardinia to attach greater importance to the presence and promotion of the Sardinian language in the education system.

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3.2. Judicial authorities

The fact that there is scarcely any Sardinian speaker who cannot express himself in Italian means that Sardinian is only very sporadically used in court proceedings, mostly when all parties involved speak fluent Sardinian. Furthermore, the courts do not accept as valid any documents submitted in a language other than Italian, irrespective of whether they constitute important evidence.

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3.3. Public authorities and services

Italian is the language used in dealings between the national administration, the regional administration and the people of Sardinia. During the seventies and in the very early eighties, the Sardinian language was sometimes used at the meetings and plenary sessions of the Regional Council by the representatives of the Partito d'Azione Sarda. A proposal adopted by the regional Parliament in 1981 that the special linguistic status of Sardinia be recognized throughout Italy was put before the national Parliament (unsuccessfully, it seems) in September 1983.

Although Italian is the only official language on Sardinia, the local authorities use Sardinian in their dealings with the public if the latter so desire. In addition, Sardinian is sometimes used in place names and Sardinian forenames and surnames are sometimes adopted. On the other hand, Italian is the only language used on road signs and shop signs in Sardinia.

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3.4. Mass media and information technology

There is no daily press in Sardinian. Certain periodicals, mainly of a cultural or linguistic nature, use some Sardinian, among them Limbas and S'Ischiglia. A regional law empowers the regional Government to grant subsidies and other financial aid to associations that devote themselves to matters of regional interest.

The use of Sardinian on radio and television is sporadic, with the exception of certain local private radio stations.

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3.5. The Arts

The books published in Sardinian are mainly poetry, short stories and novels, but we have no data on the total number of books published in Sardinian.

In the world of the theatre, numerous amateur comedy troupes often perform their plays in Sardinian on the main squares of the island's villages. In the cinema, however, Sardinian does not feature at all.

Lastly, there are several literary competitions in the Sardinian language, such as the Premio Città d'Ozieri, the Premio Paolo Mossa, the Premio Posada and the Concorso Marghine.

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3.6. The business world

Sardinian is completely absent from the business world, as illustrated by the following facts: (a) knowledge of Sardinian is never required as a job qualification, (b) Sardinian is never used in roadside advertising, although some local radio stations and television channels have carried some advertisements in Sardinian in the past, and (c) although there are no legal restrictions on the use of Sardinian to label consumer products or in instructions for the use of such products, the language is never actually used for those purposes.

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3.7. Family and social use of the language

The sociolinguistic subordination of Sardinian to Italian has resulted in the gradual degeneration of the Sardinian language into an Italian patois under the label of regional Italian. This new linguistic code that is emerging from the interference between Italian and Sardinian is very common among the less privileged cultural and social classes. This has led to a process of unstable bilingual diglossia with a distinct tendency for Sardinian to give way to Italian. This is particularly true of the towns and villages of the provinces of Sassari and Nuoro in the Logudorian dialectal area and of Oristano in the Campidanian dialectal area. So it is hardly surprising that the oral tradition of the Sardinian language has been seriously breached by the encroachment of Italian, despite the extremely high percentage (95%) of the islanders who marry within the Sardinian community.

The fact that Italian is asserting itself more and more in the conversational language of young Sardinians and of women in all age groups and that the use of Sardinian is also declining to some extent in the less cultivated strata of society is resulting in the gradual erosion of the traditional pool of Sardinian speakers. Recent surveys seem to indicate that the switch to Italian occurs very rapidly in the urban setting in particular, whereas in the countryside the process is slowed down by the lack of social mobility and the strong pressure exerted by the Sardinian-speaking environment.

We should, however, qualify this general description by pointing out that this process of changing from Sardinian to Italian is not homogeneous, nor does it follow the same pattern throughout Sardinia. In fact, in rural areas, where a traditional economic structure prevails, based on crop and livestock farming, the majority of the population are preserving the Sardinian language as a fundamental element in their social relations, leaving Sardinian/Italian bilingualism to those whom they define as middle-class. In the highly industrialized towns and provinces, the process of switching to Italian if far more rapid and profound. Industrialization alone has not brought about the migratory trend towards these areas (hence the interdialectal conflict to which we referred above) and the changes in traditional economic structures; another factor is the substitution and radical transformation that has occurred in the social fabric and in social relations. The intermingling of people from diverse origins and the fact that command of Italian is an absolute prerequisite of access to the best jobs and social advancement has resulted, as we have already seen, in the increasing entrenchment of Italian as the principal language.

The general attitude of speakers to their Sardinian language is that it is slowly declining, that it is constantly losing ground in every sphere of society, that the younger generations use it less frequently than their elders and that it is becoming less and less useful in modern Sardinian society.

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3.8. Transnational exchanges

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4. Conclusion

Despite this constant regression, Sardinian remains a living language, as is demonstrated by the results of a survey conducted in 1986, which showed that almost 55% of Sardinian families were still speaking the language in the second half of the eighties.

The situation, in short, is one of asymmetrical diglossia in which Italian is the socially prestigious language, associated with modern urban life, power and social advancement, while Sardinian is associated with traditional rural life. Italian is used more by women than by men and more by young people than by their elders. It is therefore a situation of linguistic regression in which Sardinian is being replaced by Italian.

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