Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Sardinians are the indigenous inhabitants of Sardinia, an island close to Corsica. There are four varieties of the Sardinian language Sardu, including Campidanese in the south and Logudorese (Logudoresu) in the centre and north-west, Sassarese (Sassaresu) in the extreme north-west and Gallurese (Gadduresu) in the extreme north. There is no standard spelling system for the language.
The number of Sardu-speakers is estimated to be 1 million, making it the largest linguistic minority in Italy. The large majority of Sardu-speakers also speak Italian.
There are about 15,000 Catalan-speakers in the town of Alghero and its surrounding area. Even after the territory was taken over by Spain, Alghero’s Catalan continued to survive without substantial developments, maintaining numerous and ancient expressions. Nowadays, Catalan use is reducing as Italian and to a lesser extent Sardu is taking its place. In particular, younger people speak Catalan less and less. However, Sardinia Region and the Municipality of Alghero are conducting several initiatives to protect the transmission of this language.
Sardu-speakers were mainly involved in agriculture and associated trades with livestock husbandry in the central mountainous regions and crop farming on the coastal plains and river valleys in the south and north west. Industrialization from the 1960s created petrochemicals, oil refining, aluminium and other minerals processing, cement and paper industries. Food processing was also industrialized and tourism has developed.
Sardu is a descendant of the ancient form of Latin brought to Sardinia by the Romans in 238 BCE. Sardu first started to appear in writing in 1080 CE. From the eleventh until the fourteenth century the island was partly controlled by Genoa and Pisa. The Campidanese dialect was influenced by Italian whereas Logudorese was not. In 1354 the Kingdom of Aragon conquered the island. The inhabitants of the town of Alghero were expelled and it was repopulated with Catalan immigrants. Alghero became the capital of Sardinia. Catalan and to a lesser extent from the end of the fifteenth century, Castilian Spanish, were the languages of administration for the island until 1720 when Sardinia was given to the Duke of Savoy. Administration continued partly in Catalan and partly in Italian until Italian was declared the official language in 1764. Under Spanish rule there were different laws for the towns and the rural areas from 1421. In 1827 Sardinian legislation was abolished. An 1859 law stipulated that Italian should be the language of instruction in schools. Sardinia played a key role in the unification of Italy in 1860–1, providing a refuge for the royal family during the civil war.
Sardu had been repressed under Spanish rule, but the separation of country and town allowed it some scope for use. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the first literary texts emerged in Sardu as part of a purist-inspired bid to develop a cultivated Sardinian language on the basis of the Lugudorese dialect. The first Sardu grammar books and glossaries made their appearance in the first half of the nineteenth century, which triggered off an intense debate on standardization of spelling, vocabulary and grammar. But Sardu remained the largely oral language of the countryside, while Italian was the language of the elite until industrialization in the second half of the twentieth century brought people from the countryside to the new towns.
The 1947 Italian Constitution recognizes minority rights. The 1948 Autonomy Statute for the region of Sardinia mentions minority language rights, but the main aim of the Act was to check the growth of unemployment and emigration from Sardinia to the mainland and to other European countries. Agrarian reform and industrialization from 1962 resulted in a rural exodus to the new industrial centres. A 1985 national law recognized the right to learn the local language at primary school and in the lower years of secondary school. Following an Italian decree in 1991 that Sardu should be protected, the regional government passed a law in 1993 to protect and promote the language and culture. A 1997 regional law set out detailed provisions for the protection of the different dialects of Sardu and of Catalan. However, this protection is not a right. The 1999 Italian law on the means of protecting linguistic minorities mentions Sardu and Catalan.
The autonomist Partito Sardo d’Azione, which was founded in 1920, campaigned in the 1970s to gain equal status for Sardu with Italian. When the party has elected representatives on the regional council, they use Sardu in meetings. From 1994 to 1996 the party’s four representatives were part of the centre-left regional government.
Sardu is included in UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages. More than 1.5 million people currently speak the language, and it has many dialects. Its use in education and as a formal modern language is held back by the fact that it does not have an agreed codified standard version. Of the two main variants, Logudorese has most prestige because of its long literary tradition and its linguistic conservatism, while Campidanese is considered socially inferior. But there is an increasing number of Sardu dictionaries and grammars, as well as those of the different variants.
Despite laws guaranteeing the right of the local communities to use Sardu and Catalan all public administration and court documents are in Italian. Both Sardu and Catalan are used in local council meetings. Sardu is also used sometimes in court proceedings for convenience, but not as a right, where both parties to the conflict are Sardinian. As local civil servants are mostly Sardu-speakers, the language is used frequently for verbal contacts in matters of public administration.
Neither Sardu nor Catalan are taught at nursery school, and there is no provision for Catalan at secondary school. Both languages are taught at primary level as an optional extra subject outside school hours. Sardu is offered at secondary level as an optional extra subject. There is a lack of teachers for Sardu and there has been a lack of textbooks.
There is some regional government funding available for cultural activities in the minority languages. In 2018, The Regional Council approved all the 40 articles of the unified text ‘Discipline of regional linguistic policy’ to elaborate the proposal of a regulatory linguistic instrument to teach Sardu language and other languages spoken on the island: Catalan, Gallura, Sassari and Tabarchino. The programme includes various measures to protect and encourage language use in schools, among families and at an institutional level. The Regional Council has allocated 500,000 euros to launch the initiative, with further tranches of 3.2 million euros for 2019 and 3.3 million for 2020.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in