Sardinian. (No, it’s not the language that sardines speak.)

Your second guess will probably be that Sardinian is a dialect of Italian spoken on the island of Sardinia, so maybe it really is related to sardines, since you suspect that Sardinia was named after the many sardines that are caught there.

That hypothesis is close to the truth, but it’s wrong on two scores: Sardinia was not named after the sardine, and Sardinian is not a dialect of Italian. But Sardinia is indeed part of Italy, and Sardinian is indeed spoken (by some people) on the island of Sardinia.

So what’s going on here? Let me confess that before I started researching the matter I too used to think that Sardinia was named after the sardine and that Sardinian is a dialect of Italian. So I will share with you what I have (more recently) learned. We need to start with a question I used to ask my high-school freshmen: what are the names of the Romance languages? Unsurprisingly, when I asked, Spanish and French came first.

Then Latin.

Then silence.

But soon Portuguese popped up almost every year. Occasionally, in some years, we also got Catalan and/or Romanian. Rarely Galician. And that was about it. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone mention Romansh or Provençal, although some students did recognize those names when I mentioned them. No takers for Ladino or Veneziano or Picard. And that pretty much exhausted my knowledge of the Romance languages.

But it turns out that there are far more. Here is a chart showing subgroups and relationships among Romance languages according to one Yuri Koryakov:

His abbreviations are not always obvious. And don’t confuse Ladino (omitted from his chart) with Ladin (over there in the Rhaeto-Romansh region). So take the chart with seven grains of salt, but it’s still useful and informative.

Anyhow, back to Sardinian, one of only two languages in the so-called Island Romance category. Instead of the suspect chart above, we’ll focus on this astonishingly beautiful map of the languages and dialects of Sardinia:

Since I don’t actually know very much about this “definitely endangered” language, I refer you to the surprisingly good Wikipedia article about it. [Hmmm… what’s with all these adverbs? “Astonishingly beautiful”? “Surprisingly good”? Apparently that’s just what Sardinia does to people.] The article, if you stick to it, will reward you with a semester’s worth of knowledge about the past, present, and future of the Sardinian language, including its history, its politics, its vocabulary, and its grammar!

Finally, anyone who still thinks that Sardinian is merely a dialect of Italian need only study this bilingual road sign:

Categories: Linguistics