The first Catalans reached Sardinia in the 14th century but now Italy’s Last Bastion of Catalan Language Struggles to Keep It Alive
ALGHERO, Italy — The first Catalans reached Sardinia in the 14th century, when troops sailed from the eastern coast of what is now Spain as part of its expansion into the Mediterranean.
After an uprising had slaughtered the forces garrisoned in this northern port on the island, King Peter IV expelled many of the locals. In their place, he populated Alghero mostly with convicts, prostitutes, and other undesirables, many of them Catalans.
Today, Alghero is a linguistic anomaly. This walled and picturesque city is, quite literally, the last bastion of Catalan in Italy.
In an age when people cling ever more tightly to national identity, the lingering use of Catalan in Alghero is a reminder of the ways Mediterranean cultures have blended for centuries, rendering identity a fluid thing.
But while the traditional insularity of Alghero has helped to preserve Catalan, the language is struggling to survive even here.
Only about one-quarter of the 43,000 inhabitants of Alghero speak Catalan as their main language, according to local officials. It is hardly spoken among younger people and barely taught in schools. Nearly a century ago, almost everyone spoke Catalan, according to a census conducted in 1921.
“You can organize conferences, publish books and do many other things, but speaking is the only thing that really keeps a language alive,” said Sara Alivesi, a journalist who writes for the newspaper group behind Alghero’s only online publication in Catalan.
“The sad reality is that I think people here have other worries and don’t value how much the language is really a unique characteristic of our city,” Ms. Alivesi said.
After Sardinia was taken over by the Turin-based House of Savoy in 1720, eventually becoming part of what is modern-day Italy, the Catalan language virtually disappeared on the island.
Now, Catalan is not only overshadowed by Italian, but it must also compete for recognition with a handful of other languages and dialects, including the dominant indigenous language, Sardinian.
Catalan is rarely heard on the streets in Alghero, though many signs are written in the language. Restaurants also label some of their dishes as Catalan, including a local version of paella.
The language’s decline here stands in contrast to its status in the Iberian Peninsula, where it has seen a revival since the late 1970s, when Spain’s return to democracy ended a ban on Catalan imposed during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
Franco’s ban did not snuff out the language. In fact, the private use of Catalan became a form of quiet resistance to the dictatorship. In Italy, meanwhile, the use of Catalan was neither prohibited nor encouraged.
In 1999, Italy adopted a law to defend 12 historic minority languages, including Catalan. But local officials complain that it has not helped expand the use of the language, particularly within Italy’s heavily centralized education system.