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On when Latin languages used to be understood by almost everybody...
Many foreign visitors to this corner of Europe find it weird, or even unhinged, that we Catalan-speakers not only use Catalan on a daily basis but also don't think it the least bit provincial or nationalistic to do so. After years of careful observation, we have come to the conclusion that such visitors – especially the European ones - suffer from an entrenched belief that Catalan is non-international and therefore gratuitous, or even expendable.
Recently, my partner, my two ten-year-old children and myself went to Sardinia, starting at the port of Alguer. There, we had no language difficulties at all, as 40% of the population speak Catalan and nearly everyone understands it. However, as Italian is also widely spoken there and has a remarkable resemblance to Catalan, and as Alguerese Catalan contains some Italian words and phrases, we found ourselves picking up Italian – which we hadn't previously studied - at the rate of knots. By the time we moved out of that Catalan enclave (created by the troops of Peter the Ceremonious in 1354) into the rest of Sardinia, we were using Italian normally enough to feel quite at home (many Sardinians working in the tourist trade use English by default the moment they clock you as non-local, making you feel, well, like a tourist, that is to say, a rank outsider). But when it came to Sardinian – the very first of the Romance languages to break away from Latin, spoken today by 1,200,000 people – things were a little trickier, not because we didn't try to speak it but because we never got a chance to do so: as one Sard explained to us, sadly, many of her compatriots consider Sardinian to be a crude, bumpkinish tongue, preferring to speak Italian to foreigners (and sometimes to each other). It is also conspicuous by its absence in both of Sardinia's newspapers and on local TV, and is only rarely seen on street signs. However, we were told of a bilingual magazine, whose articles in Sardinian we could understand pretty well (and whose editors would surely have understood Catalan). Indeed in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, a similar mutual comprehension of different Latin languages was once the norm across the northern Mediterranean, and travellers there – like the Catalan-speaking preacher Vicent Ferrer, from Valencia – could make themselves understood from Portugal through to Sicily, simply by tweaking their own vernacular before people who, in their turn, would make an effort to recognise its resemblances to their own. Those were the days.