The age-old question of which language is closest to Latin seems to have finally been resolved, with many linguistic studies putting Sardinian as the clear winner. So, let’s take a look at what many linguists call the nearest language to Latin!
But first of all, a background.
Sardinia is a large island in Mediterranean Sea and over the years has come under the influence of various regional powers throughout the ages including Carthage, Rome, Aragon (Spain) and the Byzantine Empire. All these regions would have had various degrees of linguistic influence on Sardinian, a language of over 1.3 million people.
Linguists have long been fascinated with this isolated language that seems to be a relic from a bygone era.
Mario Pei’s 1949 study analyzed the difference between the Romance languages and Latin determined that Sardinian was the closest, in terms of phonology, inflection, syntax, vocabulary and intonation at 8% different, as opposed to nearest rival standard Italian (based on the Tuscan Dialect) at 12%. Latin had been in Sardinia since Roman arrival in the year 238 BC. It has been argued that Sardinian was the first language to split off from Latin and belongs in its own category as opposed to the other Continental Romance languages.
Sardinian is to its core a Romance Language. In the below table from Orbilat (a phenomenal language about Romance Languages) we see how close Sardinian and the other major Romance Languages are to each other.
Table of Lexical Similarities between the Modern Romance Languages (in %)
If these stats aren’t enough, why don’t you have a look at the language and see what you understand!
The Lord’s Prayer in two Sardinian variants, said to be the most conservative to Latin:
Babbu nostru, ch’istas in sos chelos, santifcadu siada su lumene tuo, venzada a nois su regnu tuo, sia fatta sa voluntade tua comente i’su chelu i’sa terra. Dae nos oje su pane nostru cotidianu, perdona a nois sos peccados nostros comente nois los perdonamus, libera da ogni tentsassione, libera nos a male. (Sardinian – nuorese)
Babbu nostru k’istas in sos kelos, santificadu siat su nòmene tou, benzat a nois su regnu tou e fatta siat sa voluntade tua comente in su kelu gai in sa terra. Su pane nostru de dogni die dàdenolu oe, perdona a nois sos peccados nostros perdona a nois sos peccados nostros comente nois perdonamus sos inimigos nostros, e non nos lesses ruer in tentatzione, ma lìberanos dae su male. Amen. (Sardinian – logudorese)
Pater noster, qui est in coelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum, fiat voluntas tua sicut in coelo et in terra. Panem nostrum cottidianum da nobis hodie et dimitte nobis dedita nostra, sicut nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in temptationem, sed libera nos a malo. Amen. (Latin)
Studies have shown that Sardinian is incomprehensible to the speakers of other Italian dialects so let’s have a close look at this amazing language.
One feature that makes Sardinian stand out from other Romance languages is its Definite Article. The Sardinian definite article, su/sa, comes from Latin ‘ipse’, this feature only exists in Balearic Catalan whereas all other Romance Languages derive their definite articles from the Latin ‘ille’.
There have been some sound changes that have affected Sardinians words as they have developed from Latin. One of the principal sound changes is the Latin ‘Q’ and ‘G’ to the Sardinian ‘B’.
aqua – abba
lingua – limba
quaranta – baranta
equa – apa (female hourse)
Sardinian has three verb conjugations like Italian. (-are/-ere/-ire).
The verb ‘to be’ in Sardinian is essere.
soe I am
ses you are
est he/she/it is
semus we are
sedzis all of you are
suntu they are
Personal pronouns are optional like in many Romance languages as it obvious due to the verb conjugations.
Personal pronouns in Sardinian :
deo (dego), tue, isse, issa, nois, vois, issos, issas.
But now to answer the question at hand, just how close is Sardinian to Latin?
Some verbs from Classical Latin such as ischire in Sardinian deriving from the ‘scire’ from Latin exist only in Sardinian and not in any other Romance Languages except Romanian (sapere it., saber sp.).
Domo from the Latin ‘domus’ was only preserved in Sardinian, the other Romance languages having words like ‘casa’ or ‘maison’. Sardinian also uses some verbs not used in other Romance Languages like narrare which is used instead of the Romance word derived from the Latin ‘dicere’ (to say). Sard. Dego/Deo narro vs Sp. Yo digo.
Other interesting pieces of vocabulary unique to Sardinian that are similar to Latin are : Cras – Tomorrow
Pustic Cras – The day after tomorrow (Lat. Post Cras)
Hoc Annu – This year (Lat. Hoc Annus)
Domo – House (Lat. Domus)
Ibi sun – There are (Lat. Ibi sunt) Bi sun duos canes in carrela.
Bertula – Bag
Albu – White (Lat. Albus)
Ianna – Door (Lat. Ianua)
Days of the week are the same as most Romance Languages except for Friday which in Sardinian is Chenàpura, coming from the Latin “Caena Pura”, the word coming from the Jewish and early Christian word for the dinner before the Sabbath. Similarly, the word for September, Capudanni comes from the Latin ‘Caput Anni’ – beginning of the year, due it being the first month of the agricultural calender in the Julian calendar.
Studies have shown that Sardinian and in particular its dialect Logudorese (the most conservative dialect and the freest of foreign, i.e. Spanish, influence) is the closest Neo-Latin or Romance Language to Latin in terms of phonology. Sardinian retains the hard ‘c’ sound, known as stop velars, before all vowels that we can see in Classical Latin as opposed to the Romance languages where the hard ‘c’ is lost before ‘e’ and ‘i’. Kena vs cena, “supper” and Kentu vs cento, “hundred”. Sardinian and the extinct language of Dalmatian were the ones to preserve this sound from Classical Latin.
In certain occasions Sardinian is not alone in its conservative nature and it is accompanied by Spanish. Like Spanish, Sardinian retains the 5 distinct vowels of Latin. Also, like Spanish it preserves the imperfect subjunctive endings of Latin and it preserves some early rather than Late Latin words such as the word for cheese, Sard. casu, Sp. queso from the Latin ‘caseus’ vs It. formaggio, Fr. fromage from the Late Latin ‘formaticus’.
Here is a little taste of what the Sardinian language looks like.
Of course, when we are looking at which language is closest to Latin, we have to take into consideration what we mean by Latin. For example, there is Classical Latin and Ecclesiastical Latin. Also, Vulgar Latin has to be taken into consideration. Ecclesiastical Latin is based on Late Vulgar Latin with Italian pronunciation. Sardinian would certainly not be closest language to this version of Latin but to an earlier version of Vulgar Latin or Classical Latin. What is interesting is that there are actually many words that exist only in Sardinian and Romanian that descend from Latin, which lead us to interesting conclusions. It could be that they were both the most isolated versions of Latin and were in certain ways, more conservative.
It is classified as ‘definitely endangered’ by UNESCO, which is a shame because this language reveals so much to us about our past and there is still so much we can learn from it. Hopefully it will be around for generations to come!
A si bìri!