The origin of the so-called 'Romance languages' (French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Galician, etc.) can be summarized in a short sentence that seems obvious and quite simple to understand:
..............................Romance languages are those that derive from Latin.
The truth is, however, that underneath this simple statement lies one of the most elusive enigmas in historical linguistics. The problem is the word 'Latin'. What is the exact meaning of this word? Are we talking about the written standard used by Cicero, Vergil and other classical authors, which was kept as a lingua franca in the western world for centuries? Or was there some kind of popular form of 'Latin' spoken by the majority of the population, often referred to as 'Vulgar Latin', from which the Romance languages evolved? If so, was this 'Vulgar Latin' a more or less unified language, or were there different regional versions spoken all over the Empire? How different were these variants? We must also add to this the role of other languages in this process, as substrata, adstrata or superstrata. On the whole, the nature and characteristics of' 'Vulgar Latin' is far from clear, and the more I read about the subject of Romance languages, including for example József Herman's Le Latin Vulgaire (1975), the less clear it is.
I think a good place to test theories about Romance languages is the island of Sardinia, with a vast repertoire of archaeological remains and some linguistic peculiarities that make it specially interesting.
Sardinia is located in a strategic geographic position, and the archaeological record shows the influence of the various Mediterranean material cultures from the Paleolithic onwards. In some cases, there are local developments where the external elements were reinterpreted, as can be seen in the famous Bronze-Age megalithic monuments known as Nuraghe, which are a distinctive Sardinian feature. There are thousands of nuraghe all over the island, like the one you can see on the right (Nuraghe Ponte, near Dualchi). Needless to say, these unique archeological monuments have triggered the imagination of scholars for ages. Concepts like 'Nuraghic civilization' or 'the language of the Nuraghians' have been, and still are, the focus of lively debate.
The languages traditionally spoken in Sardinia can be divided into two main areas. In the north there are some dialects (Sassarese and Gallurese) associated with Corsican. In the rest of the island, the various dialects belong to what is generally referred to as 'Sardinian'. There are also some other linguistic areas, confined to very small territories, and often associated with historical developments, for example the Catalan spoken in the area of Alghero.
According to the traditional view, the language from which Sardinian derived was brought there by the Romans when they conquered the island in the 3rd c. BC. The question, also traditional, remains open: What languages were spoken in Sardinia before the Romans? As can be imagined, a wide variety of possible answers have been proposed, suggesting connections with Ligurian, Iberian, Phoenician or even Etruscan. The problem is that the evidence is scarce, and must be inferred from elusive elements such as place names, which are usually (or always) open to all kinds of interpretations. It is obvious that, whatever the languages spoken in the area in pre-Roman times, the influence of the various Mediterranean elites must have played an influential role, which can be traced in the remaining evidence, but the question is still unanswered: what language(s) did the ancient Sardinians actually speak? In a recent book (2010), prof. Blasco Ferrer has reelaborated the Basco-Iberian theory for Sardinian, already proposed many decades ago, with new analyses of the toponymic material. Blasco Ferrer's ideas, and even methodology, have been strongly criticised by other authors, for example Massimo Pittau (see here). It is obvious, however, that any other theory, including Pittau's Etrusco-Lydian connection, can also be criticised. They all have a common problem: their conclusions are based on very little evidence, and this evidence is open to all kinds of interpretations.
And then we have the Continuity Theory. In the second volume of his Origini delle Lingue d'Europa (2000), Mario Alinei proposes the idea that the populations of pre-Roman Sardinia spoke languages that belonged to the Italid group, like Latin. This proposal is obviously part and parcel of the major Continuity Paradigm, a theory that the readers of this blog are already familiar with. In order to prove the theory for Sardinia, Mario Alinei offers a series of examples from the vocabulary. One of the most complete studies is the one about the word for 'plough' and its related vocabulary, an example of what he calls 'Latin words before the Romans'. Some of his conclusions about this vocabulary are worth being taken into account. In other cases, his proposals do not seem so realistic, e.g. in his analysis ofg the word 'Nuraghe' itself, which he connects with the vocabulary of kinship. According to him, the word nuraghe derives from a word similar to 'nuora', with a meaning of 'daughter-in-law' in Italid languages. Alinei uses other arguments apart from the lexicon, for example the use of the 'ipse' article in Sardinia and in the Balearic islands or some phonetic peculiarities of the Sardinian dialects compared to other Italian dialects of today. Is Alinei's theory right? It's too early to say, but I personally like his proposals. The funny thing is that, apparently, he's not the first person to propose a continuity hypothesis for Sardinian. In a post written by Gigi Sanna, I have read about an eminent Sardinian scholar, called Vittorio Angius, who made similar proposals as early as the mid 19th c. Continuity Theory avant-la-lettre? Probably. In Sanna's post it is possible to read some excerpts from Angius's original writings, in Italian.