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Exclusive – An interview with Italian linguist Massimo Pittau: from his correspondence with Max Leopold Wagner to the days of Mussolini. And on democratic Italy in the hands of the “great thieves”.

by Rina Brundu. Massimo Pittau is a Sardinian “eccellenza”. A linguist, a scholar of Etruscan, Sardinian and protosardinian languages, he was born in Nùoro (a small town in central-eastern Sardinia), in 1921. A graduate in Humanistic Sciences and Philosophy, he has been for several decades lecturer of Sardinian Linguistics, Glottology and General Linguistics at the University of Sassari. A member of the «Società Italiana di Glottologia» for 40 years and of the «Sodalizio Glottologico Milanese» for 30 years, he authored some 50 books and more of 400 papers on Linguistics, Philology and Philosophy of the Language; books and papers which have ultimately awarded him much recognition and several cultural prizes, from the “Premio della Cultura” granted by the Italian Prime Minister’s Office in 1972 to the Premio Città di Sassari – Lingue Minoritarie, Culture delle Minoranze, awarded by the Sassari City-Hall in 2009.

In 2011 – in order to celebrate (my guess!) a life-time rich in achievements and in intellectual commitment – professor Massimo Pittau published a sort of autobiography titled “The Fascist Era in the Italian Province – The Littorio (1) in Nùgoro (2) and in Sardinia(Sassari 2011, EDES). Thanks to this very different type of work – mainly a sentimental journey targeted to picture the days of his childhood and the people who made it special – his readers have come to know better the man behind the scholar. And it is to this man, to this distinguished son-father of a Sardinia and of a Nùgoro “deleddiana” (3), almost about to disappear for good, that I have asked the questions that follow.

Q. Professor Pittau, I understand that your ideas about the dialect of Nùoro and particularly about it being one of the most conservative languages among the Romanic ones “are close to those of the linguist Max Leopold Wagner…” (4). Is this really so? Could you explain better where your opinions reflect those of that world renown linguist and where they do differ? Most of all, could you tell us what brought you, in your early days, to study and to get interested in linguistics?

A. Nowadays among the Romanic scholars it is taken for granted that the Sardinian language is the Romanic language most similar to Latin. Within that same Sardinian language, the dialect of Nùoro (as well as the dialect of Baronia (5)), is closer to the noble mother tongue. On these points Wagner and I were in complete agreement. On the other hand, I have proceeded to write a complete grammar (phonology, morphology and syntax) of the dialect of Nùoro, a work which received Wagner’s appreciation and which he reviewed extensively for a German magazine.

I vividly remember that my interest in linguistics dates back to the early years of my secondary school. At that time I already mastered the Italian and Sardinian language and I was studying Latin, French and Greek. Above all I was fascinated by the Sardinian language whose usage at school was forbidden and about which my teachers knew nothing. In the following years I set to teach myself Spanish and German and I was also drawn to study History of Sardinia a subject to which neither the educational system as a whole nor the single teachers never gave a thought.

This sort of early interest towards the Sardinian language and towards the History of Sardinia was the key-factor that brought me to specialize in historic and linguistics subjects. In this respect I would like to stress that I have become a scholar of the Sardinian Language and of Sardinian History because of my great attachment and love for my homeland. In a way, my interest in the Sardinian language has been the key element towards the discovery and a better understanding of the history of my island. I have in fact been able to bring to new life many forgotten episodes of its past simply because of my attention to its language.

Q. You were a friend of Max Leopold Wagner, a master of Sardinian Linguistics, what opinion did you form of him? Could you draw a quick portrait and tell us something new about this great scholar?  

A. I corresponded with Max Leopold Wagner for a decade. He used to write from New York asking technical questions about the Sardinian language, as well as the dialect of Nùoro, and I would reply to exchange information and further clarifications on those same topics. Later on I met him during an international study congress for scholars of Linguistics held in Florence in circa 1965. He was a quiet type of man, but he also had a sharp tongue when it came to evaluate some of his colleagues. I remember he had great consideration for the Sardinian people whom he regarded as most sincere and friendly.

A curiosity about him I came to know after he passed on. In fact, I was informed by the late and most beloved Sardinian songwriter Andrea Parodi, that within the record books of the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers (SIAE), the most famous Sardinian love song “Non potho riposare” is recorded as if it was written by Max Leopold Wagner. Apparently, he got it copyrighted without the real authors, the lawyer Badore Sini from Sarule and the maestro Giuseppe Rachel from Cagliari, ever finding out about his little deception…

Q. You are a well-known scholar of Etruscan language and culture, what does it mean nowadays to study such and old civilization? What could the Etruscans teach to the electronic dimension we currently live in?

A. The Etruscan civilization, together with the Greek and Roman ones, forms the backbone of the so-called Classic civilization which is at the base of our modern western world. In truth the Etruscans have been less “lucky” than their fellows Greek and Romans but there is no doubt that they inherited much from the Greeks and together with them they sort of christened the Romans. The alphabet itself, for example, was borrowed by the Etruscans from the Greeks and together they passed it on to the Romans.

In addition, the Etruscans have gifted the Romans with many words, some of them rich in cultural meaning, which are still used nowadays and are of common usage among the leading nations. I refer to words such as world, person, people, public, radio, ray, military, satellite, etc. etc. All these words have entered the modern languages through Latin, but they had become part of the Latin vocabulary thanks to the Etruscan language.

Last but not least several Etruscan works of art are known to be masterpieces of the pictorial and plastic arts and are admired all over the world.

Q. Let’s talk about Sardinia and its history. Among your most controversial theories there is one which credits the Sardinian “Nuraghi”(6) with a mere religious function. Do you still subscribe to this theory?

A. I have dealt with the hot topic of the actual purpose of the Sardinian “nuraghi” in my book «La Sardegna Nuragica» (1977), which has been one of the most read in Sardinia and whose first edition was printed 5 times (a second edition was out in 2006 edited by Edizioni della Torre, CA). As far as I know whoever read that book dropped immediately  the ridiculous idea of the military destination of those ancient buildings and embraced my thesis of an exclusive religious purpose.

If in Sardinia there are still people who look at the “nuraghi” as some sort of “castles” or “fortresses”, it is obvious that they have never read my book and they are still paying homage to the simplistic and superficial thesis of the “military destination”. Even among the archaeologists they are currently rare those who sponsor that nonsensical vision. As such, my critics should read my writings prior to go on criticizing my ideas…

Q. You were born in full fascist era, if we can say so. Which are the greatest social and cultural differences that you happen to notice between today’s Italy and Sardinia and those of your early years? What do you think the future will bring to your island and to your country? What advice do you feel like giving to the young generations of today and of tomorrow?

A. I am convinced I have fully demonstrated in my recent book “The Fascist Era in the Italian Province – The Littorio (1) in Nùgoro (2) and in Sardinia”, that for the young people of my generation Mussolini’s fascism has been an extremely demanding experience.  I have “marched where il Duce wanted” from when I was 6 to when I was 23; I held the musket in my hands from when I was 12 to my early 20s during the various fascist events; I have done 3 years and a half of military service during the last World War risking my life several times under enemy fire. I have spent my whole youth in a warlike climate, “a war wished for, a war prepared for”, “a war fought for”. I have seen many many friends, schoolmates, disappear into the vortex of war. And because of such belligerent perspectives my educational path was ruined from the elementary school to University.

The younger generations should therefore reject even the mere idea of any new “Country Saviour”. The current Italian democratic system should be defended and protected but also improved so to finally putting a stop to it being held hostage in the hands of the “great thieves”. 

Afterward by Rina Brundu. Many thanks to Professor Massimo Pittau for his courtesy and for his kindness. The original Italian interview can be read by clicking on this link.


(1)      Fascio littorio fasces of the Roman lictors.

(2)     Nuoro.

(3)     The small town of Nuoro is hometown to Literature Nobel Prize Winner Grazia Deledda (Nuoro, 27 September 1871 – Rome, 15 August 1936).

(4)     Max Leopold Wagner (Munich, 17 September 1880Washington, 9  July 1962) was a german linguist and glottologist.

(5)     Historic subregion located in north-eastern Sardinia, near the small town of Nuoro.

(6)     The nuraghe [nuˈraɡe] (plural Italian nuraghi, Sardinian nuraghes) is the main type of ancient megalithic edifice found in Sardinia, developed during the Nuragic Age between 1900-730 BC. 

Featured image Massimo Pittau (source)