The Sicilian Language

Sicilian man walking the old streets of Sicily

The island of Sicily has always been a different entity compared to the rest of Italy. It is geographically closer to Africa than to Europe, culturally influenced by thousands of years of conquerors and linguistically distinct due in part to its tumultuous history. Today Sicily has been incorporated into the larger Italian culture thanks in part to better education and mass media but Sicilians still think of their island home first and Italy second. Part of this expression of Sicilian pride is the use of their own language when talking amongst themselves.

 

Sicilianu: Italian Dialect or Separate Language?

Often considered merely a dialect of Italian, Sicilian (Sicilianu) is in fact a separate language. Both modern Italian and Sicilian are based upon Vulgar Latin, the everyday speech of Ancient Rome. Linguistic experts put Sicilian in what is known as the Italiano meridionale-estremo language group along with the Greek influenced Calabrian dialects of Southern Italy. Further proof that Sicilian is indeed a language is the fact that is has at least eleven regional dialects. Some experts, such as Dr. Joseph F. Privitera even credit Sicilian as the first Romance language to split from Vulgar Latin. Although this is debatable, it is a fact that Sicilian differs enough from Italian to be regarded as a language and not a dialect.

 

The Sicilian Language: Brief History

Thousands of years ago the island of Sicily was occupied by the original Sicilians, the most well-known being the Siculi. These people spoke a language that has not been spoken for millennia, but some words (mainly local names for plants) still survive in modern Sicilian. Once the Phoenicians and later the Ancient Greeks arrived, the indigenous peoples and their language were eventually supplanted. Dialects of Greek were mainly spoken in Sicily until the arrival of the Romans after the First Punic War. It was then that Sicilian received a substantial Latin influence but Greek continued to be the main language for centuries.

With the fall of Rome and the conquests of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Greek was further solidified as the Lingua Franca for most of Sicily. However a new layer would be added to the Sicilian language with the arrival of the Saracens from North Africa. The invasions did not stop there of course as the Normans, Hohenstaufens, Angevins and Aragonese all took turns ruling Sicily. While not every conqueror influenced the local language, most of the major occupiers have at least bequeathed a few words and phrases which have helped to make Sicilian so colorful.

 

The Sicilian Language: Outside Influences

Like every other aspect of Sicilian culture, thousands of years of domination by foreign powers have left its mark on the language. Italian is mostly founded upon a Latin base, whereas Sicilian has elements of Greek, Arabic, Catalan, French and Spanish as well as words derived from the ancient Siculi. All of these linguistic and cultural influences blended with the Latin of the Romans to create the unique character of Sicilian.

Here are a few examples of the foreign influence upon Sicilian:

Greek based words: Bucali (water pitcher), cirasa (cherry), naca (cradle), many Sicilian surnames (including the author’s) are Greek in origin.

Arabic based words: Babbaluciu (snail), cassata (round bowl - now a name for a dessert), Marsala (Arabic for "port of God"), sceccu (donkey - derived from "Sheikh"), zaffarana (saffron).

French/Provencal/Lombard based words: Accattari (to buy), addumari (to light up), racina (grape), Lunniria, Martiria, Miercuri, Joviria, Venniri (Monday-Friday).

Spanish/Catalan based words: Addiu (goodbye), babbu (fool), balanza (scales), cascia (box), cca (here).

Of course, the latest and most prominent outside influence on Sicilian is modern Italian, which has donated a whole host of loan words and pronunciations. However Italian has also borrowed from Sicilian, especially when it comes to popular Sicilian foods like Arancini (fried rice balls). The current exchange of words between Sicilian and Italian has further blurred the lines between the two tongues and sadly, weakens the Sicilian as a language argument.

The Sicilian Language: Sicilian Today

No language remains static. They all adapt and evolve over time, adding words from outside influences and dropping antiquated words and pronunciations. Sicilian is no different and is becoming more similar to Italian by the adoption of loan words with every generation. However there is an increasing drive to preserve Sicilian by teaching it to schoolchildren and to rekindle Sicilian as a literary language. Italian may be the everyday language, but millions of Sicilians still speak their native tongue in the home and among friends.

Descendants of Sicilian immigrants are often disappointed when they discover that the language they grew up with is not spoken in Sicily today. Sicilian-Americans often try to use the words and phrases that their parents and grandparents taught them, only to be laughed at by native speakers. The problem is while an immigrant population maintains the speech pattern similar (but not exact) to what was spoken at their time of departure, the mother-tongue continues to evolve. These immigrants and their descendants are speaking Sicilian, but it is derived from a dialect of Sicilian spoken during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by what was mostly an illiterate peasantry. The Sicilian phrases heard in the "Little Italy" neighborhoods outside of Sicily are often linguistic time capsules, preserving a mode of speech that has not been heard on the Island for nearly a century.

By Justin Demetri

 Sources/For More Information:

Joseph F. Privitera, Ph.D: Beginner’s Sicilian. Hippocrene Books, New York, 2001

J.K. Bonner: Principal Differences among Sicilian Dialects. Published in Ianua, Revista Philologica Romanica vol.4, 2003. Online version: http://www.romaniaminor.net/ianua/ianua04/ianua04_04.pdf

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr, Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. SIL International. Dallas, TX 2005. Online version

Arba Sicula Organization

Wikipedia on Sicilian Language

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Comments

Tuesday, May 12TH, 2009 by Guest

There are too many inaccuracies to count in this article.
Some important issues - in every region of modern Italy, there is a dialect, some of which barely resemble the modern language of the Florentines. These include the dialects of Naples, all of Piedmont and most of northern Italy, even Emilia-Romagna which is so nearby Florence, not to mention the the language of Sardegna, which actually is a different language.

'Sicilian' on the other hand is still very close to the vulgar Latin of the Romans, and incorporates many straight Latin words. Upon not so close analysis, one finds that the large majority of words in 'Sicilian' are nearly identical to modern 'Italian' but with
vowel changes to endings, for example. This is true all throughout the south of Italy.

While each region of Italy has it's own dialect, the dialect of Sicily is no more different to the Florentine language than that of the many other regions of Italy.

The conflux of Dante's language - modern Italian, or the dialect of Florence - which developed as the norm for modern Italians, and other non-Italian languages such as Greek, Etruscan, Arabic, French is just as rich and varied as the dialect of Sicily.

Words like, 'Arancini' are not Sicilian. This is a food specialty of the region, but 'Arancia' is simply 'orange in standard Italian. 'Zafferano' is an Italian word, not a Sicilian dialect word, and derived from the Arabic.

Also, the great majority of Sicilians have considered themselves first Italians, not regional Sicilians, and since the late 19th century.
Italians, in general, all throughout the country from the very north to Calabria are culturally very regional. All consider themselves from their region, and as Italians.

While many words in the Sicilian dialect are distortions of Provencal, also the language of Lombardy and other northern Italian dialects, as well as Greek and Arabic - as is true all throughout Italy, the large majority of words in the Sicilian dialect are strictly Italian and derived from the ancient Latin.

Wednesday, July 13TH, 2011 by Guest

I am half-Sicilian, and I've been there four times, visiting cousins. In America, I took care of my Sicilian-born grandfather, who was born in 1892, but came to America in the early 20th century, so he spoke an even older, more vulgar Sicilian dialect than his great-grandchildren there today. I have learned several of these words, while I was taking care of my grandfather as a teenager, including words like "armali" (animale). The Sicilian language (or dialect) has also changed over the centuries, and while it is really not a "dialect of Italian", it IS an "Italian dialect", based on Latin, but with influences from several other languages, ie.Greek, French, Arabic, Spanish, and even Germanic. One such Sicilian word that came from German is "vastedda", or "guastedda", which is the name of a type of round bread, but because it resembles a "vessel", which in German is "vassal". A Sicilian word from French is "unni " (where), coming from the French "u", but also from the Spanish "donde", which is actually from the French "d'ond", and since Sicilian is sppoken with long vowels, the o becomes a "u", hence "unni", which in Italian is "dove", but all forms of pronouncing it stems from the French. So, in essence, all Italian "dialects" are basically more local pronunciations of the same words, but with other words coming from the nations that were once there. In the central Sicilian towns of Nicosia and Sperlinga, they speak dialects of Piemontese and Lombard, which have a lot of French in them, because these Northern Italians migrated to these Sicilian cities severeal centuries ago. In the Province of Palermo, is the "Valle di Albanese", which are people descended from Albanians who migrated there in the 15th century. Pockets of these Arberesh can also be found in Calabria, Campania and Puglia, where they still speak their Gheg language in small pockets. It's no different in far-Northern Italy, like Bolzano, where they speak a dialect of German to this day, as well as standard Italian. In Northeastern Italy, Trieste, they speak both a Slovakian dialect and Italian, while in Northwestern Italy, Piedmont, they speak a dialect with French words. In the Campagnia region, east of the Appenines, there are areas where the people speak a dialect known as "Faetar", which also has strong French influence, and in the far southern portion of the Italian "heel" of Puglia, they speak a languages called "Griko", as well as a dialect of Sicilian. This is also found in the region of Calabria, in the city of Bova. So, to determine these dialects as separate "languages" is really not accurate, because they are all based on Latin.So, these "Italian dialects" should really be called "dialects of Latin". Just my own personal observation, Pete

Friday, September 30TH, 2011 by Guest

my grandmother was from Coreleno Sicily.  What language was spoken there?

Friday, February 17TH, 2012 by Guest

here there is an example of Sicilian Speech, by Mario Monti
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...
 

Monday, November 05TH, 2012 by Guest

Hi Justin - I just saw your article. As a child of migrants who left Sicily in the 1960's and came to live in Australia, what you said in your conclusion resonated greatly with me. When i went to Sicily for the first and (so far) only time I was told I was speaking the language of "Old Messina." I like your "time capsule" phrase. It is true.