An Introduction to Sicilian: The Language of Sicily

Not a Dialect: A Fascinating Mediterranean Language

Italy, Sicily, Province of Enna, view from Enna to mountain village Calascibetta
Italy, Sicily, Province of Enna. Westend61 / Getty Images

What is Sicilian?

Sicilian (u sicilianu) is neither a dialect nor an accent. It is a not a variant of Italian, a local version of Italian, and it's not even derived from what became Italian. In fact, in truth, Sicilian preceded Italian as we know it.

A Mediterranean Language

Though its origin is still somewhat debated, most linguistic scholarship traces Sicilian to a group of languages spoken originally by the peoples who populated the island up to some 700 years a.D., not all of them, possibly, of Hindu-European origin; the Sicani, originally from Iberia, the Elimi from Libya, and the Siculi, from mainland Italy. Many linguistic influences followed with the waves of the invaders: from the Semitic languages Phoenician and Punic, the languages of the Carthaginians, then Greek, and only then Latin, through the Romans.

Hence it is fundamentally a true Mediterranean language, onto which Arabic and Arab influences were also layered through conquest. The Latin penetration of the language or languages that were already spoken in Sicily was likely slow, not particularly literate (not high Latin), and took root in different degrees in different areas. The same for Arabic influences, which remained stronger and longer in some areas of Sicily, while other areas remained most strongly Greco-Roman. Hence, all of the influences grafted on in different locations in different ways, and some others as well: French, Provençal, German, Catalan, and Spanish.

Sicilian Now

An estimated 5 million inhabitants of Sicily speak Sicilian (plus another 2 million estimated Sicilians around the world); but in truth Sicilian, or languages considered to be derived or influenced by Sicilian, are spoken in parts of southern Italy such as Reggio Calabria, southern Puglia, and even parts of Corsica and Sardegna, whose indigenous languages experienced the same influences (and also the dissemination of Sicilian). More broadly that "extreme southern" language is called by linguists Meridionale Estremo.

Only with the inception of public education in the 1900s—slow to come to Southern Italy—did Italian itself begin to corrode Sicilian. Now, with the predominance of Italian in schools and the media, Sicilian is no longer the first language of many Sicilians. In fact, in urban centers in particular, it's more common to hear standard Italian spoken rather than Sicilian, especially among the younger generations. Yet, Sicilian continues to bond families and communities, near and far.

Sicilian Vernacular Poetry

Sicilian became known in literary circles for a form of vernacular poetry at the court of Frederick II, king of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor, in the early 1200s, developed, perhaps, by troubadours who had escaped from France (hence the Provençal). That Sicilian vernacular, strongly influenced by high Latin (because of the troubadours), was recognized by Dante as the Scuola Siciliana, or Sicilian School, and Dante himself gave it credit for being the first pioneer production of Italian vulgar poetry. It already was known for a pronounced meter and such compositions as sonetti, canzoni, and canzonette; perhaps not surprisingly, it influenced the Tuscan development of the dolce stil nuovo.

Vocabulary

Sicilian is replete with words and names of places from every language brought to the island by its invaders.

For example, of Arabic origin, sciàbaca or sciabachèju, a fishing net, from sabaka; Marsala, the Sicilian port, from Marsa Allāh, Allah's port. A maìdda is a wood container used to mix flour (from màida, or table); mischinu means "poor little one," from the Arabic miskīn.

Words of Greek origin are also abundant: crastu, or ram, from kràstos; cufinu, basket, from kophynos; fasolu, or bean, from fasèlos. Words of Norman descent: buatta, or can, from the French boîte, and custureri, or tailor, from French couturier. In some parts of Sicily we find words of Lombard origin (Gallo-Italic), and many, many words and verbs borrowed from and sharing the Catalan derivation from Latin. Depending on the colonization of the areas of Sicily, these influences can be very specific (Wikipedia provides an extensive list by linguistic origin).

In fact, Sicilian can be divided into three main areas for dialect variations: Western Sicilian, from the Palermo area to Trapani and Agrigento, along the coast; Central Sicilian, inland, through the Enna area; Eastern Sicilian, divided in Syracuse and Messina.

Sicilian has its own grammatical rules; its own peculiar use of verb tenses (we have talked elsewhere of the Southern use of the passato remoto, direct from Latin, and it uses, basically, no future tense); and of course, it has its own pronunciation.

Phonetics and Pronunciation

So, how does this ancient language sound? While some words sound much like Italian, others do not at all (though Sicilian spelling of words is, like Italian, essentially phonetic). Depending on the place, articles are shortened, consonants doubled.

For example, b's turns most normally into v's:

  • la botte (the barrel) sounds ‘a vutti
  • la barca (the boat) sounds ‘a varca
  • il broccolo (broccoli) becomes u’ vròcculu.

Double l's found in words such as bello and cavallo become d's: beddu and cavaddu.

A g between vowels falls and leaves only a slight trace:

  • gatto sounds like attù
  • gettare (to throw) sounds like ittari.

Often letters strengthen and are redoubled in their sound. G's are often doubled: valigia (suitcase) becomes valiggia, and jacket, la giacca, becomes aggiacca.

What’s Siculish?

Sicilian spoken by Italian immigrants living in the United States (or the Sicilianization of English) is called Siculish: English-Sicilian terms such as carru for car, for example. It is a hybrid of terms coined by Sicilian immigrants to make English their own.

If you are interested in taking a look at some literary Sicilian writing, check out Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia, and, on the contemporary shelf, Andrea Camilleri, whose Detective Montalbano is most famous.