|Native to Italy|
ISO 639-2 scn
|Native speakers 4.7 million (2002)|
ISO 639-3 scn
|Region SicilyCalabria (except the north)Campania (Cilento)Apulia (Salento, Lecce)|
Language family Indo-EuropeanItalicLatino-FaliscanRomanceItalo-DalmatianSicilian
Sicilian (sicilianu; Italian: lingua siciliana; also known as Siculu or Calabro-Sicilian) is a Romance language spoken on the island of Sicily and its satellite islands. It is also spoken in southern and central Calabria (where it is called Southern Calabro), in the southern parts of Apulia, Salento (where it is known as Salentino), and Campania, on the Italian peninsula, where it is called Cilentano (Gordon, 2005). The Ethnologue (see below for more detail) describes Sicilian as being "distinct enough from Standard Italian to be considered a separate language" (Gordon) and is recognized as a "minority language" by UNESCO. Some assert that Sicilian represents the oldest Romance language derived from Vulgar Latin, but this is not a widely held view amongst linguists and is sometimes strongly criticized. Sicilian has the oldest literary tradition of the Italic languages.
- Other names
- Dialects of Sicilian
- Early influences
- Pre classical period
- Greek influences
- Arabic influence
- Linguistic developments in the Middle Ages
- Norman and French influence
- Other Gallic influences
- Sicilian School of Poetry
- Catalan influence
- Spanish period to the modern age
- Characteristic sounds
- Gemination and contractions
- Gender and the formation of plurals
- Omission of initial Latin i
- Verb to have
- Verb to go and the periphrastic future
- Tenses and moods
- Examples of the written language
- Celia Lib 2
- Don Chisciotti e Sanciu Panza Cantu quintu
- Briscula n Cumpagni
- Influences on the Italian language
Sicilian is currently spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of Sicily and by emigrant populations around the world. The latter are found in the countries which attracted large numbers of Sicilian immigrants during the course of the past century or so, especially the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina. In the past two or three decades, large numbers of Sicilians were also attracted to the industrial zones of northern Italy and indeed the rest of the European Union, especially Germany.
It is not used as an official language anywhere, even within Sicily. There is currently no central body, in Sicily or elsewhere, that regulates the language in any way. However, since its inception in 1951, the Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani in Palermo has been researching and publishing information on the Sicilian language.
The autonomous regional parliament of Sicily has legislated to encourage the teaching of Sicilian at all schools, but inroads into the education system have been slow.
The language is officially recognized in the municipal statutes of Sicilian towns, such as Caltagirone and Grammichele, in which the "inalienable historical and cultural value of the Sicilian language" is proclaimed. Further, the Sicilian language would be protected and promoted under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML). However, Italy has signed this treaty, but the Italian Parliament has not ratified it.
The Sicilan language is spoken in various Sicilian American communities in both the United States and Canada (especially in Montréal, Toronto and Hamilton), and is preserved and taught through family association, church organizations and societies, as well as social and ethnic historical clubs, and even in Internet social groups
Alternative names of Sicilian are Calabro-Sicilian, Sicilianu, and Siculu. The term Calabro-Sicilian refers to the fact that a form of Sicilian, or a dialect closely related to Sicilian, is spoken in central and southern Calabria. Sicilianu is the name of the language in Sicily itself (Gordon).
The term "Siculu" describes one of the larger prehistoric groups living in Sicily (the Sicels or Siculi) before the arrival of Greeks in the 8th century BC (see below). It can also be used as an adjective to qualify, or further elaborate on, the origins of a person, for example: Siculo-American (siculu-miricanu) or Siculo-Australian (Gordon).
Dialects of Sicilian
As a language, Sicilian has its own dialects, in the following main groupings (Gordon and Bonner 2001):
Because Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and many peoples have passed through it (Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantine Greeks, Moors, Normans, Swabians, Spaniards, Austrians, Italians), Sicilian displays the rich and varied influence of several languages on its lexical stock and grammar. Such languages include Italian, Albanian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Norman, Lombard, Occitan, Germanic languages, Catalan, French and Spanish, and the influence from the island's pre-Indo-European inhabitants. The very earliest influences, visible in Sicilian to this day, exhibit both prehistoric Mediterranean elements and prehistoric Indo-European elements, and occasionally a blending of both. Ruffino 2001
Before the Roman conquest (3rd century BC), Sicily was occupied by populations considered indigenous, including Sicels (or Siculi, or Siculians—who arrived between the second and first millennia BC), Sicani, Elymians, and Morgetes, followed by Phoenicians (between the 10th and 8th centuries BC) and Greeks (from the 8th century BC). The Greek language influence remains strongly visible, while the influences from the other groups are less obvious. What can be stated with certainty is that there remain pre-Indo-European words in Sicilian of an ancient Mediterranean origin, but one cannot be more precise than that. Of the three main prehistoric groups, only the Sicels were Indo-European, and their speech is likely to have been closely related to that of the Romans (Ruffino).
The following table, listing words for "twins", illustrates the difficulty linguists face in tackling the various sub-strata of the Sicilian language.(Ruffino)
A similar qualifier can be applied to many of the words that appear in this article. Sometimes we may know that a particular word has a prehistoric derivation, but we do not know whether the Sicilians have inherited it directly from the indigenous populations, or whether it has come to them via another route. Similarly, we might know that a particular word has a Greek origin but we do not know from which Greek period the Sicilians first used it (pre-Roman occupation or during its Byzantine period), or once again, whether the particular word may even have come to Sicily via another route. For instance, by the time the Romans had occupied Sicily during the 3rd century BC, the Latin language had made its own borrowings from Greek (Ruffino).
The words with a prehistoric Mediterranean derivation often refer to plants native to the Mediterranean region or to other natural features. Bearing in mind the qualifiers mentioned above (alternative sources are provided where known), examples of such words include:
There are also Sicilian words with an ancient Indo-European origin that do not appear to have come to the language via any of the major language groups normally associated with Sicilian, i.e. they have been independently derived from a very early Indo-European source. The Sicels are a possible source of such words, but there is also the possibility of a cross-over between ancient Mediterranean words and introduced Indo-European forms. Some examples of Sicilian words with an ancient Indo-European origin:
The following Sicilian words are of a Greek origin (including some examples where it is unclear whether the word is derived directly from Greek, or via Latin):
Vulgar Latin was spoken by the Roman occupation troops who garrisoned Sicily after Rome annexed the island after the end of the First Punic War, ca. 261 BC. A historical feature shared by Sicily, the far south of Calabria, and the province of Lecce, is that during the Roman period, these areas were never completely Latinised. Greek remained the main language for the majority of the population. This helps explain the linguistic differences in these areas and those immediately to the north which were, more or less, Latinised (Hull). It is also why Sicilian is often referred to as a neo-Latin language – it did not descend directly from Latin (although some linguists disagree with that view, see below).
From 476 to 535, the Ostrogoths ruled Sicily, although their presence apparently did not impact the Sicilian language (Ruffino). The few Germanic influences to be found in Sicilian do not appear to originate from this period. One exception might be abbanniari or vanniari "to hawk goods, proclaim publicly", from Gothic bandujan – to give a signal. Also possible is schimmenti "diagonal" from Gothic slimbs "slanting". Other sources of Germanic influences include the Hohenstaufen rule of the 13th century, words of Germanic origin contained within the speech of 11th century Normans and Lombard settlers, and the short period of Austrian rule in the 18th century.
In 535, Justinian I made Sicily a Byzantine province, and for the second time in Sicilian history, the Greek language became a familiar sound across the island (Hull, 1989). As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, Sicily was progressively conquered by Saracens from North Africa (Ifriqiya), from the mid 9th to mid 10th centuries, and remained there long enough to develop a distinctive local dialect of Arabic, Siculo-Arabic (at present extinct in Sicily but surviving in the Maltese language). Its influence is noticeable in around 300 Sicilian words, most of which relate to agriculture and related activities (Hull and Ruffino). This is understandable because of the Arab Agricultural Revolution; the Saracens introduced to Sicily their advanced irrigation and farming techniques and a new range of crops, nearly all of which remain endemic to the island to this day.
Some words of Arabic origin:
Throughout the Islamic epoch of Sicilian history, a large Greek-speaking population remained on the island and continued to use the Greek language, or most certainly a variant of Greek influenced by Arabic (Hull). What is less clear is the extent to which a Latin-speaking population survived on the island. While a form of Vulgar Latin clearly survived in isolated communities during the Islamic epoch, there is much debate as to the influence it had (if any) on the development of the Sicilian language, following the re-Latinisation of Sicily (discussed in the next section). There are few Sicilian words reflecting an archaic Latin form (as may be found, for example, in Sardinian or Romanian ), so the influence may have been minor (Hull). However, some forms do exist, so the tantalising prospect of a Sicilian form of a Vulgar Latin surviving the Islamic period and influencing the modern development of Sicilian remains open (as already mentioned, Privitera puts forward the radical proposition that medieval Sicilian descends directly from a form of Vulgar Latin that survived throughout the Byzantine and Islamic periods).
These are some words of Latin origin that may have survived the Islamic epoch:
Linguistic developments in the Middle Ages
By 1000 AD, the whole of what is today southern Italy, including Sicily, was a complex mix of small states and principalities, languages and religions (Hull). The whole of Sicily was controlled by Saracens, at the elite level, but the general population remained Greek-speaking and predominantly Orthodox Christian. It, however, gradually converted to Islam, as noted by Yaqut al-Hamawi (BAS Ar. 124) "Sicily remained in the hands of the Muslims for a long time and most of its people became Muslim." There were also Muslim immigrants from North Africa (Ifriqiya). The far south of the Italian peninsula was part of the Byzantine empire and predominantly Greek-speaking although many communities were reasonably independent of Constantinople. The principality of Salerno was controlled by Lombards (or Langobards), who had also started to make some incursions into Byzantine territory and had managed to establish some isolated independent city-states (Norwich 1992). It was into this mix that the Normans thrust themselves with increasing numbers during the first half of the 11th century.
Norman and French influence
When the two most famous of Southern Italy's Norman adventurers, Roger of Hauteville and his brother, Robert Guiscard, began their conquest of Sicily in 1061, they already controlled the far south of Italy (Apulia and Calabria). It took Roger 30 years to complete the conquest of Sicily (Robert died in 1085), (Norwich). In the process, the revitalization of Latin in Sicily had begun, along with the marginalization of Islam (the Christian faith continued among the general population during the Saracen period, and it was only the ruling Muslim elite who were adherents of Islam, not the ordinary Sicilians themselves) and subsequent gradual expulsion of the Muslims ended in 1240. Many Normand words were to be absorbed by the new language during this period:
The following factors that emerged during or immediately after the conquest were to prove critical in the formation of the Sicilian language:
The main factors that go into framing modern Sicilian language can be seen. The Vulgar Latin base (predominantly from Campania) was similar to the Vulgar Latin in central Italy (and therefore, by implication, reasonably similar to the Vulgar Latin in Tuscany that would eventually form the base for the national language). This base from Campania was influenced by the many Gallic influences present in Sicily at the time, namely Norman, French and Langobardic. There were also remnants of Arabic and Greek that the new language eventually replaced, but hundreds of words remained in the vocabulary of the changing Romance language.
Other Gallic influences
The Lombard influence is of particular interest. Even to the present day, Gallo-Italic of Sicily exists in the areas where the Lombard colonies were the strongest, namely Novara, Nicosia, Sperlinga, Aidone and Piazza Armerina (Hull). The Siculo-Gallic dialect did not survive in other major Lombard colonies, such as Randazzo, Bronte and Paternò (although they influenced the local Sicilian vernacular). The Gallo-Italic influence was also felt on the Sicilian language itself, as follows (Hull):
The origins of another Gallic influence, that of Old Occitan, had three possible sources:
- As mentioned above, the number of actual Normans in Sicily is unlikely to have ever numbered much higher than 5,000 at any time. They were boosted by mercenaries from southern Italy, but it is possible also that mercenaries came from as far away as southern France. The Normans made San Fratello a garrison town in the early years of the occupation of the northeastern corner of Sicily. To this day (in ever decreasing numbers) a Siculo-Gallic dialect is spoken in San Fratello that is clearly influenced by Old Occitan, which leads to the conclusion that a significant number in the garrison came from that part of France. This may well explain the dialect spoken only in San Fratello, but it does not wholly explain the diffusion of many Occitan words into the Sicilian language. On that point, there are two other possibilities:
- Some Occitan words may have entered the language during the regency of Margaret of Navarre between 1166 and 1171, when her son, William II of Sicily, succeeded to the throne at the age of 12. Her closest advisers, entourage and administrators were from the south of France (Norwich), and many Occitan words entered the language during this period.
- The Sicilian School of poetry was strongly influenced by the Occitan of the troubadour tradition. This element is deeply embedded in Sicilian culture: for example, the tradition of Sicilian puppetry (opira dî puppi) and the tradition of the cantastorii (literally sing stories). Occitan troubadours were active during the reign of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, and some Occitan words would have passed into the Sicilian language via this route.
Some examples of Sicilian words derived from Occitan:
Sicilian School of Poetry
It was during the reign of Frederick II (or Frederick I of Sicily) between 1198 and 1250, with his patronage of the Sicilian School, that Sicilian became the first of the Italic languages to be used as a literary language. The influence of the school and the use of Sicilian itself as a poetic language was acknowledged by the two great Tuscan writers of the early Renaissance period, Dante and Petrarch. The influence of the Sicilian language should not be underestimated in the eventual formulation of a lingua franca that was to become modern Italian. The victory of the Angevin army over the Sicilians at Benevento in 1266 not only marked the end of the 136-year Norman-Swabian reign in Sicily but also effectively ensured that the centre of literary influence would eventually move from Sicily to Tuscany. While Sicilian, as both an official and a literary language, would continue to exist for another two centuries, the language would soon follow the fortunes of the kingdom itself in terms of prestige and influence.
As a side note, there are some Germanic influences in the Sicilian language, and many of these date back to the time of the Swabian kings (amongst whom Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor enjoyed the longest reign). It should be noted that many of the below words are "reintroductions" of Latin words (also found in modern Italian) that were Germanicized at some point (e.g. "Vastare" in Latin to "guastare" in modern Italian). Words that probably originate from this era include:
Following the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, the kingdom was to come under the influence of the Kingdom of Aragon (Runciman 1958), and so the Catalan language (and the closely related Aragonese) would add a new layer of vocabulary in the succeeding century. For the whole of the 14th century, both Catalan and Sicilian were the official languages of the royal court. Sicilian was also used to record the proceedings of the parliament of Sicily (one of the oldest parliaments in Europe) and for other official purposes. While it is often difficult to determine whether a word has come to us directly from Catalan (as opposed to Provençal or Spanish), the following are likely to be such examples:
Spanish period to the modern age
By the time the crowns of Castille and Aragon were united in the late 15th century, the Italianisation of written Sicilian in the parliamentary and court records had commenced. By 1543 this process was virtually complete, with the Tuscan dialect of Italian becoming the lingua franca of the Italian peninsula and supplanting written Sicilian.
Spanish rule had hastened this process in two important ways:
Spanish rule lasted over three centuries (not counting the Aragonese and Bourbon periods on either side) and had a significant influence on the Sicilian vocabulary. The following words are of Spanish derivation:
Since the Italian Unification (the Risorgimento of 1860–1861), the Sicilian language has been significantly influenced by (Tuscan) Italian. Mussolini ensured this when he made it obligatory that Italian be taught and spoken in all schools during his time in power. This process has quickened since World War II due to improving educational standards and the impact of mass media, such that increasingly, even within the family home, Sicilian is not necessarily the language of choice. The Sicilian Regional Assembly voted to make the teaching of Sicilian a part of the school curriculum at primary school level, but as of 2007 only a fraction of schools teach Sicilian. There is also little in the way of mass media offered in Sicilian. The combination of these factors means that the Sicilian language continues to adopt Italian vocabulary and grammatical forms to such an extent that many Sicilians themselves cannot distinguish between correct and incorrect Sicilian language usage.
Gemination and contractions
Rarely indicated in writing, spoken Sicilian exhibits syntactic gemination or raddoppiamento, which means that the first consonant of a word is lengthened when it is preceded by a vowel in the preceding word, e.g. è bonu [ˌɛbˈbɔːnʊ].
The letter j at the start of a word can have three separate sounds, depending on what precedes the word. For instance, in jornu (day), the j is pronounced [j] as in English y, [ˈjɔɾnʊ]. However, after a nasal consonant, it is pronounced [ɡ] as in un jornu, [uŋˈɡɔɾnʊ]. Tri jorna (three days) is pronounced [ˌʈ͡ʂiɡˈɡjɔɾna], the j becoming [ɡj] (like English gu in "argue"), after a vowel.
Another difference between the written and spoken languages is the extent to which contractions will occur in everyday speech. Thus a common expression such as avemu accattari... (we have to go and buy...) will generally be reduced to amâ 'ccattari when talking to family and friends (Bonner).
The circumflex is commonly used in denoting a wide range of contractions in the written language, in particular, the joining of simple prepositions and the definite article. Examples: di lu = dû (of the), a lu = ô (to the), pi lu = pû (for the), nta lu = ntô (in the), etc. (Bonner).
Gender and the formation of plurals
Generally speaking, Sicilian has the same ending for feminine nouns (and their adjectives) as most Romance languages, that being the /a/, for example: casa (house), porta (door), carta (paper), but there are exceptions to this rule, for example, soru (sister), ficu (fig). The ending for masculine nouns is /u/, for example: omu (man), libbru (book), nomu (name). The ending i can be either masculine or feminine, as can e.
Unlike standard Italian, Sicilian uses one letter, i, to denote the plural for both masculine and feminine nouns, for example: casi (houses), porti (doors), tàuli (tables). There are also many exceptions to this rule which are not always shared by Italian, for example: òmini (men), libbra (books), jorna (days), jòcura (games), manu (hand/hands), vrazza (arms), jardìna (gardens), scrittura (writers), signa (signs), etc. (Bonner).
Omission of initial Latin "i"
In the vast majority of instances where the originating Latin word has had an initial "i", the Sicilian has dropped it completely. This can also happen occasionally where there was once an initial "e", and to a lesser extent "a" and "o". Examples: mpurtanti "important", gnuranti "ignorant", nimicu "enemy", ntirissanti "interesting", llustrari "to illustrate", mmàggini "image", cona "icon", Miricanu "American". (Camilleri 1998).
Verb "to have"
Sicilian only has one auxiliary verb, aviri "to have".
Aviri is also used to denote obligation (e.g. avi a jiri [ˌaːvjaɡˈɡiːɾi] '[he/she] has to go').
It is also used to form the future tense, as Sicilian no longer has a synthetic future tense. For example: avi a cantari '[he/she] will sing' ([ˌaːvjakkanˈtaːɾɪ] or [ˌaːwakkanˈdaːɾɪ], depending on the dialect). This use of aviri is an ancient feature that is also found in Sardinian. (Bonner).
Verb "to go" and the periphrastic future
Like French, Spanish, and English, but unlike Italian, Sicilian may use the verb jiri, to go, to signify the act of being about to do something. Vaiu a cantari (pronounced [ˌvaːjwakkanˈtaːɾɪ]) "I'm going to sing", literally "I go to sing." In this way, jiri + a + infinitive can also be a way to form the simple future construction (Bonner).
Tenses and moods
The main conjugations in Sicilian are illustrated below with the verb èssiri, "to be".
1. The synthetic future is no longer in use; instead, the following methods are used to express the future:1) use of the present indicative, usually preceded by an adverb of time:2) use of a compound form consisting of the appropriate conjugation of aviri a ("have to") in combination with the infinitive form of the verb in question:Stasira haju a gghìri/ìri ô tiatru — "This evening I will [/must] go to the theatre."Dumani t'haju a scrìviri — "Tomorrow I will [/must] write to you."In speech, the contracted forms of aviri often come into play:haju a → /hâ/hê; hai a → hâ, havi a → havâ, avemu a → hamâ; aviti a → hatâDumani t'hâ scrìviri — "Tomorrow I will [/must] write to you" (Bonner).
2. The synthetic conditional has also fallen into disuse. The conditional has two tenses:1) The present conditional, which is replaced by either:2) the past conditional, which is replaced by the pluperfect subjunctive:Note that in a hypothetical statement, both tenses are replaced by the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive:
3. The 2nd-person singular (polite) of the imperative does not follow the same pattern as the rest of the tense. The 2nd-person singular and plural employ the present indicative in place of the imperative, while the 2nd-person singular (polite), because of its formality, employs the present subjunctive, which makes it less of a command and more of a request.
Examples of the written language
A range of extracts are offered below to illustrate the written form of Sicilian over the last few centuries, starting with a translation of the Lord's Prayer (Bonner), through to extracts from three of Sicily's more celebrated poets: Antonio Veneziano, Giovanni Meli and Nino Martoglio. The Lord's Prayer is written with three variations: a standard literary form from the island of Sicily, a southern Calabrian literary form and a southern Apulian literary form.
Celia, Lib. 2
(sourced directly from Arba Sicula Volume II, 1980)
Don Chisciotti e Sanciu Panza (Cantu quintu)
Briscula 'n Cumpagni
(~1900; trans: A game of Briscula amongst friends)
Influences on the Italian language
As one of the most-spoken languages of Italy, Sicilian has notably influenced the Italian lexicon. In fact, there are several Sicilian words that are nowadays part of the Italian language; they usually refer to things closely associated to Sicilian culture, with some notable exceptions (Zingarelli 2007):
Sicilian is estimated to have 5,000,000 speakers. However, it remains very much a home language spoken among peers and close associates. Regional Italian has encroached on Sicilian, most evidently in the speech of the younger generations.
Poets in Sicily sometimes write in Sicilian. However, most speakers (especially the youngest ones) are literate just in Italian, not Sicilian; this implies a poor knowledge of the written language in all its formal grammar and spelling rules, in contrast to a still-wide diffusion of informal spoken Sicilian in the island.
The education system does not support the language. Local universities do not carry courses in Sicilian, or where they do it is described as dialettologia, that is, the study of dialects.
Outside Sicily, there is an extensive Sicilian diaspora living in several major cities across South and North America, as well as other parts of Europe and Australia. Many descendants of Sicilians who emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s believed that their ancestors spoke 'Italian'. Some are rudely disarmed of that belief if they visit mainland Italy and receive quizzical stares when they speak archaic Sicilian to standard Italian speakers. Today, the Sicilian language is spoken to varying extents within families and communities; however, it has neither a recognized status nor programmes established to preserve the language. Most Sicilians abroad are bi- or trilingual with Sicilian, Standard Italian and/or the host country language, be it English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese. The Sicilian-American organization Arba Sicula publishes stories, poems and essays, in Sicilian and in the corresponding English, in an effort to preserve the Sicilian language.
The movie La Terra Trema (1948) is in Sicilian, using many local, non-professional actors.