Sicilian (Sicilian: sicilianu, pronounced [siʃiˈljanu]; Italian: siciliano) is a Romance language that is spoken on the island of Sicily and its satellite islands. It also has a variant, Calabro-Sicilian, because it is also spoken in southern Calabria, where it is called Southern Calabro, specifically in the Metropolitan City of Reggio Calabria, whose dialect is viewed as being part of the continuum of Sicilian. Dialects of central and southern Calabria, the southern parts of Apulia (Salentino dialect) and southern Salerno in Campania (Cilentano dialect), on the Italian peninsula, are viewed by some linguists as forming with Sicilian dialects a broader Far Southern Italian language group (in Italian italiano meridionale estremo).
Ethnologue (see below for more detail) describes Sicilian as being "distinct enough from Standard Italian to be considered a separate language", and it is recognized as a minority language by UNESCO. It has been referred to as a language by the Sicilian Region. It has the oldest literary tradition of the modern Italian languages. A version of the "UNESCO Courier" is also available in Sicilian.
Sicilian is spoken by most inhabitants of Sicily and by emigrant populations around the world. The latter are found in the countries that attracted large numbers of Sicilian immigrants during the course of the past century or so, especially the United States, Canada (especially in Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton), Australia and Argentina. During the last four or five decades, large numbers of Sicilians were also attracted to the industrial zones of Northern Italy and areas of the European Union, especially Germany.
It is not used as an official language anywhere, even within Sicily, where the government does not regulate the language in any way. Since its inception in 1951, the (CSFLS), in Palermo, has been researching and publishing descriptive information on Sicilian. In 2017, the nonprofit organisation Cademia Siciliana created an orthographic proposal to help to normalise the language's written form.
The autonomous regional parliament of Sicily has legislated Regional Law No. 9/2011 to encourage the teaching of Sicilian at all schools, but inroads into the education system have been slow. The CSFLS created a textbook "Dialektos" to comply with the law but does not provide an orthography to write the language. In Sicily, it is taught only as part of dialectology courses, but outside Italy, Sicilian has been taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Manouba University. Also since 2009, it has been taught at the Italian Charities of America, in New York City, and it is also preserved and taught by family association, church organisations and societies, social and ethnic historical clubs and even Internet social groups. On 15 May 2018, the Sicilian Region once again mandated the teaching of Sicilian in schools and referred to it as a language, not a dialect, in official communication.
The language is officially recognized in the municipal statutes of some Sicilian towns, such as Caltagirone and Grammichele, in which the "inalienable historical and cultural value of the Sicilian language" is proclaimed. Furthermore, the Sicilian language would be protected and promoted under the (ECRML). Although Italy has signed the treaty, the Italian Parliament has not ratified it. It is not included in Italian Law No. 482/1999 although some other minority languages of Sicily are.
Alternative names of Sicilian are Calabro-Sicilian, sicilianu, and sìculu. The first term refers to the fact that a form of Sicilian is spoken in southern Calabria, particularly in the province of Reggio Calabria. The other two are names for the language in Sicily itself: specifically, the term sìculu originally describes one of the larger prehistoric groups living in Sicily (the Italic Sicels or Siculi) before the arrival of Greeks in the 8th century BC (see below). It can also be used as a prefix to qualify or to elaborate further on the origins of a person, for example: Siculo-American (sìculu-miricanu) or Siculo-Australian.
First let us turn our attention to the language of Sicily, since the Sicilian vernacular seems to hold itself in higher regard than any other, and because all the poetry written by the Italians is called "Sicilian"...
Because Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and many peoples have passed through it (Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantine Greeks, Moors, Normans, Swabians, Spaniards, Austrians, Italians), Sicilian displays a rich and varied influence from several languages in its lexical stock and grammar. These languages include Latin (as Sicilian is a Romance language itself), Ancient Greek, Spanish, Norman, Lombard, Catalan, Occitan, Arabic and Germanic languages, and the languages of the island's aboriginal Indo-European and pre-Indo-European inhabitants, known as the Sicels, Sicanians and Elymians. 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.
Before the Roman conquest (3rd century BC), Sicily was occupied by various populations. The earliest of these populations were the Sicanians, considered to be autochthonous. The Sicels and the Elymians arrived between the second and first millennia BC. These aboriginal populations in turn were followed by the Phoenicians (between the 10th and 8th centuries BC) and the Greeks. 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 in Sicilian remain pre-Indo-European words of an ancient Mediterranean origin, but one cannot be more precise than that: of the three main prehistoric groups, only the Sicels were known to be Indo-European with a degree of certainty, and their speech is likely to have been closely related to that of the Romans.
The following table, listing words for "twins", illustrates the difficulty linguists face in tackling the various sub-strata of the Sicilian language.
A similar qualifier can be applied to many of the words that appear in this article. Sometimes it may be known that a particular word has a prehistoric derivation, but it is not known whether the Sicilians inherited it directly from the indigenous populations, or whether it came via another route. Similarly, it might be known that a particular word has a Greek origin but it is not known 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, the Latin language had made its own borrowings from Greek.
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):
From 476 to 535, the Ostrogoths ruled Sicily, although their presence apparently did not affect the Sicilian language. 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 bandwjan "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.
Many Germanic influences date back to the time of the Swabian kings (amongst whom Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor enjoyed the longest reign). Some of the words below are "reintroductions" of Latin words (also found in modern Italian) that had been Germanicized at some point (e.g. vastāre in Latin to guastare in modern Italian). Words that probably originate from this era include:
In 535, Justinian I made Sicily a Byzantine province, which returned the Greek language to a position of prestige, at least on an official level. At this time the island could be considered a border zone with high levels of bilingualism: Latinisation was mostly concentrated in western Sicily, whereas Eastern Sicily remained predominantly Greek. 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. The Emirate of Sicily persisted long enough to develop a distinctive local variety of Arabic, Siculo-Arabic (at present extinct in Sicily but surviving as the Maltese language). Its influence is noticeable in around 100 Sicilian words, most of which relate to agriculture and related activities. 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.
Throughout the Islamic epoch of Sicilian history, a significant Greek-speaking population remained on the island and continued to use the Greek language, or most certainly a variant of Greek influenced by Tunisian Arabic. 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).
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. The whole of Sicily was controlled by Saracens, at the elite level, but the general population remained a mix of Muslims and Greek, Siculo-Arabic or Latin speaking Christians. There were also a component of immigrants from North Africa (Ifriqiya). The far south of the Italian peninsula was part of the Byzantine empire although many communities were reasonably independent from 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. It was into this climate that the Normans thrust themselves with increasing numbers during the first half of the 11th century.
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). In the aftermath of the Norman conquest of Sicily, the revitalization of Latin in Sicily had begun, and some Norman and Norman-French words would be absorbed: but many etymologies are disputed and the only sure marker of a typical Norman word is its Scandinavian origin, such words do not exist in Sicilian.
The Northern Italian influence is of particular interest. Even to the present day, Gallo-Italic of Sicily exists in the areas where the Northern Italian colonies were the strongest, namely Novara, Nicosia, Sperlinga, Aidone and Piazza Armerina. The Siculo-Gallic dialect did not survive in other major Italian colonies, such as Randazzo, Caltagirone, Bronte and Paternò (although they influenced the local Sicilian vernacular). The Gallo-Italic influence was also felt on the Sicilian language itself, as follows:
The origins of another Romance influence, that of Old Occitan, had three possible sources:
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 modern 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.
Following the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, the kingdom came under the influence of the Crown of Aragon, and the Catalan language (and the closely related Aragonese) added 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 came directly from Catalan (as opposed to Provençal or Spanish), the following are likely to be such examples:
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 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. During the Fascist period it became obligatory that Italian be taught and spoken in all schools, whereas up to that point, Sicilian had been used extensively in schools. 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.
Sicilian has a number of consonant sounds that are not unique to Sicilian but certainly set it apart from the other major Romance languages. The most unusual sounds include the retroflex consonants.
Unlike the seven vowels of Vulgar Latin and many modern Romance languages, Sicilian has only five vowels: a /a/, e /ɛ/, i /i/, o /ɔ/, u /u/, reduced to only three in unstressed position: a /a/, i [ɪ], u [ʊ] (unstressed vowels o and e of Latin became unstressed u and i in Sicilian). That causes the vowels u and i to have a far greater presence than o and e in Sicilian, the opposite of the situation in other Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian. The influence of Italian in the media after World War II and the recent influx of English terminology related to technology and globalisation have caused an increasing number of words to enter the Sicilian lexicon which do not adhere to the Sicilian vowel system.
In the vast majority of instances in which the originating word had an initial i, Sicilian has dropped it completely. That can also happen if there was once an initial e and, to a lesser extent, a and o: mpurtanti "important", gnuranti "ignorant", nimicu "enemy", ntirissanti "interesting", llustrari "to illustrate", mmàggini "image", cona "icon", miricanu "American".
In Sicilian, gemination is distinctive for most consonant phonemes, but a few can be geminated only after a vowel: /b/, /dʒ/, /ɖ/, /ɲ/, /ʃ/ and /ts/. Rarely indicated in writing, spoken Sicilian also exhibits syntactic gemination (or dubbramentu), which means that the first consonant of a word is lengthened when it is preceded by certain words ending by a vowel: è caru Sicilian pronunciation: [ˌɛ kˈkaːɾʊ].
The letter j at the start of a word can have two separate sounds depending on what precedes the word. For instance, in jornu ("day"), it is pronounced [j] as the English y, Sicilian pronunciation: [ˈjɔɾnʊ]. However, after a nasal consonant or if it is triggered by syntactic gemination, it is pronounced [ɟ] (like English gu in argue) as in un jornu "one day" Sicilian pronunciation: [ʊɲ ˈɟɔɾnʊ] or tri jorna ("three days") Sicilian pronunciation: [ˌʈɽi ɟˈɟɔɾna].
Another difference between the written and the spoken languages is the extent to which contractions occur in everyday speech. Thus a common expression such as avemu a accattari... ("we have to go and buy...") is generally reduced to amâ 'ccattari in talking to family and friends.
The circumflex accent is commonly used in denoting a wide range of contractions in the written language, particularly the joining of simple prepositions and the definite article: di lu = dû ("of the"), a lu = ô ("to the"), pi lu = pû ("for the"), nta lu = ntô ("in the"), etc.
Most feminine nouns and adjectives end in -a in the singular: casa ("house"), porta ("door"), carta ("paper"). Exceptions include soru ("sister") and ficu ("fig"). The usual masculine singular ending is -u: omu ("man"), libbru ("book"), nomu ("name"). The singular ending -i can be either masculine or feminine.
Unlike Standard Italian, Sicilian uses the same standard plural ending -i for both masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives: casi ("houses" or "cases"), porti ("doors" or "harbors"), tàuli ("tables"). Some masculine plural nouns end in -a instead, a feature that is derived from the Latin neuter endings -um, -a: libbra ("books"), jorna ("days"), vrazza ("arms", compare Italian braccio, braccia), jardina ("gardens"), scrittura ("writers"), signa ("signs"). Some nouns have irregular plurals: omu has òmini (compare Italian uomo, uomini), jocu ("game") jòcura (Italian "gioco, giochi") and "lettu" ("bed") "lettura" (Italian "letto, letti"). Three feminine nouns are invariable in the plural: manu ("hand[s]"), ficu ("fig[s]") and soru ("sister[s]").
Sicilian has only one auxiliary verb, aviri "to have". It is also used to denote obligation (e.g. avi a jiri Sicilian pronunciation: [ˌaːvjaɟˈɟiːɾɪ] "[he/she] has to go"), and to form the future tense, as Sicilian for the most part no longer has a synthetic future tense: avi a cantari "[he/she] will sing" (Sicilian pronunciation: [ˌaːvjakkanˈtaːɾɪ] or Sicilian pronunciation: [ˌaːwakkanˈdaːɾɪ], depending on the dialect).
As in English and like most other Romance languages, Sicilian may use the verb jiri "to go" to signify the act of being about to do something. Vaiu a cantari "I'm going to sing" (pronounced Sicilian pronunciation: [ˌvaːjwakkanˈtaːɾɪ]) "I'm going to sing". In this way, jiri + a + infinitive can also be a way to form the simple future construction.
The main conjugations in Sicilian are illustrated below with the verb èssiri "to be".
A translation of the Lord's Prayer can also be found in J. K. Bonner. This is written with three variations: a standard literary form from the island of Sicily and a southern Apulian literary form.
Luigi Scalia translated the biblical books of Ruth, Song of Solomon and the Gospel of Matthew into Sicilian. These were published in 1860 by Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte.
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 now part of the Italian language and usually refer to things closely associated to Sicilian culture, with some notable exceptions:
Sicilian is estimated to have 5,000,000 speakers. However, it remains very much a home language that is spoken among peers and close associates. Regional Italian has encroached on Sicilian, most evidently in the speech of the younger generations.
In terms of the written language, it is mainly restricted to poetry and theatre in Sicily. The education system does not support the language, despite recent legislative changes, as mentioned previously. Local universities either carry courses in Sicilian or describe it as dialettologia, the study of dialects.
The dialect of Reggio Calabria is spoken by some 260,000 speakers in the Reggio Calabria metropolitan area. It is recognised, along with the other Calabrian dialects, by the regional government of Calabria by a law promulgated in 2012 that protects Calabria's linguistic heritage.
Outside Sicily and Southern Calabria, there is an extensive Sicilian-speaking diaspora living in several major cities across South and North America and in other parts of Europe and Australia, where Sicilian has been preserved to varying degrees.
The Sicilian-American organization Arba Sicula publishes stories, poems and essays, in Sicilian with English translations, in an effort to preserve the Sicilian language, in Arba Sicula, its bi-lingual annual journal (latest issue: 2017), and in a biennial newsletter entitled Sicilia Parra.
The movie La Terra Trema (1948) is entirely in Sicilian and uses many local amateur actors.