An Introduction to Sicilian: The Language of Sicily

An Introduction to Sicilian: The Language of Sicily

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What is Sicilian?

The real question is what isn't Sicilian?

Sicilian is neither a dialect nor an accent. It's not derived from Italian. It's not spoken only in Sicily. Sicilian (u sicilianu) in Sicilian and siciliana in Italian) is the oldest of the Romance languages derived from Latin, and it's spoken in Sicily and in parts of southern Italy such as Reggio di Calabria and southern Puglia. It's derived from Latin, with Greek, Arabic, French, Provençal, German, Catalan and Spanish influences.

Sicilian is currently spoken by most of the 5,000,000 inhabitants of Sicily, plus another 2,000,000 Sicilians around the world.

With the predominance of Italian in Italian 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 generation.

Sicilian as Art?

But what most people don't know is that Sicilian developed as a form of art many years before what we currently define as “Italian”!

In fact, even Dante, father of Italian culture and dialect, referred to Sicilian poets and writers from the “Sicilian School” as pioneers in literary works and production written in vernacular Italian.

The sicilian spelling of words is, like Italian, essentially phonetic.

The spoken language is riddled with words of Arabic origin: tabutu (coffin) from Arabic tabut. And in place names: Marsala, the Sicilian port, is from Allah's port, mars port + ala, from Allah.

We can divide Sicilian dialect variations into three main areas:

  • Western Sicilian - From the Palermo areas to Trapani and Agrigento
  • Central Sicilian - Through the Enna's zones
  • Eastern Sicilian - Divided in Syracuse and Messina

Nowadays, Sicilian is the principle way to communicate within the family (with a capital F). It's used as a convivial language and as a homey bond with those who live distantly.

What's Siculish?

Did you know that Sicilian dialect spoken by Italian immigrants living in the USA is called “Siculish”?

The Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga's surname means "twig” or “branch" in Spanish.

The Italian word is virga.

How Does it Sound?

But let's cut to the chase, how does this ancient language sound?

Most of the words aren't too far from the Italian language, but how they pronounce them changes the entire game.

B - a normal “b,” heard several times in “babbo, bosco, bambole… ,” turns into a -V.

  • So la botte ( = the barrel) sounds 'a vutti
  • la barca ( = the boat) 'a varca
  • il broccolo ( = broccoli) becomes u' vròcculu

Double L - Words like “bello” e “cavallo” become beddu and cavaddu.

G - between vowels falls and leaves only a slight trace:

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

Not all the sounds are squeezed though. There are cases that where letters strengthen and are redoubled in their sound.

“g+i” becomes valiggia ( = suitcase), and the Sicilian jacket, a giacca, has to be read as aggiacca.

Whether you're a foreigner or an Italian, Sicilian is a complicated language that you can only hope to understand. We could spend hours listening to this wonderful and melodious language that hides a magic world dating back almost a thousand years inside its devious words.

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