The Sicilian Language

Sicily is at once a land of beauty, the isle of the Sun, and a land of mystery whose history before its domination by ancient Greece, is largely unknown by the literate world. Homer called the island Thrinakie, (Θρινακιη.). The island is the location of much Greek mythology although it is represented to us as having taken place in the various ancient cities of Greater Greece rather than in Sicily per se. The ancient city of Syracuse on its southeastern shore used the trinakria on its coinage.

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) mentions Trinacria in his epic poem that we know as The Aeneid, the work commissioned by Caesar Augustus to commemorate his victory at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.

Meglio cercare le cime del trinacrio Pachino
fuggendo, e lunga piegar tutt'intorno la rotta,
che orrenda solo unna volta nell'antro terribile scorgere
Scilla, e gli scogli assordati dai lividi

Inoltre, se pur preveggenza Eleno vate possiede,
se gli puoi credere, e l'animo gli riempie Apollo del vero,
una cosa a te, figlio di Venere, avanti a tutte una sola
proclamerò, rinnovando ancora e ancora il consiglio:
della grande Giunone pregando il nume adora per primo,
a Giunone di cuore fa' voti e la sovrana potente
colma di supplici doni: cosi vittorioso alla fine
potrai lasciar la Trinacria, salpar per l'Italia.

Virgilio, Eneide, Einaudi Tascabil, Torino, 1989, 581 pp.
--traduzione da Rosa Calzecchi,Onesti.
Better to seek the summits of Trinacrian Pachynus
avoiding the straits by taking the long way around,
than to glimpse, even once, in the frightful cavern
Scylla, and the rocks resounding to vicious canine growls.

Moreover, if Helenus possesses foreknowledge,
if you can believe him, and the mind of Apollo be filled with truth,
first of all, one thing to thee, son of Venus, one only
will I proclaim, repeating the advice again and again:
begin your prayers to great god Juno,
to Juno make your fervent prayers and the sovereign potentate
fill with suppliant gifts: thereby successful in the end
you can embark from Trinacria, and sail for Italy.

--translated by Arthur Dieli

A pie chart graphically shows the duration of potential linguistic influences on Sicilian language and culture, based on the number of years that a particular foreign language group dominated the island.

We know that the island was inhabited as early as 6000 BC by Sicans, who were unlettered and left no written record, Sikels, who arrived about 1400 BC settled in the southeast, and the Elymians who presumably came from the east, settled around Erice and built a temple there to Venus. Here's a map of Sicily showing the distribution of the ancient inhabitants around the time of the Greek settlement of the island. The depicted distribution is an approximation and does not take into account places like Licodia Eubea, a Greek settlement located inland about 60 Km west of present day Siracusa. From the point of view of linguistics there is as yet very little documentary evidence of the ancient language(s). Politically, Diodorus Siculus mentions an 8th century BC peace treaty between the Sicans and Sikels (Facaros 345). Historically, foreign domination of the island began in earnest with Greek colonies in 735 BC.

In this vein, Giovanni Ragusa makes a plea for continuing the study of Sicilian, "not to foster racism" but to avoid being second class citizens who must always submit to the language of the off-shore governing authority. His plea reflects more than 2500 years of foreign domination. It seems remarkable to me that any vestige of the native language should have managed to survive this continual political domination.

Ragusa, who has published an Italian-Sicilian Dictionary, also maintains that Sicilian is not neo-latin, and cites the fact that it has only the three vowels "a", "i", and "u", and has a number of cacuminal consonants. Giuseppe Pitrè and Christian F. Wentrup, in their Grammatica Siciliana del dialetto e delle parlate, note that without exception the final Italian vowels of a, e, i, o, and u always change, in Sicilian, to either i or u. They include in their study some analysis of the variations that occur from town to town in the Sicilian hinterland.

Beyond the complex linguistic problems there are some others that interest me as I consider Pitrè's and Wentrup's analysis:

  • What was the language that was being spoken by the ancient Sicilians?
  • Where did ancient Sicilian come from?
  • What part of today's Sicilian is most like the ancient language?
  • What validity is there to the suggestion by Giovanni Ragusa that it is a direct descendant of Sanskrit?
  • How was it changed or influenced by its contact with the languages of the various conquerors?
  • Here's a look at some vocabulary to see how Sicilian and Italian compare?
  • Is Sicilian properly classified as a language or a dialect?

According to Ignazio Sucato the Sicilian language dates from prehistory. He says, "La lingua siciliana risalirebbe, nè più nè meno, alla preistoria." (Sucato 11) Loosely translated, it says, the Sicilian language dates back to prehistory. While that claim may not apply to the Sicilian language of today, it probably does apply to the language originally spoken by the Sikels.

My essay, entitled The Origin of the Sicilian Language: The uniqeness of a language and a people, may be of interest to you. English and Italian versions are posted in this section. With the recent advances in the sequencing of the human genome, another avenue of research into the origin of the prehistoric past of the Sicilian Language is now becoming available. As far as the question of whether Sicilian is a language or a dialect, the answer may be more a matter of politics than of linguistics. By my choice of a title for this page, I resolved the question to my own personal satisfaction.

Besides looking at how the Sicilian language may have been influenced by the various powers that dominated the island, how was the language influenced by those who came to Sicily as immigrants? An example may be in a paper written for the fifth international conference on Italia Judaica, held in Palermo in June of 1992, in which Giuseppe Sermoneta reproduces part of a document printed at the end of the fourteenth century in which Sicilian is used to teach Jewish children about the ten commandments. (Italia Judaica, 341).

In 1990 LEGAS published Vincenzo Ancona's Malidittu La Lingua, Damned Language, a 211 page collection of poems, anecdotes, and stories in a dual language format with Sicilian on one page and English on the facing page. It's edited by Anna L. Chairetakis and Joseph Sciorra and translated into English by Gaetano Cipolla of Arba Sicula. The book comes with two CDs full of recordings. Listen to Vincenzo Ancona reciting the following six line poem in Sicilian by clicking on the play arrow.

Picchi Diu criau lu primu all'omu?

Picchì Diu criau lu primu all'omu?
Chi Dici? A cui putissi dumannari?
"Diu lu fici, ci detti lu nomu,
e cu nuddu si vosi cunsigghiari.
Si c'era Eva, Diu di frunti a chidda,
o sì o no, l'avia a diri idda!"

Why Did God Create Man First?

Why did God create man first?
What do you think? Who could I ask?
"God made him, gave him a name,
and sought no one's advice.
Had Eve been there, God facing her,
no doubt, she would have had the say!"

You can order the book and CDs from Arba Sicula.

Dr. Cipolla has also recently (2005) produced a 23 page booklet entitled, The Sounds of Sicilian. It is accompanied by a 37 track CD that carefully describes the pronunciation of Sicilian from the alphabet to a variety of selections. Here's a brief sample from Track 37. It's the first verse of Nino Martoglio's poem Nica. Read the Sicilian text in the left column as you listen to the audio.


Nica, tu fusti babba: mi lassasti
cridennu ca ju tuttu t'avia datu,
e tuttu chiddu chi tegnu sarvatu
ancora non è to, e ci l'appizzasti...


Nica, what a foolish thing you've done! You left me
thinking I'd given you all I possessed.
But everything I kept inside my heart
was not yet yours and now you've lost that part!

You can order the booklet and accompanying CD from Arba Sicula.

The editorial house of PUNGITOPO has been publishing an annual Almanaccu Sicilianu since 1978. On a recent trip to Sicily I picked up the 2009 edition at the Libreria Napoli on via Roma in Caltagirone. Among the items for January I found this entertaining tongue twister.

Finally, you can refer to the Links page for additional related web sites; to the page of original Sicilian documents for some transcribed examples of the language, as well as scanned copies of the original Spanish and Sicilian hand-written documents from the State Archives of Palermo; and to the page on Bibliography for other hard copy sources.

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This page is maintained by Art Dieli.
Last updated 12/8/10