Our Language in History

Song: Talè chi musica (Look, what a music) 

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Written By Fara Misuraca
English translation by Nino Russo

   The question of the Sicilian language (and I believe also of all Italy) is a story still to be written even if has been argued by linguists, philosophers, historians and literary people and is being used by political fronts with aspirations of independence. From the historic viewpoint we are not interested in the linguistic phenomenon as such, if it should be considered language or dialect, but we are interested instead on how much, as a language, has had influence in the renewal and transformation process in the transition from the feudal time to the modern era, when Sicily (and not only Sicily) came to face the political and cultural unification toward the new political center, Naples, and the new leading class on its way of formation. It is not by chance that the question of the language comes back to stage when the Sicilian middle class started to emerge, and it is strongly tied to the vindication of the Sicilian Nation. It is advisable nevertheless, to better understand, to mention what were the complexities and the contradictions of the linguistic situation.

   Sicilian originally had been an intellectual literary language, one of the most illustrious "vulgar" languages with prestige and supremacy even in the continental Italy, and the strong proof was in the Sicilian Poetic School and the fact that at court of Frederick II the used languages, for poets and writers, were Latin, Greek, Arabic and, above all Sicilian. This language used by the people, by the intellectuals and the court, survived up to the disappearance of the Suebian dynasty and it was used, according to Aragonese documents till the end of the XV century, when Sicily, under Alphonse of Aragon and of Castile, became a vice regency and such remained for about 400 years.

   In this period two very important things happened: the invention of the printing press which caused the speedy diffusion and circulation, never imagined up to then, of the printed texts, and the consolidation of the Spanish marine dominance in the Mediterranean sea and, for what is of our pertinence, of the Italian peninsula. The Chancellor of Naples, center of the Spanish dominions, chose as official language the Italian language, and being Sicily part of the Spanish territory, here too was adopted the Italian-Tuscan language. Then it is no wonder today, given the great power of Great Britain first and of the United States later, that the official world language is English. This condition was strengthened under Charles V who was able to make of Italy a land strongly influenced by Spanish power. From then on in Sicily (and maybe in all Italy) a diglottism spread more and more: Everybody, people of any class, spoke Sicilian, but a Sicilian, intended as language, which was more lacking and always more introverting within itself, being not an erudite and literary language and, above all, being not anymore a written language.

   At the same time the educated class adopted the Italian language in order to properly write and speak in order to follow the cultural development of Italy. Already since the end of 1500s in Sicily, as in other Italian regions, the local language became dialect and the Italian language became the language currently used in the day to day public business, in the armed forces and, generally, in any type of public administration. Another language then used was the Spanish, especially in politics, since it was the language of communication with the king and the royal court, all Spaniards. The Sicilian language nevertheless was not lost, it remained as an "affective" language, as a language of communication in the families and above all as a language of the illiterates. It was the patrimony of all the people, educated and uneducated, rich or poor. It was the only true means of communication no matter the social origins, the profession and the education.

   The way of talking (parrati) also were different in different territories of the island and it became more and more different lacking the didactic support which could have guaranteed a grammar and a syntax. The literary support was missing above all. The poems and the riddles are not enough to establish a language: the essay, the novel are needed (that provides the syntactic construction) and the relationship between people and institutions. This cannot be kept with many languages but with an only language. The Sicilian mono-linguism therefore coincided with illiteracy. Who knew how to read and write knew no less than two languages and at times three: Sicilian, Italian and Spanish. In all the public and private schools and, particularly, in the Jesuits schools, Latin and Italian were taught, never Sicilian, it is enough to refer to Mongitore and Villabianca, who were great devotees of the Sicilian traditions.

   The Sicilian question as national Sicilian language was raised between 1780 and 1790 (during the viceroys Caracciolo and Caramanico and also when De Cosmi was very powerful), by the prince of Torremuzza and by the poet Giovanni Meli who proposed to rescue the Sicilian language from the condition of dialect to that of national language of Sicily. Nor were lacking in that period intellectual engagement attempts as the publication of the etymologic Sicilian, Italian and Latin Dictionary of the Pasqualino Bros. And the Sicilian works in Sicilian of the three greater poets of the time, Giuseppe Vitale, Domenico Tempio and Giovanni Meli. These people though were thinking to re-elaborate an noble Sicilian, inspired to the structure of the Italian-Tuscan. The initiative did not succeed.

   The reasons for the failure were many: the emerging middleclass, as an example, was not interested to such a rescue, which would have hindered communications; the intellectuals, headed by Gioavanni Aceto and Agostino De Cosmi estimated that the regression to a local language would cause a cultural weakness which would have cut the communicative ties with the rest of Italy. De Cosmi in admitting that the Sicilians were the first to write in prose and poetry in the vulgar language is forced to recognize that with the extinction of the Suebians the progress of the Sicilian language and culture stopped, while the Tuscan thanks to the contribution of famed writers, not only from Tuscany but also from all Italy, was enriched, made noble, becoming everybody's language.

   Lastly another good component was the initiative of the Bourbon government which in 1797 decreed obligatory the drawing up of official documents in Italian language. Who wanted the linguistic independence, in reality, was just the aristocracy. But it was not looking for a vulgar Sicilian, means of communication with the everyday people, but sought a literary Sicilian, an academic Sicilian researched and educated. While in all Europe the great works were translated in vulgar, starting with the Bible (Luther), in Sicily the Sicilian National Academy (Vitale and Meli's) not only distrusted to write about politic in Sicilian language but refused to write in vulgar Sicilian, the one understood by everybody, even the calendars and the catechism .In so doing the people were emarginated and separated from it.

   For such reason, all the most important documents, starting with the constitution of 1812, were written in Italian without the possibility of being translated in Sicilian for the knowledge of the people. Nobody, clearly, took over the job of talking and communicating with people, neither those who were writing in noble Sicilian nor those who were writing in Italian. According to the prince of Castelnuovo and Paolo Balsamo, fathers of the Sicilian constitution "the Sicilian mass were not capable to participate in the public life and it was better to keep them away from politics".

   The constitution of 1812 was made known to the people through the clergy that explained and commented the meaning during the religious services. The gravity of this rapport of subordination to the clergy, more ever, was not even understood by the same De Cosmi who, during Caracciolo enlightened times, had started the pedagogic reform and the institution of normal schools to educate the mass of people. The language base to use was the Italian language, not the Sicilian, and prospectively this choice could have emancipated the crowds giving them the possibility to communicate. The middle class however did not accept and did not teamed up with this project of education which would have introduced a bi-lingual phenomenon even among the same people.

   The normal schools given in the hands of local administrations either were not instituted for lack of funds or were left to themselves without any financial guarantee (Ulloa). Even the king took interest and in his standing of apostolic legate, after the events of 1820, entrusted the primary instruction to the church. The city administrations, the few that had been capable to start a school, were subject to the approval of the church in the programs and teachers choice. The failure of this experiment of elementary education by the democrats and the progressive party, resulted in the clause included in the constitutional reform of 1830, which gave the right to vote only to those who knew how to read and write.

   It is fair to say however, that no law forbade the cities to establish schools, the truth is that nobody had the will to do it. It was considered useless and even dangerous to educate the people. The meaningful schools for this, besides being asphyxiated by the clergy, were few, too few to distribute an education or even a minimal instruction. It is enough to know that in Palermo, a city with about 200,000 inhabitants in 1852 existed only 7 public schools for a total of 1200 pupils. In 1840, in the all Catania province, considered an advanced province, existed 115 schools for a total of 4,000 pupils. Very few were the public schools, existing in paper but in reality non-performing.

   The people illiterate and ignorant and its language condemned to regression. What is important is not the language that one learns in a school but the possibility of using it and if this is hindered a rich and educated language cannot be developed. To do it artificially, as tried Meli, M.Tempio and others without the support of the people participation, is a sterile exercise. What is said about Sicilian can be extended to any other regional language. To construct a language, especially ours, with riddles, popular poems and proverbs is not enough. Our language, willing or not, was constructed in Italian which is not "Tuscan", but the evolution of a "vulgar" language thanks to the contributions of people like Dante Alighieri, G.Boccaccio, Petrarca, Macchiavelli, Guicciardini, Tasso, etc.

   To conclude, the consequences of the lacking of education not provided by the local administrations or not wanted by the people, was ultimately paid by the populace when in the first census, after the unification of Italy, Sicily resulted first in illiteracy.