Sicilian: From Language to Dialect

Song: Tarantella Picciridda (Baby tarantella) 

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    The Sicilian way of speaking cannot be considered as a dialect, but as a full title language for two reasons: It was born with the Sicilian people and remained unaltered in its own basic characteristics during the centuries, having its own grammar and vocabulary. The Sicilian language, which even today is written and spoken, is the language of the first Sicilian tribes which inhabited Sicily. Naturally it cannot be completely the same but it started from there, and as would assimilate other words and was loosing some others, it was changing with the times due too to the people with whom they were getting in touch.

    These tribes were the the Sicans who came from the Iberian peninsula, and the Siculis who came from the region of Lazio, the Phoenicians who at first were from the middle East and practiced commerce among all the coast lands of the Mediterranean and then became Africans from Carthage and the Elimi, a people of shepherds from still unknown origins and meeting in Sicily, mingled the ways of living and speaking. Starting from the VIII century B.C. and even before, Sicily was a meeting point for even more immigrants with different languages: Greeks (who had more than one language), Romans, Huns, German Vandals, Swedish Goths, Arabs, Normans, Suebians, and the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spaniards, the Savoia, the Austrians, the Bourbons and the English. It should be easy to understand in what measure with all these influxes, the Sicilian language could develop and evolve itself getting to the point of how it is spoken and written today. Latin had a great influence over the diverse way of the spoken Sicilian, even if the Greek language was more spoken among the Siciliotis in the four centuries before the conquest of Sicily by the Romans.

    With the different dominations the costumes of the Sicilian people changed, but the language never changed in its wholeness, on the contrary, it enriched itself with the assimilation of innumerable number of words coming from European, Oriental, and African languages. From spoken language the Sicilian language started to be written as an official language in notary and official documents around the year 1200. The Suebian Frederick II, nephew of Frederick Barbarossa, was acclaimed king of Sicily as a child. As he was educated mostly in Sicily, he instinctively adopted the Sicilian language as national language. Even if he stayed in Sicily very little and even if his court moved along with him and the poets were from many places, including the Campania region, Puglia, Calabria and strangers too (from the center North of Italy and France), and even if he spoke a Franco-Norman language, still he wanted that the poetic and literary language should be represented by the Sicilian language, because no work of literature and any kind of scientific treatise were ever written in Sicilian.

    In this period the Sicilians were the marvel of the world by using regular paper instead of parchment paper, and even the spoken or written language was not much different of the language we use today. In this live literary ambiance, around 1230 was born the vulgar poetry. The authors respectful of the administrative jurisdiction and laws of the southern realm, transplanted in the vulgar Sicilian the models of the Provençal poetry, with the idea to give birth to a literary language capable to project the prestige of the court of Frederick. In this way the language started to impose itself, with the grammar, the syntax and the richness of its vocabulary, powerful in its expressions, to the attention of the whole cultural world.

    But then, this fame, this title of "dialect" toward the Sicilian language, who gave to it? Where did it get it? Where did it come from? To be able to answer to these questions we have to go back to the origins. First we have to say that the word "dialect" come from the Greek dialhktws, which means language. So, while some people have given to this word a despicable connotation, they are wrong, for lack of information or they are gossiping to cause trouble; 2) in Sicily the very first languages which were spoken were lost for the changing of times, living conditions, be them economic or social and above all for the so many immigrations before the Greeks: Sicans, Siculis, Elimi, Phoenicians and other peoples from Italy, are the first who we know as first inhabitants of the Island if we do not want to mention the Cyclops.

    It was after the immigration that the Greeks discovered that thia island could be their new mother land given the fertility of the land, the abundance of the fish in the sea and the beautiful climate. The came from all over Greece and made many city states as they had done in Greece. When they settled themselves, they came to argue and to war with one another, seeking more Hegemony over the land, but they never thought to unify themselves, unify the island and make a brand new country . This brought to the Siculi’s rebellion that with Ducetious as their leader, in 466 B.C. they almost were sent back to Greece. But they were stronger, more civilized and ultimately they won over the Siculis.

    The point is the Greeks did not have to deal just with the Siculis, but, and they were stronger, with the former Phoenicians, that now, having founded Carthage, were the Carthageneans and were showing to be a powerful sea and land army. They could have overcome even this obstacle if they would have been unified, and because they never did think of making of Sicily a unified country, little by little they went into agony and soon they were overcome by another rising power: the Romans, that had already occupied almost all of Italy.

    With the roman occupation, Sicily, which more or less had been independent, became a province of the incipient roman empire and even if it was the first province it was still treated as such by the conquerors: all had the same laws, all had to work for the Romans, all had to speak the same language. In a way, Sicily became one country with one language, some thing that the Greeks had not done. The roman domination lasted such a long time that the Latin language became the national language of Sicily and all spoke Latin, in the beginning because of business or politics and later for any other reason, mixed with the Sicilian which had also Greeks, Phoenician and other languages influence. In a way one could say that this was the beginning of the Sicilian language that reached up to us. The Sicilian language existed before the Romans, but never the same in all of Sicily. A good number spoke Greek, but they were the Siciliotis, that is the Greek-Siculis, but the advent of the roman empire, all had to speak Latin. Naturally as we Sicilians know, we are masters in sicilianizing any language and so to Latin we mixed the ancient Sicilian, better yet we sicilianized Latin.

    With the fall of the Roman Empire, in the V century A.D., there was some confusion about the language, caused by the new occupations: first the Byzantine Empire, which strengthened the Greek language, not the one from before but a more modern Greek. Then we had the Vandals, the Goths, the Visigoth, who did not have any interest in the language, but the Byzantine empire replaced them once more and the modern Greek kept on flourishing. Not too long after that Sicily endured yet another occupation, the Muslims took over, but even these did not care which language was spoken in the island, and left the Sicilians free as far as the language goes. With the coming of the Normans, Roger, Great Count of Sicily, started the relatinization of the language, which was continued by his son, Roger II king of Sicily and finally accomplished by the Suebian Frederick II Emperor of the Sacred Roma Empire and king of Sicily.

    Frederick II had a great interest for culture and was a great protector of the same. He started what later was called the Poetic Sicilian School, which gave the start to the vulgarization of the language, that is to change from Latin to the language then spoken in the street by the people. At his court came many poets, writes, scientists and all kind of educated people, from allover Italy and even from France, with the great Muslims poets and scientists. All had the same order: the Sicilian national language, was the language that had to be used in all the writings, which were not in Latin or Greek. One of this examples is left to us by the Sicilian poet Ciullo d’Alcamo with his.


Sweet fragrant rose, which appears by summer,
All women, singles and married, envy you;
Take me away form these torments, if it is your will:
for you I have no peace day or night,
Always thinking about you, o my lady.


    From now on all the official documents of any type, if are not written in Latin or Greek, which were still used languages, have to be written in the vulgar language from where took flight the Sicilian language spoken today. As we said before, the Sicilian language was not born all at once. The Siculis spoke Sicilian, but with all the occupation that Sicily endured, that which got rich was the language, richer of new words, new expressions, new ways of talking. As Nicolò Machiavelli said: Not a language can be found that has not bought from others.

    With the death of Frederick II, and the defeat of the Ghibellin factions all changes and the eredity of the Poetic Sicilian School lost its support and, after little time, reappeared in Tuscany where a Siculo-Tuscan School, was formed. Some time later Dante Alighieri who was looking for a language that would be apt to the literary needs of all, after studying 14 regional Italian languages, and even recognizing that the Sicilian language had given the start to the vulgarization of the language, decided to adopt the Tuscan language as the that better could lent itself to literature and a unified language. He called it the Dolce stil nuovo, an with it wrote the Divine Commedy.

    In time the Tuscan language affirmed itself as the language of the Italian people. Certainly it did not happened over night, but in this essay you will see how it happened and how long did it take. The poets were not from Sicily and Tuscany inherited the title of the creative center of the Italian literature. Sicily in the mean time was in a lot of troubles: The French with Charles d’Anjou started to abuse the Sicilians in every way, to the point of pushing the Sicilians to what, we now call, the Sicilian Vespers without any time to think about the language.

    The French were thrown out of Sicily and the Sicilians offered the realm to Peter III of Aragon. From now on the official state language is the Catalonian and later with the unification of Catalonia with the reign of Castile, the Spanish takes over, but all this always an official state language but none of these languages were ever imposed on the Sicilians. As a matter of fact, between the 1300s and 1400s this was the written Sicilian language. I have in my hands a manuscript inherited by Mr. Giuseppe Ansalone of Palermo, who, with pride, patience and love transcribed it in printed form to make it understandable. This piece of Sicilian history found in the archives of Palermo and Corleone, was brought to light by Mr. Ansalone's great grandfather Nicolò from Corleone who lived between 1849 and 1940. Talking about the advent of Frederick II as king of Sicily, this is what it says:

    Guglemu secundu si dichia bonu et edificau Murriali. Et in finiti eclesii lu quali fu mortu invini in lu annu millichentu ottanta senza figli, per la quali morti Tancheda figlu bastardu di lu dictu Guglemu malu hoccupau lu regnu et fu curunatu ali Milli e chentu ottantanove. Et eodem anno fu morto. Et intra tantu lu archipiscupu gauteri panormitanu per promisioni di lu Papa rapiu a la dicta Custanza (Roger’s last daughter) di lu Munasteru. Et quilla trasportau in La Magna et maritaula cum Arrigu In peraturi a li Milli chentu noventacincu. La quali Custanza chini tostu per divinu miraculu chi pri naturali virtuti sinprinau et a li Milli chentu novantasei figlau et fichi a Federicu In peraturi in la chitati di Palermu tutti standu amirati. Et nulla la cridia et dipoy in eodem anno lu dictu Arrigu In peratori fu mortu lassandu a lu dictu Fidiricu so figlu a lu quali lu dictu Arrigu In peraturi chi desi et laxau per totrix la santa eclesia romana, la quali eclesia in cominzandu a cobernari li rigni di lu dictu Fidericu quilli chi hocupau. Et adimandandu di poy lu dictu Fidiricu la restitutioni di tutti li soy regni la dicta eclesia non chi li vosi dari et cussì lu dictu Fidiricu sua autoritati si piglau la dicta posissioni di li regni di eclesia. Et in cominzau a rignari.(To translate the previous paragraph and the other that follow, in English, will defeat the purpose of showing the different stages of the Sicilian language through the centuries).

    Even later, about a century later, in a document written by Alfonso the Magnanimous, king of Sicily, to enforce a donation act which Frederick II had made to the city of Corleone, this is the language that the king uses:

    Item peti la dicta Universitati ki sia merci et clemencia di la Majestati nostra conchedirini ki nullu Baruni, nulla eclesia, nullu pheudatariu seu burgisi aventi territoriu pozza ne vogla defendiri finochi virdi, carduni ne altri herbi dati ad usu umanu et similiter ligna morti vidalicet finochiastri carduni bastunachi et his similia, sed liceat tantum a li predicti et omni altru massaru di fora difendiri li predicti herbi et ligna una certa quantitati per loru usu existenti propinqui a li stanci loru di fora.

We then have the petition to Ferdinand the Catholic, who, put out a decree in 1492, after the Office of the Inquisition had been established, to ban the Jews from all of his realms. Said petition was asking the king to revoke the decree because the Jews had been unjustly accused and were good people:

    Comu ben sapiti, essendo li judei di quissa citati membru di la universitati et comu servi di la regia cammara havendo plui necessario aiuto et favuri plui chi altri genti per esseri timurusi et pusillanimi, est cosa araxunivuli siano favoriti, indiriczati e aiutati da tutti et omni persuni quomodo siano preservati de omni dubio, scandali et sinistro potissi a li dicti judei succediri; et perchì intendimo chi alcuni predicaturi et maxime fra Franciscu de Aragona vanno per quisto regno predicando et aliquociens in predicacioni dicino alcuni cosi contra li judei, li quali de facili arrivano a commoviri li populi ad alcuno impitu et furia contra li dicti judei; pertanto [...].(Lagumina)

Another example of the written Sicilian language in the 1500s is a baptismal record found in the archives of the city of Corleone, always according to Anzalone:

    Si baticzau lu figlu di la scava di Magnificu Don Iacupu Cannella, nigra n: lu pichiotu via lu purtaru. Ph. di Agari lu livau di terra, Antonella Blazicurta lo tini a lu fonti, lo D. Gasparo lo Jacono dichi lo oficio. Pres.ti Iacopo Guadagno.

    By the second half of the 1500s the influence of the Tuscan Language, which had thrown already its roots amongst the literary men, takes over in the official administrative and governmental documents, and, in the archives of the city of Palermo we find another baptismal record which says:

    A 22 Giugno 1544 si somministrò il battesimo alla figlia della scava di Stafanu Romanu Pissana n: Sebia la purtau lu scavu di la Signura Armenia, chiamasi Nita la comari e la scava di Ioanantoni Arataezu chiamasi Francisca, la tinni a lu fonti lu scavu di Sarvaturi di Bela, chiamasi Gorgi, lo somministro Pres.ti Gulio.

    It is at this point that a Sicilian poet says that he will not be a parrot for a foreign language, as long as he has his own, this is the one he will use, that is the Sicilian language: this poet is Antonio Veneziano of Monreale who was called the Sicilian Petrarca. This is the way he writes his works in the 1500s:


Ppi un vanu oggettu la suprima autizza
d’un beni eternu, cecu, abbannunai,

canciai la grazia Tua pi la bruttizza
la luci ppi li tenibri lassai!
O eterna, suavissima ducizza,
ti pruvai tardu, tardu ti gustai,
biddizza antica, muderna biddizza,
tardu ti canuscii, tardu t’amai!


E Pietro Fullone of the 1600s understood too that we had to keep the Sicilian languagegoing; the following is an example of his writing:


Pigghia lu specchiu, garn specchiu chi ci sia,
sia di cristallu finu, o sia di massa:
tu guardi ad iddu, ed iddu guarda a tia;
pirchi l’ummira tua dintra ci passatu t’alluntani,

e iddu cancia via,lu specchiu senza macula ti lassa:
cussi fu Cristu in ventri di Maria,
s’incarna, nasci e virgini la lassa.


    As we can see, even if we have a few with good will toward our language, the Sicilian language little by little visibly disappears from the scene, even if it is still spoken by the people of any class. Past the 1500s the Italian language takes completely over, not for somebody’s will or by somebody’s imposition, but by the will of the poets and the writers, because the Italian language is the gateway to understand were the peninsula is going socially, politically economically and scientifically. Naturally the Sicilian write in the same manner, that is in Italian, to be understood by the whole of Italy. This is an example of how the official documents were written in the year 1672:

    Faccio fede, io Nicasio Campisi Arcivario di questa Città di Coniglione a tutti officiali et singoli officiali del Regno et a chi spetta veder la presente qualmente in un volume di scripturi legati senza coverta dell'anno IIa Indiz. 1598 intitolato la venditione del ius pascendi, retrovo in detto volume di scripturi registrato un conseglio generale con lettere di S.E. et Trib. del R.P. date in Palermo a 11 di Dicembre XIIIa Ind. 1599 et doppo in mediate seguente a 22 di Agusto XIIIa Indizione 1600 retrovo un contratto soggiogatorio del ius pascendi di S. 10.24.3 fatto da diversi persuni et fra l'altri di Antuninu Buccheri proprio et quibuscumque nominibus annuale subiugati alla Università di Coniglione contenuto nell'atto del quamdam Notario Giovan Pietro Lo Judici a 22 di Augusto XIIIa Indiz. 1600 senza però atto d'insinua, ma solamente legato in detto volume di scrupturi. Onde in fede della verità ho fatto la presente sottoscritta di mia propria mano hoggi in Coniglione li 15 Dicembre 1672.

    While the intellectuals promoted the Italian language to be able to understand what was being written by the non Sicilians and also to make themselves understood by the whole peninsula, the first official hit to the Sicilian language was given by Ferdinand II of the Bourbons, who forbade the use of the Sicilian language in the official administrative, political and economic documents, pronouncing the Italian the official language of the realm (that is for written official documents). After all 90% of the populace could not read and write any language. This was not the only reason: the main reason, was that because of the vast illiteracy, the government at that time had given to the best pedagogue of the times, Giovanni A. De Cosmi, the job to build as many schools as he could, to diminish drastically illiteracy. The aristocracy rebelled to such an idea, because they feared an educated population. Without education they could abuse with impunity and impudently the people as the had always done, so they did all in their power to slow down the realization of that idea, because our civilization was always based on dominion of the aristocracy over the illiterate mass.

    By this time a commission formed for the defense of the Sicilian Language, whose chief was our own Giovanni Meli, with the idea of forming a Sicilian national language with a well founded linguistic structure, but nothing came out of it because G. Meli was not really serious about the idea. He and his school used the Sicilian language to write poetry and literature, but for the legal documents they used the Italian language, because they did not want , as we said the people to understand. The constitution of 1812 and that of 1848, were written in Italian and the people knew the content through the explanation that the clergy were giving of it in the church sermons. With the annexation of Sicily to Italy in 1860, the Italian language was imposed by law on the few Sicilian schools; the Sicilian language, as it had already been unofficially happening, was officially put on the shelves. In the schools all had to be studied in the Italian language: literature, philosophy, poetry, mathematics, science and all that pertained the human understanding. It was forbidden to the Sicilian language to enter the schools. All this did not kill the Sicilian language, but stopped it in its millenary evolution: if you wanted to write a petition, it had to be in Italian, an act of donation, in Italian, a notary document, in Italian and anything at all had to be written in Italian. This always to the damage of the people for two reasons:

1) The people could not read,
2) and since they did not know Italian they could take advantage of them in any way.

    The regional way of talking or, as everybody called them, the dialects, were also victims of the mussolinian regime, where from came the orders that the teachers could not speak in a dialect to the pupils and the pupils had to speak in Italian (which nobody knew among the average population, unless you had gone to school... ) Up to 1956, and I do not have proofs, but I do remember well, the Public Education Minister of Rome, sent a letter to the school teachers, telling them not to encourage the pupils to speak in dialect (because by now, the Sicilian language had been relegated to the role of dialect), and instead to push the pupils to speak in Italian. So the Sicilian language ended up like that person who has a pituitary problem and became rickety.

    But, it was not the imposition of the Italian government, nor the Mussolini order nor the the letter of the Public Education Minister that kept the Sicilian language at bay. The question of the Sicilian language has been an ancient problem.. First Dante Alighieri and then a great number of literates tried to find a solution for a language common to all of Italy, Sicily included. The problem was a big one, it was as the classical hair knot, not easy to undo or solve. France had the same problem and finally decided that the French spoken in Paris should be the national language, England had many ways of speaking and then all agree that the English spoken in London should be the national language and so it happened to Germany and Spain. But the difference is that those countries were each one nation, and nobody really cared which way of speaking will be adopted, after all each region would still speak the same way as before. What was important was that everybody would have an official language to be able to understand each other.

    In Italy things were different: a country as one entity never existed, there were many states and everyone had its own law and its own language. Specially the Sicilians, we always had the idea that we had always been independent. But from when? we always have been occupied by one or another party, but we have a longer and more illustrious history than anybody else. So we have to come to a conclusion that is: Since now we are one country with Italy, we cannot have more than one official language, and we needed one official language understood by everybody. We had occasion to make the Sicilian our national language, but nobody wanted to do it. When in 1812 the English gave us the new constitution, that was a moment to include that the Sicilian language would be the national language of Sicily. When in 1946 Sicily had from Italy the special statute , we could have had anything, but nobody spoke about the language. and when Italy, after the II World War, made its own statute, it stated with an article, that it would recognize the minor languages, but nobody of the Sicilian politician raised its voice in favor of the Sicilian language.

    The linguistic problem of Sicily, cannot be a national problem (to include Italy). The linguistic problem of Sicily is of interest to the Sicilians, but we cannot make the error to require it as the national language. The Italian language is now the official language of Italy, like it or not and the union with Italy cannot be erased anymore. There are too many economical, social political and literary interest at stake. I see the linguistic problem in the fact that it is not in the school officially with its own programs, not as a language per sè, but as a recognition of our past. The Sicilian linguistic problem i see it in the school that should teach the history of Sicily, making all the Sicilians aware who we are and where we come from. Our efforts should be directed toward those points. When Italy was unified and to all school was imposed to study the Italian language, the king spoke Piemontese, Cavour spoke French, the Venetian spoke Venetian, and Ferdinand of Bourbon spoke Neapolitan. Everybody was speaking its own language and they still do.

    After so many noise and complaint of the diehard Sicilian language lovers, the Sicilian regional government, which could have done miracles for our language with the special statute, promised help to those school which would take an interest in programs of Sicilian language. How many schools have taken the challenge? And the teachers who have made a lot of noise? I think they are not too many if we still are at the beginning. How much money the region government has appropriated to push the Sicilian programs in the schools? As much as the chick peas in the Lipari controversy! And when I speak of teaching of Sicilian, I do not mean just the language, but history, geography, social science, the resources past and present of the Island. If we want to complain just for looking or sounding good, it is better if we get a psychological exam.

    The consequence of all the abuses toward the Sicilian language, has marked such language as a dialect of the Italian language, which means a corruption of the Italian language. But it is not so, and it is demonstrated by the awakening of our language in our writers and poets. If we want to discount the master of old, like Giovanni Meli, Pirandello, Verga, Martoglio , Tempio, the old luminaries of our language, let us keep on going with our contemporary ones like A. Camilleri, who with his Commissario Montalbano has brought Sicily and its language to a front stage, even in other countries beside Italy. And what about Simonetta Agnello Hornby, who even residing in England is bringing the best of Sicily, its traditions, language and values to the fore front with the Minnulara and La Zia Marchesa. And what about Domenico Seminerio teacher and author of Senza re nè regno, One of the best novel against the mafia and separatism. All of them use Sicilian subject, and often Sicilian words and expression.

    This is an irrefutable sign that the Sicilian is not a dialect, but a language on its own right with its own rule, grammar an syntax and all that needs to make of it a regular language with a millenary tradition. Unfortunately our regional government with a special statute, which means that it could do anything that it pleases, does not give a damn (pardon) about Sicily, its history, its people and its language. An once of pride does not exist among these people who are there to represent and defend their own country and their own people. As a person who I do not know but with which I agree:

    The Sicilian language is the expression of the soul of the Sicilian people, and as such has to be re-uncovered, re-evaluated and valued, above all now that we are going through a modernization of the language, because of which we are losing many expressions of the language, typical and characteristic, which once were always used. The study of the Sicilian language takes us to search the origins of the language and of the influences which sustained over the centuries. A short historical search shows its singularity and its nature from many cultures. The different people that in the last 2500 years came through Sicily have left an indelible mark in the Sicilian language and culture.

What has to say of all this the Public Instruction Assessor of the Sicilian Region?