Lately, a few of us around the office have been bugging the product development team (jokingly) to come out with a Sicilian course. This begs the question, isn’t Sicilian just a dialect of Italian? It turns out there is actually a good deal of debate over this subject.

Some linguists believe that Sicilian may have actually been the first Romance Language, arising from a vulgar form of Latin spoken by Roman military men and everyday people. It is placed in the Italiano meridionale-estremo group of languages along with the Greek influenced Calabrian dialects of southern Italy, and actually has at least eleven regional dialects of its own.

The Sicilian language has been shaped by many years of foreign influence, occupation, and conquest. Unlike Italian, which is almost entirely Latin based, Sicilian has elements of Greek, Arabic, French, Catalan, and Spanish. This can be seen in many Sicilian words, like “azzizzari” (to embellish, adorn) from the Arabic “aziz” (beautiful), or “foddi” (angry), which can be traced to the Norman French “fol.”

Grammatically, Sicilian is also very different from Italian. For example, all the pronouns for I, he, she, you, and them are different in Sicilian.  Also, take into account that Sicilian does not distinguish between plural endings for verbs, using the same conjugations for masculine and feminine nouns. In Italian, the plural form differs according to gender, and there is much more concern about agreement between nouns and adjoining adjectives.

A great deal of the actual Italian influence on Sicilian has been since 1860, when, during the Italian Unification, Sicily became a part of Italy. More and more, there is risk today that the Sicilian language will eventually die out due to the influx of the Italian language into Sicily, becoming the preferred tongue among the natives. Even Sicilian emigrants, like my own family, speak a brand of the language which is different from what actual native Sicilians speak, simply because the language has changed so much even in the last 50 years.

So what’s the verdict? Have you met anyone who speaks Sicilian? Do you think that it is a language or a dialect?

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17 Responses to Sicilian and Italian… What's the difference?

  1. [...] There are many, many examples like these: think about the Arabic dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible, or Venetian, spoken in Venice, which is cognate with Italian but quite distinct from the standard language. Or Sicilian… [...]

  2. Thanks for this compelling article. I would like to come back in the not too distant future. Thanks again

  3. C says:

    There is extensive material arguing that Sicilian is not related to Italian, and therefore, is not a dialect. The closest relationship linguistically is Arabic, where many Sicilian words derive from. Scholars also need to keep in mind the political events over the years that has led to the Italianization of Sicilian words, most recently at the hands of Mussolini.

  4. T.R. says:

    I speak Sicilian! If you search on google books, you will see that there have been dictionaries (vocabolario), grammars, and other works written in Sicilian since at least the year 1030. The most interesting thing is that Sicilian was often referred to in those works as “lingua siciliana” and not dialetto. Sicilian was only relegated to dialect status after the unification of Italy in the 1860s. Even then the Sicilians rebelled against the latest invader: the Italians. Since that time, Sicilian has gradually sounded and looked more Italian. Another blow to Sicilian came during Mussolini’s reign when he sent in the army to combat the Mafia, unjustly imprisoned thousands, fined individuals for speaking Sicilian in public and created a nationalistic, anti-multiculturalism campaign aimed at the minorities and border peoples (Sardinians, Sicilians, Friulians, etc.). He went as far as to have changed the original Sicilian (and non-Latin based root) toponyms like Girgenti > Agrigento, Castrogiovanni > Enna because they weren’t Italian or Roman enough. Mussolini even went as far as to say Maltese was a dialect of Italian! While Malta didn’t have to worry about this campaign being a separate country, Sicilians suffered this brain-washing for decades and it still persists today. In the 1960s, with agriculture in decline, with emigration now aimed at northern Italy and northern Europe instead of the Americas, with industrialization booming, Sicily saw a huge change in demographics. Millions of people left the island, and thousands left the country side for the cities where Italianization was more rampant. Some of the emigrants to northern Italy even came back with Italian too. In a place where generations of children learned everything they needed to know (including language)in the home, or on the farm, or in the family shop at a young age, now had to go to school where Italian was drilled into their heads for years at the expense of losing Sicilian or changing it. Then there was TELEVISION! This also changed the voice of Sicily with mass media now bringing Italian into the homes of every Sicilian with a TV (or radio). In fact, last year during the 150th anniversary of Italy, Rai Radiotelevisione italiana put out a dozen commercials bragging about how they helped Italians finally speak Italian and create the Italian language. As Sicilian slowly slips away with the older generations who pass on, there’s been a struggle the last decade to combat this trend. Sicilian independentist and autonomist movements (yes they exist, since the founding of Italy!) have been pushing to have Sicilian made the official or co-official language of Sicily alongside Italian, Gallo-Sicilian and Sicilian-Arbëreshë. More and more people are becoming aware that Sicilian is a language and that it was only a dialect because the Italians said it was. For Italy to exist, it had to have one language and a strong patriotism. There was no room for Sicilian, Sardinian, Neapolitan, Venetian, Frulian, etc. As Massimo D’Azeglio said at the time of unification “fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli italiani” (with Italy made, now it’s time to make Italians) and the only way to accomplish this was to have a cohesive language. So as they say the victor writes the history books and anything non-Italian, history, culture, or language, has been suppressed in the public school system since. Call it cultural genocide, cultural amnesia, it was a deliberate campaign to elevate Italian at the expensive of everything else. This is why the so-called language or dialect debate exists today. Linguists around the world agree Sicilian is a language with a dozen dialects and hundreds of subdialects. Not sure today, but the city of palermo used to have a subdialect for every neighborhood! The only people to disagree are the Italians and certain Sicilians afraid that Sicily will regain its language, autonomy, and independence. I hope this clears up the reasons for this silly debate and why it shouldn’t even be a debate at all.

    In closing, I’ll leave you the following references to check on google books so you can decide for yourself if Sicilian is a language or dialect:

    - Lu rebellamentu di Sichilia. Codice della Biblioteca regionale di Palermo (note page I and how it looks nothing like Italian!)
    - Vocabolario domestico classificato della Lingua Siciliana (1851)
    - Lezioni filologiche sulla Lingua Siciliana (1855)

    Also see the websites:
    - ilsiciliano.net
    - linguasiciliana.org
    - linguasiciliana.it
    - scn.wikipedia.org
    - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sicilian_language#Unique_sounds
    - http://www.amiciziafraipopoli.org/documenti-provitina-santamissa.htm
    - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJDv36EL4JU
    - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uXUhHgsjcQ

    If you do a Sicilian language course check the Kademia du Krivu in Palermo at “Amicizia fra i Popoli” (see above) or the Sicilian Cultural Institute of America in New York which both offer Sicilian courses. Antudu!

    • amedeo says:

      Besides the excellent comment above, I would like to point out that Sicilian language was officially born in the 13th century, under emperor Frederc II, when was created the poetry of “dolce stil novo” which gave birth to the sonet (by Jacopo da Lentini).
      The birth of Sicilian poetry, as a matter of fact , is the birth of Italian language.
      Sicilian poetry was greatly studied later on by the Tuscan poets (see Dante in “de vulgari eloquentia”).
      They copied much of it, translating it and introducing into Tuscanian many of its words once adapted to Tuscanian language.
      Tuscanian language later on was chosen as Italian official language.
      So, it is probably more correct to say than Tuscanian (and then Italian) is a Sicilian dialect than vice versa.

  5. Hello! – I would like to comment a bit on this as well…as Im a proud 2nd generation Sicilian-American (siculumiricanu) – my pappa’s origins hailing from Palermo, Sicilia – and half-Latino (I also have Greek lineage as well…apo tin Sikelias) ~ I’d have to say definitely….the Sicilian language is “a genuine language” in its own right!

    Growing up, I’ve learned from my pappa Italian….but I also grew up learning some words in Sicilian….not knowing the difference, I asked my pappa….and he would always fascinate me, saying “it’s a whole different language from Italian” — for years, I regarded “Siculu” as an exotic mysterious tongue, that has sparked my curiosity ever since…

    Over the years, understanding my roots better…I’ve learned to appreciate the Sicilian language more and more, I started to learn much more of it….apart from Italian (Which I still understand and speak as well, but now it feels rather foreign to me…lol) – while Sicilian, still exotic-sounding….is becoming more familiar and less foreign to me….I feel more comfortable speaking it in public than merely in the home -

    My understanding is that the Sicilian language (not merely a dialect…as it has it’s own dialects) is at the very core of what it means to be a Sicilian…..and I find it a shame to be it being changed or corrupted by the “Italianization” that has taken place over the years since the “Risorgimento” period of Garibaldi….and the preference of today’s generation only knowing Italian, and abandoning the native tongue…..(even more sadder, is to hear what some young Sicilians have to say about the language, “that it’s a bastardized version of Italian, and not graceful”)

    It’s quite sad indeed….I feel that it is up to us, to revive the Sicilian language in today’s modern times – to not just be recognized as some “dialect” spoken only at home….but be used more in public…and eventually have a more “official” status in Sicily….(both Italian & Sicilian can co-exist…like in Ireland, with “English” and native “Irish”) – there have been attempts to preserve and revive Sicilian to the public via written texts, proverbs, poems, and even through song….(popular Sicilian musical groups like “Agricantus” – who sing completely in Sicilian) – hopefully, the school system will establish courses in Sicilian as well….to keep the language intact and very much alive…

    With its centuries of many cultural influences from other languages, (Greek, Arabic, Spanish, Norman..etc..) — has produced a tongue that is very much a distinctive entity…a colorful exotic and vibrant tongue with its own alpahbet, vowel system, grammar, syntax, vocabulary and even the pronounciation of words…..(even the “ethnologue” describes Sicilian as distinct enough to be considered a separate language) – I hope to see “Lu Siculu” continue to grow more strength and recognition over time….

    “Ju sugnu Siculumiricanu, nta lu cori” – AMMUNI!!

    • amedeo says:

      Good post;
      And congratulation for learning Sicilian.
      Although I do not know which Sicilian dialect you are actually learning (it will probably depend on where your family is coming from.
      Just one thing.
      Your father in Italian language is your “papa’”.(with the accent on final a).
      In Italian language “pappa” is something you eat or, in the slang, is the “protector” of the prostitutes.
      So hearing from a girl “my pappa” is not very…nice

  6. Yannaki Arrizza says:

    I also forgot to mention: when people ask me, “What’s the difference?” – i always say…well…it’s like the difference between Spanish Vs. Portuguese! (And Sicilian at times does sound like Portuguese when spoken) — as an analogy, i consider “Spanish” to be like the Italian of Latin-America, while “Portuguese” would be like the Sicilian of Latin-America.

  7. AMANDA PEPE says:

    FOUND THIS TO BE VERY INTERESTING MY GRAND FATHER ALWAYS SAID Sicilian WAS DIFFERENT

  8. amedeo says:

    One added bonus to being Sicilian is the fact that I can perfectly umderstan people speaking Italian.
    I can also understand quite well many of the Italian dialects.
    But, since Sicilian is a very different language, I can speak Sicilian without being understood (at all) by people speaking just Italian or its dialects.
    Italians find much easier understanding Spanish (or French or Portuguese) Sicilian than Sicilian.
    I myself instead may find difficult to fully undetstand people speaking Sicilian dialects different than mine or different from “standard” Sicilian.

  9. Tammy says:

    My grandfather always said he was Sicilian, NOT Italian & would argue quite vehemently this point. He spoke occasional words or phrases (and sang a song) that we have since learned are Sicilian-dud to my daughter taking Italian in college. He was proud of his heritage & I would love to learn Sicilian, but have no idea where to look.

  10. Michael says:

    I met some Sicilians visiting the Boston North End. They were surprised that the Sicilian spoken in America resembled the Sicilian spoken n Sicily before WWII. I’ve heard the same from relatives who immigrated to the States after the war. But this hits on an interesting point,which is languages evolve and the evolution of many languages occur more rapidly among the natives than among those who immigrated to America. The Sicilian language as spoken in Sicily is continuing to evolve and change due to influence of standard Italian.

  11. Alessandro says:

    I’ll write as closely as I pronounce it and then translate

    senti ca,
    voggio dire
    sono molto contente che yo sacchio la lingua siciliana

    mi insigniato me mamma e pappa.
    non ti arribiare oh yo ti scorchi i gorni lol….
    i’ll leave the last one to you to havesome fun with at having a go at deciphering

  12. Alessandro says:

    The transalation was meant to appear next to the words but some reason didnt appear so here it is..
    listen up
    I want to say
    I am very happy that I know the sicialin language
    My mother and father taught me

  13. Gene says:

    It is a dialect of the Italian language, albeit very different than most dialects of Italian. That is because Sicily is an island, separated from mainland Italy and in such a strategic place, invaded by many foreign cultures. The Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Moors, Berbers, North Africans and other Europeans, like the French and Spanish when the kingdom of the “Two Sicilies” was under Spanish rule, i.e., Sicily and most of Southern Italy. Add to the pot that Italy was unified as one country late by European standards. In the 1860′s, before it was a patchwork of city states like Venice, Genova, Rome, Naples, etc. All had their own dialects and standard Italian from Florence was not pervasive or taught in schools widely. With unification, compulsory education, Mussolini and Fascism along with television, the Italian language was used and understood in all of Italy. Today, the country is 97.5% literate and every Italian citizen can understand, speak, read and write in proper Italian to one degree or another. Albeit with distinct local accents, much like the way we speak English from New York or Boston. The only exception being some very old people;(90 plus years of age,) in small, isolated hill towns that may still be illiterate. These numbers are shrinking as we speak ! However, as a “language” has far more in common with Latin than Greek or Arabic. These languages only left an influence and are not really the base of the dialect. Sicilian has a lot more in common with other dialects of Southern Italy, like Calabrian and Neopolitan and are mutually comprehensible to some degree. There are also many other dialects in Italy like Pugliese in the region of Bari in Puglia and Triestino in North-Eastern Italy, with Slavic influences that are also quite “strange” and not really understandable by those that do not speak it from the specific regions.

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