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Sicilian language
Sicilian language

Sicilian (sicilianu; Italian: siciliano), also known as Siculo (sìculu) or Calabro-Sicilian,[5] is a Romance language spoken on the island of Sicily and its satellite islands.[5] It is also spoken in southern Calabria (where it is called Southern Calabro),[5][6] specifically in the Province of Reggio Calabria,[7] whose dialect is viewed as being part of the continuum of the Sicilian language.[8] Central Calabria, the southern parts of Apulia (Salentino dialect) and Campania (Cilentano dialect), on the Italian peninsula, are viewed by some as being part of a broader Far Southern Italian language group (in Italian italiano meridionale estremo).[9]

Ethnologue (see below for more detail) describes Sicilian as being "distinct enough from Standard Italian to be considered a separate language"[5] and is recognized as a minority language by UNESCO.[10][11][12][13] It has been referred to as a language by the Sicilian region.[3] It has the oldest literary tradition of the modern Italian languages.[14][15] Even now a version of the UNESCO magazine is available in Sicilian.


Sicilian is currently spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of Sicily and by emigrant populations around the world.[16] The latter are found in the countries which attracted large numbers of Sicilian immigrants during the course of the past century or so, especially the United States, Canada (especially in Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton), Australia and Argentina. In the past four or five decades, large numbers of Sicilians were also attracted to the industrial zones of northern Italy and areas of the European Union, especially Germany.[17]

It is not used as an official language anywhere, not even within Sicily, where currently the government does not regulate the language in any way. However, in recent years the non-profit organisation Cademia Siciliana has created an orthographic proposal to help normalise the written form of the language.[18][19][20] Furthermore, since its inception in 1951, the Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani (CSFLS) in Palermo has been researching and publishing descriptive information on the Sicilian language.[21]

The autonomous regional parliament of Sicily has legislated Regional Law No. 9/2011 to encourage the teaching of Sicilian at all schools, but inroads into the education system have been slow.[22][23] The CSFLS has created a textbook "Dialektos" to comply with the law, however it does not provide an orthography to write the language.[24] Although within Sicily it is only taught as part of dialectology courses, outside of Italy Sicilian language has been taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Manouba University. Also since 2009 it has been taught at the Italian Charities of America in New York City,[25][26] and it is also preserved and taught through family association, church organizations and societies, as well as social and ethnic historical clubs, and even in Internet social groups.[27][28][29] On 15 May 2018, the Sicilian region once again mandated the teaching of Sicilian in schools and referred to the language as a language (and not a dialect) in official communication.[3]

The language is officially recognized in the municipal statutes of some Sicilian towns, such as Caltagirone[30] and Grammichele,[31] in which the "inalienable historical and cultural value of the Sicilian language" is proclaimed. Further, the Sicilian language would be protected and promoted under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), however, Italy has signed this treaty, but the Italian Parliament has not ratified it.[32] It is not included in Italian Law No. 482/1999, although some other minority languages of Sicily are.[33]

Ethnologue report on Sicilian

Alternative names of Sicilian are Calabro-Sicilian, sicilianu, and sìculu.[5] The first term refers to the fact that a form of Sicilian is spoken in southern Calabria, in particular, in the province of Reggio Calabria.[5] The other two are names for the language in Sicily itself: specifically, the term sìculu originally describes one of the larger prehistoric groups living in Sicily (the Italic Sicels or Siculi) before the arrival of Greeks in the 8th century BC (see below). It can also be used as a prefix to qualify, or further elaborate on, the origins of a person, for example: Siculo-American (sìculu-miricanu) or Siculo-Australian.

As a language, Sicilian has its own dialects, in the following main groupings:[5][35]


Because Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and many peoples have passed through it (Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantine Greeks, Moors, Normans, Swabians, Spaniards, Austrians, Italians), Sicilian displays such rich and varied influence from several languages on its lexical stock and grammar. These languages include Greek, Latin, Arabic, Norman, Lombard, Occitan, Germanic languages, Catalan, French and Spanish, and the influence from the island's pre-Indo-European inhabitants. The very earliest influences, visible in Sicilian to this day, exhibit both prehistoric Mediterranean elements and prehistoric Indo-European elements, and occasionally a blending of both.[40][41]

Before the Roman conquest (3rd century BC), Sicily was occupied by various populations. The earliest of these populations were the Sicanians, considered to be autochthonous. The Sicels and the Elymians arrived between the second and first millennia BC. These aboriginal populations in turn were followed by the Phoenicians (between the 10th and 8th centuries BC) and the Greeks.[42] The Greek-language influence remains strongly visible, while the influences from the other groups are less obvious.[42] What can be stated with certainty is that in Sicilian remain pre-Indo-European words of an ancient Mediterranean origin, but one cannot be more precise than that: in fact, of the three main prehistoric groups, only the Sicels were known to be Indo-European with a degree of certainty, and their speech is likely to have been closely related to that of the Romans.[42]

The following table, listing words for "twins", illustrates the difficulty linguists face in tackling the various sub-strata of the Sicilian language.[43]

A similar qualifier can be applied to many of the words that appear in this article. Sometimes we may know that a particular word has a prehistoric derivation, but we do not know whether the Sicilians have inherited it directly from the indigenous populations, or whether it has come to them via another route. Similarly, we might know that a particular word has a Greek origin but we do not know from which Greek period the Sicilians first used it (pre-Roman occupation or during its Byzantine period), or once again, whether the particular word may even have come to Sicily via another route. For instance, by the time the Romans had occupied Sicily, the Latin language had made its own borrowings from Greek.[45]

The words with a prehistoric Mediterranean derivation often refer to plants native to the Mediterranean region or to other natural features.[42] Bearing in mind the qualifiers mentioned above (alternative sources are provided where known), examples of such words include:

  • alastra – "spiny broom" (a thorny, prickly plant native to the Mediterranean region; but also Greek kélastron and may in fact have penetrated Sicilian via one of the Gaulish languages)[42][46]
  • ammarrari – "to dam or block a canal or running water" (but also Spanish embarrar "to muddy")[46]
  • calancuni – "ripples caused by a fast running river"
  • calanna – "landslide of rocks"
  • racioppu – "stalk or stem of a fruit etc." (ancient Mediterranean word rak)[46]
  • timpa – "crag, cliff" (but also Greek týmba, Latin tumba and Catalan timba).[46]

There are also Sicilian words with an ancient Indo-European origin that do not appear to have come to the language via any of the major language groups normally associated with Sicilian, i.e. they have been independently derived from a very early Indo-European source. The Sicels are a possible source of such words, but there is also the possibility of a cross-over between ancient Mediterranean words and introduced Indo-European forms. Some examples of Sicilian words with an ancient Indo-European origin:

  • dudda – "mulberry" (similar to Indo-European h₁rowdʰós and Welsh rhudd "red, crimson")[46]
  • scrozzu – "not well developed" (similar to Lithuanian su-skurdes with a similar meaning and Old High German scurz "short")[46]
  • sfunnacata – "multitude, vast number" (from Indo-European h₁we[n]d- "water").[46]

The following Sicilian words are of a Greek origin (including some examples where it is unclear whether the word is derived directly from Greek, or via Latin):

  • babbiari – "to fool around" (from babázō, which also gives the Sicilian words: babbazzu and babbu "stupid"; but also Latin babulus and Spanish babieca)[46]
  • bucali – "pitcher" (from baúkalion)[46]
  • bùmmulu – "water receptacle" (from bómbylos; but also Latin bombyla)[47]
  • cartedda – "basket" (from kártallos; but also Latin cartellum)[47]
  • carusu – "boy" (from koûros; but also Latin carus "dear", Sanskrit caruh "amiable")[46]
  • casèntaru – "earthworm" (from gês énteron)[46]
  • cirasa – "cherry" (from kerasós; but also Latin cerasum)[46]
  • cona– "icon, image, metaphor" (from eikóna; but also Latin icona)[46]
  • cuddura (type of bread; from kollýra; but Latin collyra)[47]
  • grasta – "flower pot" (from gástra; but also Latin gastra)[47]
  • naca – "cradle" (from nákē)[46]
  • ntamari – "to stun, amaze" (from thambéō)[46]
  • pistiari – "to eat" (from esthíō)[46]
  • tuppiàri – "to knock" (from týptō)[46]

From 476 to 535, the Ostrogoths ruled Sicily, although their presence apparently did not impact the Sicilian language.[48] The few Germanic influences to be found in Sicilian do not appear to originate from this period. One exception might be abbanniari or vanniari "to hawk goods, proclaim publicly", from Gothic bandwjan "to give a signal".[46] Also possible is schimmenti "diagonal" from Gothic slimbs "slanting".[46] Other sources of Germanic influences include the Hohenstaufen rule of the 13th century, words of Germanic origin contained within the speech of 11th-century Normans and Lombard settlers, and the short period of Austrian rule in the 18th century.

Many Germanic influences date back to the time of the Swabian kings (amongst whom Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor enjoyed the longest reign). Some of the words below are "reintroductions" of Latin words (also found in modern Italian) that had been Germanicized at some point (e.g. vastāre in Latin to[49] guastare in modern Italian). Words that probably originate from this era include:

  • arbitriari – "to work in the fields" (from arbeit; but other possible Latin derivations)[46]
  • vardari – "to watch over" (from wardon)[46]
  • guddefi – "forest, woods" (from wald; note the resemblance to Anglo-Saxon wudu)[46]
  • guzzuniari – "to wag, as in a tail" (from hutsen)[46]
  • lancedda (terracotta jug for holding water; from Old High German lagella)[46]
  • sparagnari – "to save money" (from Old High German sparen)[46]

In 535, Justinian I made Sicily a Byzantine province, which returned the Greek language to a position of prestige, at least on an official level.[50] At this point in time the island could be considered a border zone with high levels of bilingualism: Latinisation was mostly concentrated in western Sicily,[50] whereas Eastern Sicily remained predominantly Greek. As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, Sicily was progressively conquered by Saracens from North Africa (Ifriqiya), from the mid 9th to mid 10th centuries. The Emirate of Sicily persisted long enough to develop a distinctive local variety of Arabic, Siculo-Arabic (at present extinct in Sicily but surviving as the Maltese language).[50] Its influence is noticeable in around 100 Sicilian words, most of which relate to agriculture and related activities.[51] This is understandable because of the Arab Agricultural Revolution; the Saracens introduced to Sicily their advanced irrigation and farming techniques and a new range of crops, nearly all of which remain endemic to the island to this day.

Some words of Arabic origin:

  • azzizzari – "to embellish" (عزيز‎ ʿazīz "precious, beautiful")[46]
  • babbaluciu – "snail" (from babūš, Tunisian babūša; but also Greek boubalákion)[46]
  • burnia – "jar" (برنية‎ burniya; but also Latin hirnea)[46]
  • cafisu (measure for liquids; from Tunisian قفيز‎ qafīz)[46]
  • cassata (Sicilian ricotta cake; from قشطة‎ qišṭa, chiefly North African; but Latin caseata "something made from cheese")[46]
  • gèbbia – artificial pond to store water for irrigation (from Tunisian جابية‎ jābiya)[46]
  • giuggiulena – "sesame seed" (from Tunisian جلجلان‎ jiljlān or juljulān)[46]
  • mafia – "swagger, boldness, bravado" (from ماجاس‎ mājās "aggressive boasting, bragging", or from مرفوض‎ marfūḍ "rejected")[52][53][54]
  • ràisi – "leader" (رئيس‎ raʾīs)[46]
  • saia – "canal" (from ساقية‎ sāqiya)[46]
  • zaffarana – "saffron" (type of plant whose flowers are used for medicinal purposes and in Sicilian cooking; from زعفران‎ zaʿfarān)
  • zàgara – "blossom" (زهرة‎ zahra)[46]
  • zibbibbu – "muscat of Alexandria" (type of dried grape; زبيب‎ zabīb)[46]
  • zuccu – "market" (from سوق‎ sūq; but also Aragonese soccu and Spanish zoque)[46]
  • Bibbirria (the northern gate of Agrigento; باب الرياح‎ bāb ar-riyāḥ "Gate of the Winds").[55]

Throughout the Islamic epoch of Sicilian history, a significant Greek-speaking population remained on the island and continued to use the Greek language, or most certainly a variant of Greek influenced by Tunisian Arabic.[50] What is less clear is the extent to which a Latin-speaking population survived on the island. While a form of Vulgar Latin clearly survived in isolated communities during the Islamic epoch, there is much debate as to the influence it had (if any) on the development of the Sicilian language, following the re-Latinisation of Sicily (discussed in the next section).

By 1000 AD, the whole of what is today southern Italy, including Sicily, was a complex mix of small states and principalities, languages and religions.[50] The whole of Sicily was controlled by Saracens, at the elite level, but the general population remained a mix of Muslims and Greek or Siculo-Arabic speaking Catholic Christians. There were also a component of immigrants from North Africa (Ifriqiya). The far south of the Italian peninsula was part of the Byzantine empire although many communities were reasonably independent from Constantinople. The Principality of Salerno was controlled by Lombards (or Langobards), who had also started to make some incursions into Byzantine territory and had managed to establish some isolated independent city-states.[56] It was into this climate that the Normans thrust themselves with increasing numbers during the first half of the 11th century.

When the two most famous of Southern Italy's Norman adventurers, Roger of Hauteville and his brother, Robert Guiscard, began their conquest of Sicily in 1061, they already controlled the far south of Italy (Apulia and Calabria). It took Roger 30 years to complete the conquest of Sicily (Robert died in 1085).[56] In the aftermath of the Norman conquest of Sicily, the revitalization of Latin in Sicily had begun, and some Norman and Norman-French words would be absorbed:[57] but many etymologies are disputed and the only sure marker of a typical Norman word is its Scandinavian origin, such words do not exist in Sicilian.

  • accattari – "to buy" (from Norman French acater,[46] French acheter; but there are different varieties of this Latin etymon in the Romania, cf. Old Provençal acatar)[58]
  • ammucciari – "to hide" (Old Norman French muchier, Norman French muchi/mucher, Old French mucier; but also Greek mychós)
  • bucceri/vucceri "butcher" (from Old French bouchier)[50]
  • custureri – "tailor" (Old French cousturier; Modern French couturier)[50]
  • firranti – "grey" (from Old French ferrant)[46]
  • foddi – "mad" (Old French fol, whence French fou)[50]
  • giugnettu – "July" (Old French juignet)[50]
  • ladiu/laiu – "ugly" (Old French laid)[50]
  • largasìa – "generosity" (largesse; but also Spanish largueza)[46]
  • puseri – "thumb" (Old French pochier)[46]
  • racina – "grape" (Old French, French raisin)[50]
  • raggia – "anger" (Old French, French rage)[50]
  • trippari – "to hop, skip" (Norman French triper)[46]

The Northern Italian influence is of particular interest. Even to the present day, Gallo-Italic of Sicily exists in the areas where the Northern Italian colonies were the strongest, namely Novara, Nicosia, Sperlinga, Aidone and Piazza Armerina.[50] The Siculo-Gallic dialect did not survive in other major Italian colonies, such as Randazzo, Caltagirone, Bronte and Paternò (although they influenced the local Sicilian vernacular). The Gallo-Italic influence was also felt on the Sicilian language itself, as follows:[50]

  • sòggiru – "father-in-law" (from suoxer)
  • cugnatu – "brother-in-law" (from cognau)
  • figghiozzu – "godson" (from figlioz)
  • orbu/orvu – blind (from orb)
  • arricintari – "to rinse" (from rexentar)
  • unni – "where" (from ond)
  • the names of the days of the week: luni – "Monday" (from lunes) marti – "Tuesday" (from martes) mèrcuri – "Wednesday" (from mèrcor) jovi – "Thursday" (from juovia) vènniri – "Friday" (from vènner)

The origins of another Romance influence, that of Old Occitan, had three possible sources:

Some examples of Sicilian words derived from Occitan:

  • addumari – "to light, to turn something on" (from allumar)[46]
  • aggrifari – "to kidnap, abduct" (from grifar; but also German greiffen)[46]
  • banna – "side, place" (from banda)[46]
  • burgisi – "landowner, citizen" (from borges)
  • lascu – "sparse, thin, infrequent" (from lasc)[46]
  • paraggiu – "equal" (from paratge).[46]

It was during the reign of Frederick II (or Frederick I of Sicily) between 1198 and 1250, with his patronage of the Sicilian School, that Sicilian became the first of the modern Italic languages to be used as a literary language.[60] The influence of the school and the use of Sicilian itself as a poetic language was acknowledged by the two great Tuscan writers of the early Renaissance period, Dante and Petrarch. The influence of the Sicilian language should not be underestimated in the eventual formulation of a lingua franca that was to become modern Italian. The victory of the Angevin army over the Sicilians at Benevento in 1266 not only marked the end of the 136-year Norman-Swabian reign in Sicily but also effectively ensured that the centre of literary influence would eventually move from Sicily to Tuscany.[60] While Sicilian, as both an official and a literary language, would continue to exist for another two centuries, the language would soon follow the fortunes of the kingdom itself in terms of prestige and influence.

Following the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, the kingdom was to come under the influence of the Crown of Aragon,[61] and so the Catalan language (and the closely related Aragonese) would add a new layer of vocabulary in the succeeding century. For the whole of the 14th century, both Catalan and Sicilian were the official languages of the royal court.[62] Sicilian was also used to record the proceedings of the Parliament of Sicily (one of the oldest parliaments in Europe) and for other official purposes.[63] While it is often difficult to determine whether a word has come to us directly from Catalan (as opposed to Provençal or Spanish), the following are likely to be such examples:

  • addunàrisi – "to notice, realise" (from adonar-se)[46]
  • affruntàrisi – "to be embarrassed" (from afrontar-se)[46]
  • arruciari – "to moisten, soak" (from arruixar)[46]
  • criscimonia – "growth, development" (from creiximoni)[46]
  • muccaturi – "handkerchief" (from mocador; but also French mouchoir)[46]
  • priàrisi – "to be pleased" (from prear-se)[46]
  • taliari – "to look at somebody/something" (from talaiar; but also Arabic طليعة‎ ṭalīʿa).

By the time the crowns of Castille and Aragon were united in the late 15th century, the Italianisation of written Sicilian in the parliamentary and court records had commenced. By 1543 this process was virtually complete, with the Tuscan dialect of Italian becoming the lingua franca of the Italian peninsula and supplanting written Sicilian.[63]

Spanish rule had hastened this process in two important ways:

  • Unlike the Aragonese, almost immediately the Spanish placed viceroys on the Sicilian throne. In a sense, the diminishing prestige of the Sicilian kingdom reflected the decline of Sicilian from an official, written language to eventually a spoken language amongst a predominantly illiterate population.
  • The expulsion of all Jews from Spanish dominions ca. 1492 altered the population of Sicily. Not only did the population decline, many of whom were involved in important educated industries, but some of these Jewish families had been in Sicily for around 1,500 years, and Sicilian was their native language which they used in their schools. Thus the seeds of a possible broad-based education system utilising books written in Sicilian was lost.[63]

Spanish rule lasted over three centuries (not counting the Aragonese and Bourbon periods on either side) and had a significant influence on the Sicilian vocabulary. The following words are of Spanish derivation:

  • arricugghìrisi – "to return home" (from recogerse; but also Catalan recollir-se)
  • balanza/valanza – "scales" (from balanza)[46]
  • fileccia – "arrow" (from flecha)[46]
  • làstima – "lament, annoyance" (from lástima)[46]
  • pinzeddu – "brush" (from pincel)[46]
  • ricivu – "receipt" (from recibo)[46]
  • spagnari – "to be frightened" (crossover of local appagnari with Spanish espantarse)[46]
  • spatari – "to impede or disarm someone of his sword" (from local spata with Spanish espadar)[46]
  • sulità/sulitati – "solitude" (from soledad)[46]

Since the Italian Unification (the Risorgimento of 1860–1861), the Sicilian language has been significantly influenced by (Tuscan) Italian. During the Fascist period it became obligatory that Italian be taught and spoken in all schools, whereas up to that point, Sicilian had been used extensively in schools.[64] This process has quickened since World War II due to improving educational standards and the impact of mass media, such that increasingly, even within the family home, Sicilian is not necessarily the language of choice.[64] The Sicilian Regional Assembly voted to make the teaching of Sicilian a part of the school curriculum at primary school level, but as of 2007 only a fraction of schools teach Sicilian.[64] There is also little in the way of mass media offered in Sicilian. The combination of these factors means that the Sicilian language continues to adopt Italian vocabulary and grammatical forms to such an extent that many Sicilians themselves cannot distinguish between correct and incorrect Sicilian language usage.[65][66][67]

Distinguishing features of Sicilian

Sicilian has a number of consonant sounds that, although not unique to Sicilian, certainly set it apart from the other major Romance languages. The most unusual sounds include, but are not limited to, the retroflex consonants.[69][70]

  • ḌḌ/DD — The -ll- sound (in words of Latin origin, for example) manifests itself in Sicilian as a voiced retroflex stop [ɖː] with the tip of the tongue curled up and back, a sound rare in the Romance languages (the only other notable exceptions being Sardinian, and to an extent Asturian; such a realization of Latin -ll- may also be found elsewhere in Southern Italy, and in certain northwestern Tuscan dialects). Traditionally in Sicilian Latin, this sound was written as -đđ-, and in more contemporary usage -dd- has been used, also often found written -ddh- or even -ddr- (the first and latter of which are often considered confusing as they may also represent [] and [ɖːɽ], respectively). In the Cademia Siciliana orthographical proposal as well as the Vocabolario siciliano descriptive orthography the letter -ḍḍ- is used.[71][72] For example, the Italian word bello [ˈbɛllo] is beḍḍu [ˈbɛɖːʊ] in Sicilian.[70]
  • DR and TR — The Sicilian pronunciation of the digraphs -dr- and -tr- is [ɖɽ] and [ʈɽ],[71] or even [ɖʐ], [ʈʂ].
  • RR — The consonant cluster -rr-, depending on the variety of Sicilian, can be a strongly trilled [][71] or a voiced retroflex sibilant [ʐː].[70] This innovation is also found under slightly different circumstances in Polish, where it is spelled -rz-, and in some Northern Norwegian dialects, where speakers vary between [ʐ] and [ɹ̝]. At the beginning of a word, the single letter r is similarly always pronounced double, though this is not indicated orthographically. This phenomenon, however, does not include words that start with a single r resulting from rhotacism or apheresis (see below), which should not be indicated orthographically to avoid confusion with regular double r.
  • STR — The Sicilian trigraph -str- is [ʂːɽ][71] or [ʂː]. The t is not pronounced at all and there is a faint whistle between the s and the r, producing a similar sound to the shr of English shred.
  • Latin FL — The other unique Sicilian sound is found in those words that have been derived from Latin words containing -fl-. In standard literary Sicilian, the sound is rendered as -ci- (representing the voiceless palatal fricative /ç/), e.g. ciumi [ˈçuːmɪ] ("river", from Latin flūmen), but can also be found in written forms such as -hi-, -x(h)-, -çi-, or erroneously -sci-.[73]
  • Consonantal lenition — A further range of consonantal sound shifts occurred between the Vulgar Latin introduced to the island following Norman rule and the subsequent development of the Sicilian language. These sound shifts include: Latin -nd- to Sicilian -nn-; Latin -mb- to Sicilian -mm-; Latin -pl- to Sicilian -chi-; and Latin -li- to Sicilian -gghi-.[74]
  • Rhotacism and apheresis — This transformation is characterized by the substitution of single d by r. In Sicilian this is produced by a single flap of the tongue against the upper alveolar ridge [ɾ]. This phenomenon is known as rhotacism, that is, the substitution of r for another consonant; it is commonly found both in Eastern and Western Sicilian, and elsewhere in Southern Italy, especially in Neapolitan. It can occur internally, or it can affect initial d, in which case it should not be represented orthographically to avoid confusion with the regular r (see above). Examples : pedi ("foot") is pronounced [ˈpɛːɾɪ]; Madonna ("Virgin Mary") is pronounced [maˈɾɔnna]; lu diri ("to say it") is pronounced [lʊ ˈɾiːɾɪ].[75] Similarly, apheresis of some clusters may occur in certain dialects, producing instances such as 'ranni [ˈɾannɪ] for granni "big".

Unlike the seven vowels of Vulgar Latin and many modern Romance languages, the Sicilian vowel system only includes five: a /a/, e /ɛ/, i /i/, o /ɔ/, u /u/, reduced to only three in unstressed position: a /a/, i [ɪ], u [ʊ] (unstressed vowels o and e of Latin became unstressed u and i in Sicilian). This causes the vowels u and i to have a far greater presence than o and e in Sicilian,[50] whereas the opposite is true in other Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian (notwithstanding the conservative nature of Sicilian, which retains the vowel u of the Latin stems -us and -um): in this Sicilian is closer to Portuguese instead (which however spells such unstressed vowels as o and e, too). In addition, one will never find a Sicilian word ending in the unaccented vowels e or o, with the exception of monosyllabic conjunctions and certain recent loanwords: in fact, due to the influence of Italian in the media after World War II, as well as the recent influx of English terminology related to technology and globalization, there is an increasing number of words entering the Sicilian lexicon that do not adhere to the Sicilian vowel system.

In the vast majority of instances where the originating word has had an initial i, the Sicilian has dropped it completely. This can also happen occasionally where there was once an initial e, and to a lesser extent a and o. Examples: mpurtanti "important", gnuranti "ignorant", nimicu "enemy", ntirissanti "interesting", llustrari "to illustrate", mmàggini "image", cona "icon", miricanu "American".[73][76]

In Sicilian, gemination is distinctive for most consonant phonemes, though a few can only be geminated after a vowel: these are /b/, //, /ɖ/, /ɲ/, /ʃ/ and /ts/. Rarely indicated in writing, spoken Sicilian also exhibits syntactic gemination (or dubbramentu),[77] which means that the first consonant of a word is lengthened when it is preceded by certain vowel-ending words, e.g. è caru [ˌɛ kˈkaːɾʊ].[78]

The letter j at the start of a word can have two separate sounds, depending on what precedes the word.[79] For instance, in jornu ("day"), the j is pronounced [j] as in English y, [ˈjɔɾnʊ]. However, after a nasal consonant or triggered by syntactic gemination, it is pronounced [ɟ] (like English gu in argue) as in un jornu "one day" [ʊɲ ˈɟɔɾnʊ] or tri jorna ("three days") [ˌʈɽi ɟˈɟɔɾna].[80]

Another difference between the written and spoken languages is the extent to which contractions will occur in everyday speech. Thus a common expression such as avemu a accattari... ("we have to go and buy...") will generally be reduced to amâ 'ccattari when talking to family and friends.[81]

The circumflex is commonly used in denoting a wide range of contractions in the written language, in particular, the joining of simple prepositions and the definite article. Examples: di lu = ("of the"), a lu = ô ("to the"), pi lu = ("for the"), nta lu = ntô ("in the"), etc.[82][73]

Most feminine nouns and adjectives end in -a in the singular, e.g. casa ("house"), porta ("door"), carta ("paper"). Exceptions include soru ("sister") and ficu ("fig"). The usual masculine singular ending is -u, e.g. omu ("man"), libbru ("book"), nomu ("name"). The singular ending -i can be either masculine or feminine.[83]

Unlike standard Italian, Sicilian uses the same plural ending -i for both masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives, e.g. casi ("houses" or "cases"), porti ("doors" or "harbors"), tàuli ("tables"). Some masculine plural nouns end in -a instead, a feature derived from the Latin neuter endings -um, -a. Examples include libbra ("books"), jorna ("days"), jòcura ("games"), vrazza ("arms", compare Italian braccio, braccia), jardina ("gardens"), scrittura ("writers"), signa ("signs").[83] The noun omu has the irregular plural òmini (compare Italian uomo, uomini). Three nouns are invariable in the plural: manu ("hand[s]"), ficu ("fig[s]") and soru ("sister[s]").[84].

Sicilian only has one auxiliary verb, aviri "to have".[85][86] This verb is also used to denote obligation (e.g. avi a jiri [ˌaːvjaɟˈɟiːɾɪ] "[he/she] has to go"),[81] and to form the future tense, as Sicilian, for the most part, no longer has a synthetic future tense; for example: avi a cantari "[he/she] will sing" ([ˌaːvjakkanˈtaːɾɪ] or [ˌaːwakkanˈdaːɾɪ], depending on the dialect).[85]

As in English, and most Romance languages, Sicilian may use the verb jiri "to go" to signify the act of being about to do something. Vaiu a cantari "I'm going to sing" (pronounced [ˌvaːjwakkanˈtaːɾɪ]) "I'm going to sing". In this way, jiri + a + infinitive can also be a way to form the simple future construction.[87]

The main conjugations in Sicilian are illustrated below with the verb èssiri "to be".[88]

Examples of the written language

Extracts from three of Sicily's more celebrated poets are offered below to illustrate the written form of Sicilian over the last few centuries: Antonio Veneziano, Giovanni Meli and Nino Martoglio.

A translation of the Lord's Prayer can also be found in J. K. Bonner.[92] This is written with three variations: a standard literary form from the island of Sicily and a southern Apulian literary form.

(ca. 1575–1580)


(~1900; trans: A game of Briscula amongst friends)[95]

Influences on the Italian language

As one of the most spoken languages of Italy, Sicilian has notably influenced the Italian lexicon. In fact, there are several Sicilian words that are nowadays part of the Italian language; they usually refer to things closely associated to Sicilian culture, with some notable exceptions:[96]

  • arancino (from arancinu): a Sicilian cuisine specialty;
  • canestrato (from ncannistratu): a cheese typical of Sicily;
  • cannolo (from cannolu): a Sicilian pastry;
  • cannolicchio (from cannulicchiu): razor clam;
  • carnezzeria (from carnizzaria): butcher's shop;
  • caruso (from carusu): boy, especially a Sicilian one;
  • cassata: a Sicilian pastry;
  • cirneco (from cirnecu): a small breed of dogs common in Sicily;
  • cosca: a small group of criminals affiliated to the Sicilian mafia;
  • curatolo (from curàtulu): watchman in a farm, with a yearly contract;
  • dammuso (from dammusu): stony habitation typical of the island of Pantelleria;
  • intrallazzo (from ntrallazzu): illegal exchange of goods or favours, but in a wider sense also cheat, intrigue;
  • marranzano (from marranzanu): Jew's harp;
  • marrobbio (from marrubbiu): quick variation of sea level produced by a store of water in the coasts as a consequence of either wind action or an atmospheric depression;
  • minchia: penis in its original meaning, but also stupid person; is also widely used as interjection to show either astonishment or rage;
  • picciotto (from picciottu): young man, but also the lowest grade in the Mafia hierarchy;
  • pizzino (from pizzinu): small piece of paper, especially used for secret criminal communications;
  • pizzo (from pizzu, literally meaning "beak", from the saying fari vagnari a pizzu "to wet one's beak"): protection money paid to the Mafia;
  • quaquaraquà (onomatopoeia?; "the duck wants a say"): person devoid of value, nonentity;
  • scasare (from scasari, literally "to move home"): to leave en masse;
  • stidda (equivalent to Italian stella): lower Mafia organization.

Language situation today

Sicilian is estimated to have 5,000,000 speakers.[97] However, it remains very much a home language spoken among peers and close associates. Regional Italian has encroached on Sicilian, most evidently in the speech of the younger generations.[98]

In terms of the written language, in Sicily it is mainly restricted to poetry and theatre. The education system does not support the language, despite recent legislative changes, as mentioned previously. Local universities do not carry courses in Sicilian, or where they do it is described as dialettologia, that is, the study of dialects.

Outside Sicily, there is an extensive Sicilian diaspora living in several major cities across South and North America, as well as other parts of Europe and Australia, where Sicilian has been preserved to varying degrees.

The Sicilian-American organization Arba Sicula publishes stories, poems and essays, in Sicilian with English translations, in an effort to preserve the Sicilian language, in Arba Sicula, its bi-lingual annual journal (latest issue: 2017), and in a biennial newsletter entitled Sicilia Parra.

The movie La Terra Trema (1948) is entirely in Sicilian, using many local, non-professional actors.

The non-profit organisation Cademia Siciliana publishes a Sicilian version of the quarterly magazine the UNESCO Courier.

Other words and phrases

See also

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