The Sicilian Language


Milazzo castle: the original Arab-Norman fort, and the Aragonese fortification wall

Just like Sicilian heritage sites and architecture, the Sicilian language displays the imprint of its many dominations. Being the largest island in the Mediterranean, most Mediterranean peoples stopped by: Phoenicians to the ancient Greeks, Romans to the Saracens, Normans, French, Aragonese and Spanish.

These days, locals use Sicilian mostly to tell jokes or express anger. They slip into dialect so that you hardly notice they’ve changed language. i want to be able to do that too! It’s not taught at schools in Milazzo and parents appear to prefer that teachers don’t use it with the children, as if it is not considered educated. I hear older inhabitants of the Borgo, the historic quarter where I live, using it at home and among themselves.

The languages of Greek, Arabic, French and Spanish left the most lasting traces in Sicilian. Some examples that I’ve come across: Greek babbiare (to fool around), gives babbu, for stupid. Having learnt Italian in Tuscany I called my father “mi babbo”, but in Sicily I soon stopped that!

Arabic is heard in words beginning with the letter Z: Zagara, the beautiful word for orange blossom, from zahar – like azahar in Spanish. Zibbibbu (a kind of grape), from zabib. Zibibbo was one of the first Sicilian wines I tasted and instantly fell in love with. Produced on the island of Pantelleria, the grapes are left on the vine to partially ferment in the sun as they raisinate, producing a wonderfully aromatic wine. Rais, meaning leader, is the name given to the head fisherman in the tuna mattanza. Norman French brought travagghiare (to work) from travailler, a word Sicilians use a lot in dialect, sometimes in colloquial chat, as in: “What are you up to?” – “Not much, getting on with it, working, the usual.” Or in anger, complaining about the futility of working hard when so much of your earnings go back to the state in taxes. Io saccio. (I know).

From the Aragons, accabbari (to finish) –  from acabar in Catalan; from the Spanish, làstima (pity, complaint) and schiantari (to frighten) from espantar. Being a fluent Spanish and French speaker has its uses here, making me understood if I lapse into those languages when I forget the Italian, usually without realizing I’ve just said the word in Sicilian!

Pronunciation is also interesting, as Sicilian has its own particular sounds. DD as in Beddu, for bello, or beautiful, is a voiced, retroflex plosive, or rather, is produced with the tip of the tongue curled up and back, and can be found written as ddh or ddr, which gives an idea of its sound. RR is a voiced retroflex sibilant, making terra sound as tezha, like the J in French jour. Sicilian vowels are distinct too, with for example, the unstressed O sounding like a U, as in Portuguese, so that Io saccio for I know, becomes Iu sacciu.

Ha, am I rambling on? It’s just that I find etymology and linguistics fascinating.

Lastly, it must be said that the Sicilian language had huge influence on the development of modern Italian, being the first Italic idiom to be used as a literary language, at the court of Frederick ll between 1198 and 1250. He was a patron of the Sicilian school of poetry and the great renaissance writers Dante and Petrach from Tuscany acknowledged its impact even though by then Tuscany was the centre of the evolving language.

More recently, during his time in power Mussolini made Italian (of Tuscany) the obligatory at school with the effect that Sicilian was used less at home. Like Irish gave way to English, Sicilian became less widely spoken. But I notice in the Italian spoken in Sicily, as with Hiberno-English, there is a definite Sicilian influence on syntax. An Italian-speaker (non-Sicilian) will say: Sono io, it’s me. A Sicilian, Io sono. Andiamo al mare (we’re going to the sea) becomes Al mare andiamo in the mouth of a Sicilian. Makes it more colourful, just like Hiberno-English.

You can find out more here.