Our language guide for learning Sicilian

By A Jul 1, 2023
Our language guide for learning SicilianOur language guide for learning Sicilian

Sicilian: a dialect of Italian?

No! Like Italian, Sicilian is a Romance language . If the two languages ​​remain very close, the history of Sicilian is older than that of Italian – and even of French and Spanish, other major Romance languages. Some linguists argue that Sicilian is one of the first languages ​​to derive from Latin. How could a language be the dialect of a more recent language? If Sicilian were to be a dialect, it would be at most a dialect of Latin – but not of Italian.

Until the unification of Italy at the end of the 19th century, regional languages ​​largely dominated trade on the peninsula. It is since the affirmation of the Italian language in Sicily through public education, at the beginning of the 20th century, that Sicilian has been associated with a dialect of the national language. However, there is no debate: Sicilian is indeed a language in its own right . Today, UNESCO recognizes it as a minority language.

Long before the spread of Italian, Sicilian experienced its golden age as a major cultural language in the 12th century. Under the reign of Frederick II, King of Sicily then Emperor of the Romans, the Sicilian settled at court with the troubadours. In the 13th century, the movement gained momentum with the Scuola Siciliana , the Sicilian poetic school. Dante himself, the father of the Italian language , will go so far as to recognize the prestige of this language of poets, which he simply calls I Siciliani (The Sicilians). Few traces remain of the original version of the medieval Sicilian poems, massively translated into Tuscan thereafter. Tuscan will also be the basis for the development of modern Italian.

Today, Sicilian remains a fragmented language with several dialectal variants , the 3 main ones being:

  • Western Sicilian extends from the region of Trapani and Agrigento to Palermo, the main city of the island;
  • The central Sicilian crosses the region of Enna, the “navel of Sicily” inland;
  • The Eastern Sicilian runs along the east coast from Syracuse to Messina.

Sicilian, languages ​​with multiple Mediterranean influences

The history of Sicily, and therefore of the Sicilian, is above all a history of influences . The Szeklers, who gave their name to the island, are recognized as the original Sicilians. The Phoenicians and the Greeks then conquered the island until colonization by the Romans. This is why we find in Sicilian a mixture of Latin, Greek and Arabic roots.

Among the Arabic influences is the verb azzizzari (to decorate, to beautify) which comes directly from the word عزيز (aziz) for  mighty , dear or even magnificent . Walls, the Arabic language even named some towns like Marsala in the province of Trapani. The name can mean مَرْسَى اللّٰه ( marsā llāh , the port of God) or مَرْسَى عَلِيّ ( marsā ʿaliyy , the port of Ali). The word miskin (مسكين) for poor has also given mischinu (poor little one) in Sicilian. A term not totally foreign to those who know miskine in French slang – with the same meaning!

On the side of Greek origins , κόφινος ( kóphinos ) gave cufinu in Sicilian (basket), cognate with French “couffin”. Even the Normans , whose maritime conquests took them as far as Sicily, left the words buatta (box) and custureri (tailor, after couturier).

Why is Sicily called “the island of three points”? There too, the ancient Greek has something to do with it. Originally, in ancient Greece, Trinakria (Anglicized in Trinacria, literally “three points”) was the name given to Sicily. Just look at a map of Sicily to see these three points formed by Trapani to the west, Messina to the northeast and Syracuse to the southeast. Since then, the name has remained and the island has adopted the triskelionfor emblem. Another term of Greek origin, this time meaning “three legs”. Three legs that it is impossible to ignore as soon as you set foot in Sicily because the symbol is right in the middle of the flag. It depicts three bent legs coming out of Medusa’s head. On the head of the gorgon, snakes rub shoulders with ears of wheat. The use of this motif dates back to at least the 3rd century BC.

An introduction to the specificities of Sicilian

If you already speak Italian , you should be able to learn Sicilian without difficulty. Like Italian, Sicilian is written as it is pronounced . With a few differences. Thus, the sound “s” tends to turn into “ch”. Including in the pronunciation of standard Italian. Orally, the word capisco (capiss-co, I understand ) then becomes “capichko”.

Regarding grammar, there are many commonalities between Sicilian and Italian . Thus, in both languages, it is the letter [a] which marks the feminine. On the other hand, Sicilian uses the [u] and not the [o] for the masculine. Italian has a specific plural for each gender ( i for masculine and e for feminine) whereas Sicilian makes no distinction ( i for both). For example, the word telefono(i), telephone(s) in Italian, becomes telèfunu(i) in Sicilian. The word farfalla(e), butterfly(s) in Italian, translates as farfàlla(i) in Sicilian. Note that Sicilians tend to swallow the final [i], a bit like Romanianswho do not pronounce it at all. The word scusassi (excuse me) is pronounced “chkouzass”.

As for the letters, there are also some changes, the Italian “b” being often replaced by a Sicilian “v” – a bit like in Spanish. Botte (barrel in Italian) becomes vutti in Sicilian. Barca (boat in Italian) transposed by varca in Sicilian is another example. Generally, the “double l” is replaced by a “double d”. If you have followed, then you understand that the Sicilian beddu means bello in Italian!

Learn Sicilian: Survival Lexicon for Tourists

unu, dui, triuno, due, treone two three
grazzi (assay)grazie (one thousand)Thanks a lot)
preguearlyYou’re welcome
at an ATMhe ATMautomatic distributer
u stubbyhe trenothe train
has machinethe machinethe car
the airportthe airportthe airport
the hostelthe hostelthe hotel
cchi ura ie?does it sound?what time is it ?
unn’è … (a spiaggia)?dov’è… (the spiaggia)?where is the beach) ?
quantum cost? (pronounced “cochta” )quantum cost?how much does it cost ?
nun capisciuno capiscoI don’t understand
putissi ripetiri, ppi favuri?potrebbe ripetere, per favore?Could you please repeat ?
vulissi a coffee, ppi favuriwould like a caffè, per favoreI would like a coffee, please

Siculish  : when Palermo arrives in Manhattan

Just as the mixture of French and English gives Franglais, Siculish is a hybrid version of English and Sicilian. This dialect was born from Sicilian immigration to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly in New York.

bissinissabusinessbusiness, business
hunchbackbossboss, boss
giobbujobwork, job
trubbulutroubletroubles, problems
Naked Iorcanew Yorknew York

By A

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