Travel Notes blog
The Sicilian language and local dialects
by Max Lane
4 min read

The Sicilian language and local dialects

The Sicilian language and local dialects
What's the difference between Sicilian and Italian? Find out more about the Sicilian language, and test yourself with our lingual quiz!
Table of contents

“C'e' acchi cosa di cchiu' beddu p'un populu d' 'a lingua di so' 'ntinati?”

(What could be more important to a people than the language of their forefathers?)

Is Sicilian language different from Italian?

No matter how much you might prepare for your trip to Sicily by learning Italian words or buying a phrasebook, you will never get to grips with the Sicilian language.

Sicilian is indeed an official language separate from Italian. It is recognised by various international bodies, including UNESCO and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Most Sicilians, however, speak a variant dialect that is distinct to their own town, village, quarter or area. Indeed, most Sicilians would probably say they spoke dialetto rather than Siciliano (or Siculu, as it is in the local idiom).

img:https://www.thethinkingtraveller.com/media/Resized/SICILY%20local%20areas/Sicilian%20locals/520/TTT_Sicily_Ortigia_James_Thompson_SEP19%2007.jpg

Sicilian dialects in use

Sicilian, or its dialectal offshoots, is still spoken by many people on a daily basis, though Italian is, of course, the official language common to all. Sicilian is not taught in schools and is frowned upon by some, but it continues to play a very important role in everyday life and culture.

Most people know a lot of words, phrases, and proverbs. But it is in the street markets of Palermo or Catania, or when you get off the beaten track in the Sicilian hinterland, that you will hear most dialetto stretto (“pure” dialect).

Most Sicilians tend to use their native language to give more emphasis or warmth to what they are saying. Punch lines of jokes are frequently in Sicilian, maternal love is often expressed with a beddu (beautiful) or a duci (sweetie), while anger often erupts in showers of molten dialect that seem to have a harshness and a depth of expression that Italian could never achieve.

A trip to a puppet theatre is a great way to hear Sicilian language in a cultural context, and the tradition of cuntu - Sicilian storytelling - is very much an art form.

History of the Sicilian language

Many Sicilian words are similar to their Italian cousins (Italian has had a large influence since it became the official language in 1861), but Sicilian dialect does not derive from Italy’s official language. Indeed, some argue would argue that it is actually Italian that has its origins in Sicilian.

What is sure, is that Sicilian has one of the oldest literary traditions of any language or dialect spoken in the Italian peninsula. Sometime in the first half of the 13th century, a certain Cielo, or Ciullu, d'Alcamo was a poet at the court of Frederick II. He composed Rosa Fresca Aulentissima in Sicilian, a piece that is considered by many to be one of the most significant precursors to "Italian" poetry. Dante hadn't even been born.

The Sicilian language and its dialectal derivations extend back beyond ancient Greek times. Much in the same way that the English language absorbed lexis and grammatical constructions from the waves of invaders that reached its shores, so the Sicilian language has constantly evolved.

It has adopted linguistic elements from, amongst others, Greek, Vulgar Latin, Arabic, French, Catalan, Spanish, and Provencal. The result is an etymologist’s paradise, a potpourri of influences and transformations that never ends.

Can you guess where these Sicilian words come from?

For those of you with a passion for language here is a little lingual quiz. From which languages do the following Sicilian dialect words derive? Find the answers at the end of this post.

1. cirasa (IT cilegio, cherry)

2. cassata (typical Sicilian cake made from Ricotta cheese)

3. travaghiari (IT lavorare, to work)

4. vucceri (IT macellaio / carnezziere, butcher’s)

5. zibbibbu (grape variety still much in use in Sicily)

6. grasciu (IT grasso, dirt / grease)

7. pistiari (IT mangiare, to eat – though has a rather vulgar sense today)

8. accattari (IT comprare, to buy)

9. babbaluciu (IT lumaca , snail)

10. addumari (IT accendere / illuminare , to light)

11. antura (IT qualche tempo fa, a while ago)

12. aranciu (IT arancia, orange – it actually came into Sicilian before Italian!

img:https://www.thethinkingtraveller.com/media/Resized/SICILY%20local%20areas/Palermo/Palermo%20Itineraries%201/1000/TTT_Sicily_Palermo_OCT17%202.jpg

Where to visit in Sicily

Our travel guide to Sicily gives you the best places to visit on the island, as well as more on the Sicilian culture and history.

See our Sicily guide.

Answers

1. Greek - from Kerasos

2. Arabic - from Qashatah or Latin - from Caseata (something made from cheese)

3. French - from Travailler

4. French - from Boucher

5. Arabic - from Zabib

6. Latin - from Crassus

7. Greek - from Apestiein

8. French - from Acheter

9. Arabic - from Babus or Greek - from Boubalakion

10. Provencal - from Allumar

11. Latin - from Ante Oram - an hour ago

12. Spanish - from Naranja