Sicilian - the language of the locals


“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?)

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

For Sicilian is indeed an official language, recognised as such 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).

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 generally frowned upon by the middle and upper-middle classes, 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.

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. Certainly, Sicilian has one of the oldest literary traditions of any language or dialect spoken in the Italian peninsula: some time in the first half of the 13th century, a certain Cielo, or Ciullu, d'Alcamo, a poet at the court of Frederick II writing in Sicilian, composed Rosa Fresca Aulentissima, a piece that is considered by many to be one of the first pieces of "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, adopting 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.

...if you visit the street markets in Palermo or Catania, or if you get off the beaten track in the Sicilian hinterland, you will hear a considerable amount of “dialetto stretto” (“pure” dialect).

For those of you with a passion for language here is a little etymological quiz: from which languages do the following Sicilian dialect words derive?

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!

Find the answers below.....

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

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