Sicilian language

Spoken in: Sicily, the far south of Calabria, the province of Lecce, (Apulia) and approximately a further 30 countries where immigrants from these places may be found.
Speakers: around 10 million
Classification: -
Language family: Indo-European


Official language
Country: -
Regulated by: -
ISO 639-1 -
ISO 639-2 ( scn


Sicilian (Lu Sicilianu, Lingua Siciliana) is the Romance language spoken in Sicily and southern Italy. Sicilian dialects (or dialects comprising the Italiano_meridionale-estremo language group) are spoken on the island of Sicily (and all of its satellite islands), as well as in the southern and central sections of Calabria ("southern Calabro") and Puglia ("Salentino") on the Italian mainland. Ethnologue (see section below) describes Sicilian as being "distinct enough from Standard Italian to be considered a separate language".

It is currently spoken by the 5,000,000 inhabitants of Sicily, plus a further (approximately) 5,000,000 Sicilians around the world. The latter are to be found in the countries which attracted large numbers of Sicilian immigrants during the course of the past century or so, especially the USA, Canada, Australia and Argentina. In the past two or three decades, large numbers of Sicilians were also attracted to the industrial zones of northern Italy and indeed the rest of the EC, in particular, Germany.

As the table indicates, Sicilian is not recognised as an official language anywhere in the world, not even within Italy. There is currently no central body, in Sicily or elsewhere, that regulates the language in any way. The autonomous regional parliament of Sicily has legislated to encourage the teaching of Sicilian at all schools, but inroads into the education system have been extremely slow.

Ethnologue report on Sicilian

Source. (

Alternate names

The alternate names of Sicilian are: Calabro-Sicilian, Sicilianu, Siculu. The term "Calabro-Sicilian" refers to the fact that a form of Sicilian, or a dialect closely related to Sicilian, is spoken in the far south of Calabria. Sicilianu is the name of the language in Sicilian. The term "siculu" describes one of the larger prehistoric groups living in Sicily before the arrival of Greeks in the 8th century BC (see below). It can also be used as an adjective to qualify, or further elaborate on, the origins of a person, for example: siculo-american (siculu-miricanu) or siculo-australian.

Dialects of Sicilian

As a language, Sicilian has its own dialects. Ethnologue lists the following main groupings:

  • Western Sicilian (Palermo, Trapani, Central-Western Agrigentino)
  • Central Metafonetica
  • Southeast Metafonetica
  • Eastern Nonmetafonetica (which includes the province of Catania, the second largest city in Sicily)
  • Messinese (the province of Messina)
  • Isole Eolie (the Aeolian islands)
  • Pantesco (the island of Pantelleria
  • Southern Calabro (southern and central sections of Calabria)
  • Southern Pugliese (called "Salentino" is reportedly a dialect of Sicilian on the peninsular section of Puglia).

Other observations

Sicilian is described as being "vigorous", although most sicilians are described as being bi-lingual (obviously being fluent in Italian as the official language of Italy). It refers to the strong French influence in the language (elaborated on further below) and raises the prospect that it may be better classified as "Southern Romance" rather than "Italo-Western".

Early influences

The fact that Sicily is the largest island in the middle of the Mediterranean and that virtually all the peoples of the Mediterranean (and beyond) have passed through her, be that as friend or foe, over the the millenia, ensures that the Sicilian language is both rich and varied in its influences. The language has inherited vocabulary and/or grammatical forms from all of the following: Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, Lombard, Provençal, German, Catalan, Spanish and of course Italian, not to mention prehistoric influences from the earliest settlers on the island. The very earliest influences, visible in Sicilian to this day, exhibit both prehistoric Mediterranean elements and prehistoric indo-european elements, and occasionally a cross-over of both.

Before the Roman conquest, Sicily was occupied by remnants of the autochthonic populations (Sicani, Elymi, Siculi, (the latter arriving between the first and second millenium BC), as well as by Phoenicians (from between the 10th and 8th century BC) and Greeks (from the 8th century BC). The Greek influence remains strongly visible, however, the influences from the other groups are less obvious. What can be stated with certainty is that there remain pre-indoeuropean words in Sicilian of an ancient mediterranean origin, but one cannot be more precise than that. Of the three main prehistoric groups, only the Siculi were indo-european, and their speech is likely to have been closely related to that of the Romans.

The following table provides the perfect illustration of the difficulty philologists face in tackling the various sub-strata of the Sicilian language.

Modern stratum giamelli (from the Italian gemelli)
Medieval stratum bizzuni, vuzzuni (from the French besson)
" binelli (from Ligurian beneli)
Ancient stratum èmmuli (from the Latin gemulus)
" cucchi (from the Latin copula)
" minzuddi (from the Latin medius)
" ièmiddi, ièddimi (from the Greek ghemellos)

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 autochthonic 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 during the 3rd century BC, the latin language had made its own borrowings from the Greek language.

Pre-classical period

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

  • alastra (a thorny, prickly plant native to the mediterranean region; but also Greek kelastron and may in fact have penetrated Sicilian via one of the gallic idioms)
  • ammarrari (to dam or block a canal or running water; but also Spanish embarrar - to muddy)
  • calancuni (ripples caused by a fast running river)
  • calanna (landslide of rocks)
  • racioppu (stalk or stem, e.g. of a fruit, mediterranean rak)
  • timpa (crag, cliff; but also Greek tymba, Latin tumba and Catalan timba).

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 Siculi 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 celtic rhuddu and Lithuanian rauda meaning the colour "pink")
  • scrozzu (not well developed; similar to Lithuanian su-skurdes with a similar meaning and high German scurz, meaning short)
  • sfunnacata (multitude, vast number; from indo-european und/Fund meaning water)

Greek influences

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):

  • appizzari - to rot, go bad (as in fruit), ruin (from (eks)èpeson)
  • babbiari - to fool around (from babazo, which also gives the sicilian words: babbazzu and babbu - stupid; but Latin babulus and Spanish babieca)
  • bucali - pitcher (from baukalion)
  • bùmmulu - water recepticle (from bombylos; but Latin bombyla)
  • cartedda - basket (from kartallos; but Latin cratellum)
  • carusu - boy (from kouros; but Latin carus - dear, Sanskrit caruh - amiable)
  • casèntaru - earthworm (from gas enteron)
  • cirasa - cherry (from kerasos; but Latin cerasum)
  • cona - icon, image, metaphor (from eikyon; but Latin icona)
  • cuddura - type of bread (from kollyra; but Latin collyra)
  • grasta - flower pot (from gastra; but Latin gastra)
  • naca - cradle (from nake)
  • ntamari - to stun, amaze (from thambeo; but Calabrese tàmmaru - stupid, comes from Arabic tammar date vendor)
  • pistiari - to eat (from apestiein)
  • tuppuliàri - to knock (from typto).

Vulgar Latin was spoken by the Roman occupation troops who garrisoned Sicily after Rome annexed the island (after the end of the First Punic War, c 261 BC). An historical feature shared by Sicily, the far south of Calabria, and the province of Lecce, is that during the Roman period, these areas were never completely latinised. Greek remained the main language for the majority of the population. This helps explain the linguistic differences in these areas and those immiediately to the north (which were, more or less, latinised). It is also why Sicilian is often referred to as a neo-latin language - it did not descend directly from Latin (although some linguists disagree with that view, see below).

For a brief period after the fall of Rome, Goth and Visigoth barbarians managed to gain a degree of political/military control on the island, although their presence did not impact the Sicilian language. 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 bandujan - to give a signal. Other sources of germanic influences include the Hohenstaufen reign of the 13th century, words of nordic and germanic origin contained within the speeches of Norman and Lombard settlers and the short period of Austrian rule in the 18th century.

Arab period

In 535, Emperor Justinian I made Sicily a Byzantine province, and for the second time in Sicilian history, the Greek language became a familiar sound across the island. As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, Sicily was progressively conquered by saracens from North Africa, from the mid 9th century to the mid 10th century. The Arab Emirs who ruled Sicily were progressive monarchs and Sicily enjoyed a sustained period of economic prosperity and intellectual enlightenment. The Arab influence is noticeable in around 300 Sicilian words, most of which relate to agriculture and related activities. This is understandable since the saracens introduced to Sicily the most (then) modern 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:

  • babbaluciu - snail (from babus; but Greek boubalàkion)
  • burnia - jar (from burniya; but Latin hirnea)
  • cafisu - measure for liquids (from qafiz)
  • cassata - sicilian cake (from qashatah; but Latin caseata - something made from cheese)
  • gebbia - artificial pond to store water for irrigation (from gabiya)
  • giuggiulena - sesame seed (from giulgiulan)
  • saia - canal (from saqiya)
  • zagara - blossum (from zahar)
  • zibbibbu - type of grape (from zabib)
  • zuccu - tree trunk (from suq; but Aragonese soccu and Spanish zoque).

Before we move on to the next phase of the language's development, being its most significant, it should be borne in mind that throughout the Arab epoch of sicilian history, a large Greek population remained on the island and continued to use the Greek language, or most certainly, a variant of Greek heavily influenced by Arabic. 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 Arab epoch, there is much debate as to the influence it had (if any) on the development of the Sicilian language, following the relatinisation of Sicily (discussed in the next section). The best one can do is to conclude that if there was an influence, it is likely to have been minor. This view is supported by the fact that there are few Sicilian words reflecting an archaic Latin form (as may be found, for example, in Sard). However, some forms do exist, so the tantalising prospect of a Sicilian form of a Vulgar Latin surviving the Arab period and influencing the modern development of Sicilian remains open.

These are some words of latin origin that may have survived the Arab epoch:

  • anchiu - wide, broad (from amplum)
  • antura - a while ago (from ante oram - an hour ago)
  • asciare - to find (from afflare)
  • cuppigghiuni - beehive (from cupa)
  • filìnia - spider's web (from filum, line, strand)
  • grasciu - grease (from crassus)
  • nutricari - to feed (from nutricare)
  • oggiallanu - last year (from hodie est annus)

Linguistic development from the middle ages

In 1000 AD the whole of modern day southern Italy, including Sicily, was a complex mix of small states and principilaties, languages, religions and ethnicities. The whole of Sicily was dominated by muslim saracens, except for the north-eastern corner, which was predominantly Greek speaking and christian. The far south of the Italian peninsula was part of the Byzantine empire and predominantly Greek speaking, although many communities were reasonably independent of Constantinople. The principality of Salerno was Lombard. The Lombards (or langobard) had also started to make some incursions into Byzantine territory and had managed to establish some isolated independent city-states. It was into this mix that Normans thrust themselves in ever increasing numbers during the first half of the 11th century.

Norman French influence

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). In the process, the relatinisation and christianisation of Sicily had begun a second time. A long list of Norman French words were to become absorbed by the new language during this period, for example:

  • accattari - to buy (from Norman French acater, Modern French = Acheter)
  • ammintuari – to mention, nominate (from Norman French mentevoir)
  • bucceri (vucceri) - butcher (from bouchier)
  • custureri - tailor (from coustrier)
  • firranti - grey (from ferrant)
  • foddi - mad (from fol)
  • giugnettu - July (from juignet)
  • ladiu - ugly (from laid)
  • largasìa - generosity (from largesse)
  • puseri - thumb (from poucier)
  • racina - grape (from raisin)
  • raggia – anger (from rage)
  • testa - head (from teste)

The following factors that emerged during or immediately after the conquest were to prove critical in the formation of the Sicilian language:

  • The Normans brought with them not only their own French speaking kin (more than likely in quite small numbers), but mercenaries from southern Italy. In particular, these included lombards (with their gallic-italic idiom) and other Italians from around Campania. The latter would bring with them the Vulgar Latin from that region, an idiom not too different from that to be found in central Italy (at the time).
  • The thirty year war and the encouragement given to reestablishing christianity resulted in the depopulation of saracens in the central parts of Sicily, many of whom escapted to North Africa.
  • Further migrations to settle the depopulated areas were encouraged from the mainland by Roger. In particular, latin settlers from areas controlled by the western church. The western parts of Sicily were colonised by migrants from Campania. The central eastern parts of Sicily were colonised by settlers from the western Po valley in northern Italy (Padania) who also brought with them a gallic-italic idiom. After the death of Roger I, and under the regency of Adelaide during the minority of her son, Roger II (herself from northern Italy), this process of lombard colonisation was intensified.

We can see above the main factors that go into framing the Sicilian language as we know it today. The vulgar latin base (predominantly from Campania) was similar to the vulgar latin in central Italy (and therefore, by implication, reasonably similar to the vulgar Latin in Tuscany that would eventually form the base for the national language). This base from Campania was influenced by the many gallic influences present in Sicily at the time, namely Norman French and lombards. Underneath that were remnants of the Arabic and Greek idioms that the new language eventually replaced, but hundreds of words remained in the vocabulary of the new romance language.

Other Gallic influences

The Lombard influence is of particular interest. Even to the present day, a siculo-gallic dialect exists in the areas where the Lombard colonies were the strongest, namely Novara, Nicosia, Sperlinga, Aidone and Piazza Amerina. The siculo-gallic dialect did not survive in other major Lombard colonies, such as Randazzo, Bronte and Paternò (although they did influence the local sicilian vernacular). The Padanian influence was also felt on the sicilian language itself, as follows:

  • soggiru - father-in-law (from suoxer)
  • cugnatu - brother-in-law (from cognau)
  • figghiozzu - godson (from ['figlioz)
  • orbu - blind (from orb)
  • arricintari - to rinse (from rexentar)
  • unni - where (from ond)
  • the names of the weeks:
    • luni - Monday (from lunes)
    • marti - Tuesday (from martes)
    • mercuri - Wednesday (from mèrcor)
    • jovi - Thursday (from juovia)
    • venniri - Friday (from vènner)

The origins of another gallic influence, that of Old Provençal, had three possible sources.

  1. As mentioned above, the number of actual Normans in Sicily (from Normandy) are unlikely to have ever numbered much higher than 5,000 at any time. Their numbers were boosted by mercenaries from southern Italy, but it is also possible that mercenaries came from as far away as southern France. The Normans made San Fratello a garrison town in the early years of the occupation of the north-eastern corner of Sicily. To this day (in ever decreasing numbers) a siculo-gallic dialect is spoken in San Fratello that is clearly influenced by Old Provençal, leading one to the conclusion that a significant number in the garrison came from that part of France. This may well explain the dialect spoken only in San Fratello, but it does not wholly explain the diffusion of many Provençal words into the Sicilian language. On that point we are confronted with a further two possibilities.
  2. Some Provençal words may have entered the language during the regency of Queen Margaret between 1166 and 1171 when her son, William II of Sicily succeeded to the throne at the age of 12. The Queen's closest advisers, entourage and administrators were from the south of France, and many Provençal words entered the language during this period.
  3. The Sicilian School of poetry (discussed below) was stongly influenced by the Provençal of the troubadour tradition. This element is deeply imbedded in Sicilian culture, for example, the tradition of Sicilian puppetry (opira dî puppi) and the tradition of the cantastorii (literally sing stories). There is no doubt that Provençal troubadours were active during the reign of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, and that some Provençal words would have passed into the Sicilian langauge via this route.

Some examples of Sicilian words derived form Provençal:

  • addumari - to light (from allumar)
  • aggrifari - to kidnap, abduct (from grifar)
  • banna – side, place (from banda)
  • burgisi - landowners, citizens (from borges)
  • lascu - sparse, thin, infrequent (from lasc)
  • lavanca - precipice (from lavanca)

Sicilian School of Poetry

It was during the reign of Frederick II (or Frederick I of Sicily) between 1198 and 1250, with his patronage of the Sicilian School of poetry, that Sicilian became the first of the italic idioms to be used as a literary language. 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 cannot be understated 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, it effectively ensured that the centre of literary influence would eventually move from Sicily to Tuscany. While Sicilian, as both an official and 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.

As a side note, there are some germanic influences in the Sicilian language, and many of these date back to the time of the Swabian kings (amongst which Frederick enjoyed the longest reign). Words that probably originate from this era include:

  • arbitriari - to work in the fields (from arbeit)
  • guardari - to watch over (from wartên)
  • guastari - to waste, use up (from wastjan)
  • guddefi - forest, woods (from wald, note resemblance to anglo-saxon wudu)
  • guzzuniari - to wag, as in a tail (from hutsen)
  • lancedda - terracotta jug for holding water (from old High German lagella)
  • salaguni - willow (from old High German salaha)
  • sparagnari - to save money (from old High German sparen)

Catalan influence

Following the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, the kingdom was to come under the influence of he Aragonese, and as a result, the Catalan language 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. Sicilian was also used to record the proceedings of parliament (one of the oldest parliaments in Europe) and for other official purposes. 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:

  • accabbari - to finish, end (from acabar)
  • addunarisi - to notice, realise (from adonarse)
  • affruntarisi - to be embarassed (from afrontarse)
  • arruciari – to moisten, soak (from arruixar)
  • muccaturi - handkerchief (from mocador)
  • nzirtari - to guess (from encertar)
  • priarisi - to be pleased (from prearse)

Spanish period to the modern age

By the time the Aragonese crown was joined with the Spanish realm in the late 15th century, the tuscanisation of written Sicilian in the parliamentary and court records had commenced. By the 1543 this process was virtually complete, the new lingua franca of the Italian peninsula had supplanted written Sicilian – for good.

Spanish rule had hastened this process in two important ways:

  • unike the Aragonese, almost immediately the Spanish placed vice-regals 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 predominantly illiterates; and
  • the expulsion of all Jews from all Spanish dominions in 1492 dealt a double blow to Sicily. Not only did the population decline overnight by almost 10%, many of whom were involved in important industries, but these Jews had been Sicilians for 1,500 years and Sicilian was their mother tongue which they used in their schools. Thus the seeds of a possible broad based education system utilising books written in Sicilian was lost to Sicily forever.

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 arrecogerse; but Catalan recollirse)
  • balanza – scales (from balanza)
  • filiccia - arrow (from flecha)
  • làstima – lament, annoyance (from làstimar)
  • pignata – pan (from pinada)
  • pinzèddu – brush (from pincel)
  • ricivu – receipt (from recibo)
  • spagnari - to be frightened ( cross over of sic. appagnari with sp. espantarse)
  • spatari - to impede or disarm someone of his sword (from espadar0
  • sulità – solitude (from soledad)

Language situation today

Sicilian is estimated to have millions of speakers. However, it remains very much a home language spoken among peers and close associates. The regional Italian dialect has encroached on Sicilian, most evidently in the speech of the young generations.

Poets in Sicily sometimes write in Sicilian. However, most speakers are literate in Italian, not Sicilian.

The education system does not support the language. Local universities do not carry courses in Sicilian.

See also

External links



  • Bonner, J K (2001) Introduction to Sicilian Grammar, Legas, New York.
  • Camilleri, Salvatore (1998) Vocabolario Italiano Siciliano, Edizioni Greco, Catania.
  • Centro di Studi Filologici e Linguistici Siciliani (1977-2002) Vocabolario Siciliano, 5 volumi a cura di Giorgio Piccitto, Catania-Palermo.
  • Cipolla, Prof. Gaetano, "U sicilianu è na lingua o un dialettu? / Is Sicilian a Language" in Arba Sicula Volume XXV, 2004 (bilingual: Sicilian and English).
  • Giarrizzo, Salvatore, Dizionario Etimologico Siciliano, Herbita Editrice, Palermo.
  • Hull, Dr Geoffrey (1989) Polyglot Italy:Languages, Dialects, Peoples, CIS Educational, Melbourne.
  • Pitrè, Giuseppe (1875) Grammatica Siciliana, Edizioni Clio.
  • Ruffino, Giovanni (2001) Sicilia, Editori Laterza,à

de:Sizilianische Sprache es:Idioma siciliano fr:Sicilien it:Lingua siciliana pl:Język sycylijski scn:Lingua siciliana


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