What do you know about Sicilian?

If you are passionate Italophile, the odds are you have been faced with the complex topic of “the languages and dialects of Italy.” If you have ever traveled to Sicily or you are planning to, you might have wondered if Sicilian people will understand you or you will understand them. 

I am an Italian and Sicilian speaker (although my Italian is stronger than my Sicilian).  

In this article, I will

  • shed light on the topic “Is Sicilian a Language?”
  • bring to you examples of how Sicilian is different from Italian
  • give a few recommendations for learning Sicilian 

I wish I could integrate more information about the other minority languages and dialects spoken in Italy. However, as a native Sicilian, I think it makes much more sense to share my first -hand experience as a polyglot, a linguist, and an Italian teacher in Sicily living in between Sicilian and Italian. 

Let’s start with the first dilemma…

Is Sicilian a language or a dialect?

Sicilian is a language that has many dialects spoken in different parts of the island. That’s why, at the moment, is kind of hard to find a definition of standard Sicilian. The good news is that the Cademia Siciliana is doing a great job normalizing the Sicilian orography and spreading the awareness of Sicilian across the island and the world.

And so, is Sicilian a language or a dialect?

The widespread misconception about Sicilian being a dialect derives from the fact that most people don’t know what makes a dialect different from a language. 

Bear in mind that, many prominent Italian academics, like Paolo Balboni, define dialects separates languages, and I do agree with them. 

But how come, so many people, including Sicilians, think of Sicilian has a dialect? In a nutshell: prejudices. For decades Sicilian has been considered a dialect spoken only by uneducated people or peasants. 

What is a dialect? What is a language?

An Italian dialect is a variation of the Italian language, and thus, we can say that it lays its roots in the Italian Language. The most famous dialects in Italy are, undoubtedly,  the “Romano or “Romanesco.” These are the dialects, respectively spoken in Rome and Central Italy.

So, a dialect is an alteration of Italian. 

Let’s see an example:

English: what are you doing?

Italian: che fai?

Roman Dialect : che stai a fa?

Sicilian is considered a language because it is not a variation of Italian but an evolution of the Latin language, with massive influences of Ancient Greek, Arabic, Spanish, French, and Catalan. Quite a unique combination, isn’t it? 

Is Sicilian language different from Italian? 

Yes, it is. In the same way, the other romance languages like French, Spanish, or Portuguese are different from Italian. The Sicilian grammar shares the same fundamentals as the other Latin language and, in my opinion, has a closer relation to Spanish Grammar. 

For example, Sicilian does not use the “passato prossimo” like Italian, but the “passato remoto” to speak about the close past.

English: I did / I made

Italian: io ho fatto (passato prossimo)

Sicilian: Jo fici (passato remoto)

Spanish: Yo hice (Spanish passato remoto/ preterito indefinido)

This is just one example, but I could make a very long list of parallelisms and shared vocabulary between the Spanish and Sicilian.

Sicilian comes from Latin and has Greek, Arabic, French, Catalan, Spanish, and also German influences. 

The reason for such a unique combination lays on our history. Several different civilizations conquered and settled in Sicily in our current time, leaving plenty of vestiges in the local arts, culture, and language.

These influences make Sicilian different from standard Italian. 

Let’s see an example of how Sicilian is different than Italian

English: where do you work?

Italian: dove lavori?

Roman dialect: ‘ndo stai a lavora’?

Sicilian: Unni travagghi?

Unni means “dove/where” and can be associated with the French “ ” meaning where.

Travagghiari is the verb meaning to work and shares the same root with the Spanish (trabajar), the French (travailler), the Portuguese (traballar).

Of course, I could go on forever

Examples of other influences

Arabic influence 

English – a quarrel 

Sicilian – na sciarra 

Arabic – siarr 

Italian – un litigio

Spanish influence 

English – to blink

Sicilian – pappadiari

Spanish – parpadear

Italian – sabattere le palpebre 

French influence 

English – tissue

Sicilian – muccaturi

French – mouchoir

Italian – fazzoletto 

Greek influence 

English – to kid around 

Sicilian – babbiari

Greek – babazein

Italian – scherzare

Is Sicilian a live language? 

Sicilian is recognized as a minority language by Unesco. With over 4 million speakers of“Sicilianu” in Sicily, Southern Italy (Calabria and Apulia) and in the world. Sicilian is not considered an endangered language but a “vulnerable one”, since has been facing pressure from Italian over the last century. 

No surprise, Sicilian has been “Italianized” over the last decades. The language does not enjoy the status of official language in Sicily and thus is not taught in schools.

However, being a Sicilian and polyglot at the same time, I have seen a revival of the Sicilian language in the last few years.

Both the Cademia Siciliana and some brilliant polyglots and language students are doing a great job by shedding light on the study of Sicilian as a minority language. 

Where is Sicilian spoken?

Sicilian is also spoken out of Italy in many Sicilian immigrant communities in Canada, Germany, Argentina, the USA or Australia. It is not rare to bump into third-generation Sicilian-American having a good grasp of the language or being completely fluen,t who inherited and learned the language from her ancestors.

Funny fact, the Sicilian spoken abroad in the immigrant communities uses a lot of words and expressions that have been forgotten in the contemporary Sicilian. It’s a lot of fun listening to an old Canadian nonno speaking a much older and purer version of Sicilian than my family here in Sicily does.

Are Sicilians bilingual? 

Yes and no. The official and most spoken language is Italian. Italian is the language we use at school, at work and in the vast majority of colloquial situations. So if you are asking yourself, will I be able to understand Sicilian people? My answer is YES. We do speak Italian. Sicilian is used in informal settings, for jokes o to emphasize something ironically. The only people who might not speak proper Italian (very few at this time) would live in rural areas and have been probably born in the first half of the 20th century!

Do I need to know Sicilian to travel to Sicily? Or do I need to speak the local dialects when traveling or living in Italy?

No, I would generally argue that learning Italian is a great idea if you are planning an extended stay in Italy. However, Italians would not expect any foreigner to speak the local language or dialect. 

But you know.. hearing someone from far away speaking the local language or dialect would make the day of a native speaker, as happened to me whenever I spoke Sicilian with a foreigner.  So, why don’t try to pick up a few words in dialects before you trips? 

How can I learn Sicilian?

As a minority language, there is not a great deal of learning material out there, as for the other Romance languages. 

Don’t be put off by the scarcity of “conventional material.”

Other than the Cipolla’s textbook and few other grammars, you can learn Sicilian online by using for free Utalk or taking lessons with private tutors on Italki. 

The Sicilian culture is incredibly extensive and exciting and rooted in the island. There is a wealth of songs, books, and online material that serve as authentic material for your Sicilian learning routine. 

Wikipedia is an incredible source for Sicilian learners as you can use the many translated articles as a free learning resource. 

On Glosbe.com you can find Sicilian – Italian or English – Italian dictionary.

Disclaimer: I wrote this article as a result of my experience with Sicilian in Sicily and within the international community of polyglots who decided to embrace the Sicilian journey. There are surely people or academics who can better, and, in more scientific terms, describe the state of the Sicilian Language today.