Endangered Language Alliance



Sicilian

a Romance language of Sicily (Italy)

Background

Sicilian is a Romance language spoken on the island of Sicily, and in southern Calabria and southern Apulia on the Italian peninsula, with an estimated 5 million speakers inside Italy (principally in Sicily) and many others in Germany, Australia, Argentina, the USA, and elsewhere. Due to its central location in the Mediterranean Sea (the “Middle Earth” of the ancient world), Sicily has been a meeting place, trading post, and site of conquest and interaction for many different cultures and languages. Diverse linguistic influences — including Greek, Arabic, Norman French, and Spanish — have shaped the sound system, lexicon, and syntax of Sicilian.

Endangerment

Currently considered a “vulnerable” language by UNESCO, Sicilian faces increasing pressure from standard Italian, though it remains stronger than nearly all other Italian language varieties. An estimated 72% of the population in Sicily itself is reported as speaking Sicilian, but most strong speakers today are older. Based on current trends, only a third of the population will speak Sicilian at the end of the 21st century (Coluzzi, 2008). Moreover, official use and presence in the media are minimal, with Standard Italian dominating these two domains and making Sicilian appear less relevant to some younger Sicilians.

Speakers’ attitudes towards Sicilian are improving, but people appear to be split about passing Sicilian on to following generations. Most of the population believes that Sicilian should be studied at school and used in playful conversation, and a majority feel that those who cannot speak Sicilian are not good Sicilians (Lo Piparo et al. 2008). Largely symbolic legislative attempts at recognizing and encouraging the study of Sicilian have been passed in 1953 and 1981. Writing in Sicilian is limited by the lack of a fully unified, widely known orthography.

Academic Work

Sicilian has been the subject of a wide range of linguistic studies, and there is a significant literature in Sicilian, notably poetry and song. Some recent linguistics papers of interest include Lanzafame (2011) on Arabic influences in Sicilian, grammatical descriptions by Pitre (2002) and Bonner (2001), a lexicon by Camilleri (1998), a pronounciation guide by Cipolla (2005), and a comparative study of Sicilian and Spanish by Mendez and Chakerian (2012). Coluzzi 2008 is a review of the political and communal status of the language, while Lo Piparo et al. (1990) is a study of linguistic attitudes and acquisition planning strategies.

A more comprehensive list of books and papers on Sicilian can be found at http://www.csfls.it/papers/.

See the Glottolog entry on Sicilian

Linguistic Structure

The list of linguistic influences on Sicilian is as long as the list of conquerors and traders who have come to Sicilian-speaking regions. Pre-Roman Conquest, there were prehistoric Mediterranean, Phoenician (Punic), and ancient Greek influences, beginning with the formation of “Magna Graecia” colonies in the 7th Century B.C.E.:

Greek  Sicilian English
Babazein Babbiari To kid around
Baukalis Bucali Pitcher
Kerasos Cirasa Cherry

The Romans conquered Sicily in the 4th Century B.C.E.:

Latin  Sicilian  English
Ante oram Antura A while ago (an hour ago)
Crassus Grasciu Grease

Sicily was conquered by the Arabs in 820 C.E.:

Arabic  Sicilian  English
Giulgiulan Giuggiulena Sesame Seed
Qafiz Cafisu Measure for liquids
Siarr Sciarra Quarrel

The Norman French first invaded the island in 1061 (after already controlling Southern Calabria and Apulia):

French  Sicilian  English
Ache Accia Celery
Chauffeur Sciaffurru Driver/Chauffeur
Fou Foddi Crazy

When the Kingdom of Aragon conquered Sicily in 1282, it brought both Aragonese and the closely related Catalan language to Sicily. When the united Kingdom of Aragon and Castile was created in 1469, Spanish rule and language use followed, lasting some three centuries:

Spanish  Sicilian  English
Cita Zita Girlfriend
Lastima Lastima Trouble
Pinada Pignata Pan

Approximately a century of Austro-Hungarian rule also left a few traces:

German  Sicilian  English
Rank Arancari To plod along
Sparen Sparagnari To save (money)

Sicily was unified with Italy in 1861. The effects of Italian on Sicilian have been substantial and are increasing, given both the similarity between these two related languages and the effects of Italian teaching, bilingualism, and internal migration.

ELA’s Work

New York City has been a major center for the Sicilian language since the late 19th century, when it was the principal language spoken by many of the millions of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States. Sicilian speakers are present, especially the older generation, in all the major Italian neighborhoods of the city (Ridgewood, Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, much of Staten Island etc.) as well in the suburbs of Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey.

In New York, Sicilian has come into direct and frequent contact with both standard Italian and other regional Italian varieties, particularly southern ones such as Calabrese and Napolitano, influencing the particular and possibly unique Southern Italian variety spoken in New York. Beyond language, there is a strong and distinctive tradition of Sicilian music and food known throughout Italy and the world. Arba Sicula is a nonprofit based in New York which is particularly active in promoting Sicilian language and culture. Società Concordia Partanna is a century-old social club in Ridgewood, made up of paesani from the town of Partanna, that has hosted ELA researchers on multiple occasions. ELA looks forward to working with members of Arba Sicula and others to record speakers, poets (such as the distinguished Sicilian-American poet Nino Provenzano), and others in the community.