The Stigma Of Speaking A Dialect: The Case Of Sicilian

With the establishment of Florentine as the literary language of choice, all the other regional languages came to be regarded as dialects, creating a unique situation that Italians have struggled with to this day.

Sicilian Dialect: Locals in a store in Catania, Sicily.
Locals in a store in Catania, Sicily. Photo by Myznik Egor on Unsplash.

In the performance of my academic duties, I was often called to advise students who wanted to study Italian. When I inquired whether they had some knowledge of Italian, some of them admitted somewhat sheepishly that they knew what they characterized as ‘bad Italian’. Knowing that Sicilian immigrants represent 40/50% of the Italian American population in the U.S., that ‘bad Italian’ often turned out to be Sicilian. But Sicilian is not the only ‘dialect’ that was classified by my students as being ‘bad Italian’. Neapolitan, Barese, Calabrian, Molisan, to name a few southern Italian ‘dialects’, are characterized as corruptions of Italian, inferior linguistic expressions without beauty or grace, so much so that they can only exist in the confines of one’s home, away from the ears of outsiders who might form a negative impression on the dialectal speaker’s worth.

The embarrassment displayed by these students as they admitted to understanding or even speaking such idioms was a constant source of amazement to me, as well as anger, that I put aside quickly as I attempted to encourage them to consider the linguistic skills they had acquired as an asset rather than a liability, a help not a stumbling block to learning Italian. Inevitably, however, I reflected on the long and tortured road that the so-called Italian dialects have traveled through the centuries, “losing a chord every day” to use Ignazio Buttitta’s famous poem Lingua e dialettu, chased out of the classroom by intransigent teachers (“don’t say racina, that’s Sicilian dialect. The correct Italian word is uva!”), forbidden to appear in public by a dictatorial regime, vilified as a poor and unwelcome relative, wrongly accused of being a poor tool in the hands of an unskilled artisan, and unwelcome in government offices and among polite society.

For this reason, to bolster students’ confidence, I told them that Sicilian is not really a dialect, but another language. I usually qualify the term ‘dialect’ that most people understand as a subcategory of language in relation to another more dominant linguistic medium, by saying that Sicilian is certainly not a corruption of or an inferior form of Italian. Often, depending on the situation, I expand upon the answer, giving some facts about the privileged position of Sicilian among the first languages that developed from Latin and about the Sicilian School of poetry that flourished under the Emperor Frederick II in the early part of the 13th century.

I point out as well that standard Italian, the language spoken on Italian radio and TV, that everyone in Italy understands, more or less, was derived from the Florentine language of the middle ages, which like Sicilian was derived from Latin. I point out as well that the Sicilian language reached a more mature stage of development earlier than Florentine and that in fact Sicilian was the first of the so-called ‘vulgar’ languages (vulgar from vulgus, meaning popular) to be considered worthy of use in poetry. Indeed, as Dante himself acknowledged in his De vulgari eloquentia, a treatise that evaluated the 14 known ‘dialects’ spoken in Italy in search for one that was sufficiently ‘lofty’ to be used as a common literary medium, Sicilian was not only the first but also the dominant language for poetry in Italy in the 13th century. Dante went on to say that for the first 150 years of Italian literature the poetry produced in that period was written in Sicilian. The fact that Florentine evolved into what we call standard Italian is a confluence of historical and cultural factors that might have issued different results if one or more components had been absent. In fact, I like to think that if Frederick II had not died in 1250 and the Ghibelline cause had been successful, the linguistic history of Italy would have been different. Had the Imperial armies not been defeated at Benevento in 1266, a battle that ended the Ghibellines’ influence on the political scene of the peninsula, today we might have spoken Italian with a Sicilian accent.

Such informal discussions worked wonders, turning students who were afraid to open their mouths in class for fear speaking in the dreaded ‘dialect’ into eager participants whose understanding of Italian by far surpassed those students who had no prior experience with the language. But the stigma attached to Sicilian and to the other dialects does not only affect students. It touches the lives of the many millions of courageous Italian Americans who came to the United States seeking economic and social freedom, knowing only the language spoken in their little village. Knowing that the bulk of the Italian immigrants came from the six southern regions of Italy, and that they came at a time when in Italy the population was still essentially speaking ‘dialects’, it is safe to conclude that the majority were dialect speakers, as are their offspring to a lesser degree. Thus, the stigma attached to speaking a dialect affects millions of Italian Americans and can be a source of embarrassment any time they come into contact with Italian bureaucracies, Italian schools and even Italians of a more recent immigration. I can illustrate this with a little anecdote regarding an encounter between a Sicilian emigrant who had gone to the Italian Consulate in New York to get a power of attorney document. The Italian official provided him with a lengthy explanation of the procedure, using Italian arcane, bureaucratic jargon that left the poor Sicilian with his jaw hanging in bewilderment. At the end of the three-minute explanation, the old man looked up and asked in Sicilian “comu?” (What?). He had not understood a word of what the official was saying.

A little background is necessary to understand how speaking a native language became a source of embarrassment. Italian was a foreign language to most of the people who emigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century and the early part of the twentieth. Their inability to speak or understand Italian was proof that they had minimal contacts with the educational system because well until the second half of the 20th century, if you lived in Sicily or in any southern regions, you learned Italian in school. Thus, if you speak Sicilian or Neapolitan with people who do not know you, your interlocutors will consider you illiterate.

Sicilians’ relationship with Italian has been rocky, to say the least. From the 13th century to the middle of the 16th century, Sicilian was used for official documents, legal acts and government records. By the middle of the 16th century, Tuscan had become the de facto language for bureaucrats, legal documents, government reports and announcements, while the general population continued speaking their regional language as the primary medium of communication until today. This created an odd situation: government announcements that were written in Italian required a translator and an interpreter because 85-90% of the people in Sicily and in the South were unable to read or write. What little Italian they heard they filtered through their Sicilian, eventually mangling words and expressions.

When you hear something and do not see it written you tend to reproduce it inaccurately as happens, for example, when Americans hear the Sicilian word cumpari and pronounce as goombah. Playwright and poet Nino Martoglio (1870-1921) in his Centona and in many of his plays, got a lot of mileage out of making fun of his fellow Catanese who were constantly tripped up by their poorly learned Italian. Dialect speakers who constantly mangle the Italian language are a staple of Italian dialectal theatre, reflecting longstanding Italian attitudes. Clearly then the refusal to speak Sicilian in public is directly connected with the desire to avoid the stigma attached to it. And it is not surprising that the first thing Italian Americans abandoned when they came to the US was their language.

The first generation of immigrants begins to lose their communicative skills by speaking a kind of pidgin Sicilian that they alone understand. Thus, Sicilian-Americans have no difficulty understanding u storu, a bega, u sobway, a giobba, a ccichina, u sanguicciu, u bussu, u bossu. By the second generation the transformation is nearly complete. The offspring of Italian Americans rarely go beyond a passive knowledge of the dialect. They understand a lot but they will rarely communicate in the dialect. By the third generation the dialect has all but disappeared. Perhaps a curse word or epithet in dialect may remain but that is the extent of it. The stigma accompanying the dialect speakers is primarily responsible for their ready acceptance of English. The sad thing is that they, too, like those who look at the dialect with disdain, are convinced that they are speakers of an inferior, corrupted idiom. I think these views are harmful and are based on misconceptions that have been promoted for various reasons. I will not go into the motivations that disparage dialects and discourage their use, but a better understanding of the historical relationship between dialects and Italian and specifically Sicilian and Italian will dispel the sense of shame that accompanies speaking a dialect.

The relationship between Italian and Sicilian is indeed complex and must be understood within the larger context generally known as ‘la questione della lingua’, that has plagued Italy since the Renaissance and which arises out of a uniquely Italian dilemma centering on which language Italians ought to use in written communication and in literature. Other European nations did not have to face the same problem because early in the formation of their countries, one language became the dominant medium of communication that everyone accepted and used to the exclusion of other localized idioms. The French language developed around the French spoken in the capital Paris; the Spaniards adopted Castilian; and the English the language of London.

But in Italy, which did not become a nation until 1861, and which consists of twenty regional cultures that have existed in one form or another since the time of the Romans, the regional differences in history, tradition and most importantly, in language, have remained. Italy is in effect many different countries in one. The Italian landscape is so diverse that if you travel from North to South you’d think you are crossing an entire continent. This is so in the physical shape of the cities, in the attitudes of the people who live there, in their faces and in their languages.

Turin, to give an example, has more in common with Lyon or Geneva than it does with Palermo. The differences are so extensive and remarkable that, once Italy became one nation under the Savoy King Victor Emanuel II, Massimo D’Azeglio quipped: “Now that we have made Italy, we have to make the Italians.” Indeed, the notion that all the people who inhabited the Italian peninsula were Italians struck Romans, Venetians, Neapolitans, Piedmontese and Sicilians as a curious idea not easily digested. Considering that after the collapse of the Roman Empire each region and each city within it, carried on through the centuries a course of their own, isolated or with little contact with the other regions, it would be surprising if they had developed a sense of belonging to the same country. Thus, the inhabitants of each region, nay each city, looked at the inhabitants of other cities and regions, even those that were geographically near, if not with suspicion, certainly with a sense that they belonged to a different world.

In the eighteenth century, as Carlo Goldoni, the Venetian playwright wrote in his memoirs, the inhabitants of Turin, the capital of Piedmont whose royal family led the struggle to unify Italy, considered even the people of Milan, Genoa and Venice as foreigners. The Romans regarded the inhabitants of Lombardy as ‘buzzurri’ (peasants) and certainly would be hard put to embrace them as Italians (to put it mildly), as the following lines from a sonnet by Giggi Zanazzo make clear:

E so’ Tajani, di’, ‘sti ciafrujoni?

Si loro so’ Tajani, car’Andrea,

me fo taja’ de netto li cojoni.

And these barbarians you call Italians?

If they’re Italians, my dear Andrea,

I’ll have my balls chopped off completely.

Even after unification, Sicilians who had many reasons to resent the new Italian government, referred to the Piedmontese with the term ‘piramuddisi’ (soft pears), claiming that a single Sicilian peasant was worth ten Piedmontese. The reasons for the reciprocal distrust and antipathy among the regions were many, but certainly one of the most important was the fact that they did not speak the same language. Sicilians spoke Sicilian, Neapolitans spoke Neapolitan, and each region spoke a native language that was different from the language that had become accepted as the written language of the peninsula.

The term ‘dialect’ appears for the first time in the Italian context in the second half of the 16th century. Florentine, which was a Romance language, like Sicilian or Venetian — that is, a language that evolved from the mother tongue, Latin — had grown to be the most prestigious language because of a number of historical factors: its high literary prestige (owing to the fact that the three greatest poets of the middle ages and humanism, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, wrote in Florentine), and its economic and political importance beginning in the 13-14th centuries and culminating in the Renaissance. With the establishment of Florentine as the literary language of choice, all the other regional languages, including Sicilian, came to be regarded as dialects, creating a unique situation that Italians have struggled with to this day. The term ‘dialect’ was understood as a language that was operating in the context of a more prestigious language. It did not carry connotations of superiority or inferiority in terms of its ability to convey meanings. It was a question of perception. Those who opted for Florentine perceived it as the more refined, the more elegant tool, which had the possibility of reaching a greater number of people in a written work.

The linguistic situation in Italy at the time of the unification was as follows. Few of the thirty million people who lived in Italy in 1861 understood or spoke Tuscan. The estimates of the actual percentages of the population who knew Tuscan varies from a low of 2.5%, probably more believable, to a high and improbable 10%. Victor Emanuel II, the first King of Italy, spoke French, not Italian, and Ferdinand II, the King of the Two Sicilies, spoke Neapolitan. Understanding and speaking Tuscan implies the ability to read, unless you were born in Tuscany. And even then, there are considerable differences between the written language of books and the actual spoken Tuscan. To get an idea of how many people understood Tuscan in Sicily, consider that when Rome became the capital of Italy in 1871, 85.26 % of the Sicilian population were illiterate and that it took the Italian government forty years to bring it down to 58.81% in 1911. This means that, from the time Sicilian was born as a language in the 13th century until well into the 20th century, the great majority of Sicilians — the situation was not different in other regions of the South like Calabria, Basilicata and Apulia — had only one language at their disposal. And since 85% were illiterate, the dialect remained for them essentially an oral medium of communication, even though Sicily can boast of a vast and important literature written in Sicilian.

Ironically, the Catholic Church played a role in perpetuation the notion that Sicilian was only an oral language. The Roman Church, which had always maintained strong relations with the people of Sicily, prescribed that catechism and preaching be done in Sicilian to better communicate with the faithful. From the middle of the 17th century through the latter part of the 18th century, the Sicilian people learned Christian Doctrine in Sicilian from books written especially for them such as Gli elementi della dottrina cristiana esposti in lingua siciliana (1764) by Francesco Testa, the Archbishop of Monreale. The title is in Italian and the parts that were addressed to the priests were written in Italian, but the Christian Doctrine destined for memorization by the masses was in Sicilian.

Owing to the high rate of illiteracy, the Church taught catechism to Sicilians by rote, by memorization. The faithful were asked to repeat the prayers orally until they had learned them by heart. Naturally, Sicilians never saw the written word. They only heard the prayers recited by the priests. This was a missed opportunity not only to eliminate or reduce illiteracy, but also to give back to the Sicilian language an element that is essential in the development of a language, its written form. Had Sicilians learned how to read and write Sicilian, it might have made a difference in the course of the history of the language.

Did the Protestants not teach their members how to read and write so they could better study the holy books? Do the Jews not teach Hebrew so the members of their communities can recite their prayers? Unfortunately for Sicilians, they learned their Ave Marias and Paternosters by heart. Had the Church taught Sicilians how to read and write in Sicilian, we would have solved a problem that still plagues writers of the language: by creating a universally accepted system for writing its sounds, a koiné, a way of writing that everyone using the language accepts and uses. But the notion that Sicilian is only an oral idiom is false. Sicilian has a long tradition as a written language as well. The people who see the journal of Arba Sicula for the first time never fail to marvel at seeing Sicilian written. They are not accustomed to the sight. The most ironic consequence of this is to see a person who is a perfectly fluent speaker of Sicilian fumble and stumble over the written Sicilian word. My mother, who spoke Sicilian perfectly, struggled with the written word and split it into syllables to recognize it and then pronounce it correctly.

With the advent of the modern age that brought compulsory education to all and made radio, cinema and television accessible to the masses, the situation changed dramatically. There has been a reversal of sorts. Today most Italians now understand and speak a variety of Italian that has been coined by the media. The number of people who rely exclusively on the regional languages to communicate is getting progressively smaller and linguists have been sounding, somewhat prematurely in my opinion, the funeral bells, mourning the death of dialects for the last 70 years.

There has been a substantial erosion in the use of regional languages, but in a few regions such as the Veneto, Sardinia and Sicily, the dialect still constitutes a viable means of communication although it has become ever more restricted to specific situations. Generally, Sicilians will not use the Sicilian language when they go to the bank to cash a check, unless they know the teller, they will not use it to apply for a document in a public office, or when they speak to someone they do not know. But the language is not dead nor is it in the throes of death.

The critic Lucio Zinna once made a statement about Sicilian that I like to believe is true. He said that the Sicilian people are more jealous of their language than they are of their women. Knowing how Sicilians view such things, I think Sicilian is safe for the time being. And the idea that Sicilian interferes with the learning of Italian that many parents use as an excuse to stop children from learning the language is not only false, but deleterious. We know today that learning a second language is an excellent way of expanding the connections in the brain. It is beneficial in developing better math conceptualization, improving students’ verbal abilities and fostering greater creativity. Leaning a second and even a third language also minimizes the risks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Support our independent project!

Italics Magazine was born from the idea of two friends who believed that Italy was lacking a complete, in-depth, across-the-board source of information in English. While some publications do a great job, writing about the latest news or focusing on specific areas of interest, we do believe that other kinds of quality insights are just as needed to better understand the complexity of a country that, very often, is only known abroad for the headlines that our politicians make, or for the classic touristic cliches. This is why Italics Magazine is quickly becoming a reference for foreign readers, professionals, expats and press interested in covering Italian issues thoroughly, appealing to diverse schools of thought. However, we started from scratch, and we are self-financing the project through (not too intrusive) ads, promotions, and donations, as we have decided not to opt for any paywall. This means that, while the effort is bigger, we can surely boast our independent and free editorial line. This is especially possible thanks to our readers, who we hope to keep inspiring with our articles. That’s why we kindly ask you to consider giving us your important contribution, which will help us make this project grow — and in the right direction. Thank you.