Is Sicilian A Language Or A Dialect?

The monolingual approach adopted for the political aim of making Italians speak with one voice has succeeded. But the campaign has been needlessly costly.

Sicilian Dialect Language
A merchant in Palermo, Sicily. Photo by Tomas Anton Escobar on Unsplash.

In the following article, I will discuss the historical relationship between Sicilian and Italian, and I will attempt to answer the question, “Is Sicilian a language or a dialect?” As this is a touchy subject that involves regional pride, identity, and politics, I will try not to fall victim to that dreaded social disease known as campanilismo, a faint echo of which still characterizes Italian society.

Sicilians are proud of being Sicilians. The fact that they live separately from the mainland has developed in them a visceral connection to the island. But while they are fiercely proud of their heritage, they do not seem to feel as passionately about their language that is something that cannot be separated from the culture. Language is the vehicle through which the culture of a nation is expressed. It is odd and somewhat disappointing to see a people stand by and allow a key component of its culture being destroyed without mounting a greater defense of it. While they will resist the relentless assault on its use, they have not been as adamant to defend it. But that is understandable. Centuries of badmouthing the language have taken a toll on the five million speakers of Sicilian on the island and on the many other millions who live around the world. There have been some attempts at establishing Sicilian as the official language of Sicily. But the idea never received the support of the powerful, even when Sicily was an independent kingdom, under the Aragonese in the 14th century.

I will mention only one movement that fought to establish Sicilian as the official language: the Accademia degli Zelanti founded in Acireale at the end of the 18th century. The intellectuals belonging to this academy, viewing the possibility that Sicily might become an autonomous nation, began to challenge Tuscan in a more systematic and coherent way. The Zelanti wanted Sicilian to be taught in school, claiming that one of the reasons there was such rampant illiteracy in Sicily was that teaching was essentially done in a foreign language. Tuscan, rightly so, was a foreign language to Sicilians and mastery of it not only required a great deal of study, but always remained elusive for most people, whereas if teaching were done in the Sicilian that everyone understood, the time spent in the study of Tuscan could be devoted to mastering other subjects. The language of the people, the idiom learned from the mothers, would be, in the opinion advanced by the Accademia, much more effective in educating the masses. To free the Sicilian nation from its cultural bondage, the Zelanti felt that the Sicilian language had to be the medium of communication in school and in the writing of public and scientific treatises.

The views expressed by the Zelanti were never embraced by the political movements that promoted Sicilian autonomy in the revolutions of 1820 and 1848. As expected, once Sicily became part of Italy in 1861, the new State wanted to make Italians out of its many different people, and the political climate favored a monolingual nation, which meant demoting all regional idioms to dialects. Under Fascism the ‘dialects’ were subjected to a relentless campaign intent on obliterating them from the cultural landscape. Such campaigns were so successful that the Sicilian language was never mentioned in the Sicilian Autonomy Statutes of 1946, when Sicily was granted wide latitude of control over its destiny.

The Statutes were granted in recognition of Sicily’s different historical background, traditions, and language, and to quash the separatist movement that threatened to unmoor Sicily from Italy — and perhaps make of it the 50th State of the US. That was another failed opportunity to redeem the Sicilian language. The Sicilian politicians who succeeded in obtaining a marvelous document for self-determination, on paper at least, somehow never considered making Sicilian the language of the newly created political body: the Sicilian Region. And it must be said that during the last 80 years in the Sicilian Parliament, which is the oldest in Europe, the Sicilianist cause has received little encouragement.

It’s true that in 1981 the Parliament passed a law intended to promote the study of Sicilian. The Region proposed to assist those schools that undertook initiatives aiming at the introduction of Sicilian in their curricula, but it did not go far enough. Recently we have seen some positive movement in the introduction of Sicilian in the public school’s curricula. Arba Sicula encouraged such proposals by donating twenty copies of Introduction to Sicilian Grammar, and Learn Sicilian/Mparamu lu sicilianu, both of which ironically were produced in the US. There are many Sicilianists who encourage the use of Sicilian. But for all intents and purposes, the majority has accepted the slow fading out of their language “senza fari cìu,” that is, without raising a fuss. In 2012 and again in 2019, the President of the Sicily region decreed that Sicilian should be taught in the public schools. We are eager to see how it will be implemented.

I realize that I have yet to answer the question with which I began: “Is Sicilian a dialect or a language?”

If we address the question from the point of view of linguistics, the answer is that Sicilian possesses all the requisites normally required of a language. Sicilian, like Italian or Spanish, operates as a complex linguistic system having a phonology of its own, a morphology, a syntax, and a lexicon that are unique to it, even though it may share some elements with other languages. Its sounds can be transcribed accurately except for a few special sounds that are unique to Sicilian and that have consistently defied linguists to find an acceptable solution. I am referring to the special sound Sicilians make in the word ‘bedda’ and to the initial sound of the word ‘ciumi’. Neither the double ‘d of ‘bedda’ reproduces the sound required which is made by hitting the point of the tongue against the front palate nor the ‘ciu’ of ‘ciumi’, which is close to a less explosive pronunciation of the English word ‘shoe.

Sicilian has a vast written literature, even though most people are not accustomed to reading or writing in Sicilian. Literature written in Sicilian is not parochial and boasts world class poets and writers. Antonio Veneziano, Giovanni Meli, Luigi Pirandello to name just three. Yet few scholars cultivate the field. Ph.D.s who specialize in Italian literature are not normally required to study regional literatures.

Some people who know various forms of Sicilian sometimes object to recognizing a different way of saying or pronouncing certain words from another province or town, claiming that Sicilian is indeed many different dialects, not one. The differences between different idioms within Sicily can be striking. For example, the people of Noto and surrounding towns will invariably pronounce the ‘k as ‘ch. To them the words ‘chiavi’, ‘chiodu’ are pronounced ‘ciavi, ciodu’, which elsewhere in Sicily are pronounced ‘kiavi, kiodu’. In some parts of Sicily the name for horse is ‘cavaddu’, which is pronounced as ‘cavaddru’ in some places. There are also many differences in lexical items from one province to another, indeed from one town to the next, even a few miles away. Yet the differences are not of such a scope as to hinder communication among Sicilians.

All languages have ‘dialects within them, that is, local variations in pronunciation and even lexical items. A Texan who speaks with a Southern accent is still speaking English. So, a man from Noto who says ‘ciodu’ instead of ‘kiodu’ is simply speaking a local variety of Sicilian. A Palermo resident will see the word ‘carni’ (meat) and will pronounce it ‘cainni’, the same word in Catania will be pronounced ‘canni’; the word for door, written as ‘porta’ will be pronounced as ‘poitta’, in Palermo and ‘potta’ in Catania, but such variations will not impede communications among the people. If you ask a Palermitan and a Catanese to write the word for meat or door, they will write ‘carni’ and ‘porta’ unless they want to make a point that they are writing it in Palermitan or Catanese.

We know that people attach a stigma to Sicilian as a dialect, sadly even among Sicilians. But Sicilian is not a dialect of Italian, as I showed in my previous article. The question, however, is irrelevant. A language performs the task of communication for the people who use it and, if they manage to communicate, the language is deemed sufficient. Therefore, linguists dismiss the notion of superiority or inferiority in languages as inappropriate. If a superiority of one language over another can be acquiesced, it must be a relative superiority. A language may be more adept in one or more areas than another language.

For example, English may be more adept in computer technology than the language of the Eskimos, but by the same token the language of the Eskimos will have ten terms for snow where English has only one. A language may be richer in certain sectors than another. No one would argue that Italian is richer in vocabulary dealing with abstract or technical vocabulary, but it is also true that Sicilian is far richer than Italian in the world of nature, in agricultural terms, in the utensils of work and feelings, and states of being. Where Italian has only one or two terms to describe a certain type of tree, Sicilian will have six or seven for the same tree. The word for ‘butcher” in Italian is ‘macellaio’. In Sicily we have at least three ‘carnizzeri, chiancheri, and vucceri’. Another example will suffice: the word for bat in Italian is ‘pipistrello’ In Sicilian it is known as ‘taddarita’, ‘surci vecchiu’, and ‘rattavecchia’.

Thus, the idea of Italian being richer than Sicilian must be put aside as untenable. Indeed, most Italian writers complain that literary Italian because of its very nature as a learned language, is far too generic and lacking in precise terminology for objects and situations that occur in daily life. In his Coscienza di Zeno, the great novelist Italo Svevo explained to Doctor S., his psychoanalyst, why he did not describe “il grandioso deposito di legnami, vicinissimo alla casa dove noi pratichiamo la psico-analisi” (The enormous lumber depot near the house where we hold our psychoanalysis).

Svevo writes, “If I had talked about it, a new problem would have arisen in my already difficult presentation. This elimination is nothing more than the proof that any confession I made in Italian could neither be complete nor sincere. In a lumber depot there are many different varieties of lumber that in Trieste we call with barbaric names borrowed from dialect, Croatian, German and sometimes even from French (zapin, for example, which is not equivalent to sapin). Who would have given me the true vocabulary? Old as I am, was I supposed to hire a Tuscan lumber merchant?” — my translation.

Svevo’s statement confirms that ‘dialects’ are far richer than standard Italian in lexical items dealing with everyday objects. The Italian literary language that has become, with some modification, the standard language of Italy suffers primarily from having paid too much homage to Petrarch rather than to Dante. The first, in fact, to use Gianfranco Contini’s insight, tried to eliminate from his language the mutability of time, reducing his lexicon to a minimum number of words that could stand the test. Dante’s approach to language was altogether different. Instead of reducing the language at his disposal, he did not hesitate to create new words on the spot if he did not have a word that expressed an inner need. The Divine Comedy is full of his verbal inventions.

Italian writing has suffered from this peculiar situation because writers have had to write their works in a language learned in school or from written sources. Inevitably such a language is not a living instrument and does not have the immediacy of the spoken tongue, the liveliness of a dialogue you might hear in the street. Alessandro Manzoni, the greatest Italian novelist, who addressed the questione della lingua by going to Florence to rewrite his Promessi sposi in a language closer to the current speech of the Florentines — his now famous “sciacquare i panni nell’Arno” (rinsing my clothes in the Arno River), was aware that the literary Italian lacked the specificity and immediacy of the spoken language that writers require. He made the point as follows:

“Suppose we are five or six Milanese in a house talking of this and that in Milanese. There comes along a Piedmontese or Venetian or Bolognese or Neapolitan, and as good manners dictate, we stop speaking Milanese and begin speaking in Italian. Tell me if the conversation continues as before; tell me if we find that abundance and sureness in the choice of words we displayed a moment before. Tell me if we don’t have to opt for a generic or less precise term where before we had at our disposal the special term that fit exactly our aim; tell me if we don’t have to help ourselves through the use of paraphrases and descriptions where before all we had to do was name the thing; now we have to guess where before we were sure of the term that we wanted to use; indeed, we did not have to think, because the term came by itself, now we have to resort to use the Milanese term and add the phrase, ‘as we say here in Milan’.”

Every Italian writer has had to struggle with the question of the language in one way or another and has had to fashion a language of his own in which his native idiom plays an important part. The case of Giovanni Verga comes to mind, but many other examples could be adduced here. His Italian takes from the Sicilian its colorful and earthy nature and could not have been created without it. It is a fact that Italian writers adopt a language that is different from the one they use in their everyday living. They basically share the situation of Italo Svevo who admitted openly that, “With every Tuscan word we use, we lie! If he only knew how we enjoy relating those things for which we have the phrase ready and how we avoid those for which we would have to turn to the vocabulary. This is really the way we choose the episodes of our life worth noting. It’s clear that our life would have a totally different look if it were related in our dialect.”

The relationship of dialects, and Sicilian in particular, with the more dominant language, standard Italian, is complex. There are advantages and disadvantages in the monolingual approach. The regional languages constitute a cultural wealth that we cannot afford to lose. The monolingual approach adopted for the political aim of making Italians speak with one voice has for all intents and purposes succeeded. Most now understand and speak the variety of Italian they hear on radio and TV. It is neither a colorful nor a precise tool of communication, leaving much to be desired in its expressivity unlike the regional languages. But the campaign has been needlessly costly for it has brought most of the regional languages to the edge of the abyss while creating in those who communicate through the ‘dialect’ unnecessary feelings of inferiority.

The colorless character of modern Italian is probably responsible for the resurgence of interest in the regional idioms. Increasingly more and more poets are turning to their native languages as a way of finding a more genuine voice for their poetic concerns. Everywhere in Italy the so-called ‘dialects’ are being used by today’s generation of poets in sharp contrast to their decline in daily living, almost as if everyone were trying to save them from extinction. This resurgence has been felt even in the United States. Luigi Bonaffini published two impressive anthologies containing the best production of dialect poetry written in the last fifty years. His Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy and Dialect Poetry of Central and Northern Italy, 1250 pages in trilingual format published by Legas, go a long way toward opening a world of poetry that rivals the production in Italian.

I do not think that this resurgence of interest in the regional languages will reverse the course of history. We are not likely to see the Sicilian Region, for example, adopt Sicilian as its official language. Even the Sardinians — who have been more adamant about their language — are not likely to go that far. But I am hopeful that in the right political climate Italy, which contains in its Constitution an article (Article 6) that aims to protect and preserve linguistic minorities — although it has not lifted a finger for the regional languages, which apparently do not seem to be covered by the article — will awaken and see the light.

The many languages that gave to Italian literature its distinctive ‘dialectality’, to use a Pirandellian term, are worth preserving as are the cultures they express for in the final analysis languages are living cultures and knowing two of them makes one doubly rich.

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