Sicul-English: the National Defense Institute Sicilian Textbooks: a Disservice to Sicily

By Gaetano Cipolla

SicilenglishAs president and editor of Arba Sicula, a non profit international organization that promotes Sicilian language and culture, I am always looking for materials that can help me fulfill the objectives of the association. So I was pleased to purchase the entire set of publications prepared in the sixties by the National Defense Institute in Monterey, California, to teach Sicilian to United States military personnel.

The package contained five volumes of dialogues, pattern drills, readings and exercises, 50 tapes, recorded by native speakers of Sicilian, and several other support volumes such as Corrado Avolio’s “Introduzione allo studio del dialetto siciliano” published in 1882, another text written in Italian of a Sicilian Grammar written by Innocenzio Fulci also published in the middle of the 19th century and reproduced as printed in 1963, as well as a Reader containing various Sicilian texts ranging from short stories to poems.

The basic course in Sicilian was composed of five 8.50 by 11.00 hand-bound typewritten volumes that were reproduced probably on a Xerox machine and stapled together, as were all the other volumes. As one would expect, the basic course uses the audio-lingual method that was very popular at the time for teaching foreign languages.

Each chapter begins with a dialogue that needs to be memorized, the content of which is then recombined as a prose narrative, which is followed by pattern drills designed to develop automatic responses by constant repetition and memorization. Each chapter has supplementary vocabulary to enrich the content and a list of new words introduced during the chapter.

The grammar explanations are kept to a minimum and are presented at the end of the chapters, presumably after the material has been digested. I already had in my possession four of the five volumes, but after looking at the first volume I realized that they were basically curiosity pieces not only because the audiolingual method was not longer regarded as pedagogically effective, but also because the dialogues seemed outmoded and archaic and contained too many typographical errors as well as questionable grammar explanations. So I put them aside and did not give the texts a second thought.

When I began working on a comprehensive and interactive grammar of Sicilian, now in print, I thought I should take another look at the complete set of texts and tapes in my possession. I was interested to see how the authors (there are no names of authors, although I know someone who was an instructor of Sicilian at the Institute) treated certain problematic features of Sicilian, how they wrote certain peculiar sounds, what vocabulary they adopted and whether they had any preferences vis à vis the varieties of Sicilian one can hear on the island. With this in mind I went through the basic course and listened to some of the tapes.

The experience was a roller coaster ride of feelings ranging from unrestrained fits of laughter to mild amusement to anger and finally to depression. In my career as a professor of Italian, I have looked at several dozen language textbooks and I can state categorically that I have never had reactions such as those engendered by the Sicilian course prepared by the National Defense Institute. The Sicilian course taught at Monterey, which I always referred to with some pride because it was the only place in the world where Sicilian was taught, managed to be offensive in every category.

While I do not fault its creators’ pedagogical approach many people bought into the audio-lingual method at the time, including myself. It was the way to teach languages then I was very upset with the textbooks. I was shocked primarily by the scope and objective of the course, and most of all with the characterizations of the Sicilian people and of their culture as they emerge from the dialogues and texts of the course and I was also surprised and disappointed that the National Defense Institute chose to teach a hybrid form of Sicilian that can only be considered a sublanguage, a specialized jargon that diminishes the status of a language that was the first poetic language of Italy with a literary tradition that is as old as English, if not older.

Let me address each of these two points:

– All language textbooks I have come across in my career try to address the culture that a language represents in a constructive and respectful manner, highlighting those aspects that characterize the country’s contributions to the world. When you pick up a French textbook, you undoubtedly will find articles describing French cuisine, fashions, wines, shopping in Paris, family life, art and Literature, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and so on. If you pick an Italian textbook, and the National Defense Institute created a textbook for Italian as well, that is very similar to other textbooks written during the same period, you will find the same kind of topics. Often these texts will have an American young man or young woman who acts as the mirror that reflects the foreign culture for the home crowd. Normal textbooks devise every conceivable situational plot shopping at the supermarket, going to the movies, visiting the Louvre, meeting interesting characters, eating at a local trattoria, traveling to a popular resort etc… The various topics provide the opportunities to present the culture of the country as well as the grammatical points on which the chapter is focusing its attention.

But the Sicilian textbook created by the National Defense Institute is rather unique in this regard. Instead of having some lovable young characters named Pippinu or Cicciu, Maria or Rusetta, who could be filters through which cultural material could be highlighted, the characters they employ are named Giuanni lu Sirausanu, lu Missinisi or Giuanni lu Scunzatu, and a number of people named Turiddu, Mariu or Ndria who seem to lack a last name not because the book wants to promote familiarity, but rather because providing their last names, though fictitious any way, could be used to identify them.

The characters move in an environment where last names are seldom used, preferring nicknames such as lu Sirausanu, lu Missinisi, or lu Scunzatu. And what do you suppose all of these interesting characters do for a living? They are all gangsters, members of the dreaded mafia and instead of seeing them enjoy the spectacular beauty of Sicily, we see them in California, precisely in San Diego, not far from the Monterey Presidio, where the National Defense Institute had it base of operations, as they prepare to engage in illegal activities that range from robbing a bank to smuggling narcotics.

Beginning with Chapter 22 and concluding with chapter 40, a good one third of the fifty chapters are devoted to the nefarious activities of these mafiusi. As my readers no doubt will find what I am saying a bit hard to believe I will briefly describe the dialogues and the texts that relate the content of the dialogues in prose form.

Chapter 24 is entitled “Un vicchescini a San Diegu”. Without focusing on the use of the word vicchescini which is Sicul- English for “vacation” for the moment, one imagines an innocent excursion to view the sight of this beautiful California city by the sea. The vicchescini, however, turns out to be something other than a vacation. We understand it to be a code word for something else when the speaker adds, mi capisci? to the sentence u bossu mi mannau a vicchescini, mi capisci? (The Boss sent me on vacation, do you understand me?). The interlocutor who is obviously a member of the ghenga (gang) quickly understands and we too know something’s afoot. It turns out that the guy has to go to San Diego to rob a bank. The rest of the dialogue is a give and take of advice on how to avoid being caught by the police. He should not take the train because the sbirri sunnu sempri pedi pedi (the cops are always around). Naturally, the man knows this, and he explains that he will travel to San Diego by car and at night and he will meet the local ghenga who will provide logistical support.

Chapter 25 is entitled Priparativi pi un furtu (Preparing for a Robbery). In this chapter the two mafiusi prepare a suitcase with all the tools they need to pull off the robbery. A list of very useful vocabulary is introduced, including cacciaviti (screwdriver), trapanu (drill), marteddu (hammer), pistola (gun), and dinamiti (dynamite), to name a few. They also mention idiomatic sentences like traviari lu carru (drive a car) for the fast getaway, and an item seldom present in a typical language textbook: li impronti digitali (fingerprints). So they need to wear guanti (gloves) and maschiri (masks) so as not to be recognized. In spite of the concern they display for not forgetting any tools they might need, the dialogue ends with the two mafiusi enjoying a relaxing tazza di cafè, (a cup of coffee) which they will drink, no doubt, with the pinky finger raised.

Chapter 26 is entitled Arrivu a la banca (Arrival at the Bank). As was customary for the audio-lingual method, the vocabulary learned in previous chapters needed to be recycled before new vocabulary was introduced. Thus we learn from their dialogue, recorded in real time as they are pulling off the robbery, that they managed to blow up the casciaforti (safe) with the dinamiti they had stolen before and they exercised caution not to leave behind the impronti digitali. But while using the drill to open the safe, the one charged with this task opts for using the dynamite to blow it open. The noise of the blast must have attracted attention because they hear people coming and one of the mafiusi tells the other to prepare his pistola for shooting against the polizzia. But these are pretty cool characters and after they fill up the suitcase with cash, they make sure they do not leave any of their tools behind before running to the waiting car outside.

Chapter 27 is entitled La Scappatina (The Escape) and it shows the two mafiusi running with a valise full of cash in a ‘62 white Ford that they abandon for a Buick waiting for them two miles away from the bank. While in the car they hear the radio announce how li pulissi (the police) have set up a road block on the main arteries blocking the road to the airport where a plane was to take them to Mexico. When they reach the road block, they see un troccu misu di chiattu nta la strata (a truck parked sideways across the road) and li pulissi (chi) stannu pirqusennu (sic) li machini (and the police searching the cars). As regards the troccu misu di chiattu that I translated as a truck placed sideways across the road, I understood what they meant by the context and not by the words they used. They meant to say di traversu, not di chiattu. Di chiattu means with the flat part of something. If you were talking of a sword di chiattu would mean striking with the flat part of it, not with the point which would be di punta.

Chapter 28 is entitled Lu inseguimentu di li pulissi (The Police Chase) and the conversation mimics gangster movies of the fifties and sixties where li pulissi and the bad guys engage in a shooting chase that ends badly for the mafiusi when their car gets a flattai (flat tire) and slams into a tree injuring the driver and pinning the leg of one of the other two under the seat. He complains that he cannot move because his legs is ‘nfilata sutta lu sittu (stuck under the seat). Obviously their adventure is over, but the textbook feels the need to explore how these mafiusi behave under other typical gangster scenarios.

Thus Chapter 29 is entitled Interrogatoriu di un suspettu (Police Interrogation of a Suspect) and its dialogue reminds me of Nino Martoglio’s famous sonnets entitled O scuru o scuru about delinquents living in the Civita section of Catania. Martoglio records some of the mobsters’ activities as well as some of their appearances before judges or police interrogators. In Martoglio’s sonnets the obviously guilty mobsters reply to the police questions with such pathetic excuses that incontrovertibly seal their guilt instead of declaring their innocence.

Chapter 30 continues the interesting journey into Sicilian culture. It is entitled Perquisizioni di un firmatu (Searching a Detained Person) and it too brings to mind Martoglio’s sonnets. Here too the mafiusu provides unimaginative and uncooperative replies. After searching him, the police found a small German pistol in his belt and asked him where he got it. He replied, Mi la purtai iu di la Gemania. (I brought it myself from Germany). Why didn’t he register it? Pirchi? mi lu scurdai! (Because I forgot). What about the morphine they found in his shoe’s heel? Cu ti desi ssa morfina? (Who gave you that morphine?) Nun mi la desi nuddu! (Nobody gave it to me!)

The next few chapters deal with ordinary themes like getting a haircut, —Dons need to look dapper, don’t they? but even talking about the health of a daughter or making what seems to be an innocent appointment to meet somebody reveals that we are still dealing with people operating on the fringes of legality. From one of these apparently harmless references we learn that the men are waiting for the arrival of a ship carrying some cargo of interest in the form of a double bottomed suitcase china di biancaria di lavari (full of (dirty) linen to launder) as we learn from Chapter 36. The two men go on board of a ship, after being given the signal from a complying sailor that it was all right to go on board. The man picks up a suitcase and hands it over to the troccu di lu lontru di Vanni lu Scunzatu (the Laundry Truck belonging to Vanni the Unkempt) who proceeds to deliver it safely to someone named lu Missinisi (Man from Messina). The suitcase contains enough cocaine to keep the ghenga from working for a long time.

The following prose recombination of the dialogue provides the reader with an education on how the mob operates:
Na tuttu lu munnu c’e? genti chi fa cuntrabbannu; c’e? cu’ lu fa pi mezzu di l’apparecchi, c’e? cu’ lu fa pi mezzu di li vapura. Na tutti li porti granni arrivanu vapura di tutti li parti di lu munnu, e unu di sti porti e? lu portu di Nova Yorki. Quasi tutti li mafiusi di ssa cita? sunnu a cuntattu cu li marinara di li vapura, e quannu unu d’iddi arriva iddi si fannu attruvari a la banchina e di dda si fannu signali si si ponnu avvicinari a lu vapuri. Iddi pero? sunnu furbi pirchi? di solitu chiddu chi s’avvicina a lu vapuri nun e? mai sulu pirchi? dda c’e? qualchi autru di la ghenga chi l’ aspetta cu qualchi troccu chi po’ essiri di pani o di lontru. Stu cuntrabbannu chi fannu po’ essiri di morfina, cocaina, eroina e oppiu. A li voti sti cuntrabbanneri sunnu furtunati pirchi? arrinescinu a nun essiri visti e a vinniri chiddu chi arricivinu; ma a li voti sunnu arristati prima chi arrivanu a nesciri di lu portu e a vinniri li droghi.
“In every part of the world people engage in smuggling; some utilize planes, others use ships. In every major port ships arrive from every part of the world and one of these is the port of New York. Almost all the mafia men of this city have contacts with the sailors on these ships and when one of them arrives the mafiusi wait on the pier and signal the sailors to see if they can approach the ships. These people are cunning, however, because usually the one who approaches the ship is never alone because there is some other member of the gang who is waiting with a truck that can be used for transporting bread or laundry. This contraband they are engaged in can be morphine, cocaine, heroin or opium. Sometimes these smugglers are lucky because they manage not to be spotted and sell all they receive; but at other times they are arrested before they manage to leave the port and sell the drugs.”

Chapter 37 returns to the interrogation of possible witnesses to a murder. Vicenzu Cutia is brought before the Ciffi di li pulissi (The Chief of Police) who questions him about a murder that occurred in the countryside near la farma di Giuvanni lu Sirausanu. (The Farm of Giuvanni from Siracusa)

Chapter 38 is entitled A la nisciuta di la carciri (Coming out of Jail) and it deals with a man who has spent time in jail and is met by a member of his gang who welcomes him back to freedom. Obviously both belong to the same crime family and have maintained contact with each other throughout the man’s detention through an intermediary who has provided the convict with whatever he needed during his time in prison.

In Chapter 39, a gangster who is traveling with a false passport recounts his uneventful flight out of Italy and his successful smuggling of a bag full of drugs into the country. He is met by a contact who will introduce him to the other members of the ghenga who are waiting for him and who will provide him with a job right away.

By now it is clear that this textbook was not designed like a regular language text. It was designed to provide American military personnel with enough linguistic ability to comprehend basic situations arising from interaction with Sicilian-Americans and Sicilians belonging to organized crime families.

I suppose that the Mafia in the sixties and seventies was perceived as a real threat to American society and that the government had reason to believe that teaching Sicilian to military personnel was a good investment. I suspect that the students taking this course were policemen, drug enforcement officers, and people engaged in the fight against organized crime. The goal, as stated at the beginning of the basic course, was to bring American military personnel to level 3 proficiency in comprehension and speaking and level 3 proficiency in reading and writing Sicilian, both of which in retrospect, seem overly ambitious. (Level 5 proficiency was reserved for people who have the linguistic abilities of an educated native.)

If the aim was to prepare policemen to infiltrate the Sicilian mafia, it was highly unlikely that even excellent students would be able to accomplish it. They probably would have been exposed the moment they opened their mouth. The task would have been accomplished better by hiring Sicilian native speakers. If the intent was to enable policemen to understand Sicilian tape-recorded conversations, they could have relied, as they do all the time, on native speakers to translate them more accurately.

The fact that the basic course used what can only be called a hybrid language made up of Sicilianized English words confirms that the students were to become proficient in the language supposedly spoken among Sicilian Americans who on their way to integrating into American society forgot how to speak Sicilian and resorted to a mixture that can be classified as Sicul-English. Immigrants from Spanish speaking countries have given rise to Spanglish, the French complain about their Franglais and Sicilians created their own Sicul-English. The authors of the texts did not invent anything. Most of the words they used in the dialogues I had heard before, although I had never seen some of them written.

I certainly had no difficulty with words like l’aisiscrima, (ice cream) lu bisinissi, (business) li franchifutti, (frankfurters) lu troccu, (truck) lu trubbulu, (trouble) la furnitura, (furniture) la ghenga, (gang) lu concritu, (concrete) la barra, (bar) la stima, (steam heat) lu sannuicciu, (sandwich) lu bicciu, (the beach) bisi, (busy) la marchetta, (market) lu sittu, (seat) lu chendi, (candy) li cucchi, (cookie) l’emma, (ham) lu scacci, (scotch) lu pulissi, (policeman) lu ciffi di li pulissi, (Chief of police) l’aiuvè, (highway). I did have to pause a bit to understand what an ira was until I mouthed the sound. Ira stands for heater, an aisiboll is a high ball drink, li prizzi are actually pretzels and lu flattai is a flat tire, while li apricozzi are apricots. These are words actually used in the dialogues and duly recorded in the vocabulary list of new words. I wonder what a newly arrived Sicilian who understands no English could make of the following utterances: The italicized words do not exist in Sicilian. They are Sicul-English words:
Chi voi viviri scacci o aisiboll? Voi na pocu di prizzi, cucchi (issi) o chendi? No, prifirisciu farimi un sannuicciu.
Pigghiati chiddu chi voi: ca c’e? salami, emma, e franchifutti (aiddogsi).
Lu troccu di lu lontru di Giuanni lu Scunzatu m’aspittava vicinu a la cafittaria.
Avemu cicna ’nfurnata, rost bif, aisiscrima.

To put it mildly, my newly arrived Sicilian would have a severe attack of culture shock on hearing such utterances. The words he would hear sound like Sicilian but are nothing more than English dressed up in Sicilian. It was actually weird to hear the voices of people who are clearly native Sicilians record such Sicul-English words.

Native Sicilians would also find difficulty understanding idiomatic phrases used throughout the dialogues that can only be understood by Sicilian-Americans who understand English. During the chase scene one of the mafiusi urges his companion to proceed a la stessa vilocità finu a quannu arrivamu vicinu a lu troccu, doppu metti gas. (At the same speed but when we get near the truck, give it gas). The expression mettiri gas was meant to convey the concept of “stepping on the accelerator”. But Sicilian cars do not run on gas, they run on binzina and gas is just natural gas, like propane used for cooking. It’s not gasoline. One more example will suffice: the mafiusi continuously use the expression Traviari lu carru or la machina for driving. In Sicilian the verb to drive a car is maniari or guidari la machina. Similarly, Sicilians would have trouble understanding the verb apparcari (to park).

The use of such hybrid vocabulary clearly puts the student at a disadvantage in communicating with Sicilians who have not been exposed to American English. Imagine an undercover DEA agent who is trying to infiltrate a Sicilian gang! Additionally, the dialogues are written in a language that is definitely archaic and dated, not by today’s standards, but by the standards of the sixties and early seventies. Sicilian Americans who are still fluent in Sicilian and who try to speak Sicilian when they visit the island routinely complain that the locals react with surprise on hearing their dated language: “I haven’t heard that word in thirty years!” is a typical Sicilian reaction to Sicilian-Americans’ speaking Sicilian. This occurs even without the use of such Sicul-English vocabulary we highlighted above. This is a well known phenomenon.

The language of the immigrants remains basically the same, while the language of the people on the island is exposed to many changes. As a living language, it is continuously changing, evolving, acquiring new words and discarding others. The language of the emigrants becomes fossilized; it is imprisoned in a time warp. Some of this is evident in the dialogues. A few examples will suffice: The use of the pronoun Vussia, which was used as a polite form of address to older persons and people in authority, is no longer used in the same way. It has been replaced in part by the pronoun Lei, borrowed from Italian. Today Vussia is used among the older generations as a form of mutual respect. The younger generations use mainly the Lei and the Vussia is reserved for addressing a very old person or a person deserving respect.

The dialogues and the pattern drills use it instead as a more formal form of address than the tu form. Also they make abundant use of the expression A sa which stands for Vussia. A Sa talia sta cosa! For Vussia talia sta cosa! (Please look at this thing, Sir!) This use has become very rare among today’s Sicilians.

Of all the grievous shortcomings that these texts have, the most pernicious one is the characterization of Sicilians as gangsters whose lives are devoted to robbing banks, smuggling drugs, controlling rackets, committing murders and engaging in countless other criminal activities.

While I can understand that the purpose of the program was to combat the mafia perceived as a threat to national security, I see these teaching materials as one more example, as if we needed more, of the unfair campaign of negative characterization of Sicilians that has been waged against them since they were forced to emigrate from their island in search of a better life. The idea of creating a Sicilian language textbook whose main characters are Sicilian thieves and murderers is simply inexcusable. The authors themselves obviously were aware that they were proposing something that was “controversial from some points of view,” but they excused themselves by saying that the military personnel for whom the material was created “may find themselves in positions where clear understanding of conversations or written material of this nature will be essential to their mission.

The presence of controversial statements—whether real or apparent—in DLIFLC material should not be construed as representing the opinions of the writers, of the Defense Language Institute, or of the Department of Defense.” That is a pretty lame excuse! It was they after all who invested a lot of time and money in the creation of the course! As inexcusable as these texts are, they are made worse by the impression that Sicilian was singled out for the special treatment.

The Italian textbook that I purchased along with the Sicilian one is altogether different. No gangsters appear as running protagonists of the dialogues. As I don’t have the French or Spanish textbooks, I cannot say whether French or Spanish are given the same treatment as Sicilian. Smuggling and drugs have been connected with both areas. We all remember the famous smuggling operation known as the French Connection and the terrible problem posed by the Spanish-speaking South American drug lords. But even if the French and Spanish textbooks utilized gangsters speaking Franglais and Spanglish, which seems unlikely, my condemnation of the Language Institute’s enterprise would not be less vehement. They have done a disservice not only to the Sicilian language, but to the Sicilian people.

Gaetano Cipolla
Arba Sicula

Arba Sicula
Arba Sicula
Arba Sicula is a non-profit international organization that promotes the language and culture of Sicily. The President and Editor, Gaetano Cipolla, is a Sicilian native and professor of language and literature at St. John’s University in New York.

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  1. I found this article fascinating and shocking in equal measure. In my history of language learning I have never encountered anything similar. I once saw an English text in Greece with bowler hatted gents in all the pictures, but that’s another matter. In any case I’m a firm believer that you start any learning experience with the nuts and bolts of language – you give people the tools and they will be creative with the results – whatever the purpose. You can’t teach business language without the general fundamentals in place. Not only was this approach offensive, it was also flawed, as you point out. Just imagine trying to give a native English speaker enough Colombian accented Spanish to infiltrate a drug gang after just a few months at level 3 – rumbled as soon as they opened their mouth!! Let alone the implications of tarring all Colombians with the same brush.

  2. Prof. Cipolla’s wonderful article brings back many thoughts about my Sicilian grandfather as a young boy in America. His parents would not let him speak Sicilian because they were afraid he would be judged poorly by his classmates. In the early to mid 1900’s, both Italians and Sicilians were thought of as lower-class citizens, even by other European’s who came to America. This article reinforces the discrimination of the time.

    Now, I wonder how Professor feels about the northern Italians who look down upon the Sicilians in the year 2013? I don’t think their ideas are much different than those posed in these books from the 50’s.

  3. Ciau Tutti,

    Bravu Bravu, Professor Cipolla! Those are the sterotypes about our culture that gave way to the ugly name-calling we endured in the 60’s and 70’s in America. I was born here, but all of my great-grandparents are from Sicily. They left me an eternal love of Sicily within my heart. Sicilians are passionate, compassionate and generous people. And of all the land on Earth, it must be visited at least once in life. ‘N abbrazzu sinceru!

  4. Thank You for posting this information! Another disappointing case of sterotyping.I believe there must be at least one source that a person could go to and believe its contents to be correct. My grandparents came from Sicily and I feel that I would like to pursue the Sicilian language before my visit., I have had to pull it all together from various sources to do so. There is so much out there to make it confusing. Here is a simple example. On a translation web site I found today, they break down a word in English and follow it up with the word in Italian and again in Sicilian. So, I chose to look up cannoli. I find cannolo is the singular form, cannoli is plural in Italian and cannolu is Sicilian, but is it singular or plural? Then tonight I come to this wonderful website and there is a humorous take on a cannolo in space. Now I am totally confused. The Sicilians from this article are using the Italian version ……OR….. is it the web site that was incorrect…! How to learn?

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