The Language We Speak

For the longest time there has been a great and long debate about the Sicilian language. The debate centers on two issues:

1) is the Sicilian a language or a dialect? If a language,
2) should it be listed as a minority language?

The arguments have been long and exhausting, without ever reaching an agreement. Some years ago the European Union gave permission to each member of the Union to list any language in their country worthy as a minority language. Well, the Italian government listed the Sardinian and the Friulan languages, among some others, as minority languages, but not the Sicilian, which can be said that in some manner gave birth to the Italian language. For this is enough to study a little of the Sicilian School of Frederic II at the Court of Palermo around 1200.

  Most agree nowadays, that Sicilian is a language with its grammar, syntax, rules and regulations. Of course, as in any language, Sicilian has its accents and variations from region to region, but anybody who wants to know the language itself all he has to do is check the works of Giovanni Meli of whom somebody said that as a great tailor, festively dressed the Sicilian language. We do not have just Meli, but before him in the 16th century Antonino Veneziano and others, and later, in the nineteenth century we have Domenico Tempio, who is subject of studies at the University of Palermo.

  We have Nino Martoglio in the twentieth century whose language brings us close to any class of the Sicilian people and who with his theater delighted countless people not only in Sicily, but all over Italy and even abroad. In the last twenty years, if we do not count the literature of the nineteenth century, many Sicilian writers have found delight not only in the Sicilian language but more so in its spirit, conveyed by body language, gestures, and way of expression purely Sicilian. The Sicilian language, after the unification of Italy and later under the dictates of Mussolini, was regarded as a dialect and, thinking back, there was such brain washing of all the people of Sicily that the Sicilian language came to be regarded not only as a dialect, but worse, as a rough and uneducated way of communication. It came to be looked upon as the language of the peasants, of the poor, of the have not.

  Before we look at the new, well known modern Sicilian writers, we can give a look at the author of the literature of the 1900s: Luigi Pirandello, Giovanni Verga, Rosso di San Secondo, Elio Vittorini and later, in the 20th century, Tomasi da Lampedusa, Leonardo Sciascia, to mention just about a few. Not all of these luminaries of the Sicilian literature wrote in Sicilian but from every pore of their being one can feel springing out the character, the honesty, the intensity of feelings, the sense of hospitality, the sense of honor, the sense of the family unit, the respect for others that are all Sicilian. Anybody who reads those authors comes away with a sense of admiration and better understanding of the land of Sicily and its inhabitants.

From those works also transpires the way Sicilians use their language, the way they communicate, at times even with gestures or with an imperceptible movement of the head or the eyes. In the last twenty years we have been having a change in the writing of our Sicilian authors. Not only they have taken example from the old Sicilian school mentioned above, but have enlarged their expressive language including in their narratives many known and at times even no more used Sicilian expressions. The first one that comes to mind is Andrea Cammilleri who with his prolific production of the Inspector Montalbano has invaded the world.

His writings are a mixture of Italian language and Sicilian expressions, just as Sicilians speak today, mixing the two languages; the following is an example of one of many conversations between the Inspector Montalbano and his subordinate Catare`. This one is from the Camilleri book La Prima Indagine di Montalbano (The first Montalbano’s investigation)

[on the telephone]: -Pronto, Montalbano sono (Hello, this is Montalbano).

[Catare`]: –La sapi una cosa Dotori, proprio la stissa pricisa idintifica voci di suo fratello gimelo Arturo teni! – (Do you want to know something Dottore, you have the same precise identical voice as your brother Arturo!)

[Montalbano]: –Capita tra gemelli, Catare`, ma tu perche` parli accussì. – (It happens between twins, Catare`, but why do you talk like this?) –

[Catare`]: –Accusì comu Dotori?- (Like this, how Dottore?)[In Italy anybody who has a university degree can be called “doctor” from the latin “teacher”]

[Montalbano]: –Per esmpio dici Dotori invece di Dottori, con due t. – (For example you say Dotori instead of Dottori, with two ts).

[Catare`]: –Aieri sera me lo dise un Milanese di Torino che qua avemo la tinta bitudine di parlari metendoci due cose, come si chiamano, ah ecco, consonatazioni. – (Last night I was told by a Milanese from Turin that we here (in Sicily) have the bad habit, when we talk to put two things, what’s their name, oh yes, consonants).

Now a Sicilian will immediately see the mixing of the two languages and the fun that the writer makes of poor Catare`, in this case of his little knowledge of the Italian language. But it is done in a such refined way that generates laughter and great pleasure in the reader. All Camilleri books are written in this fashion, with hundreds of variations that reveal to the reader the great command of the two languages by the writer.

The same thing we find in Giuseppe Calagna in his book: La Primavera di Curcuru`, where the writer makes a great use of the Sicilian language. In the Prolog Curcuru` talking to his psichiatrist, who he calls “pissichiatra” and who wants to fill him with many different medicines because of Curcurù’s mental illness, the patient rejects the doctor’s argument by saying:

Ca beddu ero prima: mi scantavo di la mia ummira, mi facia pisciari in testa di tutti e dintra lu paisi contavo comu un due di coppi a briscola. Ora ca mi sento bene e ca nun mi scanto di nuddu…tza, droghi e vileni! ( Was I pretty before… I was afraid of my shadow, I let everybody piss over my head and in town I was worth as a two in the briscola game (a sicilian card game where the two is the smallest point card). Now that I feel good and that I do not fear anybody…tza, drugs and poisons). Once again, only a Sicilian can find the humor in it, which in this case is highly amusing.

Another contemporary excellent writer is Simonetta Agnello Hornby, who is the author of a few books. This author is also Sicilian, born in Palermo, although, because she married an Englishman, she lives in England where she works as a lawyer but also she is the President of the Tribunal of Special Educational Needs. In writing her books she never forgot where she came from nor she forgot Sicily in its variegated forms nor its language. She wrote La Minnulara (The almonds picker), where even if she does not use many Sicilian words one can smell the Sicilian ways. She also wrote La Zia Marchesa set in the aristocracy of the last 1800s, where her Sicilian comes up live and ringing as she were in her native Palermo. She uses words as “scutulari” (to shake), “quartara d’acqua” (water jar) and many Sicilian proverbs, as “Vecchi e picciriddi Diu l’aiuta“(God helps old people and children), or “Amuri, tussi e fumu nun si ponnu tiniri cilati” (You cannot hide love, cough and smoke). Or when one of her characters makes out a story to the delight of a little aristocratic girl, starting the story in the Sicilian way: –C’era na vota un picuraru che viveva in una casuzza…- (Once upon a time there was a shepherd who lived in a little house…)

The Sicilian people have been through the millennia occupied by many powers, and as an occupied people were not treated well. At times one word, heard by an official, or by somebody who for one reason or another will report what a person had said, was enough to put that person in danger of prison, torture or even a death sentence. For these reasons and many others relating to way of life, defense of the family, work reasons, the Sicilian people little by little devised a way of communicating without words: by imperceptible signs, by a movement of the eyes, by a simple look or by gestures. In time this way of communication became important and was perpetuated by the behavior of the aristocracies of the feudal system. With the advent of the country- side mafia, gained strength, and more with unification of  Italy, were the Sicilian people were regarded as barbarians by the Savoia crown and later by Mussolini.

This way of communication became such a part of daily living that it was used even in the family unit. I remember when as a child a certain look given to me by my father told me without words and most emphatically,  that what I was about to do was not good, with the promise of  big punishment, if I did not obey that look. Or when the all family sitting at dinner, he will look at something on the table, bread, water pitcher, the bread knife or anything also he needed, with a non verbal comment, with a slight movement of the head. There was always a person in the family that would notice and understand and pass to him what he was requesting, without word being spoken.

The language which was most known and used, and which is getting lost now, was the language of gestures, where one or more person would engage in a short conversation at a distance. We will try and give some examples here of what we are talking about.

Nino Russo

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6 COMMENTS

  1. pultroppo in italia la sicilia non e’ stata mai classificata,immaginiamocci se dovrebero accettare la nostra lingua dialettale che proviene dal vecchio volgare italiano.

  2. Dear Salvatore Russo,
    La Lingua Siciliana NON proviene dal volgare italiano ma dal LATINO!
    Solo per citare un sito, “wikipedia” , questa recita:
    …”Peraltro il siciliano non è una lingua derivata dall’italiano, ma, al pari di questo, direttamente dal latino. Anche l’Unesco riconosce al siciliano lo status di lingua madre e lo inserisce tra le lingue europee non a rischio di estinzione” .
    Grazie
    Giovanni

  3. As a foreigner who doesn’t speak Sicilian, I stick to Italian in shops and bars, but love to hear Sicilian spoken. I also get great pleasure from reading Camilleri in the original. After a while the brain gets a good feel for the Sicilianisms and the great different between that and the formal bureaucratic Italian of Montalbano’s boss. As great as the translations are, they inevitably miss something. The age old debate between what constitutes a dialect and a language is fascinating and occasionally politically motivated. For example, Danes and Swedes can often understand one another, but I have spoken to Sicilians who have worked in the north of Italy and they have found northern dialects impenetrable and vice-versa. Given this criterion, shouldn’t Sicilian be the language with Danish and Swedish being dialects. Someone once said that a language is a dialect with an army!! English is after all part of a language continuum that takes in Norse, Dutch and French – a Germanic language in the unusual position of having a massive Latinate vocabulary. For my money, Sicilian is a separate language and should be classified as such – fascinating article.

  4. Il Siciliano non é un dialetto ma una lingua. Deriva come l’italiano direttamente dal Latino. In oltre dato che la Sicilia prima del’arrivo dei Normanni si parlava Arabo con minoranze Greche e latine si puo dire che la lingua fu impportata dalla penisola in Sicilia da gruppi salentini e calabresi. Infatti oggi in tali reggioni si parla una lingua che somiglia molto il siciliano.

  5. Nino Russo I enjoyed reading what you wrote…As a Sicilian I can be transported to the days of the shift of the eye, the simple change of the lip and the unspoken words that were never misinterpreted… Always the elders were respected and revered…As a Sicilian I feel Unique and Blessed…Goditi La Vita, Cecelia

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