The Sicilian Language Through the Centuries

By Nino Russo –

A language is the soul of a people, it is what sets a people free, and it is the history of a people through the centuries. It is what distinguishes a people from another, not only because of the idiomatic differences but because it gives a spiritual identity to that people. Languages, in some countries, vary so much to the point that people do not understand each other from one geographical point to another. Such is the case with Italy, and Italy is a country, one country, under one government with a language, which is many centuries old. Such is not the case with Sicily. Sicily was a country, one country, with its own government, and its own language, a language which is many centuries old, but where, even with some variations, the inhabitants understand each other from any geographical point of the island they come. But Sicily is a small island, some may say; not so small, Sardinia is smaller, and so are all the other regions of Italy, where in some, within their own border they do not understand each other, if they speak their own dialect.

This phenomenon of uniformity of language was observed by many glottologists, one of which, the German Gerard Rohlfs, writes: “…exists in the island (Sicily) a unitarian dialect. The differences which one can find in the lexicon derive almost exclusively from the presence more or less of the Greek and Arab relics. The Latin lexicon presents, in the all island, such uniformity rarely to be found in the rest of Italy.” Still it does not mean that today’s Sicilian language, recent or even a few centuries old, was formed all at the same time, and if it was, quite a bit of it is now forever gone. Languages are always in motion. As with anything else, the process of evolution is omnipresent. Although some traits of our language are and remain “Sicilian”, still we can say that the Sicilian language is a language formed by strata.

Apuleius, a Sicilian writer of the second century A.D., calls the Sicilian Trilingual, because they could speak three languages:  Greek, Punic  and Latin. Later, with the Arab occupation, another language came into the mix with the others. And this is not the end of the stratification of our language, because with the arrival of the Normans, we have the French from Normandy added to our already complex language. With the end of the Norman dynasty, the kingdom of Sicily went to Frederick II, called “Splendor Mundi” for his exceptional knowledge on almost anything. Frederick, besides adding to the Sicilian with the German vocabulary (not much), initiated a revitalization of the Latin language across Sicily and Southern Italy in order to combat the religion of Islam. Hence, the Sicilian language lost the remaining archaic Latin forms, acquiring the younger ecclesiastic Latin which made the Sicilian language more elegant and more pleasing to the ear. Greek was still used though at this time, so much so that when Frederick II enacted his Costituzioni Melfitane (Amalfitan Constitutions), he had to publish them in Greek in Sicily, because Latin had almost been forgotten after so many centuries of being absent.

The process of re-latinizzation, started by Frederick II, lasted until the XIV century, but in the meantime the Aragonese dynasty had taken hold in Sicily, which with the following Spanish domination gave the Sicilian language another stratum of vocabulary that lasts till our days. With the unification of Italy and the annexation of Sicily to Italy, and the imposition of the Italian language upon the Sicilians, yet another vocabulary was being placed on top of all the others, and it did not end here because Sicily would be subject to still another occupation in 1943 which added some Americanism to the language. Therefore we can summarize by saying that: the Sicano-Siculo language of three thousand years ago, was influenced:

1) The Greeks starting from the VII century B.C. from whom we still use quite a few words, such as:


         Sicilian                                               Greek                                          English

Vastasu Bastaz Porter (also: vulgar)
Cirasa  Kerasos Cherry
Ntamatu Thuma Stupid
Ntamari tammar To stun  –  amaze
Babbiari  Babazein  To kid around
Bucali Baukalis Pitcher   
Bummulu Bubulios Jug
Allippatu Lipos Mossy/Slippery
Anga Ango  Molar (also: to crush)
Carusu Keiro Boy
Grasta Rastra Flower pot
Pistiari Apestiein To eat
appizzari èpeson To go bad
cartedda kartallos Basket   (Latin cratellum)
cuddura kollyra  type of bread
naca  nake cradle
tuppiàri typto to knock


2) The Romans starting from the IV century B.C., but do not have much left of the archaic Latin, due to the fact that the Latin influence disappeared in Sicily because of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Latin that mostly survived in the language is from the re-lanitization that Roger II and Fredrick II executed in Sicily and Southern Italy after they organized the kingdom of Sicily. These are some of the ancient Latin words we still use in our everyday language:

             Sicilian                                               Latin                                                  English

Muscaloru                       Muscarium Fan
Grasciu Crassus Grease
Oggiallannu Hodie est annus  Last Year         
Antura Ante oram    A while ago (An hour  ago)
cartedda cratellum Basket
burnia hirnea Jar
cassata caseata Cheese cake


3)After all of this, the Arabs took over in 820 a.D., leaving great signs of influence of their language, which, as the Greek’s, last till today. These are some of the words we use, which have an Arab root:


                     Sicilian                                              Arabic                                                  English

azzizzari aziz to embellish
babbaluciu boubalàkion snail
burnia burniya jar
cassata qashatah sicilian cake
cafisu qafiz measure for liquids
gèbbia gabiya water storage for irrigation
giuggiulena giulgiulan sesame seed
mafia mahyas swagger or boldness/bravado
ràisi rais leader
saia saqiya canal (for irrigation)
Rotulu Ratal Weight measure   
Sciarra Siarr Quarrel
Tabbutu  Tabut Coffin
zaffarana safara saffron
zagara zahar blossom (orange or lemon’s)
zibbibbu Zbib type of table grape
Zimmili Zamila Knapsack 
Zotta Saut Whip
zuccu suq tree trunk


Even Mount Etna was renamed by the Arabs, calling it Mongibello, from the Latin root Mons (mount) and the Arab Gebel, which also means “mount”. In so doing the Arabs called  Etna the “Mount-Mount”; maybe they thought it was the father of all Mountains, or, at least, of all volcanoes. Because of such great Arab influence in our language, the poet Salvatore Valenti Chiaramonte, of Agrigento, around the end of the XIX century, wrote:


Here it comes the Sicilian language,
Among all the languages the most ancient,
When the Arabs brought so much trouble,
To Sicily with their hard behavior,
They new accents brought and new words,
Which were hard for the aliens to pronounce,
“ddu, dda, bagaredda, gebbia, sciarra, favara, funnacu, garifu, giarra”.
(that, there, pan, pond, quarrel, spring, inn, grass, jar)


4) With the Normans we get yet another layer to our language, complicating it more than it already is. Even so, the Sicilians kept on adding to their vocabulary, enriching the language as they went. Foreign people came to Sicily either to make it their own land or to exploit it, and the Sicilian people rejected the bad things that the foreign people brought or administered to them and kept the best things. Following are some of the word that derive from Norman-French that we still use:


Sicilian                                              Norman-French                             English                         

accattari acheter to buy
ammuntuari mentevoir to mention
appujari appuyer to support
Accia Ache Celery
Ammucciuni  Mucer Secretely
Ammuarra  Armoire Cupboard
Buffetta  Buffet Little table
custureri couturier tailor
Firmari    Fermer To close To close
foddi fou Mad-foul
Fumeri  Fumier Manure
giugnettu juignet July
Ladiu laid ugly
largasìa largesse generosity
lueri luer rent
racina raisin grape
raggia rage anger
Sciaffurru  Chaffeur Driver
testa teste head
Tirabuscio Tire-bouchon      Corkscrew
travagghiari travailler to work
trippiari triper to hop, skip
Truscia Trousser Bundle
vucceri bouchier butcher 

5) The Spanish domination lasted over  five centuries in Sicily and gave us still other customs, ways of living, new laws and more vocabulary:


                           Sicilian                                              Spanish                                      English

Abbuccari Abocar To fall to one side
Accanzari  Accanzari  To gain
Arrinari Arenar To strand
Cinniri  Ceniza Ashes
Curtigghiu Cortigo Alley
Cusiri Coser To sew
Gregna Grena Sheave
Lastima Lastima Trouble
Muccaturi  Mocador Handkerchief
Nzirtari Encertar To guess
Pignata Pinada   Pan
Scupetta Scopeta Rifle
Sgarrari Esgarrar To miss (the aim)
Sulitu Solito Alone
Truppicari   Tropezar   To stumble
Zita Cita Girl-friend


6) In the XVIII century, between Spanish dominations, Sicily was given to the Austrian Empire, and to repay us for all the gold that they took to their country by the mule loads from Sicily, they left us a few words that we still use:


                              Sicilian                                              German                                      English

Laparderi Hallabardier Parasite, sponger
Arancari Rank To plod along
Sparagnari Sparen To save (money)
Guastedda Wastel Type of round bread

7) Last, but not least, the emigrants first during the pre-war era, and, later, with the American army landing in Sicily in 1943, brought us more vocabulary to add to our own. Will it ever stop?


                                                              Sicilian                                   English


Bossu Boss
Giobba Job
Cottu Coat
Siccu Thin (from sick)


Besides the English has influenced the superlative of the adjectives by adding the prefix “very”:


                                                              Sicilian                                   English

Veru beddu Most beautiful
Veru siccu Most thin
Veru laidu Most ugly


Last but not least is the fact that the Sicilian language, even if in a small measure, as G. Gulino explains in a beautiful artcle : U Dialettu Sicilianu: a nostra  mimoria storica”, Translated by prof. G. Cipolla (Arba Sicula (no.1&2 1997) has influenced the Italian language.  In fact we have lent the Italian language words as:

                         Sicilian                                              Italian                                   English

Cannolu Cannolo (a pastry) Cannoli
Trazzera Trazzera Short path
Virdeddi Verdelli Green lemons (May or Aug)
Ntrallazzu Intrallazzo Racket
Salmurigghiu Salmoriglio lemon dressing
Picciottu Picciotto Young man
Sfinciuni Sfincione Sicilian pizza


… and many others.

So we can see from all the above roots that, different strata formed the Sicilian language, but that does not mean that it is not Sicilian. If so many people dominated Sicily, they did not dominate the Sicilian spirit, which remained free from any domination and imposition. The Sicilians took the languages that the foreigners imposed on them and transformed them, making them Sicilian. So as you can see, in a very subtle way, we were the ones to dominate them. The Sicilians took from the occupying countries what they recognized was good for them, rejecting all that was not in tune with their values of family, sense of honor, love and respect for the dead, sense of hospitality, respect for the father as head and provider of the family, respect for the mother as center of the family, love and respect for friendship, etc.

All of this the Sicilian had from the beginning and the dominating armies were never able to take this away from them and the Sicilians never lost it. That means the Sicilian language is our language, made by us formed by our ancestors and it is unique like no other language in the world. Let’s not lose it.

       Nino Russo   

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