The Sicilian language is a mix of culture, history and tradition. It is not only a way to speak, but also a mode to express the best and the worst of the history of my island and Sicilians altogether.
In this language, there are colorful sentences, swears, greetings, but above all, all of the vicissitudes of the Sicilian people. The Sicilian language is also a way of being, a mood of the Sicilian culture, a stunning remembrance about what Sicilians were yesterday and today.
For this reason, I decided to dedicate an entire post to this important topic. If you are interested in discovering more about the language of Sicily, read the following paragraphs.
Sicilian language: What is it?
The language Sicilian people speak in my island is a group of local idioms and dialects used in the various zones of Sicily. In reality, Sicilians don’t speak their own Sicilian language, but the official language of Italy, which is Italian. The Sicilian language is spoken privately and among Sicilians.
Sicilians, in fact, speak Sicilian among their friends and relatives. Nowadays, however, they prefer speaking Italian, especially with their soul mate and their children. There is an only language in Sicily, but several variants. They are the so called dialects.
In Palermo, for example, people speak Palermitano; in Catania, instead, they speak Catanese. Palermitano and Catanese are the most typical and lively local languages spoken in Sicily. Palermitano has a deep and warm pronunciation, while Catanese is sharper and seems like a sort of scream.
“To see” becomes Viremu in Catanese, while it is turned into Videmu in Palermitano. There are several local differences. Always the same verb becomes Viri in the province of Ragusa.
People use a lot of R in the last province. There is a village in the province of Caltanissetta, Niscemi, where people speak a local dialect that makes me smile. They always add a personal pronoun to the verbs, such as mi trasi, to say “enter, please”; mi nesci, to say “exit, please”.
The Sicilian language origin
The language of Sicily has been influenced by the civilizations which conquered and dominated the island in the ancient age. Many Sicilian words derive from Greek, such as ciaramita (tile), taddarita (bat) and troffa, from the Greek word trophé, which means bush. Many traditional Sicilian words were borrowed by the ancient Greek language.
Let’s think about cuddura or cudduredda, from the Greek word kollura. That is a rounded piece of bread. If it is big, it is called cuddura, if it is small, it is called cudduredda, which means little cuddura.
Cantaru is another traditional Sicilian word with a Greek origin. It comes from the Greek word kantharus. That is an ancient pot Sicilians peasants used as a toilet. In the ancient time, indeed, Sicilians lived in an extreme poverty. Their homes were little countryside huts with no facilities.
The toilet was usually made through a cantaru placed in the stable. As you can see, every Sicilian word contains a piece of the history and the tradition of the island. Another unforgettable Sicilian word is cartedda.
That was the traditional straw basket used by peasants to carry food. Afterwards, this tool was turned into a fashion accessory sold all over the world: the Coffa Bag. Many Greek words were used by Sicilians in the Latin age and in the middle Greek age, in 535 AC.
The words which belonged to the ancient Greek were, instead, used in the cities conquered by the namesake civilization, namely Palermo, Catania, Syracuse, Gela and Lentini.
As the other Italian dialects, Sicilian is a Neo-Latin language derived by the vulgarization process of the Latin language.
The latter was brought by the ancient Romans, but the process was very slow, because there already were many Greek cities in Sicily and the local natives, namely the Sicans and the Sicules, used their own language.
The process accelerated with Emperor August, who spread Latin words in the local language spoken by the ancient Sicilians. And so, several Latin words entered, officially, the Sicilian language, such as trasiri (enter), from the Latin word “transiri”, addauru (laurel) and filinia (spider web).
Latin influenced even the previous Greek cities, such as Giardini Naxos, Gela, Selinunte, Messina and Catania, and the small islands beloging to Sicily, such as Favignana, Lipari and Marettimo. The Sicilian language endured even the influence of the Arab domination.
In the VIII century, the Arabs conquered Pantelleria and, in 827 AC, they took over Mazara del Vallo. Sicily was, hence, split in three zones: Mazara Valley, in Western Sicily; Noto Valley, in Eastern Sicily, and Demon Valley, in the North East of Sicily. The most relevant Arab influence was just in Mazara Valley.
This influence is also visible in the names of many sicilian villages with the prefix Cal, such as Caltanissetta, Calatafimi, Caltagirone. Cal and calt derive from the Arab word “qal’a”, which means castle or fortress.
Mongibello, Gibilmanna and Gibilrossa are formed by the Arab word gebel (mount), Racalmuto and Regalbuto derive from the Arab rahl (house). Favara and Favarotta come from the Arab word fawwara (source). Burgio and Borgetto come from burg (tower).
The other Sicilian villages with Arab names are: Dainissinni, Dainammari, Donnalucata, Donnafucata and Janicattini. Their names come from ain (fountain). Mascali derives from the Arab word masker (field). Alcantara, instead, comes from el quanthra (bridge). Even many common Sicilian words come from Arab, such as gebbia (tub), zizzu (an elegant and stylish person), mammaluccu (stunned); zaccanu (pigsty).
Just think that there is a countryside zone, in my village, called Zaccanu. Furthermore, when I was a little girl, I went to visit my grandparents in the countryside of Ragusa. They had a courtyard with the gebbia (tub) and used this facility to water their fields!
The meaning of the Sicilian words
I think that an only post is not enough to explain the long history of the Sicilian language. There is the past of Sicily in each of them; there is my past and the sweet remembrances of every Sicilian. Every word tells a story: the one of the ancient peasants, the one of the hard work of Sicilians, their challenges, struggles and hopes.
Obviously, I know the meaning of the Sicilian words mentioned in this article. Many of you ask what the Sicilian word bedda means. Bedda is an historical word coming from the traditional Sicilian religiosity. Bedda means beautiful and was a word traditionally addressed to the Virgin Mary.
Indeed, during funerals and processions, Sicilian women and mourners pronounced the words Bedda Matri Santissima (Beautiful Holy Mother) to pray the Virgin Mary. Sicily’s men used to court women with the word bedda. They used to say: si troppu bedda (you are too beautiful).
Another fun courtship phrase in Sicilian is used in Catania. It is: “Mi fai sancu, paparedda, se ti pigghiu, ti sminnittiu!”. I like you too much! If I catch you, I’ll fill you with a lot of kisses!
As you have surely noted, many Sicilian words use a big quantity of D, bedda, paparedda, cuddiredda, the D is the distinctive symbol of the Sicilian language. Another traditional Sicilian sentence is made of an only word: futtitinni (don’t worry).
Futtitinni is a word that Sicilians say to people in troubles. Sicily has always had many troubles: mafia, injustice, economic crisis, unemployment, poverty, emigration. Indeed, futtitinni is a kind of advice given to worried people.
It seems a dismissive word. In reality, it shows the entire warm of Sicilians. They don’t want you to suffer. They want you to live happy and without troubles.
Sicilian language vocabulary and books
There are many other tons of words and sentences in Sicilian.
To better know them, you can see a couple of online dictionaries. These tools are free and have a Sicilian vocabulary with English and Italian translation next to the words in Sicilian.
There are also many books that can help you better understand the Sicilian language.
Truth to tell, the main expert of the language of Sicily is Giuseppe Pitrè, a a Sicilian doctor and a writer from Palermo. He had a deep interest for the Sicilian culture, but many books of him are only in Italian. Anyway, I don’t think you must learn Sicilian through grammar books.
To deepen the local language of my island, a good solution is a book in English and Italian that includes an interesting collection of traditional Sicilian proverbs. However, if you want to really learn the language of Sicily’s history, you can find a comprehensive list of books here.
English to Sicilian language translator
I saw web apps and online translators from Sicilian to Italian, but not to English. The ones in English translate only simple sentences.
However, I understand you feel the desire to retrieve your Sicilian roots.
Maybe you have still the letters in Sicilian handwritten by your relatives and would like to have them in English.
If you are in need to feel and understand the emotions your ancestors felt when they left our beloved Sicily, get in touch with me. I’ll be happy to offer you a translation service from Sicilian to English.
All this will let you keep your Sicilian memory always alive, because no piece of Sicily’s history deserves to be forgotten!
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