Sicilian language

Sicilian is a Romance language spoken on the island of Sicily and its satellite islands.
It also has a variant, Calabro-Sicilian, because it is also spoken in southern Calabria, specifically in the Province of Reggio Calabria, whose dialect is viewed as being part of the continuum of the Sicilian language. Central Calabria, the southern parts of Apulia and Campania, on the Italian peninsula, are viewed by some as being part of a broader Far Southern Italian language group.
Ethnologue describes Sicilian as being "distinct enough from Standard Italian to be considered a separate language" and is recognized as a minority language by UNESCO. It has been referred to as a language by the Sicilian region. It has the oldest literary tradition of the modern Italian languages. Even now a version of the UNESCO magazine is available in Sicilian.


Sicilian is currently spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of Sicily and by emigrant populations around the world. The latter are found in the countries which attracted large numbers of Sicilian immigrants during the course of the past century or so, especially the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina. In the past four or five decades, large numbers of Sicilians were also attracted to the industrial zones of northern Italy and areas of the European Union, especially Germany.
It is not used as an official language anywhere, not even within Sicily, where currently the government does not regulate the language in any way. Since its inception in 1951, the Center for Sicilian Philological and Linguistic Studies in Palermo has been researching and publishing descriptive information on the Sicilian language. In 2017 the non-profit organisation Cademia Siciliana created an orthographic proposal to help normalise the written form of the language.
The autonomous regional parliament of Sicily has legislated Regional Law No. 9/2011 to encourage the teaching of Sicilian at all schools, but inroads into the education system have been slow. The CSFLS created a textbook "Dialektos" to comply with the law; however, it does not provide an orthography to write the language. Although within Sicily it is only taught as part of dialectology courses, outside of Italy Sicilian language has been taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Manouba University. Also since 2009 it has been taught at the Italian Charities of America in New York City,
and it is also preserved and taught through family association, church organizations and societies, as well as social and ethnic historical clubs, and even in Internet social groups. On 15 May 2018, the Sicilian region once again mandated the teaching of Sicilian in schools and referred to the language as a language in official communication.
The language is officially recognized in the municipal statutes of some Sicilian towns, such as Caltagirone and Grammichele, in which the "inalienable historical and cultural value of the Sicilian language" is proclaimed. Further, the Sicilian language would be protected and promoted under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages ; however, Italy has signed this treaty, but the Italian Parliament has not ratified it. It is not included in Italian Law No. 482/1999, although some other minority languages of Sicily are.

Ethnologue report on Sicilian

Other names

Alternative names of Sicilian are Calabro-Sicilian, sicilianu, and sìculu. The first term refers to the fact that a form of Sicilian is spoken in southern Calabria, in particular, in the province of Reggio Calabria. The other two are names for the language in Sicily itself: specifically, the term sìculu originally describes one of the larger prehistoric groups living in Sicily before the arrival of Greeks in the 8th century BC. It can also be used as a prefix to qualify, or further elaborate on, the origins of a person, for example: Siculo-American or Siculo-Australian.


As a language, Sicilian has its own dialects, in the following main groupings:

Early influences

Because Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and many peoples have passed through it, Sicilian displays such rich and varied influence from several languages on its lexical stock and grammar. These languages include Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish, Norman, Lombard, Catalan, Occitan, Arabic and Germanic languages, and the influence from the island's pre-Indo-European inhabitants. The very earliest influences, visible in Sicilian to this day, exhibit both prehistoric Mediterranean elements and prehistoric Indo-European elements, and occasionally a blending of both.
Before the Roman conquest, Sicily was occupied by various populations. The earliest of these populations were the Sicanians, considered to be autochthonous. The Sicels and the Elymians arrived between the second and first millennia BC. These aboriginal populations in turn were followed by the Phoenicians and the Greeks. The Greek-language influence remains strongly visible, while the influences from the other groups are less obvious. What can be stated with certainty is that in Sicilian remain pre-Indo-European words of an ancient Mediterranean origin, but one cannot be more precise than that: in fact, of the three main prehistoric groups, only the Sicels were known to be Indo-European with a degree of certainty, and their speech is likely to have been closely related to that of the Romans.


The following table, listing words for "twins", illustrates the difficulty linguists face in tackling the various sub-strata of the Sicilian language.
ModerngiameddiItalian gemelli
Medievalbizzuni, vuzzuniOld French or Catalan bessons
MedievalbinelliLigurian beneli
AncientèmmuliLatin gemelli
AncientcucchiLatin copula
AncientminzuddiLatin medii
Ancientièmiddi, ièddimiAncient Greek δίδυμοι dídymoi

A similar qualifier can be applied to many of the words that appear in this article. Sometimes we may know that a particular word has a prehistoric derivation, but we do not know whether the Sicilians inherited it directly from the indigenous populations, or whether it came via another route. Similarly, we might know that a particular word has a Greek origin but we do not know from which Greek period the Sicilians first used it, or once again, whether the particular word may even have come to Sicily via another route. For instance, by the time the Romans had occupied Sicily, the Latin language had made its own borrowings from Greek.

Pre-classical period

The words with a prehistoric Mediterranean derivation often refer to plants native to the Mediterranean region or to other natural features. Bearing in mind the qualifiers mentioned above, examples of such words include:
There are also Sicilian words with an ancient Indo-European origin that do not appear to have come to the language via any of the major language groups normally associated with Sicilian, i.e. they have been independently derived from a very early Indo-European source. The Sicels are a possible source of such words, but there is also the possibility of a cross-over between ancient Mediterranean words and introduced Indo-European forms. Some examples of Sicilian words with an ancient Indo-European origin:
The following Sicilian words are of a Greek origin :
From 476 to 535, the Ostrogoths ruled Sicily, although their presence apparently did not affect the Sicilian language. The few Germanic influences to be found in Sicilian do not appear to originate from this period. One exception might be abbanniari or vanniari "to hawk goods, proclaim publicly", from Gothic bandwjan "to give a signal". Also possible is schimmenti "diagonal" from Gothic slimbs "slanting". Other sources of Germanic influences include the Hohenstaufen rule of the 13th century, words of Germanic origin contained within the speech of 11th-century Normans and Lombard settlers, and the short period of Austrian rule in the 18th century.
Many Germanic influences date back to the time of the Swabian kings. Some of the words [|below] are "reintroductions" of Latin words that had been Germanicized at some point. Words that probably originate from this era include:
In 535, Justinian I made Sicily a Byzantine province, which returned the Greek language to a position of prestige, at least on an official level. At this time the island could be considered a border zone with high levels of bilingualism: Latinisation was mostly concentrated in western Sicily, whereas Eastern Sicily remained predominantly Greek. As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, Sicily was progressively conquered by Saracens from North Africa, from the mid 9th to mid 10th centuries. The Emirate of Sicily persisted long enough to develop a distinctive local variety of Arabic, Siculo-Arabic. Its influence is noticeable in around 100 Sicilian words, most of which relate to agriculture and related activities. This is understandable because of the Arab Agricultural Revolution; the Saracens introduced to Sicily their advanced irrigation and farming techniques and a new range of crops, nearly all of which remain endemic to the island to this day.
Some words of Arabic origin:
Throughout the Islamic epoch of Sicilian history, a significant Greek-speaking population remained on the island and continued to use the Greek language, or most certainly a variant of Greek influenced by Tunisian Arabic. What is less clear is the extent to which a Latin-speaking population survived on the island. While a form of Vulgar Latin clearly survived in isolated communities during the Islamic epoch, there is much debate as to the influence it had on the development of the Sicilian language, following the re-Latinisation of Sicily.

Linguistic developments in the Middle Ages

By 1000 AD, the whole of what is today southern Italy, including Sicily, was a complex mix of small states and principalities, languages and religions. The whole of Sicily was controlled by Saracens, at the elite level, but the general population remained a mix of Muslims and Greek, Siculo-Arabic or Latin speaking Catholic Christians. There were also a component of immigrants from North Africa. The far south of the Italian peninsula was part of the Byzantine empire although many communities were reasonably independent from Constantinople. The Principality of Salerno was controlled by Lombards, who had also started to make some incursions into Byzantine territory and had managed to establish some isolated independent city-states. It was into this climate that the Normans thrust themselves with increasing numbers during the first half of the 11th century.

Norman and French influence

When the two most famous of Southern Italy's Norman adventurers, Roger of Hauteville and his brother, Robert Guiscard, began their conquest of Sicily in 1061, they already controlled the far south of Italy. It took Roger 30 years to complete the conquest of Sicily. In the aftermath of the Norman conquest of Sicily, the revitalization of Latin in Sicily had begun, and some Norman and Norman-French words would be absorbed: but many etymologies are disputed and the only sure marker of a typical Norman word is its Scandinavian origin, such words do not exist in Sicilian.
The Northern Italian influence is of particular interest. Even to the present day, Gallo-Italic of Sicily exists in the areas where the Northern Italian colonies were the strongest, namely Novara, Nicosia, Sperlinga, Aidone and Piazza Armerina. The Siculo-Gallic dialect did not survive in other major Italian colonies, such as Randazzo, Caltagirone, Bronte and Paternò. The Gallo-Italic influence was also felt on the Sicilian language itself, as follows:
The origins of another Romance influence, that of Old Occitan, had three possible sources:
  1. As mentioned above, the number of actual Normans in Sicily is unlikely to have ever been significant. They were boosted by mercenaries from southern Italy, but it is possible also that mercenaries came from as far away as southern France. The Normans made San Fratello a garrison town in the early years of the occupation of the northeastern corner of Sicily. To this day a Siculo-Gallic dialect is spoken in San Fratello that is clearly influenced by Old Occitan, which leads to the conclusion that a significant number in the garrison came from that part of France. This may well explain the dialect spoken only in San Fratello, but it does not wholly explain the diffusion of many Occitan words into the Sicilian language. On that point, there are two other possibilities:
  2. Some Occitan words may have entered the language during the regency of Margaret of Navarre between 1166 and 1171, when her son, William II of Sicily, succeeded to the throne at the age of 12. Her closest advisers, entourage and administrators were from the south of France, and many Occitan words entered the language during this period.
  3. The Sicilian School of poetry was strongly influenced by the Occitan of the troubadour tradition. This element is deeply embedded in Sicilian culture: for example, the tradition of Sicilian puppetry and the tradition of the cantastorii. Occitan troubadours were active during the reign of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, and some Occitan words would have passed into the Sicilian language via this route.
Some examples of Sicilian words derived from Occitan:
It was during the reign of Frederick II between 1198 and 1250, with his patronage of the Sicilian School, that Sicilian became the first of the modern Italic languages to be used as a literary language. The influence of the school and the use of Sicilian itself as a poetic language was acknowledged by the two great Tuscan writers of the early Renaissance period, Dante and Petrarch. The influence of the Sicilian language should not be underestimated in the eventual formulation of a lingua franca that was to become modern Italian. The victory of the Angevin army over the Sicilians at Benevento in 1266 not only marked the end of the 136-year Norman-Swabian reign in Sicily but also effectively ensured that the centre of literary influence would eventually move from Sicily to Tuscany. While Sicilian, as both an official and a literary language, would continue to exist for another two centuries, the language would soon follow the fortunes of the kingdom itself in terms of prestige and influence.

Catalan influence

Following the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, the kingdom was to come under the influence of the Crown of Aragon, and so the Catalan language would add a new layer of vocabulary in the succeeding century. For the whole of the 14th century, both Catalan and Sicilian were the official languages of the royal court. Sicilian was also used to record the proceedings of the Parliament of Sicily and for other official purposes. While it is often difficult to determine whether a word came directly from Catalan, the following are likely to be such examples:
By the time the crowns of Castille and Aragon were united in the late 15th century, the Italianisation of written Sicilian in the parliamentary and court records had commenced. By 1543 this process was virtually complete, with the Tuscan dialect of Italian becoming the lingua franca of the Italian peninsula and supplanting written Sicilian.
Spanish rule had hastened this process in two important ways:
Spanish rule lasted over three centuries and had a significant influence on the Sicilian vocabulary. The following words are of Spanish derivation:
Since the Italian Unification, the Sicilian language has been significantly influenced by Italian. During the Fascist period it became obligatory that Italian be taught and spoken in all schools, whereas up to that point, Sicilian had been used extensively in schools. This process has quickened since World War II due to improving educational standards and the impact of mass media, such that increasingly, even within the family home, Sicilian is not necessarily the language of choice. The Sicilian Regional Assembly voted to make the teaching of Sicilian a part of the school curriculum at primary school level, but as of 2007 only a fraction of schools teach Sicilian. There is also little in the way of mass media offered in Sicilian. The combination of these factors means that the Sicilian language continues to adopt Italian vocabulary and grammatical forms to such an extent that many Sicilians themselves cannot distinguish between correct and incorrect Sicilian language usage.

Distinguishing features of Sicilian

Phonetics and phonology


Siclian orthographyIPAEnglish exampleSicilian example


Sicilian has a number of consonant sounds that, although not unique to Sicilian, certainly set it apart from the other major Romance languages. The most unusual sounds include, but are not limited to, the retroflex consonants.
Unlike the seven vowels of Vulgar Latin and many modern Romance languages, the Sicilian vowel system only includes five: a, e, i, o, u, reduced to only three in unstressed position: a, i, u . This causes the vowels u and i to have a far greater presence than o and e in Sicilian, whereas the opposite is true in other Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian : in this Sicilian is closer to Portuguese instead. In addition, one will never find a Sicilian word ending in the unaccented vowels e or o, with the exception of monosyllabic conjunctions and certain recent loanwords: in fact, due to the influence of Italian in the media after World War II, as well as the recent influx of English terminology related to technology and globalization, there is an increasing number of words entering the Sicilian lexicon that do not adhere to the Sicilian vowel system.
Omission of initial ''i''
In the vast majority of instances where the originating word has had an initial i, the Sicilian has dropped it completely. This can also happen occasionally where there was once an initial e, and to a lesser extent a and o. Examples: mpurtanti "important", gnuranti "ignorant", nimicu "enemy", ntirissanti "interesting", llustrari "to illustrate", mmàggini "image", cona "icon", miricanu "American".

Gemination and contractions

In Sicilian, gemination is distinctive for most consonant phonemes, though a few can only be geminated after a vowel: these are,,,, and. Rarely indicated in writing, spoken Sicilian also exhibits syntactic gemination, which means that the first consonant of a word is lengthened when it is preceded by certain vowel-ending words, e.g. è caru.
The letter j at the start of a word can have two separate sounds, depending on what precedes the word. For instance, in jornu, the j is pronounced as in English y,. However, after a nasal consonant or triggered by syntactic gemination, it is pronounced as in un jornu "one day" or tri jorna .
Another difference between the written and spoken languages is the extent to which contractions will occur in everyday speech. Thus a common expression such as avemu a accattari... will generally be reduced to amâ 'ccattari when talking to family and friends.
The circumflex is commonly used in denoting a wide range of contractions in the written language, in particular, the joining of simple prepositions and the definite article. Examples: di lu = dû, a lu = ô, pi lu = pû, nta lu = ntô, etc.

Gender and plurals

Most feminine nouns and adjectives end in -a in the singular, e.g. casa, porta, carta. Exceptions include soru and ficu. The usual masculine singular ending is -u, e.g. omu, libbru, nomu. The singular ending -i can be either masculine or feminine.
Unlike standard Italian, Sicilian uses the same standard plural ending -i for both masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives, e.g. casi, porti, tàuli. Some masculine plural nouns end in -a instead, a feature derived from the Latin neuter endings -um, -a. Examples include libbra, jorna, vrazza, jardina, scrittura, signa. Two nouns have irregular plurals: omu has òmini and jocu has jòcura. Three feminine nouns are invariable in the plural: manu, ficu and soru.


Verb "to have"

Sicilian only has one auxiliary verb, aviri "to have". This verb is also used to denote obligation, and to form the future tense, as Sicilian, for the most part, no longer has a synthetic future tense; for example: avi a cantari " will sing".

Verb "to go" and the periphrastic future

As in English, and most Romance languages, Sicilian may use the verb jiri "to go" to signify the act of being about to do something. Vaiu a cantari "I'm going to sing" "I'm going to sing". In this way, jiri + a + infinitive can also be a way to form the simple future construction.

Tenses and moods

The main conjugations in Sicilian are illustrated below with the verb èssiri "to be".
  1. The synthetic future is rarely used, and as Camilleri explains, continues its decline towards complete disuse; instead, the following methods are used to express the future:
  2. : 1) use of the present indicative, usually preceded by an adverb of time:
  3. :: Stasira vaiu ô tiatru — "This evening I go to the theatre"; or, using a similar English construction, "This evening I am going to the theatre"
  4. :: Dumani ti scrivu — "Tomorrow I write to you"
  5. : 2) use of a compound form consisting of the appropriate conjugation of aviri a in combination with the infinitive form of the verb in question:
  6. :: Stasira aju a jiri ô tiatru — "This evening I will go to the theatre"
  7. :: Dumani t'aju a scrìviri — "Tomorrow I will write to you"
  8. :: In speech, the contracted forms of aviri often come into play:
  9. ::: aju a → hâ/hê; ai a → hâ; avi a → avâ; avemu a → amâ; aviti a → atâ
  10. ::: Dumani t'hâ scrìviri — "Tomorrow I will write to you".
  11. The synthetic conditional has also fallen into disuse. The conditional has two tenses:
  12. : 1) the present conditional, which is replaced by either:
  13. :: i) the present indicative:
  14. ::: Cci chiamu si tu mi duni lu sò nùmmaru — "I call her if you give me her number", or
  15. :: ii) the imperfect subjunctive:
  16. ::: Cci chiamassi si tu mi dassi lu sò nùmmaru — "I'd call her if you would give me her number"; and
  17. : 2) the past conditional, which is replaced by the pluperfect subjunctive:
  18. ::: Cci avissi jutu si tu m'avissi dittu unni esti / è — "I'd have gone if you would have told me where it is"
  19. : Note that in a hypothetical statement, both tenses are replaced by the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive:
  20. ::: Si fussi riccu m'accattassi nu palazzu — "If I were rich I would buy a palace"
  21. ::: S'avissi travagghiatu nun avissi patutu la misèria — "If I had worked I wouldn't have suffered misery".
  22. The 2nd-person singular utilises the older form of the present subjunctive, for example parrassi, which has the effect of softening it somewhat into a request rather than an instruction. The 2nd-person singular and plural forms of the imperative are identical to the present indicative, with the exception of the 2nd-person singular -ari verbs, where the ending is the same as for the 3rd person singular, for example parra.

    Examples of the written language

Extracts from three of Sicily's more celebrated poets are offered below to illustrate the written form of Sicilian over the last few centuries: Antonio Veneziano, Giovanni Meli and Nino Martoglio.
A translation of the Lord's Prayer can also be found in J. K. Bonner. This is written with three variations: a standard literary form from the island of Sicily and a southern Apulian literary form.

Extract from Antonio Veneziano

''Celia, Lib. 2''

Extract from Giovanni Meli

''Don Chisciotti e Sanciu Panza'' (Cantu quintu)

Extract from Nino Martoglio

''Briscula 'n Cumpagni''

Traditional prayers compared to Italian

Influences on the Italian language

As one of the most spoken languages of Italy, Sicilian has notably influenced the Italian lexicon. In fact, there are several Sicilian words that are nowadays part of the Italian language; they usually refer to things closely associated to Sicilian culture, with some notable exceptions:


Sicilian is estimated to have 5,000,000 speakers. However, it remains very much a home language spoken among peers and close associates. Regional Italian has encroached on Sicilian, most evidently in the speech of the younger generations.
In terms of the written language, in Sicily it is mainly restricted to poetry and theatre. The education system does not support the language, despite recent legislative changes, as mentioned previously. Local universities do not carry courses in Sicilian, or where they do it is described as dialectology, that is, the study of dialects.


The dialect of Reggio Calabria is spoken by some 260,000 speakers in the Reggio Calabria metropolitan area. It is recognised - alongside with the other Calabrian dialects - by the regional government of Calabria through a law promulgated in 2012 that protects the Calabrian linguistic heritage.


Outside Sicily and Southern Calabria, there is an extensive Sicilian-speaking diaspora living in several major cities across South and North America, as well as other parts of Europe and Australia, where Sicilian has been preserved to varying degrees.


The Sicilian-American organization Arba Sicula publishes stories, poems and essays, in Sicilian with English translations, in an effort to preserve the Sicilian language, in Arba Sicula, its bi-lingual annual journal, and in a biennial newsletter entitled Sicilia Parra.
The movie La Terra Trema is entirely in Sicilian, using many local, non-professional actors.
The non-profit organisation Cademia Siciliana publishes a Sicilian version of the quarterly magazine the UNESCO Courier.

Other words and phrases