The Sicilian Language is Alive and Well
mittitilu a catina,
attuppatici a vucca,
è ancora libiru.
Livatici u travagghiu,
a tavula unnu mancia,
u lettu unnu dormi;
è ancora riccu.
diventa poviru e servu
quannu ci arrubbano a lingua
addutata di patri:
è persu pi sempri.”
Can be put in chains
Have its mouth sealed
But it’s still free
Deprive a person of work
His dining table
And his bed
And he’s still rich
Becomes poor and servile
When the language
Passed down by the fathers is stolen
Then, it is forever lost
This poem by Ignazio Buttitta expresses the poet’s concern about keeping his language alive at a time when dialects are being spoken less frequently, at least in Italy, although they are alive in other parts of the world where pockets of immigrants have successfully passed their dialects and languages to the second and third generation.
The Sicilian Language is a dialect of Latin, as are Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Rumanian which all have their roots in Latin. That places Sicilian on the same footing as the other romance languages. A dialect is called a language when it has a literature, and Sicilian has a one thousand-year-old literary tradition of written and oral literature. At the Castle of Donnafugata in the province of Ragusa, Sicily, I had the great pleasure of having heard a Cantastorie, a Storyteller, who recited, entirely from memory, a long, classic Sicilian Epic Poem.
Mine, was probably the last generation that spoke a regional language fluently and exclusively from birth, but, since we were all taught in standard Italian in school, the population of Italy was then bi-lingual. The regional dialects and languages were not taught in school, so, those of us who speak, read, and write one have done so on their own out of their interest and love for it. Unfortunately, the dialects are not surviving the era of television, the internet, and the vast amount of travel that Italians do for work, recreation and the desire to learn about the other regions. The Italians from all provinces who speak their regional dialects now belong to the older generation, as they are no longer automatically passing these languages on to the young people.
So, if someone would like to study and research the dialects of Italy they would be surprised to find them still spoken in the countries where millions of Italians immigrated in the early twentieth century. These 19th and 20th-century versions of the dialects are frozen in time abroad, while in Italy they have changed as all languages do in time. The places where many of the original dialects are preserved and still spoken might be The Bronx and Brooklyn in New York City, the North end of Boston, California where many Italians settled as well as in England, Australia, Argentina, and wherever our immigrant ancestors immigrated to.
Today, you really don’t hear much Sicilian spoken in Sicily, but you do hear it on Arthur Avenue, the last of the Little Italies in The Bronx, New York, where the early immigrants passed it on to the next generation and where there is interest in keeping this lovely and very expressive language alive. The descendants of the early immigrants are helped by periodicals such as “Sicilia Parra” (Sicily Speaks) which is edited by Professor Gaetano Cipolla, from Saint John’s University in the borough of Queens, New York, who has been a great and successful champion of the language as the founder and publisher of ARBA SICULA, a non-profit international organization which promotes the language and the culture of Sicily by publishing the annual journal “Sicilian Dawn” and the Biannual Newsletter “Sicilia Parra” both of which offer articles, prose, and poetry in both Italian and Sicilian.
Although Sicily is just one of the twenty regions of Italy, it has given the country an astounding number of famous writers such as Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, Elio Vittorini, Leonardo Sciascia, Salvatore Quasimodo, Ignazio Buttitta, Gesualdo Bufalino, Vincenzo Consolo, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Dacia Maraini as well as the author of the well loved best-sellers, which have been translated into so many languages, Andrea Camilleri. His novels about the Inspector Montalbano are all set in Sicily and the Italian text is peppered with Sicilian words, phrases and idioms many of which have become part of standard Italian. So, it’s not by chance that Sicily has given Italy two Nobel Prize winners in literature: Luigi Pirandello who was awarded the prize in 1934 for Literature, and Salvatore Quasimodo who received it in 1959 for Poetry.
Singers Michela Musolino and Allison Scola have become masters of classic, traditional, modern and contemporary songs performed as they were written in the original Sicilian language. Recorded Sicilian songs are widely available, as are books, grammars, dictionaries, and Sicilian-Italian and Sicilian-English aids to translation. When I published my “Language and Travel Guide to Sicily” in 2008, it was quite unique in that the book contained two CD’s in which I, and my friend Dr. Salvatore Moltisanti, recorded the dialogues that I wrote in the first part of the book which I translated into Italian and into English. We recorded the Sicilian phrases as well as the Italian translations to show the differences and the similarities in the two languages.
There is definitely an interest in the study of Sicilian by the people who learned it as children from immigrant parents and grandparents. I’ve met many second, third and fourth generation Sicilians who are always pleasantly surprised when during a book talk I will read or speak Sicilian. I always tell these people to speak their Sicilian language with pleasure and pride and never think for a moment that they are speaking an inferior or incorrect form of Italian as some have been led to believe. Italian and Sicilian are two related but different languages. If you are fortunate enough to have parents or grandparents who speak either language pay more attention and learn it for your own pleasure, love of learning, and to keep these beautiful languages alive and pass them on.
About the author:
Giovanna spent her childhood in Ragusa, Sicily before moving with her parents to New York at the age of 10. She has since then kept alive her love of her native island with frequent trips to Sicily. Now retired after a 20-year teaching career at her Alma Mater, The Bronx High School of Science where she taught Art, Medical Illustration and Computer Graphics as well as Italian, which she introduced to the school, she devotes herself to writing, cooking, entertaining, travelling with her husband Howard, and enjoying her grandchildren Felice and Francesca!
Giovanna is also the author of:
- Sicilian Feasts, Hippocrene Books, NY, 2003, Expanded Edition, 2014
- Language and Travel Guide to Sicily, with companion CD’s, Hippocrene Books, NY, 2008
- The Cooking of Emilia-Romagna, Hippocrene Books, NY, 2011
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