- 20 January 2022
- Posted by: Stefano Gaffuri
- Category: "Regions and Dialects" column
From north to south, let’s continue on our journey learning about Italian dialects. Today we’ll enjoy an assortment of almond pastries (which I should have shared with my girlfriend but they’re just too good!) to prepare for a trip to one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean: Sicily.
Before we set off, let’s settle one of the first questions that’s often asked: is Sicilian a language or a dialect?
I begin searching for answers online. I decide to rely on qualified bodies and experts in the language field to avoid increasing any confusion on the matter. I therefore refer to the professor, linguist and dialectologist Giovanni Ruffino, the first linguist from Sicily to become a member of the Accademia della Crusca in 2017. Professor Ruffino believes that the term dialect is more appropriate, despite the fact that Sicilian has maintained some of the fundamental requirements to be defined as a language.
But let’s discuss this step by step.
SICILIAN, ISO AND UNESCO
Remembering what I mentioned above, let’s dive in.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the world’s leading organisation for the definition of technical standards in the most varied fields and sectors, such as our ISO 17100:2015 and 18587:2017 certifications, has also attributed a code to Sicilian: ISO 639-3 scn. The “problem” is that ISO codes are not assigned to dialects, but only to autonomous languages.
But that’s not all.
UNESCO has recognised Sicilian, as well as Neapolitan, as a native language at risk of extinction. It goes so far as to provide a definition:
The Sicilian language is the set of extreme southern dialects, therefore the set of dialects of Sicily, central and southern Calabria and Salento.
It is therefore to be understood as “a regional or minority language […] not a dialect of the official language of the State”.
In essence, although I don’t intend (nor do I have the authority) to establish whether it is a language or a dialect, we know that Sicilian can be understood as the set of dialects spoken not only within the Sicilian region, but also in some areas of Apulia and Calabria.
What I can do, however, is clarify once and for all that no, unfortunately Sicilian and Neapolitan are not recognised as Unesco Heritage. As many have stated, they are not included in the UNESCO list of Oral and Intangible Heritage.
SICILY: LINGUISTIC HISTORY
The wealth of the Sicilian dialect comes from the island’s history. Its strategic central position in the Mediterranean Sea has made it the object of conquests by peoples from the most disparate lands over the centuries.
These populations have contributed to the continuous renewal and increase of the various linguistic forms of its local languages. In particular, the language has Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, German, Catalan and Castilian influences.
Of all of the above, the influences of the Iberian languages are probably the most evident. For example, this can be seen in the endings of the imperfect conjugations dicìa and facìa and in the conditional dirìa and farìa, typical of Spanish. Or for example the use of the preposition “a” with proper or common names of people, which is typical of Castilian: “Esperamos a tu hermano” and “Aspittamu a tò frati” in Sicilian. At the terminological level, there are words of clear Spanish influence, such as lastima (complaint) from lástima and cucciara (spoon) from cuchara.
Not only Spain, but also France has influenced Sicilian with its language. This can be seen in the words accattari (buy) from the French acheter, assiettati, (sit) from assieds-toi and racina (grape) from raisin.
In short, it is a fascinating language, the subject of regulations and school projects within increasingly extensive plans for its enhancement, and not merely of a local nature.
Ah, I almost forgot. Sicilian also has its own version of Wikipedia “La nciclupidìa libbira”, an Italian-Sicilian online translator, and you can even choose it as the language for your Google keyboard.
See you next episode, ni videmu prestu!
P.S. I was gracious enough to leave two pastries for my girlfriend, too.
English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider