Principal Differences among Sicilian Dialects

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by J.K. “Kirk

.1.0 Introduction

This article addresses the form of the Sicilian language that we are here calling Standard Sicilian, but we can legitimately ask whether there is in fact a standard Sicilian language. Many European languages have enjoyed the advantage that at some point in their history someone of great prominence wrote in that language, thus contributing greatly to its normalization. By this we mean that it acquired thus a standard literary form that other authors of that language sought to emulate.

Such social usage also helped establish what can be called a high language (HL). A high language represent, in both its written and spoken forms, acceptable norms; deviations from these norms are more tolerated in the spoken language than in the written language. However, excessive deviation even in the spoken language produces what are typically called substandard forms of speech.

In the early seventeenth century William Shakespeare (1564-1616) greatly helped to establish what can be regarded as a HL in English, using the dialect of London as the standard. Cervantes, his full name was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), accomplished the same for Castilian (which is today called Spanish) in the early years of the seventeenth century. Earlier Martin Luther (1483-1546) had done this for the German language, and of course Dante Alighieri (1265 -1321), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313- 1375) and Francesco Petrarca (1304-1375) did much to establis h the regional language of Tuscany as a literary norm for Italy in the fourteenth century.

However, this Tuscan literary norm didn’t begin to assume the semblance of a spoken HL until the beginning of the twentieth century, largely spurred on by the unification of Italy, increasing compulsory education, and the spread of the communicative media, such as films, radio, and the now ubiquitous television. In the case of Sicilian, unfortunately too few of its great writers chose to write in it. Thus, the attempts to create a literary Sicilian language were inconsequential and were limited to a few movements that failed to attract the support of the Sicilian intellectuals and political powers.

Lacking these, it was not possible to create a literary Sicilian idiom around which acceptable grammatical, lexical, and syntactic forms could coalesce. In summary, Sicilian has remained largely a spoken language with strong oral traditions. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, except that the lack of a strong literary standard has allowed each Sicilian dialect (i parrati siciliani) to express itself through slightly different linguistic norms.

It is beyond the scope of this article to set forth the many varied dialectical deviations of Sicilian. Such an endeavor would require a detailed scholarly work delving into the linguistic mode of each separate parrata. This article does not pretend to be that exhaustive. All it is intended to do is set forth in sketch form some of the most prominent ways in which one Sicilian parrata differs from the others.

Bear in mind that the dialectical situation in Sicily is very complex. Putting aside the complicating issue of the incursion of Italian in Sicily, the various features pointed out in this article depend on several things, among which are:

ß The geographical area of the speaker ß Costal area versus inland area

(predominantly agricultural) ß City/town versus village/countryside ß The socio -economic level of the speaker ß Most likely the sex, age, and formal

education of the speaker ß The speaker’s exposure to other parrati

and to Standard Italian

However, if the Gallo-Italic Sicilian dialects and the Albanian dialects are excluded, it is possible to expose a set of features by which it is reasonably easy to proceed from one parrata to another since the parrati are essentially mutually intelligible. If we begin with that premise, then the next step is to ask ourselves what are the differences and what the similarities.

Many of the differences among the various Sicilian parrata are found in the phonology, that is, the sounds used to articulate the language. There are also some grammatical differences, and syntactical ones too, but if we can distinguish the phonological principles at work, we can go a long way in distinguishing how one parrata differs from another. The intent is that the reader be able to recognize changes occurring in different words in the different parrati.

The principal phonological differences to be considered in this article are these:


Princi pal Differences among Sicilian Dialects: Part I(1) Metaphony of the thematic vowel (2) Substitution of d by r (3) Substitution of gghi by gli (4) Substitution of ci with the strongly

aspirated sound here symbolized by x (5) Substitution of a voiceless consonant by

a voiced consonant (6) Substitution of gghi by ggi and of

chi/cchi by ci/cci (7) Disappearance of initial hard g (8) Disappearance of hard g in the initial

cluster gr (9) Substitution of initial gu before a vowel

byv (10) Substitution of dd by ll (11) Disappearance of internal r with

consonantal lengthening: Case #1 (12) Disappearance of internal r with

consonantal lengthenin g: Case #2 (13) Insertion of a v between two vowels (14) Variation of vowels in the penult

syllable when the accent falls on the antipenult

Of course, it must be strongly borne in mind that not every single parrata will exhibit all of the above phonological changes . In most instances, a particular one will display only one or possibly two of the differences. We will try to point out where each difference is likely to be observed, that is, in what part(s) of Sicily the divergence has been recorded. Some grammatical differences, chiefly in verb endings, will be noted in Part II of this article.

ES-1 WS-1 CS-1 ES-2

province. See Figure 1. These provinces are given using first their Italian name followed by their Sic ilian name and then in parenthesis, the abbreviation of each province.

(1) Messina/Missina (ME) (2) Catania/Catania (CT) (3) Siracusa/Siraùsa (SR) (4) Ragusa/Raùsa (RG) (5) Enna/Enna (EN)

(6) Caltanissetta/ Catanissetta (CL) (7) Agrigento/Girgenti (AG) (8) Trapani/Trapani (TP) (9) Palermo/Palermu o Palemmu (PA)

3.0 Phonological differences among the


All of the examples given in the Sicilian version of this article are given as transformations from the more general Sicilian (Standard Sicilian) into a form used in one or more of the parrati. Since it makes no sense to repeat the Sicilian variations here, this version of the article merely gives English translations of the words and sentences. In the case of the word examples, the Standard Sicilian word is given followed by the English translation. The sentences are mere ly translated into English.

To indicate the areas of the different parrati, it is appropriate to set forth a linguistic and political map of Sicily (considered an autonomous region by the Italian State), dividing it into its various nine provinces, each named after the principal city within the respective


Princi pal Differences among Sicilian Dialects: Part I

• • •

Western Sicilian (WS) Central Sicilian (CS) Eastern Sicilian (ES)

Each of these in turn can be subdivided into ten (10) dialects thus:

Western Sicilian (WS)

Central Sicilian (SC)

Eastern Sicilian (ES)

Dialect Dialect Dialect

Dialect Dialect Parrata

Dialect Dialect Dialect Dialect

of Palermu (WS-1) of Trapani (WS-2) of Girgenti (WS-3)*

of the Madonie (CS -1 ) of Enna-Catanissetta (CS-2)

di Girgenti (CS-3 )†

of Missina (ES-1) of Northeast (ES-2) of Southeast (ES-3) of Catania-Saraùsa (ES-4)

3.1 Metaphony of the thematic vowel

Metaphony means the diphthongization of the stressed vowel. In Sicily there are two dialectical areas exhibiting metaphony, namely Central Sicilian (CS), particularly CS-2 and CS-3, and Southeast Sicilian, ES-3. The general transformations are:

o uo e ie


bonu = good pedi = foot (or feet)

Sentences translated into English

(1) This book is good. (2) My feet hurt.* (3) The man is old and deformed.

* The sentence presented in 2-a exhibits both rhotacism and metathesis of the r and l. (I pieri mi luorunu.)

Note: Within the city of Palermo and its outlying areas metaphony of the thematic vowel has been recorded, but this phenomenon is of recent origin. It’s very likely that the metaphony observed in Palermo is due to the growing influence of Italian, which also displays metaphony of the same thematic vowels.

3.2 Substitution of d by r

This transformation is characterized by the substitution of d by r. At first glance, this substitution may appear odd, but the r in question in Sicilian* is produced by a single flap of the tongue against the upper alveolar ridge, and this actually sounds like a kind of d sound. This phenomenon is known as rhotacism, that is, the substitution of r for another consonant, and it is commonly found both in Eastern Sicilian (ES) and Western Sicilian (WS). It can occur internally, or it can affect initial d.

* There are several distinct sounds in Sicilian that are represented by r orthographically. Example: The trilled r that is made by rapidly trilling the tip of the tongue against the upper alveolar ridge.


pedi = foot (or feet) cudu = tail

diri = to tell, to say denti = tooth (or teeth)

Sentences translated into English

(1) My foot hurts. (2) The woman was used to laughing at the man. (3) He saw the one with the tail.

3.3 Substitution of gghi by gli

This linguistic phenomenon occurs chiefly in Central Sicilian (CS), more precisely in CS-3 and probably extends into CS-2.


figghiu = son ogghiu = oil mugghieri = wife pigghiari = to take

Sentences translated into English

(1) The son carries oil to his mother. (2) I don’t like dishes made with garlic. (3) My wife takes me for a fool.

3.4 Substitution of ci by a strongly aspirated sound here represented by x

This phenomenon has a similar distribution to the one above, namely, WS-3 and CS-3, and it probably extends into CS-2. Note that x is used to represent this sound orthographically, whereas the phonetic representation is given by /h’/.


ciumi = river (or rivers) ciuri = flower (or flowers) ciamma = flame ciatu = breath

Sentences translated into English

(1) I feel her breath next to me. (2) Flowers blossom in the spring. (3) The river was almost over its banks.

Note: In some of the parrati the words starting with ci are written instead with sci. Examples are given.


ciumi sciumi ciuri sciuri ciamma sciamma ciatu sciatu


Princi pal Differences among Sicilian Dialects: Part I

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3.5 Substitution of a voiceless by a voiced consonant

This linguistic phenomenon generally affects hard c and ci (soft c). These sounds are normally voiceless in Sicilian but are at times voiced. Some of the Eastern Sicilian parrati show this feature; however, in Standard Sicilian such sounds are typically voiceless.


manciari = to eat lacrima = tear sfocu = discharge, relief ricordu = memory, remembrance

Sentences translated into English

(1) It’s time to eat. (2) I like memories of the past. (3) Tears fell down the woman’s face when she learned the bad news.

3.6 Substitution of gghi by ggi and of chi/cchi by ci/cci

This phenomenon is pretty much confined to the dialect of the Southeast (ES-3), and not all words containing these clusters are affected. This dialectical area is noted for its metaphony and also for rhotacism.


arragghiu = bray, braying occhiu = eye tanticchia = a little chianciri = to weep

Sentences translated into English

(1) The donkey gives out a nice bray. (2) I’ll drink a little wine. (3) His poor mother is crying a lot for her dead son.

3.7 Disappearanceofinitialhardg

This phenomenon is very widespread throughout all of Sicily and is found in both Western Sicilian (WS) and Eastern Sicilian (ES). This disappearance of hard g occurs also if the hard g is found between two vowels, that is, intervocalic hard g. In Western Sicilian the g simply disappears, but in Eastern Sicilian it leaves behind a consonantal i when it disappears.


gaddu = rooster

gaddina = hen rigalu = gift, present prigari = to implore, to pray

Sentences translated into English

(1) The cat licks the milk and likes it a lot.

(2) The rooster crows when the hen lays an egg. (3) I’ll give a present to my sister.

3.8 Disappearance of hard g in the initial cluster gr

Like the preceding phenomenon, this one is also widely distributed throughout all of Sicily and is found as commonly in Western Sicilian (WS) as in Eastern Sicilian (ES). It is certain that the original form is that of gr and not the other way around, that is, that the form ranni clearly springs from granni since the latter is derived from the Latin grandis/grande.


granni = large; great; adult grossu = large, big grutta = cave; grotto grassu = fat

Sentences translated into English

(1) This child’ll grow up large. (2) My book is large. (3) That woman is short and fat.

3.9 Substitution of initial gu before a vowel by v

This phenomenon is found in various areas. It is very common in in both Eastern Sicilian (WS) and Western (ES).


guadari = to look guadagnari (varagnari*) = to earn guastari = to waste, to ruin guarniri = to adorn, to furnish

* Also exhibits rhotacism.

Sentences translated into English

(1) We didn’t look out for the millipede. (2) The tomatoes were ruined with all that water. (3) The young man won first prize.

Princi pal Differences among Sicilian Dialects: Part I

3.10 Substitution of dd by ll

This phenomenon is found in various areas, and in fact the cluster ll characterizes Old Sicilian.


beddu = beautiful, handsome nuddu = no one, nobody chiddu = that, that one, he

Sentences translated into English

(1) The stars are really beautiful. (2) No one saw me. (3) That’s really cool.

3.11 Disappearance of internal r with consonantal gemination: Case #1

This phenomenon is observed in Western Sicilian, especially in WS-1. Normally, it occurs when the r is preceded by a vowel and followed by a consonant, as shown in the Sicilian examples. When the r disappears, it is replaced by an i sound followed by subsequent

is pronounced like the v in Spanish, that is, as a bilabial fricative and not like v in English, which is a labio -dental fricative.


niuru = black autru = other causi = pants cauciu = kick

Sentences translated into Engli s h

(1) Another man wants to buy the book. (2) This morning the boss (owner) gave me some good kicks. (3) He took off his pants.

3.14 Variation of the vowel in the penult when the accent falls on the antipenult

This variation occurs since unaccented vowels in Sicilian are not articulated as tensely as those of Italian. Whatever the vowel of the antipenult happens to be, the unaccented vowel in the penultwillbeana,ani,orano.


monacu = monk portanu = they carry fradiciu = rotten muzzicu = I bite

Sentences translated into English

(1) The donkeys are carrying the pack saddles on their backs. (2) The sacristan got rotten drunk. (3) The little boy’s biting his fingernails.

4.0 Examples of the application of the rules given above

The transformation rules given in the Sicilian portion of this paper are applied to these seven words.

1) gargi 2) gridu 3) ciauru 4) gattu 5) detti 6) arrigalari 7) guastedda

(1) Some possible variations of the first word: gargi, gaggi, gaiggi, argi, aggi, aiggi, iargi, iaggi

lengthening of the (consonantal gemination).


purtari = to carry porcu = pig forti = strong corpu = body; blow



Sentences translated into English

(1) The mother gave her bad son strong blows. (2) The donkey is carrying a heavy load. (3) The pig is a disgusting animal that’ll eat anything whatsoever.

3.12 Disappearance of internal r with consonantal gemination: Case #2

This phenomenon is observed in Eastern Sicilian. Again, it occurs when the r is preceded by a vowel and followed by a consonant, as shown in the Sicilian examples. But when the r disappears, it is replaced only by subsequent lengthening of the following consonant (consonantal gemination).

Same examples and sentences as in 3.11.

3.13 Insertion of a v between two vowels

This phenomenon is observed in Western Sicilian, especially in WS-1. The intervocalic v

Princi pal Differences among Sicilian Dialects: Part I

(2) Some possible variations of the second word: gridu, ridu, griru, riru

(3) Some possible variations of the third word: ciauru, sciauru, xiaru

(4) Some possible variations of the fourth word: gattu, attu, iattu

(5) Some possible variations of the fifth word: detti, retti

(6) Some possible variations of the sixth word: arrigalari, arrialari

(7) Some possible variations of the seventh word: guastedda, guastella, vastedda, vastella

5.0 Concluding remarks

This article was published in the journal Arba Sicula, vol. XIX (1998), pp. 96-121. However, between that time and now I made some changes that I hope are real improvements. The goal of this article is to aid in distinguishing one Sicilian dialect (parrata) from another. The treatment given here helps explain why words vary from one dialect to another.

The knowledge of these differences also help to establish a genuine Standard Sicilian so that the Sicilian language might be preserved and communicated to future generations. In my book dealing with Sicilian grammar, that is, Introduction to Sicilian Grammar (New York: Legas, 2001), I sought to propose a genuine Standard Sicilian with its own unique orthography.


Bentley, D. (1997) “Language and dialect in modern Sicily.” The Italianist, 17, 204-230.

Bonner, J.K. (2001) Introduction to Sicilian Grammar. New York: Legas.

Caracè, C. (1980) Parlar siciliano. Firenze: Edizione Del Riccio.

Leone, A. (1995) Profilo di sintassi siciliana. Palermo: Centro di Studi filologici e linguistici siciliani.

Leps chy A.L./Lepschy G. (1994) The Italian Language Today, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Maiden M./Mair, P. eds. (1997) The Dialects of Italy. London and New York: Routledge.

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bibliografia pi lu studiu du sicilianu Select Section Briscula 'n-cincu Carta Europea delle lingue regionali e minoritarie sicilia Corso di lingua e letteratura sicilianaCORSO di LINGUA e LETTERATURA SICILIANA Coordinato da Salvatore Di Marco Il dialetto siciliano fra le lingue dei popoli. conferenze tematiche. 1 - LINGUA E DIALE cultura popolare siciliana Cunta un cuntu detti siciliani dialetto Diffirenzi principali ntra i parrati siciliani: Varii diffirenzi fonuloggichi ibridismo e tautologia ibrida nel siciliano IL PROGETTO ABRACADABRA PER LA DIFFUSIONE DELLE LINGUE NON DOMINANTI NELLA SCUOLA Il Siciliano: Dialetto o lingua?lingua La lingua siciliana attraversu li seculi leggi per la tutela del siciliano Libbra in sicilianu Lingua madre Lingua Siciliana lingua siciliana propria Lingua Siciliana Unificata (LSU) linguistica NAT SCAMMACCA nel siciliano di Marco Scalabrino nuovo gruzzoletto di voci arabo - sicule Nutizii odissea traduzione in siciliano old french medeme in sicilian Per lo studio del siciliano e...chi vò cchiù? POEMS proverbi siciliani proverbs PUISII Select Category Select Section sicilia Sicilian language: an overview siciliano Si vutassi pi mia...inchiesta supra a pulitica linguistica in Siciliapolituca Siziuni Culturali Studi siciliani: lu discursu pi na cattrida univirsitaria teatro siciliano Tiatru i tradizioni culturali Tu i u sicilianu Ultimi nutizii Un cumpenniu di ortugrafia siciliana Compendio di lingua siciliano Universal declaration of linguistic rights

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