The Sicilian Language (continued)

The Origin of the Sicilian Language

(The uniqueness of a language and a people)

By demonstrating that Sicilian is the first of the romance languages, we tie its origin to the Roman domination of Sicily, an 800 year period that started during the third century BC. While that may be historically and linguistically accurate, it says nothing about the language that was spoken by the native Sicilian population before the Roman domination. Ancient Greece started colonizing Sicily five centuries before the Romans, with their foothold on Naxos, in 735 BC., the first Greek colony in Sicily. By that time, Homer had already named the island "Trinakria", as seen in Book XI of The Odyssey describing the journey of Odysseus after the fall of Troy. Did Odysseus encounter any Sicilians other than the Cyclops? Who were they and what language did they speak?

Some Background

We all know from our own experience that human language is acquired in childhood. The child acquires language by hearing it spoken, by associating an activity with the sound and then gradually learning to repeat the sounds. Its significance is that spoken language is the first means of human language communication. [1] We also now know that if you don't learn to speak during your childhood, you will never learn to speak [2]. This may also be true of some of the other characteristics of a language.

The written form of a language is usually learned after the spoken form. The written form only approximates the actual sounds used by any particular spoken language. Some written forms of language are not related to the sound of a word but only to its meaning. Sicilian is not one of these. The Sicilian alphabet approximates the sound of Sicilian.

Some languages have unique sounds that can only be reliably produced by native speakers. When an alphabet is applied to the sounds of a language ex post facto, it is sometimes necessary to design original characters to represent some of its unique sounds. The single cyrillic character represented here as: bl and called the yeri is an example of a character that was added to the cyrillic alphabet to represent one of the unique sounds of Russian.

Native speakers of some languages, even those that have their own unique system of sounds, themselves find it difficult or impossible to produce some of the sounds that occur in other languages. Although all humans have the same physical auditory and articulatory mechanisms, their development in childhood appears to influence their capability in later life. Until very recently most Sicilians learned the unique sounds of Sicilian in their mother's arms and continued speaking the language within the family.

The Roman Influence

The study of the origin of Sicilian indicates that it is a romance language that developed during the 800 years of Rome's domination of the Island [3]. The same may be said, minus a few hundred years here and there, about the origins of Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Rumanian, and a few other languages.

Besides the Romans, the location of Sicily in the center of the Mediterranean, prompted many more dominations in the last 2700 years, starting with the Greeks in 735 BC and continuing to the Italians of today. So besides its basic Latin vocabulary, Sicilian includes words that can be traced back to Greek, Arabic, German, French, and Spanish.

But the language Sicilians speak today still retains some unique linguistic and phonetic qualities that are not captured by the written alphabet nor can they be traced to the island's dominators. Perhaps those qualities are the undocumented residue of it's early inhabitants, the Elymians, the Sikels, and its earliest known inhabitants, the Sicans. Isolating those qualities and comparing them with other languages may be a fruitful research approach.

The Mysterious Past

The drawings in the Addaura Caves on Monte Pellegrino in Palermo, are among the earliest traces of human habitation of Sicily. They are estimated to date from about 7000 BC. The Sicans arrived on the island around 6000 BC and their chief settlement was at Sant' Angelo Muxaro near Agrigento. We don't know where they came from or what language they spoke. On the one hand Thucydides tells us they are the original inhabitants of Sicily but he also is quoted as saying the Sicans came from Iberia and take their name from the river called Sicano. Thucydides was drawing on the nine volume work of Antiochus of Syracuse [4].

We believe that the Sikels arrived in Sicily around 1400 BC. Thucydides tells us that the Sikels came from Italy and crossed the Straits of Messina in order to escape from the Oscans. He goes on to say that they engaged the Sicans in battle and occupied the eastern part of the island with its most fertile land, confining the Sicans to the southwestern part. According to Ignazio Sucato, the Sicilian language could have originated in prehistoric times and is likely a melding of the languages spoken by the Sicans and the Sikels. Sucato goes on to say that the Sikels probably came from Lazio [5] and spoke a language belonging to the Italic sub-group of Indo-European languages.

The Elymians are believed to have arrived in Sicily around 1200 BC. They founded the cities of Eryx, Entella, and Segesta. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus recounts the tradition that they were the descendants of the Trojans [6]. Virgil mentions the same tradition in The Aeneid. However, all traces of the Elymians disappear after the Hellenization of Sicily.

The Phoenicians were the last of this early group to arrive on the shores of Sicily at around 1000 BC. They established trading outposts at Motya (Mozia), Solus (Solunto), and Panormos (Palermo). While there are indications that the Phoenicians had commercial dealings with all the inhabitants of Sicily, their closer association with the Elymians and the Sicans may indicate a linguistic affinity as well as a geographic closeness. After the Phoenicians established Carthage their interest in Sicily as Carthaginians increased as did their presence. Perhaps a reader of Arabic would be able to shed more light on this prehistory.

At present, the prehistoric past of Sicily remains a matter of conjecture. There are lots of questions and few answers. Were the Sicans inhabiting the southwest of Sicily because it was where their boats landed or were they there because of an eruption of the Etna Volcano? Did the Sikels and Sicans peacefully coexist or were the Sicans driven out of eastern Sicily? Did the Sicans come from Iberia or North Africa, or were they the original inhabitants of Sicily? Thucydides cites both. If Sucato is correct, and their languages united into one, then they could not have been Arab speaking Semites from North Africa. But Sucato offers no references for his statement.

Another approach to charting the prehistoric past is called Gene Geography and it was suggested by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He notes that a mixed population generally retains only one of its languages whereas its genes will occur in proportion to its ancestral parental population [7]. Cavalli-Sforza has also noted a marked correspondence between the Genetic Tree of World Populations and the Tree of Linguistic Families. (Cavalli-Sforza, 144) Although conventional anthropology and the lack of a written record have so far kept us from discovering the origin of the prehistoric inhabitants of Sicily, future advances in genetics may resolve the mystery.

The Ancient Past

The written history of Sicily begins with the arrival of the first Greek colonists at Naxos in 735 BC. At this point in Sicilian history there already existed at least four identifiable groups, namely the Sicans in the southwest, the Sikels in the east, the Elymians in the northwest, and the Phoenicians in trading outposts on the western and northern coasts. By 735 BC the Phoenician outposts were morphing into Cathaginian colonies. Linguistically we had Arab speakers in western Sicily represented by Carthaginians, Greek speakers in the East and Sican, Sikel, and Elymian speakers. By around 450 BC, the Greek city of Syracuse had crushed a rebellion of the Sikels and exiled Ducetius, their King, to Corinth. They also established control of the other Greek colonies of Agrigento and Gela on the southern coast, Catania on the eastern coast, Messina in the northeastern part and Himera on the northern coast. The control of Himera and Agrigento limited the eastern expansion of the Carthaginians and consolidated the Greek control of eastern Sicily. It may be prudent to point out that while we may justifiably talk about Carthaginian and Greek spheres, the transportation of the day made each city almost a world of its own and inter city rivalries were not unknown.

Another curious fact from a linguistic point of view is that the Sikel King, Ducetius, was able to convince enough Corinthians in Greece to join him in a return to Sicily where he established the city of Cale Acte on the northern shore. (Spoto, 267) It's curious because it means that the Sikel King had apparently acquired a working knowledge of Greek. The History of Herodotus (Book VI, Erato), agrees on the location of Cale Acte, placing it on the northern or Tyrrhenian shore. Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian of the first century BC, also places it on the northern shore almost midway between Messina and Himera. Cale Acte is identified on the map that accompanies note [8]. This establishes for us the presence of a significant Sikel population in the fifth century BC.


We know from our own experience that our first spoken language is learned from our parents. Some languages have unique sounds. The written form of a language only approximates the true sound of the language. But the written form, when it exists, does let us describe the language and determine connections. Lacking the prehistoric written record of a language we may be able to deduce its antecedents by isolating the peculiarities of its sounds and comparing them with the sounds of other languages of known antecedents. How did the uniqueness of Sicilian manage to survive through all the foreign dominations? There are at least two avenues open to further research that could provide some answers. One avenue would be to do a comparative study of the sounds of a common lexicon. Such a study might verify uniqueness or point to a common ancestor. A second avenue would be to make use of the recent advances in genetics. It's more likely that a genetic study that reveals the path that a population followed to get to its present location, could provide more reliable answers. Although Sicily has been invaded and occupied for long periods of time [9] by each of the dominant Mediterranean powers to such an extent that the original population might be non-existent, the mountainous terrain and the relative isolation of its many hill-top towns allows for some optimism that a thorough genetic study could be revealing.

[1] There must be something about the human genetic blueprint that makes us especially capable of language. (Hamer, 232.)

[2] Recent studies indicate that the ability to speak can only be acquired within a particular time frame during childhood. Sometimes referred to as Critical-period imprinting. (Ridley, Nature Via Nurture, 167)

[3] Rome was importing grain from Sicily long before the first Punic War and by the time of the outbreak of the war in 264 BC Sicilian had already emerged as a language. (Privitera, 13)

[4] Antiochus of Syracuse wrote the first history of Sicily in nine volumes that start with the mythical king of the Sicani named Kokalo and are updated to the year 424 BC. The Sikels, led by Ducetius are defeated in the neighborhood of Palagonia (Naftia) and Ducetius is exiled to Corinth in 446. (Spoto, 47)

[5] La lingua siciliana risalirebbe, nè più nè meno, alla preistoria. ... Instaurarono (i Siculi e i Sicani) un unico sistema di vita, i loro linguaggi si amalgamarono, e per la prevalenza dei Siculi, sorse quella lingua che si poté chiamare "sicula", o, per rifarci alla espressione greca, "siciliota". (Sucato, 11-12) (The Sicilian language traces back to prehistoric times. ... The Sikels and Sicans developed a unique society, their languages combined, and with the Sikels predominating, gave rise to that language that can be called "Sicilian" or in Greek, "Siciliota".)

[6] Dionigi d'Alicarnasso racconta che, secondo la tradizione, gli Elimi, popolazione antichissima della Sicilia occidentale, erano discendenti dei Troiani giunti fin lì al seguito di Enea. (Spoto, 94) (Dionysius of Halicarnassus tells us that, according to tradition, the Elymians, the very ancient population of western Sicily, were descended from the Trojans who came there with Aeneas.)

[7] "Genes of a mixed population occur in proportions corresponding to those of its ancestral parental populations. But a genetically mixed population tends to preserve only one of the two original languages. Sometimes, the language of a mixed population will not change at all; more often, however, we find a few words or, sometimes, sounds borrowed from the other language." (Cavalli-Sforza, 145-6)

[8] For an online article on Ducetius and a map showing the cities of Sicily at that time, go to: LIVIUS.

[9] For a chart that graphically illustrates the many foreign dominations of Sicily go to: Linguistic Influence.


Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, Genes Peoples, and Languages, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, 228 pp.

Dennis, Carina & Richard Gallagher, editors, The Human Genome, Nature, Cambridge, UK, 2001, 140 pp.

Hamer, Dean, & Peter Copeland, Living With Our Genes, Anchor Books, New York, 1999, 355 pp.

Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, written 440 BC, translated by George Rawlinson

Homerus, Odissea, Rizzoli editore, collana B.U.R, 1961,, 1a Edizione Elettronica del 19 Giugno 1997, Libbro 11.

Privitera, Joseph F., Sicilian: The Oldest Romance Language, Legas, Brooklyn, 2004, 90 pp.

Ridley, Matt, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Perennial, New York, 2000, 344 pp.

Ridley, Matt, Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2003, 326 pp.

Spoto, Salvarore, Sicilia Antica: Usi costumi e personaggi dalla Preistoria alla società greca, nell'isola culla dell civiltà europea, Newton & Compton, Roma, 2002, 352 pp.

Sucato, Ignazio, La Lingua Siciliana: Origine E Storia, Edizione La Via, Palermo, 1975, 127 pp.

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