If you want to joke, flirt, and gripe with the locals in Sicily, you could do so in Italian. But if you manage to do so in Sicilian you’re going to have way more fun.
Sicilian is the language of the island of Sicily. Some refer to it as a “dialect” — but, prior to the imposition of Italian as a “national” language, Sicilian developed in parallel to Italian. So don’t think of Sicilian as an offshoot; it is rather a much-maligned and marginalized sister. (Here’s the fullest explanation of the difference between a language and a dialect.)
Sicilan speakers generally learn the language from their parents and then learn Italian from television, school, and other situations. Almost nobody attempts to study it as a foreign language, except for weirdos like me. And now, you.
I recently visited Sicily and employed my Minimalist Language Method to ensure that I could hit the ground with just enough vocabulary to be able to properly bullshit with the locals. What follows are the phrases that I learned, along with their pronunciations.
- Sicilian could be considered a group of dialects/languages; there is quite a bit of variance from one region to the next. I’ve tried to choose words and phrases that would be understood and used across the island, but expect some variation.
- Sicilian is not written down very much any more (though it has a bit of celebrated history). Even the homepage of the Center for Sicilian Philological and Linguistic Studies is in Italian only, not Sicilian. What this means for you as a learner is that there’s guarantee that the spellings I have here will be the same as those used by others, as they have not been standardized — in fact, few Sicilians have ever tried to spell it at all.
- Sicilians: Your additions and corrections are welcome in the comments section at the bottom of the post. We frequently update based on reader feedback.
- 1. Introducing Yourself in Sicilian: Montalbano Am I
- 2. Respond to Suspicion of Sicilian-Speaking Foreigners
- 3. Ordering Wine, Spleens, and Other Necessities
- 4. Sicilian Toasts
- 5. Owning to Your Mistakes in Sicilian
- 6. The Most Meaningless but Useful Sicilian Word
- 7. Expressing Awesomeness
- 8. Expressing Annoyance
- 9. Sicilian Negation
- 10. The Worst Sicilian Insult
- 11. Address Your Sicilian Buddies
- 12. Show Your Surprise
- 13. Declaim Sicilian Disfunction
- 14. Not Making Specific Plans, Wandering
- 15. Advice that No Sicilian Actually Heeds
- Learn More Sicilian
1. Introducing Yourself in Sicilian: Montalbano Am I
Sicilians often plug in their verbs at the end of their phrases, including when introducing themselves. This habit has been popularized in Italian culture through the popular TV and literary detective character Montalbano, who famously declares:
Montalbano sono. — (lit.) Montalbano am I.
Of course that’s just Italian with a Sicilian structure. In true Sicilian he would say:
And following the same pattern, when I introduce myself in Sicilian and want to simultaneously make it instantly clear how well I understand the local culture, I say:
Mose sugnu. — (lit.) Mose am I.
You can also use the verb to indicate your nationality.
Mericanu sugnu. — (lit.) American am I.
2. Respond to Suspicion of Sicilian-Speaking Foreigners
If you speak even just a little bit of their language, Sicilians will love you for it. But … they may also be suspicious as to why you would bother to learn such a “useless” language (this has also happened to me when speaking Galician or Serbian).
For all your efforts, you’re likely to get an incredulous, wary “But why do you speak Sicilian?” at some point. Certain Sicilians may even think you’re making fun of them by trying to learn a few phrases of their oft-disrespected language.
I have been advised that it’s wise to put these people at ease with a lie: the invention of a Sicilian grandfather.
Ma nannu era sicilianu. — My grandfather was Sicilian.
3. Ordering Wine, Spleens, and Other Necessities
Don’t overdo it on politeness; Sicilians certainly don’t. But it can nevertheless be useful to have the equivalent of “please”.
Na buttigghia di vinu, pi favuri. — A glass of wine, please.
You can similarly employ pi favuri to ask for food.
Paninu ca meusa — Spleen sandwich
Meusa is the Sicilian word for “spleen”, and yes, that’s what will be in your sandwich. The Italian word is milza. The most famous place to order this in Palermo is Porta Carbone.
Pane e panelle — Bread and chickpeas
This Sicilian take on falafel is another popular street food — it is bread with fried chickpea balls.
cannolu — Little tube
You may be familiar with the plural form, cannoli. These are tubular Sicilian pastries consisting of fried dough wrapped around a creamy filling. A famed place to eat these in Palermo is Spinnato.
arancino/arancina/arancinu/arancini — Fried stuffed rice balls
These are another popular street food; they come stuffed with meat, cheese, and veggies. They are available everywhere in Sicily, and often in Italy and throughout the world.
Which is correct: Arancino, arancina, arancinu, or arancini?
4. Sicilian Toasts
The most common toast is:
A saluti! — Health!
There is also wedding toast that has been adopted and is used everywhere, in any situation.
Auguri e figghi masculi! — Congratuations, and male children!
This obviously shows the Sicilian baby-gender preferences; one wishes that the new couple may birth little male Sicilians in order to continue the family line.
5. Owning to Your Mistakes in Sicilian
When you’re attempting to fake your way through a language that you don’t speak, you’ll inevitably fuck things up. It’s thus important to know how to backtrack.
Cugghiuniu. — I’m just fucking with you./I’m joking.
Fazzu sulu minchiati. — I constantly screw up everything./I’m making mistakes.
An anonymous adviser on the island tells me that the later phrase is not used much by Sicilians themselves, as they do not admit to mistakes.
6. The Most Meaningless but Useful Sicilian Word
If there’s one word you should know in Sicilian, this is it. It gets thrown into just about every Sicilian sentence, so when you’re not sure what else to say, use it.
Minchia — “Dick”, meaningless interjection
After so much wear and tear, the word basically means nothing in most contexts. Literally, it means “dick” and corresponds to the Italian cazzo. It can add emphasis or just be used as filler. Italian speakers have also adopted minchia, however. Note that both words are a bit vulgar. There is also a more grandmotherly interjection.
Mizzica — the light version of minchia
7. Expressing Awesomeness
Beauty would seem to have a low bar in Sicily; for nearly every thing and situation you can show your appreciation with this phrase.
Minchia ch’è beddu! — Damn, that’s beautiful!/Fucking amazing!
The double D is a Sicilian consonant somewhere between an N and a D. Explore how your tongue curves differently when making an N and a D to find the right spot.
If you see a beautiful female thing or person, you say:
Minchia ch’è bedda!
8. Expressing Annoyance
The contrasting experience is annoyance.
Camurria — A small annoyance
Chi camurria! — How annoying!
The Italian equivalents are seccatura or noia.
9. Sicilian Negation
Confusingly for those from pretty much anywhere else, Sicilians give one quick nod of the head up to indicate “no”. This should be accompanied by a clicking sound. Here’s a few examples.
Worse, some Sicilians also negate verbally in a way that’s unlikely to clear things up for foreigners.
Nonsi — No
There is also, fortunately, a more simple word.
No — No
10. The Worst Sicilian Insult
When you really want to insult a Sicilian man, you suggest that his woman has slept around.
Curnutu — Cuckold (all-purpose insult)
11. Address Your Sicilian Buddies
You don’t necessarily employ the word “Roger” every time you see your friend Roger. You might well say, “dude”, “what’s shaking, dickmunch”, etc. One can be similarly vague and informal in Sicily.
Cumpare — buddy, dude, close friend
This person is literally the witness to your marraige or the baptizer of your baby. Cumpare is also employed to get someone’s attention or in a spirited attempt to get someone to wake up and see the light. As with the black American dialect’s “nigga please“, cumpare is most archetypically used to express incredulity.
12. Show Your Surprise
Sicilian’s expression of surprise is as follows.
Avà! — Oh please! You don’t say!
The similar expressions in Italian are ma va’, suvvia, dai.
13. Declaim Sicilian Disfunction
Similar to the Neapolitan language, when speaking Sicilian you must frequently comment on things not working out so well.
futtitinni — fuck it, it’s pointless, forget about it, it doesn’t matter (mildly vulgar)
14. Not Making Specific Plans, Wandering
Sicilians are loathe to just meet up in a specific place and do a specific thing. They’re much more likely to propose a vague jaunt about.
Peri peri — bumming around (just in town, or further afield), wandering, bar hopping, a stroll (literally, “foot foot”)
Sometimes Sicilians will use the Italian equivalent, piedi piedi, but Italians don’t generally use this.
15. Advice that No Sicilian Actually Heeds
Sicily is an island full of quite talkative people, but they have a saying that suggests behaving quite the opposite.
Cu picca parrau mai si pintiu. — Those who speak little never have regrets.
Learn More Sicilian
A big thanks to Sicilian native and expert teacher, Alessandro Bontempo for helping me learn these phrases. I have long taken Italian classes with him via Skype by signing up on Italki, and you can too. He’s experienced, delightful, and able to efficiently explain the most confounding grammar and usage questions that I spring on him.
You can also check out this more guidebooky list of Siclian words and phrases, as well as this fun guide for Italian speakers wanting to speak Sicilian.
For English speakers who want to learn Italian, of the many books I’ve used, by far the two best are Complete Italian (a beginner-to-intermediate communicative style guide) and Soluzioni: A Practical Grammar of Contemporary Italian (an intermediate to advanced level guide and workbook).