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Sicilian Americans Have Something to Say, in Sicilian

Sicilian Americans Have Something to Say, in Sicilian

By Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald

Every Wednesday night, a small group of students gather for their language course at the Italian Charities of America Inc. in Flushing, Queens. Ironically, the students are not interested in learning Italian, but a separate language that arrived during the wave of Italian immigration to New York City. These students are the children and grandchildren of Sicilian immigrants.

“We only write the phrases on the board in Sicilian, not in Italian, so that is what stays in our memories after class,” says Salvatore Cottone, teacher of the Sicilian language class.  On the chalkboard, Cottone has written, “Dumani Marialena sinni va cu zitu.” If he were to compare it to Italian, it would say “Marialena andrà con il suo ragazzo.” It would not help the students to observe the ways that one language relates to the other; they are completely separate in form, construction, and syntax.

Sicilian and Italian are both audibly and visibly diverse. To note a few examples, Sicilian uses different vowel sounds, relying on a long “u” rather than the “o” as in “trenu” (train) and “libbru” (book) instead of “treno” and “libro.” There is no future tense verb conjugation; instead, context words such as tomorrow, “dumani,” and later, “doppu,” are used to indicate that the action will take place in the future. The cadence and pronunciation of Sicilian also demonstrate obvious differences from the standard Italian.

Scholars have found that Sicilian was the first written language in Italy after Latin. Declared by UNESCO as the first romance language of Europe, Sicilian contains a unique vocabulary of over 250,000 words. Since Italian Unification in 1870, however, when Tuscan became the national language, Sicilian has become less prominent in the southern regions of Italy and Sicily.

Although nearly 20 million people in Sicily and around the world still speak Sicilian, it is not included in Sicilian academic curricula. School systems are only required to teach Italian standard grammar, and as a result, children are not encouraged to learn proper Sicilian grammar. Despite efforts to bring teachers and Sicilian grammar courses back to the education track, funds have been insufficient.

In New York City, where the largest community of Sicilians is found outside of Italy, the Sicilian language faces a similar struggle to remain active. Despite the large number of Sicilian-speaking immigrants who arrived in the early twentieth century, settling in neighborhoods such as Ridgewood, Astoria, Bensonhurst and Bayridge, the language is seldom heard and almost never written down. To counter this obsolescence, international organizations such as Arba Sicula, Vanvakys Art International Inc., and the Sicilian Cultural Institute of America have been working adamantly to save this language that was once vibrant in the core of the Mediterranean.

The root cause for this disintegration, as seen with other endangered languages, can be traced back to the home. As Miki Makihara says, “Parents might even decide to not talk to their children in their native language but rather the new language of the new country because they figure, that’s the language that will get them ahead in school and in getting a job.” Makihara, a professor of linguistic anthropology at CUNY, explains the challenges that immigrant communities in New York City face when assimilating to a new culture and language. If this transitional process, referred to as language shift, occurs without the preservation of the native tongue, a language can move dangerously close to extinction.

Arba Sicula offers an outlet for Sicilian Americans to preserve their language and culture. Standing for “Sicilian Dawn,” the organization was founded in 1979 by Sicilian immigrants in New York City and has grown from 700 to nearly 2,000 members since 1988. Gaetano Cipolla, president of Arba Sicula since 1987, is also editor of the organization’s journal Arba Sicula, the largest Italian American publication in the United States. He states on his website that, “Books are our best bet to overcome the silly stereotypes of Sicilians produced by the mass media.” Placing the words on the page reminds old and new members that their culture cannot be forgotten so long as it is recorded. Written in both Sicilian and English, the journal aims to educate readership of how their native language looks and gives them a chance to practice reading the language. Their current focus is, as Cipolla says, “To get the new people in; the second, third and fourth generations, and we’re having some success.”

Domenic Giampino and Salvatore Cottone are working with these more recent generations on a local level at their Sicilian language class. They recognized that most Sicilian-Americans who still speak the language are now elderly, and that the language and culture should be passed on to those who will retain its legacy. Their classroom is found at Italian Charities in Flushing, Queens.

Giampino started the Sicilian class last fall for young and old Sicilian-Americans interested in learning or re-learning the language of their ancestors. It made sense to choose Cottone, founder of Vanvakys Art International Inc, and immigrant from Palermo, to teach the class. In his last ten years living in New York, Cottone has organized lectures and conventions to expose the ways that Sicilian art, food, and history have made strong international influences. Reviving the language, Cottone believes, is one important way that Sicilian Americans can preserve their culture and show that the country has more to offer than the Mafia.

The two-hour classes are split into a comprehensive history and culture lecture, followed by language practicum and conversation. They use one of the few Sicilian grammar texts, “Introduction to Sicilian Grammar,” by Kirk Bonner, edited by Gaetano Cipolla.

When Giampino first introduced the idea to the community, many challenged his motives. “They say, ‘well its barely even written,’ and then you show them a textbook and they’re like ‘oh my god.’ It’s like an uphill battle that in a sense has to be fought because if it’s not, what will happen is that eventually the language will die out,” says Giampino. These men are doing something revolutionary for the Sicilian-American community.

While these language classes have existed for only one year, they are receiving positive feedback from Sicilian friends and colleagues abroad. This summer, Fonso Genchi, living near Palermo, contacted Giampino for guidance and textual supplements for the Sicilian language course he was starting in Palermo and Termini Imerese. This is a positive step toward language preservation. If educators living in Sicily are able to challenge the Italian-only curricula of school systems, they will make great internal strides. Genchi’s course will emphasize the importance of speaking Sicilian, and most importantly, speaking with proper grammatical structure.

Education and documentation are so important, says Gaetano Cipolla, because, “People don’t realize that when you give up something like that, you give up part of your identity.”

Contact the writer at

Past Scholarship Awardees


First Name Middle Name Last Name Scholarship Year
Michele Loggi 1983
Anne Booye 1984
Stephanie Guerrera 1984
Anna G Pietrofitta 1984
Debra Spora 1984
Michael Carri 1985
Karen M DiMeo 1985
Nicholas C Petruzzi 1985
Gina M Casey 1986
Lisa DiMauro 1986
Robert Turchi 1986
Anita Dolsgn 1987
Donald J Lomonaca 1987
Louis James Polisano 1987
Michael C Cipriano 1988
Susan Ordile 1988
Paul Vitrano 1988
Glenn H Milanesi 1989
Scott Smaniotto 1989
Chris Weisbecker 1989
Carmel R Galiano 1990
Maria B LoMonaco 1990
Jeffrey Olive 1990
Malissa Ann Cessao 1991
Gregory Michael Pedecin 1991
Beth Ann Pontari 1991
Angelina V Baruffi 1993
Christina Constanzo 1993
Andrea M Longo 1993
Michael A Previti 1993
Anthony R Buccafurni 1994
Nicholas J Russo, III 1994
Danielle Dagrossa 1995
Amy Lynn Stablini 1995
Seth Baruffi 1996
Anthony Desalle 1996
Philip Jordan 1996
Harvey C Cocozza, Jr. 1997
Heather Lynn Dagrossa 1997
Kara Marie Tummarello 1997
Amy Lynn Weatherby 1997
Melissa Krick 1998
Matthew Levinson 1998
Robert Vettese, Jr. 1998
Meredith Wilson 1998
Russell Baruffi 1999
Lauren Blum 1999
Kathleen Catalano 1999
Samuel Curcio 1999
Joseph Gargione 1999
Kevin Jordan 1999
Joseph Letizia 1999
Mark Marsella 1999
Jeanna Murray 1999
Nina Pullelle 1999
Salvatore Cavatiere 2000
Ashley Damato 2000
Matthew Maggio 2000
Paul Marrandino 2000
Katie McLaughlin 2000
Shane Merril 2000
Adam Miller 2000
Gianna Barbera 2001
Francesca Constantino 2001
Carolyn Cummings 2001
Ashley Gilly 2001
Christine Malvasi 2001
Jennifer Morren 2001
Louis Perfetti 2001
Peter Perfetti 2001
Christine Pullella 2001
Chris Veneziani 2001
Vincent T Accardi 2002
Daniel J Baruffi 2002
Aicia A Baumho 2002
Michael J Chilastri 2002
Jana Marie Dandrea 2002
Earl Lynn DellaBarca 2002
Mary S Hoffman 2002
Maria F Leonetti 2002
Jay Daniel Potts(Piccini) 2002
Jeffrey T Bordogna 2003
Jorjiana Constantino 2003
Julianne N Daniels 2003
Argia J DiMarco 2003
Angela M DiPompo 2003
Ryan T Gabriel 2003
Leslie J Jesperson 2003
Nicole M Lawler 2003
Nicholas D Miller 2003
Gabriella E Scalafani 2003
Kelly Lynn Truman 2003
Ryan R Westerfield 2003
Gabrielle DeDomenicis 2004
Anna Devlin 2004
Marie Formica 2004
Kelly A Goddard 2004
Jason W Lawler 2004
Lea V Marino 2004
Anthony F Martire 2004
Michael C Migioia 2004
Lauren I Pittaro 2004
Casandra Westerfield 2004
Jaime Earl 2005
Dominick Formica 2005
Courtney Goddard 2005
Katelyn Hagmaier 2005
John LaTorre 2005
John LaTorre 2005
Madline Lauria 2005
Kristin Mancuso 2005
Sarall Marino 2005
Dominic Russo 2005
Dominick Baruffi 2006
Danielle Conroy 2006
Jullian DiRenzo 2006
Jenifer Fipp 2006
Eric Gabriel 2006
Alexandra Juliano 2006
Justine Kleenman 2006
Tricia Paparone 2006
Samantha Savio 2006
Christa Zuccarino 2006
Joseph Alessi 2007
Matthew Castelli 2007
Kateryna Christian 2007
Andrea DeSantis 2007
Allison Iudica 2007
Sarah Longo 2007
Deanna Mangano 2007
Maria Miller 2007
Frank Nastasi 2007
Michael Paci 2007
Julia Prince 2007
John Russo 2007
Leandra Russo 2007
Kristin Zompa 2007
Lindsay Andros 2008
Nicole DeCredico 2008
Daniel Errera 2008
Teresa Iaconelli 2008
Elisha Jachetti 2008
Nicole Mancuso 2008
Lauren Mangeniello 2008
Vincent Nistico 2008
Catherine Savio 2008
Joseph Sparano 2008
Blake Truabuchi-Downey 2008
Gregory Vandenberg 2008
Theodore Accardi 2009
Dante Baruffi 2009
Chelsea Bruno 2009
Dana Daniels 2009
Danielle Douris 2009
Megan Errera 2009
Isabella Iezzi 2009
Caitlin Juliano 2009
Victoria Kugel 2009
Marco Leggi 2009
Emma Mangano 2009
Marie Moschella 2009
Stephanie Pileggi 2009
Devin Seelman 2009
Jonathan Senese 2009
Michael Shaughnessy 2009
Jeffrey Smith 2009
Joanna Sutor 2009
Christopher Vandenberg 2009
Dante Benvenuto 2010
Christian Calabrese 2010
Rosemary Christian 2010
Carly DiGiovanni 2010
Angelica Diodato 2010
Nicholas Dirago 2010
Victoria Fama 2010
Christie Goddard 2010
Gabriella Johnson 2010
Cassandra Krauss 2010
Lynn Mangiello 2010
Catherine Merendino 2010
Devon Palermo 2010
Paige Pecora 2010
Allison Pushman 2010
Domenic Ruggeri 2010
Madeline Ruley 2010
Jennifer Thompson 2010
John Ventriglia 2010
Keanna Voso 2010
Angelina Bongiovanni 2011
Joseph Bottino, III 2011
Kaitlin Hare 2011
Sara Mangano 2011
Alexandra Mazzo 2011
Sydney Mineer 2011
Gordon Prince 2011
Amy Pushman 2011
Ashley Weiner 2011
Christopher Accardi 2012
Ceili Burdhimo 2012
Ashlyn Laveson 2012
Sarah A. Reilert 2012
Kevin A. Hazlett 2012
Rebecca Krauss 2012