Is Sicilian a dialect or a language and why isn’t there an answer for this question?
Many texts written in Sicilian have existed and have been recorded for centuries, as this idiom was the official language of some communities. Today, however, the situation has changed, and its definition remains controversial even according to the most important international associations
The debate on the nature of the Sicilian is still open and involves research centres, public and private bodies of all sorts. On the one hand, in fact, this idiom has a syntax, a grammar, a phonetic and a vocabulary of its own like any language. Yet, although it is a superregional dialect (also used in certain areas of Calabria), it is currently impossible to find texts in Sicilian written by political representatives, as is the case for those official languages, which are taught in a school and spoken in offices, courts and mass media.
Its cultural and literary history makes the issue even more delicate: many texts have actually been recorded in Sicilian for centuries and, in the past, this was the official language of some local communities. On the other hand, as it happened to many languages of the Italic area after the unification in 1860 and the foundation of the Kingdom in 1861 (and in many cases even earlier), this use has now disappeared. Consequently, if it is true that in Sicily there is no dialect defined as a variety deriving from Italian (since it has Latin, Greek-Byzantine, Arab, Norman and Spanish roots), it is also true that there is a dialect understood as a language opposed to a another one, with respect to which it remains in a state of subordination.
The matter is even more difficult to solve if we take into account the fact that the International Organization for Standardization, the most important world organization for the definition of linguistic standards, has attributed a code also to the Sicilian (ISO 639-3 scn), and it happens only with languages (not with dialects). A few years ago, UNESCO recognized Neapolitan and Sicilian as mother tongues in danger of extinction, while the first article of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages states they are “regional or minority languages […] which are not dialects of the official language of the Italian State”.
As we can see, giving a definition of Sicilian is an almost impossible mission. According to the glottologist and dialectologist from Palermo Giovanni Ruffino, the first Sicilian linguist named Academic of the Crusca in 2017, the term dialect “would be more appropriate”, even if in the language settings of the most modern smartphone you can find it in the list of the world official languages. What is certain is that Sicilian is still understood and spoken by many and has numerous cultural traditions all over the region. Therefore, neither one definition nor the other can be considered inappropriate or wrong today.
Two centuries ago, the German philosopher and jurist Paul Yorck von Wartenburg wrote: «Sicilian is the product of a territory that is not a detached piece of Italy, that never has made part of any State, that was occupied by the north, the south, the east, but that has never been assimilated. The island where nothing is stable and everything is always changing, the unstable land where one day they may destroy what they had just build the day before, where volcanism and Neptunism are always present” and where the very definition of language or dialect remains uncertain, ready to be denied and then confirmed again from one moment to another.
Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino