Calogero lu Nicu, 1929
We Sicilians say idda instead of ella, the Italian pronoun for she and her. Idda is pronounced eeda.
“Chi lu fici?” “Eeda.”
“Who did it?” “She did it.”
We never saw the dialect in print, it scarcely existed. We learned it from lullabies, from family lore and from ordinary conversation round the kitchen table. How else could we have communicated with our parents and with our adult relatives?
“Neno, Neno lu picuraru. Quattr’ e cinco lu panaru, peh nna vascedda di rigotta ci pizzamo u beddu picciottu. Ne ne ne. ne ne ne – ne ne ne.” I never saw that in print. Neither did my parents. It was a folk song my mother sang as she washed us or dressed us.
Neno neno (nay no, nay no) replicates the sound of a bag pipe, and the sound of a bleating sheep. The Italian version of the song looks like this: Neno neno Il pastore, Quattro e cinque il paniere. Per un vascello di ricotta abbiamo perduto un bello giovane. The song laments the death of a shepherd boy who is murdered for a pot of ricotta.
The Italian il becomes becomes the Sicilian lu; pastore (a shepherd in Italian), becomes picuraru – from pecora, a sheep. Paniere becomes panaru; vascello becomes vasceddu(vash shed doo), abbiamo perduto becomes ci pizzammo, and un bello giovane, becomes un beddo picciottu. The refrain, Ne, ne, ne, is the lamenting sound of the bag pipe.
Panaru (paniere) is a small basket of woven reeds which contain and form rounds of freshly made ricotta. The C in ricotta becomes in Sicilian almost a G. Vasceddu (Vascello) is a small basin or a pot. Pizzammo is idiomatic; it means ‘was lost or was sacrificed’. Beddu, of course, is bello, and u picciottu (pitch oat too) is a young boy.
In English the song says “Nay-no, Nay-no, the shepherd boy – ricotta at four and five cents the pan. For a pan of ricotta we have lost a beautiful young man. Nay-no, nay-no, nay-no.)
We took them for a drive. In the front seat, Zio Calogero and I spoke Sicilian. In the back seat, Margie, my father Leonardo and my mother Giuseppina spoke pidgin English. We rounded a bend in the road and we came upon some sheep in a meadow.
My father and my uncle, pre-1900 shepherd boys, bleated out: “Ne,ne, ne. I joined in: “Neno, neno lu piccuraru, quattr’ e cinco….” and then loudly, Nay! Nay! Nay! “Nay, Nay, Nay,”
Whenever it snowed, my mother would warn us: “Nna cura, e sciddicusu foru.” “Be careful, it’s slippery outside.” Foru is fuori in Italian, in English it means outside. In Italian, slippery is scivolevole. Sci is pronounced shee, as in sheedeecoosoo. A passing neighbor might call out, “Stat’attend’ piccilliddri! “Attenzione piccolini.” Be careful boys! Can you see the word piccolini hiding in piccilliddri? “Nnah coora, peecheeleedree, eh sheedeecoosoo.
Cervello, the Italian word for Brain, becomes ciriveddru in Sicilian.. I was baffled when I first saw ciriveddru in print, but I knew the spoken word. If I did something foolish, my uncle would admonish: “Calidu, doon eh toh ciriveddru?” (“Dov’ e il tuo cervello. Calido?” “Where’s your common sense (your brain), Calido?”)
Calido is the diminutive of Calogero. My uncle was Calogero lu grannu (il grande). I was Calogero lu nicu (the younger), di Leonardo my father, to distinguish me from two other Calogeros, my cousins Calogero di Matteo and Calogero di Giuseppe. We were all third sons, named after the same eldest uncle. Nicu also means physically small. If you were very small, like me, you were nicarreddu.
Minna (meen nha) comes from mammella. which is the Italian word for an animal’s breast, a sheep’s udder, or a goat’s. In Sicilian, minna also signifies a woman’s breast, whereas Seno is the Italian word for the human breast.
My mother breastfed her sons for as long as she could, my brother Steve until he was two plus. She said it was safer that way. In her mind, we sons lived in constant danger of disease and physical harm. (Her father and her eldest brother were murdered in Agrigento in 1926.) We brothers, by no design, ended up living within thirty miles of our mother, close to the minna that had nourished us, that had protected us from harm.
Pruvvulazzu,which comes from the Italian polvere, means Dust in English. Zio Calogero knew a man he called Petru Pruvvalazzu because Dusty Peter wasn’t very clean. There was another man he called naschi lurdi. Naschi, from the Italian narice, means nostril. The Italian word lordo is the English word Dirty. U naschi lurdi, is a snot nose.
Sazeech is an American corruption of the Sicilian word sasizza which is a corruption of the Italian word salsiccia, which in English means sausage. “Who ordered the sazeech?” cries out the server in your local pizza joint .
My rediscovery of the dialect was triggered by a birthday gift: two novels by Andrea Camilleri, in the original Italian. Andrea Camilleri, a Sicilian, was born in Porto Empedocle, a small port on Sicily’s southern coast, just below Agrigento.
Inspector Montalbano is the hero of Camilleri’s popular whodunit series. His books have been translated worldwide and they have been made into movies and TV serials. In 2003 the town fathers added Vigata to their city’s name: Porto Empedocle Vigata. Porto Empedocle is the fictional Vigata and Ispettore Montalbano is Vigata’s chief of police and it’s chief detective.
You can buy packaged tour to Vigata, you may stay at the Vigata Hotel. You may retrace Montalbano’s steps, from the solitary jetty where he consults with the seagulls, to his favorite restaurant whose chef, the owner’s wife, spoils him with exquisite daily specials. If Montalbano, working late, does not show up for dinner, she will slip the day’s special into his fridge on her way home from the restaurant.
The novels are heavily larded with Sicilian dialect, with no explanatory notes. Camilleri is pitiless: sink or swim he dares his readers and they love it! A glossary of Sicilian-to-Italian words in Camilleri’s books is available on the Internet. It”s thirty five pages long. My secret is to read the Sicilian expressions aloud; thus I recognize the words. How had Camilleri’s English translator rendered the Sicilian expressions, I wondered? Did my public library own any Camilleri’s?
“Ro,” I asked, “do we have any books by Andrea Camilleri?”
“We must have forty of them!” she said off the top of her head.
Where have I been all these years? Certainly, not with Camilleri. His books are shelved in MYSTERY, a vast section of the library, set apart from the regular FICTION shelves. Had Camilleri’s books been in FICTION, I might have encountered them.
“Ro, can you tell me exactly how many?” A pause: “Thirty-seven: twenty three titles, plus fourteen duplicates.” Next day I went to the library to pick up the English translation. There it was, standing tall in the MYSTERY section !
“Buttatavi! (Boot taht tah vee!), The Italian verb buttare means to throw out, to throw away, to dive in! Gettare (jettare) is a synonym of buttare. Sicilians change the G in gettare to IE: Yeht tah tah vi! Dive in, dive in!
“Buttatavi! Ietattavi! L’acqua nah billizza eh!”
The Other End of the Line
“Forgive me for asking, Inspector, but what can you tell me about the murder of poor Elena?’
“Did you know her?”
“I did, Inspector. If only there were more women like her.”
“In what sense?”
“First of all, she was so cheerful and open, and always smiling. And so friendly. And what an appetite! You know Inspector, nowadays women don’t eat anymore. A little salad here, a bit of chicory with oil and lemon there. But not Signor Elena. She would sit down and order an antipasto, first course. Second course, dessert. And you have no idea how much coffee. All of it sprinkled with good wine. And since she would sometimes come alone but didn’t like to eat alone, she would ask me to sit down with herand we would chat. And you know what? Often, when she would come late in the evening and all the other customers had left and I was starting to close up, we would play tressette when she was done eating. And if she won, she didn’t have to pay.”
Andrea Camilleri, The Other End of the Line. 2019, Penguin Books. Translated by Stephen Sartarelli.
“Dottore, mi perdonasse la domanda. Ma che mi puo dire dell’ammazzatina della povera signora Elena?”
La conoscevi tu?
“Sissignore Dottore. Magari ce ne fossero piu donne cosi’”
“In che senso?”
“Prima di tutto era una creatura allegra, aperta. ridanciana, amichevole. E aveva un appetitto! Sapete dottore, che ormai le donne non mangiano piu. Una insalatinella, una cicoria con olio e limone. La signora Elena no,. Si sedeva, se faceva servire antipasto, primo, secondo, il dolce e ammazzcaffe (moltissimo caffe, tanto da ammazzarti) Tutto rallegrato da un vino buono. E siccome certe volte veniva senza compagnia domandava che io mi sedessi con lei e chiacchiuariavamo. La sapete un cosa? Spesso, quando veniva tardo la sera, ch non c’erano piu clienti e io stavo per chiudere, alla fine della mangiata ne gioccavamo il conto a tressette. Se vinceva ella, non pagava.”
Dottori, mi pirdonassi la dimanna . Ma che mi po diri dell’ammazzatina della povira signura Elena?’
“Sissi, dottori. Macari ce ne fussiro di fimmine accussi!”
“In che senso?”
“In primisi era ‘na criatura alligra, aperta, ridanciana. ‘N’amiciunara. E aaviva un pittito! Sdapi dottori che orama’ le fimmine non mangiano cchiiu’. ‘N’insalatateddra, ‘na cicoria con olio e limoi. Sa signura Elena no. S’assittava, e si faciva serviri antipasto, primo, seccuno, duci e ammazzacaffe’. Tutto ralligrato da un vino bono. E siccome che certe vote viniva sula e non le piaciva mangiari senza cumpagnia m’ addimanava d’assiittarmi con lei e chiacchiariavamo. La sapi ‘na cosa? Spisso, quanno viniva tardo la sira, che non c’erano cchiu’ clienti e io stava per chiuiri, alla fini della mangiata nni jucavamu il cunto a trissetti. Si vincia iddra, nun pagava.”
Andrea Camilleri, L’altro capo del filo, 2016, Sellerio editore Palermo. pp. 153-154.