Tag Archives: Sicilian grammar

What are pronouns these days?

Or, what’s in a name?

A recent visitor was looking for information about pronouns in Sicilian, a subject which gets very few hits via Google, although there seems to be some information out there. I was tempted to give a brief outline of the matter, but Bonner’s (2001:80, 81) section on indefinite pronouns is not only long, but also complicated. Take the following sentences, for example.

Manciu anticchia e vivu anticchia “I eat a little and I drink a little.”

Mi mancianu assai li manu “My hands itch a lot.”

Are anticchia and assai really pronouns? They’re really behaving like adverbs. However, consider the the phrase “every day” in the following sentence:

I clean my teeth every day.

In the old parlance, “every day” is a noun phrase (NP), but it has an adverbial function. Therefore, the pronouns above are still pronouns, but have an adverbial function in those sentences. I might conclude that a pronoun is a very compact NP which is, therefore, likely to have the same sort of functions as NPs of the more familiar kind. 

But just to play around with language a little, I’d expect that if you asked someone with a modest amount of linguistic knowledge what a pronoun is, they might split the word into pro+noun and paraphrase it as “something that stands for a noun”. (All right, in my mind that seems to be a reasonable hypothesis.) But in English we say

The man was reading the paper → He was reading the paper.

The pronoun replaces “the man”, and not just “man” alone. I can’t say *The he was reading the paper, although there might be a language in which that’s possible. In other words, pronouns don’t stand for nouns alone, but rather the whole phrase starting with the determiner.

Suddenly, it seems, pronouns should probably be lumped together with determiners and shouldn’t even be regarded as a distinct word class. After all, the number of pronouns which can’t function as specifiers is probably quite small[1]; and vice versa.[2]

Getting back to Sicilian, what might we say about anticchia when it’s used in conjunction with some noun?

Mi manciu anticchia di pani e mi vivu anticchia di vinu “I eat a little bread and I drive a little wine.”

At least in languages like Sicilian, there are certain specifiers which can’t take complements directly. It may be a historical thing. In English, I’d say a lot (of) is really a quantifier, but because it’s derived from a noun, it still demands what is required by one noun when joined with another. But in the example above, a little in English modifies the noun without any intervening element, although the language isn’t as big on partitives as the Romance languages are.

I assume I’m not the first person (well, really I am the 1st person, but that’s another matter) to come to this conclusion. If you’re a member of Save the Pronoun, you should blame the person who was looking for pronouns in Sicilian and got me thinking about all this.


1. I’m racking my brains to think of any unequivocal examples. Even (some) personal pronouns can be used as specifiers (e.g. You robots are a bunch of idiots; We robots aren’t going to tolerate you anti-robotism any longer). Perhaps the relative pronoun who and certain indefinite pronouns such as anyone, someone, somebody etc. But this latter set isn’t that surprising since they’re derived from compounds. You can’t, of course, say *some body woman because the position containing a noun is already occupied. I suppose “body woman” is a potential compound, but can’t think what it might mean.

2. The articles a(n) and the instantly spring to mind, followed by every. I suppose the possessive specifiers (not forgetting that his goes both ways because the two forms are identical) fall into this group. I’ll leave the business of classifying these things to those who really care.

The past participle in Sicilian

A few notes.

(I wrote this up while I was disconnected. I see from my stats that someone was just here searching for “Sicilian verbs”.)

Bonner (2001:123) lists the following uses for the past participle in Sicilian (there are a couple more, but they’re not immediately relevant)

Use #1: Functions as an adjective with a past meaning.
Use #2: Introduces a subordinate clause. In this case, the relative pronoun is not expressed.
Use #3: Introduces a dependent clause in the past. The gerund of aviri may be used in conjunction with the past participle. However, the gerund is used only for the present situation.

Use #1 should’ve stopped at “adjective”. Although, in their guise as stative verbs, adjectives in Chinese can have a past tense, this is not formally true of Sicilian. For example, A putia è chusa “The shop is closed” merely describes the state of the shop in present time I wonder what Bonner would say about “The shop was fascinating” where a present participle with an adjectival function is being used with a verb in the past tense. 

Use #2 would be confusing for beginners because there’s no overt reason why the relative pronoun should be mentioned except as a means of translating such clauses into natural English. For the grammar of Sicilian, the statement is irrelevant. An example is

A putia chiusa nna l’estati grapi di novu nna l’autunnu. “The shop (which was) closed in the summer will open again in autumn.”

Yet I don’t get the impression that this function is actually any different from Use #1, except here the participle is functioning attributively rather than as a predicate. 

Use #3 is also confusing. Bonner says that “the gerund is only used for the present situation”. It’s not clear exactly what this means exactly unless it’s some reference to the present tense which, even then, makes no sense from the examples. For instance

Avennu vistu l’omu, u picciottu si vutau e si misi a curriri. “Having seen the man, the boy turned and started to run.”

Bonner notes that Vistu l’omu, u picciottu si vutau e si misi a curriri. “is OK too”. Unfortunately, there’s no further explanation. From being used with the “present situation”, the gerund now seems optional. The resulting gerundless construction seems a lot like the ablative absolute in Latin. The Indo-Aryan languages also have a similar construction (e.g. Pali taya pañham puttham “She asked the question”). It’s beyond my slender knowledge of syntax to describe what’s happening formally, but the the direct object of the passive, which would end up functioning as the subject in English, remains in a post-verbal position. 

English has no equivalent, since we can only say “Seen by the boy, the man…” The boy may be the agent of the past participle, but in English he can no longer function as the subject of the main clause. Avennu vistu l’omu… is, on the other hand, active and equivalent to the English “Having seen the man…”

A couple of linguistic notes


I went through Bonner trying to find instances of cci the adverb with verbs of motion rather than cci the pronoun to see whether I could find enough examples to formulate some sort of principle of usage, or find some statement about it. I found a couple of examples, viz.

A: Ti piacissi iri ô cinima? “Would you like to go to the movies?”
B: Sì, cci vulissi iri. “Yes, I really would.”
Iu dissi ca cci ieva però ora non cci vogghiu iri. “I said that I’d go, but now I don’t want to.”

I don’t know whether cci is obligatory; obligatory under certain circum­stances; or optional. I have a slight preference for the second choice, but can’t confirm that. There may be other examples I missed, but most of the instances Bonner gives are pronominal.

Theof . Or . Or .

Here are three characters which, if ever proof were needed, confirm that the exclusive use of pinyin to render Chinese would be a disaster. They’re all pronounced de. Why am I confused? Because Po-Ching and Rimmington (1997) uses pinyin throughout their book. In §5, they’re talking about 的, which introduces complements in the NP. Sometimes, you’ll see it written in signs here in its supersimplified form, の, which renders the syllable no in hiragana, a particle which seems to have a similar function in Japanese to 的 in Chinese. When they get to §13.4, I’m led to believe they’re talking about 得, which is a clausal complementiser. I think it’s the same character in §14.1ff. In fact, the constructions in §§13, 14 are identical in form, though not function. The glossary at the back of the book makes these characters easy to identify, although actually including them in the right sections would help.

What about 地? I’m informed that I should go to §22 which is all about the 是…的 (shì…de) construction. Nope, I haven’t mistyped that. I know that Chinese has a 是…的 construction. As far as I can see, 地 doesn’t appear to be mentioned in this section at all. Po-Ching and Rimmington gloss it as “particle, to indicate an adverbial”. Is there a typo in the book? Am I missing something? (All rude comments about the latter gleefully deleted.)

T’ung and Pollard (1982) Colloquial Chinese suffer from the same pinyin-only problem. Chinese Grammar Without Tears doesn’t appear to mention it, but that lacks a glossary; Chinese for Beginners only mentions 地 “earth” which I know perfectly well from 地铁 dìtiě “the Underground; the Tube”.

This all started from something different. I had originally planned an entry about the use of 得 because I noted as I looked at the examples in Po-Ching and Rimmington that the constructions are identical, being differentiated by the lexical content before and after 得. In the original post (deleted; I was worried I was getting my characters severely muddled), I proposed that the true complement is not what follows 得, but rather what precedes it. I also noted that Chinese is sufficiently ambiguous for there to be no clear interpretation, but since the language is somewhat OV and inclined to be right-headed, it seemed more likely that the complement precedes 得. Well, that’s how it looks to me.

They don’t ‘alf whiff


I appear to have six bilingual dictionaries. (Have I mentioned this before?) In the beginning, probably as many foreigners do, I bought a copy of Martin Manser’s dictionary concise dictionary. I then bought an FLTRP dictionary which was for Chinese people learning English, but that was a job-related acquisition. The English-Chinese section is quite com­pre­hen­sive. If I can’t find a word in Manser, it’s probably in this one.

About 18 months ago, I found Manser was annoying me because of the size of the characters; the limited range of meanings; and the absence of various characters. In the space of a week I’d bought two more dict­ion­aries, but liking neither of them, bit the bullet and bought a large English-Chinese dictionary.

When I got to Changzhou last year, I found that a third edition of Manser was out and bought that because it seemed more robust than my copy of the second edition which now resides in the drawer of my desk in the office.

When I got to Fuzhou, I bought a character dictionary which has been useful for finding characters which aren’t even in the big one.

(I’d also like my six copies or so of Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid to be taken into account.)

Our tale is about the FLTRP dictionary which, as I said, has a quite comprehensive English-Chinese section. As I was looking through it last night, I spotted the word “bollocking” (as in “I gave my pupils a right bollocking for using their mobile phones in class”). No sign of “bollocks”, though. The Chinese translation is 臭骂 (chòumà) “scold angrily”. But after I’d looked this up in my big dictionary, I noticed the entry 臭老九 (chòulǎojiǔ) which means “stinking ninth-category people”, the term used to label intellectuals in the Cultural Revolution.

Intellectual? You got me bang to rights there, guv. Stinky? I’d hope not.

I have pupils like this.

I’m looking through Bonner for examples of cci, especially in the adverbial sense when I come across this sentence.

La statua non cci duna cuntu “The statue doesn’t pay any attention to him”

Well, of course it wouldn’t. It’s a statue. I’ll be generous and assume the sentence has been decontextualised.

Sicilian Grammar (again)

No Mafia-related pun was left unconsidered as a sub-heading.

J.K. “Kirk” Bonner’s (2001) Introduction to Sicilian Grammar. Ed. by Gaetano Cipolla. Legas: New York.

Bonner’s book can be best described as a discursive grammar by a knowledgible amateur. It confirms and clarifies most of the questions my previous contact with a grammar of Sicilian had raised, but left one major one unanswered – what’s the deal with cci and verbs of motion? In the chapter on pronouns (p. 69), Bonner says

nni and cci are also used as adverbs of place; nni = of here, of there and cci = here, there… Spell nni with two ns when it is a conjunctive adverb.

As a pronoun, ni is the direct object (dO), indirect object (iO), or reflexive form of the 1st person plural. Cci is the iO form of the 3rd person singular and plural (e.g. Cci arrobbanu i sordi “They stole the money from him“). Part of the answer I’m looking for may be on page 72 in a section on the repetition of conjunctive pronouns with noun objects. In this construction, if the dO precedes the verb, the pronoun corresponding to the noun will also be used. For example,

A la me zita la viu nna la chiazza cu nautru omu “I see my fiancée in the town square with another man”
[a la me zita] “my fiancée” [la] “her” [viu] “I see” [nna la chiazza] “in the town square” [cu nautru omu] “with another man”

(The particle a [called Personal a; p. 56] at the start of the sentence above is used to mark a human dO in Sicilian.) As Bonner’s examples show, this construction extends beyond the dO.

Un iornu l’omu cci dici a so mugghieri ca la voli beni assai “One day the man says to his wife that he loves her a lot”
[un iornu] “one day” [l’omu] “the man” [cci] “to her” [dici] “says” [a so mugghieri] “to his wife” [ca] “that” [la] “her” [voli] “he loves” [beni assai] “a lot”

In other words, if the conjunctive pronoun corresponds to a prepositional phrase (PP) functioning as the complement of a verb, the same construction can be used. In addition to the example above, note the following:

Lu poviru omu cci aviria datu la so arma a lu diavulu pi du sordi “The poor man would have his soul to the devil for two cents”
[lu poviru omu] “the poor man” [cci] “it” [aviria datu] “would have given” [la so arma] “his soul” [a lu diavulu] “to the devil”

I assume that cci here refers to la so arma rather than a lu diavulu. Possibly the use of cci with verbs of motion belongs in the same class as this last example so that “I’m going to the house” might be (literally) “I there (cci) go to the house” (Cci vaiu a la casa ??). I’m not sure whether cci in such a construction is optional or not. The first example above is Viu a la me zita nna chiazza cu nautru omu when the dO is in a post-verbal position. Here the otiose use of the pronoun is absent. I guess the pronoun is all part of topicalisation in Sicilian and perhaps intended to eliminate the ambiguity from some sentences where the fronted dO might be interpreted as the subject. However, this is no more than idle speculation on my part.

Possessive specifiers/determiners can be pre- or post-head modifiers in the NP; thus

È lu me libbru or È lu libbru miu or È lu libbru me “It’s my book”

With singular kinship nouns and parts of the body the definite article is omitted, but is found with the plural of kinship nouns.

Because of the potential ambiguity of so “his; her; their”, di + iddu “him”, idda “her”, iddi “them” may be used for clarity, hence lu libbru d’iddu “his book”, lu libbru d’idda “her book”, and li libbra d’iddi “their books”. (In the book, the last is lu libbru d’iddi and translated “their books”, but must be “their book”).

Watch where that’s dangling

But is it infelicitous in both languages?

I’m having a look through the grammar of Sicilian which my sister sent me for my birthday when I find this sentence

Arrivannu a li diciadott’anni, lu patri di la picciotta cci fa un matrimonia bonu “Having turned eighteen, the girl’s father will arrange a good marriage for her”

In English, the participle is associated with the head of the following NP which, in this case, is father. According to Bonner (2001:133), the gerund (arriviannu) doesn’t actually have to refer to the subject of the main clause so that in Sicilian you’d know the clause referred to the girl. But the English translation of this sentence and the two variations Bonner gives (fici “arranged” and vulia fari “wanted to arrange”) still persist in using a dangling participle.

In English, you’d say “When the girl turns eighteen, her father will arrange a good marriage for her”. You could say “When she turns eighteen, the girl’s father will arrange a good marriage for her”, but it’s only marginally better than the translation above. Although English tolerates cataphoric pronouns (e.g. When she entered the room, Emma opened the window) where other languages shun them (I believe Old English was so inclined), there are limits to what is acceptable and what is pushing it.

I’m surprised that the translation was allowed to survive the editing process. It would’ve been better to stay away from dangling participles and instead to have explained how “Arrivannu a li diciadott’anni” could refer to “la picciotta”, even although English doesn’t allow the same degree of licence.

I shouldn’t have looked

A disorganised crime.

I went through the pdf of that Sicilian grammar bookmarking the various sections to make the document easier to navigate. That meant that I was exposed to its full disorganisation, which doesn’t recommend its exposure to a wider public.

The author’s aim is laudable enough. Sicilian is a minority language in Europe. It might be of interest to anyone of Sicilian descent, or linguists. But if you’re going to get people like me (i.e., linguists) near it, you need to to have done QA first.

The grammar, as I noted, doesn’t get off to a good start, but you suddenly hit a section called ORTHOGRAPHY (yes, in capitals) where a whole bunch of stuff gets buried, including Gender, which kind of marks the beginning of the section on nouns. In fact, most of the non-verbal morphology is here.

You eventually get to verbs on page 32 and, almost immediately, the conjugations of avìri “have” and èssiri “be” for no particular reason. It’s not until you get to page 36 (and scan with care) that you learn there are three conjugations in Sicilian. The section on verbs tails off into a few more sample conjugations followed by a couple of irregular verbs.

The 3rd person pronoun is iddu which, apparently, does service for “he, him, she, her”, but the text is also littered with instances of idda “she, her” (e.g. Idda cci avìa iutu a scola “She had gone to school”; S’innamurò di idda “He fell in love with her”). A search of the text for examples reveals no examples of pronouns as direct objects, which usually gets a note or two because they’re proclitics in the Romance languages (well, the ones I have some vague knowledge of; e.g. Anna lo/la odia [Italian] “Anna hates him/her”).

Although the aim of the grammar is laudable, the organisation is deplorable, and this is a good example of how not to write a grammar. It’s easy enough to go to the library or a bookshop and have a look at how grammars (as opposed to self-teaching books on language) are organised.

The Sicilian Gambit

La lingua nostra.

Another tale of linguistic hijinks, this time from Sicilian. This site has a course in Sicilian which starts with the following

a is pronounced as in the word palm parma
e is pronounced as in the word echo leccu
i is pronounced as in the word ring aneddu
o is pronounced as in the word lost persu
u is pronounced as in the word foot pedi

Now normally, I’d expect the example to be in Sicilian and the gloss to be in English; but here the example is in English and the gloss is in Sicilian.

Further on we have

Some words in Sicilian change meaning by the addition of a consonant that they have in common, that is with a certain consonant they have one meaning and by doubling that same consonant the word has a different meaning:

The author is really talking about minimal pairs which illustrate that geminates are phonemic, but the description makes it seem that this might be a process of derivation so that scanàri “to knead” actually becomes scannàri “to slaughter” by doubling the [n]. It doesn’t.

Once we get away from the phonology of the language, the rest seems safe enough. Well, almost.

The Romans did not know the cardinal numbers and they used the ordinal numbers for every need. for this reason they used to write even the dates with ordinal numbers. here are some examples of how the years are written with ordinal numbers:

The author doesn’t appear to be confusing cardinal and ordinal numbers (which is a pair of labels I constantly mix up), but the problem appears to stem from the use of Roman numerals. It starts with

If the ordinal number refers to title, it follows the name:
Fidiricu II Frederick the II
Erricu VI Henry the VI
Luigi IX Louis the IX,

but in truth, this is mere convention. We’re then told

The ordinal numbers are written with special capital letters:

which is followed by a list of Roman numerals. Although we’re given the Sicilian ordinals (the actual word), it appears that the Roman numerals are some sort of Sicilian peculiarity which need explaining. It means that I once owned a Sicilian watch. No wonder I could never work out what the time was.

But things do get a little worse.

The Romans did not know the cardinal numbers and they used the ordinal numbers for every need. for this reason they used to write even the dates with ordinal numbers. here are some examples of how the years are written with ordinal numbers:

I would assume that Roman numerals were originally conceived of as cardinals (I homo; II homines etc.), but the Romans may not have had some sort of written marker for ordinals (e.g. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc.). However, I can assure worried readers that the Romans did know cardinal numbers.

If you remove these unfortunate statements, the rest of the course seems to be a decent, basic description of Sicilian, but don’t look too closely.