If you’ve never read Andrea Camilleri (b. 1925, Porto Empedocle), you’re really missing out on an incredible literary-linguistic experience. For Camilleri, language is one of the main characters of the story. In any given novel, he uses numerous varieties of Italian, authentic and hybridized Sicilian, dialects from other Italian regions, Anglicisms, slang, neologisms, and much, much more.
In my dissertation, I examine the regional Italian of Sicily in Camilleri’s collection of short stories entitled Un mese con Montalbano (A Month with Montalbano) published by Mondadori in 1998. I focus on regional Italian because this variety represents the language as it is truly spoken in Italy (as odd as it may seem, the standard Italian taught in schools in Italy and abroad is actually a literary language that is not spoken in Italy).
If you’re unfamiliar with regional Italian, it’s essentially a blend of standard Italian, which was imposed on the Italian population in 1868 following the unification of Italy, and the dialect native to the region in question. Because there are 20 regions in Italy, each of which has its own dialect, there are 20 regional Italians (although linguists maintain that there are only 18 owing to the similarity of some of the Southern varieties).
The following list includes some intriguing, not to mention entertaining examples of the Sicilian regionalisms in Un mese con Montalbano:
avere il carbone bagnato (Sic. aviri carbuni vagnatu; Ital. avere la coda di paglia): This phrase is used figuratively to mean “to have a guilty conscience,” but its literal meaning is “to have wet coal.” Interestingly, the translation of the standard Italian equivalent “avere la coda di paglia” is “to have a tail of straw.”
culo e cammìsa (Sic. culu e camisa; Ital. molto amici): Literally “ass and shirt,” this phrase is best translated as “thick as thieves” because it implies that the relationship between the individuals concerned involves a criminal element, unlike the standard Italian equivalent “very (close) friends.”
fare sangue (Sic. fari sannu; Ital. reputare simpatico): The intended meaning of this phrase is “to find [someone] likable,” but it literally means “to make blood.”
‘ngiuriato (Sic. ngiuriatu; Ital. sopranomminato): This past participle is used to mean “nicknamed,” and yet it literally means “insulted.” As Sciascia explained in his classic novel Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl), the origin of this term is reflective of the generally offensive nature of Sicilian nicknames.
picciotto (Sic. picciottu; Ital. giovanotto): This word generically refers to a “young man” in both Sicilian and Italian, but in Sicily it carries the additional meaning of “member of the mafia,” “hero (in a Western film)” or “adventurer.”
pigliato dai turchi (Sic. pigliatu di turchi; Ital. colto alla sprovvista): This expression is used to mean “caught off guard,” but its literal meaning is “taken by the Turks.” It refers to the Turkish raids of the 1600’s in which Sicilians were captured and forced into slavery.
spiare (Sic. spiari; Ital. chiedere): This verb is used to mean “to ask,” but it literally means “to spy.” The cultural connotation of this term is fascinating, as it implies that the act of asking constitutes spying into the thoughts of others.
Note: If you’re curious about Camilleri’s Sicilian, please visit the Dizionario on the Camilleri Fans Club website (don’t be fooled by the ungrammatical use of the English word “fans” — this is an impressive site). This dictionary provides a fairly comprehensive list of the Sicilian vocabulary utilized in Camilleri’s literature. It’s important to know, however, that even though Camilleri uses some authentic Sicilian terms in his writing, he Italianizes most of his Sicilian to make it more understandable for his non-Sicilian readers. The end result is that these words look like Sicilian regionalisms, which explains why scholars seem to agree that Camilleri’s language is an artistic rendering of the regional Italian of Sicily.
In Translation: Although Stephen Sartarelli has translated 12 of the Inspector Montalbano mysteries into English, there is at present no English translation of Un mese con Montalbano. In 1999, Elena de Grau Aznar’s Spanish translation of the book was published by Salamandra under the title Un mes con Montalbano.
On Film: Two of the short stories from Un mese con Montalbano, “Par condicio (Equal Time)” and “Tocco d’artista (The Artist’s Touch),” have been made into TV movies by Italy’s RAI. These films, together with at least 20 others featuring Inspector Montalbano, are available with English subtitles.