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Sicilian dialect lives on, but perhaps not for long

HISTORIC YBOR — Ask Sicilian descendents in Tampa exactly where their families came from, and they'll likely have the same answer as Joseph Capitano: Santo Stefano Quisquina.

People started emigrating from the small town in southwestern Sicily at the end of the 19th century. They came to Ybor City and West Tampa and worked in the cigar factories, like Capitano's great-grandparents.

Today, they make up the majority of Sicilians here.

"People who came here brought other people. It was like networking," said Susan Taylor, an associate professor of languages and linguistics at the University of Tampa. "They already had relatives here, so it was a secure place to go."

Sicilians brought their traditions and cuisine — and their own dialect.

More than 100 years later, their unique language still survives in Tampa, but maybe not for long.

Taylor, who conducted research during the early 1990s to understand how this dialect perpetuated generation after generation, will present "The Survival of the Sicilian Dialect of Tampa, Florida" at the Italian Club on Sunday.

"The reason that the dialect had survived here was that it was acceptable to speak other languages" in Ybor City, said Taylor, 59.

The Sicilian dialect is similar to Italian in terms of grammar, but often uses different words and pronunciations.

The early Sicilian settlers blended with the Spaniards and Cubans in Ybor City and West Tampa, forming a community known as Tampa Latins. There, people spoke various languages.

Taylor said Spaniards and Cubans spoke two languages, and Sicilians spoke three: their dialect at home, English at school, and Spanish at work or with the neighbors. They adopted Spanish while working in cigar factories because it was the prevalent language.

"It was a very interesting situation," Taylor said. "It's very unusual in the United States to learn a minority language. Usually (immigrants) go from their language or dialect directly to English."

Capitano, 70, said the dialect he speaks is not spoken anymore in Sicily.

"What we speak here has a little bit of mixture of Spanish," he said.

Yet the dialect spoken in Tampa is close to the original Sicilian, which over time was influenced by standard Italian. Sicilian-Americans who visit Sicily often hear "That's how my grandparents use to speak," Taylor said.

A dying language

The dialect may be dying off. Taylor said that she did not find anyone under age 25 who spoke it at the time of her research.

"That indicates that eventually, of course, it won't survive because nobody is speaking it," she said.

Older generations of Sicilians have died, so younger people no longer speak the dialect with their relatives.

Also, most Latinos moved outside Ybor City during the urban renewal of the 1960s, breaking the enclave in which Sicilian was spoken, Taylor said. As Sicilians scattered to other neighborhoods, they used the English language more often.

"It survived with the older people," Capitano said, "but we never passed it on to our kids."

The new generation connects with its roots by studying Italian in school and not dialect, which is learned only at home.

Yet "all the Sicilian speakers that I met, they all spoke Spanish, so it's probably more likely for them to speak Spanish now than to speak Italian, because that's the dominant minority language," Taylor said.

Just who is Sicilian?

Putting a number to the current Sicilian population can be a challenge, mostly because it's difficult to define what a Sicilian is, said Chantal Ruilova Hevia, executive director of the Ybor City Museum Society.

"First, Sicilians are often not distinguished from other Italians who are not Sicilians," she said. "In addition, there are many current residents in the Tampa Bay area who consider themselves Sicilians but are only half, a quarter or one-eighth Sicilian."

During a 2000 census, about 60,000 people identified themselves as Italians in Hillsborough County, said Gary Mormino, professor of history and co-director of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"Most Sicilian-Americans have intermarried with other ethnics, especially Cubans and Spaniards, and probably identify themselves as Hispanic," he said. "Many, many others chose not to identify themselves as Italian. It's very complicated. In truth, if you found all of the descendents of the Sicilians who settled here, you would find more than 60,000."

The Italian Club in Ybor City has about 750 memberships, some of which include an entire family. Most members are of Sicilian descent, says Capitano, who is on several of the club's committees. About 15 percent speak the Sicilian dialect, he says.

Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at or (813) 226-3434.

>>if you go

Free lecture

Susan Taylor, an associate professor of languages and linguistics, will present "The Survival of the Sicilian Dialect of Tampa, Florida" at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Italian Club, 1731 E Seventh Ave.

Sicilian dialect lives on, but perhaps not for long 05/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 4:36am]
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