Maltese, a Language so Unique in Europe

Arabic origins, Sicilian and Italian vocabulary and a strong influence of English are the characteristics of an original European language with a long history: Maltese.

Mosaic of the domus romana, an archaeological site located between Mdina and Rabat, Malta

Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta and Gozo present an intriguing linguistic picture. Although they are nearer to Sicily (93 km) than to Tunisia (288 km) and Libya (355 km), the Catholic, culturally and genetically European inhabitants still speak a language that is basically a variety of Arabic spoken in the Maghreb and Sicily around the year 1000. Its survival is unique because Sicily, Spain and Pantelleria abandoned Andalusi and Siculo-Arabic, but Malta was spared language shift by the Normans, Swabians, Anjevins, Aragonese and Castilians although it had remained part of Sicily. When Charles V of Spain ceded it to the Knights of St. John in 1530 it became an autonomous state, but the Grand Masters (French, Portuguese or Catalan, with a handful of Italians) did not apply a linguistic policy on the spoken level. They were content to use Latin and Italian as high languages. Besides, education was poor and literacy hovered around 10%, and so the population remained mostly monolingual.

Under Muslim rule (870 – 1091) the population was less than ten thousand inhabitants, but under the Knights of St John it reached 100,000 till 1798. It kept increasing during the British period and now surpasses 500,000. The disproportion between its territory (316 km2) and its population, together with the large number of Sicilian, Italian and English surnames, and a few French and Spanish ones, reveals the importance of immigration in shaping the local language.

Distant origins difficult to identify

Nothing is known about the language spoken in Malta in prehistory. It could have been “Mediterranean” or Indo-European. The first settlers came from Sicily, and kept contact for five millennia with the neighbouring areas, but they left no writing. The first inscriptions are in Punic, the Phoenicians having settled there in the 7th century B.C. An inscription of the 3rd century B.C. that helped abbé Barthelemy to decipher Punic script in 1758 shows that Punic and Greek were high languages. A proxeny decree sent from Malta to Syracuse written in Greek shows that Greek prevailed in the early Roman times, and the earliest Latin inscription was produced two hundred years after the Roman conquest. St. Luke’s definition of the Maltese as “barbarian” in his description of St. Paul’s shipwreck in A.D. 60 has been taken as proof that Punic was still spoken then, but language shift to Latin seems plausible in 600 years of Roman rule. Malta was then ruled by the Byzantines for 350 years, and Greek might have been spoken then.

The language spoken today shows no substrate because Arabic was introduced in a sudden manner. Al-Himyari describes a ferocious Muslim raid in 870 (255 A. H.) and a new settlement in 1048-49 (440 A. H.) composed of Muslims and slaves. Depopulation between the conquest and the settlement is suggested by the lack of both Muslim and Christian cemeteries, and also by the local toponyms which recall the Arabic place-names of Medieval Sicily, especially by the component of raħal or Ħal (Rahal gidit and Rachal saphy in Sicily, Raħal Ġdid and Ħal Safi in Malta). The Maltese language, too, has a marked affinity with the Maghrebin variety that was spoken in Sicily in the Norman age. Roger’s conquest introduced Romance elements in Sicily and Malta, where Arabic customs prevailed from 1091 to 1127 until Roger II reasserted his rule and society took on a European lifestyle.

An island more quickly Christianised than Romanised

What distinguishes Malta from Spain and Sicily is that whereas Christianization was rapid and total, Romanization was slow and never reached completion. Coexistence between Muslims and Christians was peaceful up to 1224. In 1241 governor Giliberto Abbate’s report for Frederick II records 836 Muslim families despite the 1224 deportation, but in 1246 Frederick expelled all Muslims from Sicily and Malta. By 1270 there was a diocese, and in 1575 an Apostolic visitor listed 430 churches and chapels. Romanization of the language increased because the religious orders belonged to the Sicilian province, and notaries studied in Sicily.

When the local variety of Arabic lost contact with classical Arabic it developed freely in a process of phonetic, morphological and syntactic simplification, together with the ever-increasing adoption of Sicilian terms. All surviving documents from the 14th to the 16th century were written in Latin or Chancery Sicilian, the spoken dialect survived, but Arabic was spoken only by a small Jewish community. When the Knights came in 1530, Chancery Sicilian was abandoned in favour of Italian. The Order wrote many documents in Italian because, although the Italian knights were less than those from France and Spain, it was considered easier than Latin. Besides, the Knights brought over about 3,500 Romance-speaking persons, including sailors, soldiers and servants. Consequently, the population multiplied by five during their reign, and the island developed rapidly.

The building of Valletta brought craftsmen from Italy and France and labourers from Sicily, some of whom married local girls in the harbour areas. This increased the technical vocabulary of Maltese with hundreds of Italian terms. In the meantime the educated Maltese began writing works in Italian which were published in Italy and Malta.

From Punic to North African Arabic

Definitions of the Maltese language differed: the locals saw it as unique and called it lingua maltensi (1436), lingua melitea (1549), whereas foreign travellers heard unfamiliar sounds and called it parlata africana (1536), parlar saracino (1558), “un langage arabe corrompu” (1694). Hieronymus Megiser was intrigued: “Although they are Christians, they make use of a language which is Saracen, Moorish, or Carthaginian or ‘lingua franca’, which is a kind of Arabic and which has its origin in Hebrew”. The scientific classification of the Semitic languages was still distant, but Megiser deserves credit for printing a booklet on Maltese, the Propugnaculum Europae in 1606, listing 121 words in German translation. Jean Quintin (1536) associated the Maltese language with the Punic inscriptions and, although the script had not been deciphered yet, the idea pleased many scholars in Malta and the myth was perpetuated for political, religious, and racial reasons. However, the historian Gian Francesco Abela (1647) had understood the real origins of Maltese, was aware of the Arabic substrate in the Sicilian dialect and knew that a similar language was spoken in Pantelleria. In 1810 Wilhelm Gesenius gave scientific proof that the origins of Maltese lied in a North African dialect of Arabic, but the Punic myth was upheld by some local scholars up to the 20th century.

The standardization of Maltese was a slow process. At first only a few isolated words appeared in notarial deeds and in the minutes of the local government, mostly place-names and domestic objects, but around 1470 Petrus Caxaro wrote a poem of sixteen lines, a cantilena, modelled on Romance genres. It is revered as the earliest text in the Maltese language. Occasional phrases in administrative texts show that Sicilian/Italian words were adapted according to Maltese grammar rules. An example from 1473 in a Sicilian sentence shows the word “isfeduene” which is from sfidare, to defy, with initial i for today’s j, a morpheme in the conjugation of verbs in the present tense, third person singular and plural, with the inflectional ending –w, that indicates the third person plural, jisfidaw (they defy), and the pronominal suffix –na, which means “us”, therefore “they defy us.”

War and religion as weapons

Interest in Maltese was shown by certain knights for practical and linguistic reasons. A knight from Provence, Thezan, wrote instructions on firing muskets for Maltese-speaking troops, a short grammar and a glossary of 3,000 words in two sections, Maltese-Italian and Italian-Maltese. Thezan faced a dilemma which troubled sixteenth and seventeenth-century writers: the spelling of sounds that are not Latin. Today Maltese has only two such sounds, aspirate h (ħ) and the glottal stop (q), but in those days pronunciation was closer to the Arabic. Thezan added ten Arabic letters to the Latin alphabet, but Gian Pietro Francesco Agius De Soldanis opted for a wholly Latin alphabet in his grammar (1750) and dictionary of 12,000 entries. Later, Michel Antonio Vassalli published his grammar in 1791 and 1827, and a lexicon in 1796 with 18,000 entries, adopting twelve letters from Greek and Punic but not from Arabic.

In the meantime two important steps were taken in the domain of religion. Ignazio Saverio Mifsud wrote sermons in Italian and in Maltese, and enriched the latter with many Italian words and Latin phrases, attempting a literary style that rose above everyday speech. Even more far-reaching was the translation of the Italian catechism into Maltese by Francesco Uzzino in 1752. This had no literary ambition but for the first time all Maltese boys and girls learned it by heart for their First Holy Communion. Religious terms like fidi, liġi¸ sagramenti, Apostoli, Spiritu Santu, etc. were learnt by constant repetition. As for most domains, both high (administration, culture, law and medicine) and low (carpentry, fishing, building), words denoting religion, churches and their furniture, are largely of Sicilian origin.

Napoleonic and English attempts

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte expelled the Knights and announced a policy favouring French culture and language, but the Maltese rebelled and the King of Naples sent the British who forced the French troops to surrender in 1800. In 1813 the British decided to keep Malta and launched a process of Anglicization which was strongly rejected by the Maltese educated classes who felt that Italian satisfied their needs for culture and administration. An attempt to appoint British judges and make English the language of the courts failed. The clergy feared the introduction of Protestantism. After 1848 a thousand Italian exiles fled to Malta. Some stayed for a decade or two, others permanently, and gave new life to local culture, organizing lectures, poetry reading, plays, and opera. They introduced the historical novel with local heroes, instilling the patriotic element typical of the Romantic age. Italian novels were translated and emulated. Ironically, under the British, Italian culture flourished but after 1861 the Foreign Office feared that the Maltese would be tempted to join Italy, which could then control the newly-opened route to the Suez Canal. In the 1880s fears of an invasion led to the building of new fortifications, while worries over a terra irredenta movement launched new attacks on the Italian language. Royal Commissions made proposals to strengthen English and remove Italian from the schools, but resistance inspired the creation of the first political parties, Imperialists or Nationalists. Feelings were very strong and worsened in the 1930s when fascist Italy became the enemy, and efforts were doubled to demean Italian: public notices were only in English, the names of the streets were translated, and English personal names and shop signs were encouraged.

London against Italian

Knowledge of Italian and English was limited to educated persons: in 1842 the former was spoken by 11% and the latter by only 5% of the population, but when English became compulsory for employment with the British forces, the Police, the Civil Service, and for emigration, the figure rose to 22.6% in 1931. After the Second World War Malta changed completely. English became fashionable, cinemas showed English and American films, pop songs replaced opera and, most important of all, in 1946 primary education became compulsory, teaching only Maltese and English. The battle against Italian was favourable to the Maltese language because the English had realized that its promotion was indispensable to end the long cultural battle.

Throughout the 19th century Maltese literature grew and found its highest expression in Dun Karm Psaila in the early 20th, while grammars, dictionaries and schoolbooks completed codification. The alphabet was standardized, consisting of Latin letters with a few diacritics: dots distinguished palatal ċ and ġ from velar k and g, voiced s became ż, crossed ħ identified the aspirate, j and w were adopted for the semi-consonants, x was adopted for sh and q for the glottal stop. This followed the principle of one letter for one sound but għ and h, both mute, were retained for etymological reasons. In 1924 cable radio relayed the BBC on one channel and Maltese programmes on the other, and for the first time standard Maltese was heard everywhere by illiterate dialect speakers. A chair of Maltese was set up at the University in 1937 and exams in both official languages were compulsory for jobs in the Civil Service.

Gaining official status

Maltese was given official status with English and Italian in 1934. Italian was removed in 1936, but came back in 1957 when Italian television could be viewed from Malta. It assumed a new role now: no longer official, nor limited to culture, it became a passive tool for entertainment and information, kept the highest audience up to the 1990s when local stations got a bigger share, and is still watched by about 20% in prime time. Italian is also the favourite foreign language in the secondary schools. English is the teaching medium of half the subjects in the schools and of all subjects except languages at University. It is also preferred for reading and sending emails and sms, and for ATM banking, but Maltese is spoken by over 90% of the population and boasts two daily newspapers (three in English), three major TV stations, and local radio channels. Production of books and plays is also healthy. In 2003 Maltese became one of the official languages of the European Union.

“Peripheral” Arabic

A snapshot of today’s language is revealed by the composition of the lexicon. In Joseph Aquilina’s Maltese-English Dictionary (1987-1990) Arabic words make up 32.4%, Sicilian and Italian 52.5%, English 06.1%. The MED includes archaisms and rare terms among its 41,016 entries, but the Concise version reflects actual usage: its 22,649 entries show more Sicilian and Italian words (61.61%), less Arabic words (22,42%) and a slight increase in English words (8.45%). However, Arabic words comprise grammatical terms and the fundamental vocabulary, and are more frequently used. Together with the rules of grammar (although simplified) they define the language as a variety, albeit “peripheral”, of Arabic. A few examples from the domain of the family will suffice here: members of the inner nucleus have Arabic names: omm, iben, bint, ir-raġel, il-mara, tifel, tifla, (mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, boy, girl), but the word for father is Sicilian, missier. The other members have Sicilian/Italian names: nannu, nanna, ziju, zija, neputi, neputija, kuġin, kuġina, (grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, nephew/grandson, cousin), and the word for family is familja and for relatives qraba. The complementary nature of Arabic and Sicilian/Italian is also seen in the days of the week (Monday to Sunday): it-Tnejn, it-Tlieta, l-Erbgħa, il- Ħamis, il-Ġimgħa, is-Sibt, il-Ħadd; but the months of the year are: Jannar, Frar, Marzu, April, Mejju, Ġunju, Lulju, Awissu, Settembru, Ottubru, Novembru, Diċembru. This stratigraphy marks all the other domains; for example about “bread” we see: ħobż, hobża, qoxra, lbieba, frak, ftira (bread, loaf, crust, crumb, crumbs, low circular shaped bread); bezzun, tal-kexxun, panina, ċabatta, malji (roll, sandwich loaf, flat roll, braided roll); sandwich, toast, baguette.

Informal everyday speech sees a lot of code-switching: firstly, because as most subjects are taught in English their terms are the first words that come to mind; secondly, because young parents prefer to speak English to their babies. At present this is not leading to language shift, because as they grow up children see Maltese as an adult language. Nowadays, the source of innovation is no longer Italian but English: some common words are adapted (kettle > kitla), others are Sicilianized (evaluation > evalwazzjoni), others become false friends (related > relatat, involved > involut), and new formations are created (enforceable > inforzabbli, developers > żviluppaturi, privacy > privatezza, occupancy > okkupanza). This is necessary for the language to keep up with social progress. A tricky problem is how to write unadapted English words, like bicycle and washing-machine (bajsikil? woxing maxin?). It is not easy to decide whether they are irreplaceable or translatable. Otherwise, being recognizably English, they can be attributed to code-switching, in which case they are written in their original spelling.

Understandably, the pressure of English in a bilingual situation like Malta’s is very strong. As the 2011 Census shows, almost all Malta-born citizens know Maltese (99.6%) and English (91.3), many also know Italian (61.3%) and French (21.4%), but few know German (5.1% ) and Arabic (4.3%).