The Maltese language is like no other. For one thing, it’s Semitic (the only such tongue recognized as an official language of the European Union) yet written in the Latin script. For another, it sounds like Arabic and Italian mashed together, with a smattering of English and even – curiously enough – a soupçon of French.
It sounds like that because in many respects it is that.
How did this Mediterranean island’s language come to consist of such a varied mixture? For the answer, we must delve into Malta’s storied past.
While Malta has been populated since at least 5,500 BCE, the traces of whatever languages were spoken by those early inhabitants of the island are lost in the mists of time. What remain are vestiges of the Siculo-Arabic spoken by the Sicilian Arabs who colonized Malta in 870 CE. A variety of Arabic that developed in Sicily between the 9th and 12th centuries CE, Siculo-Arabic has since died out – though it still makes up anything from 30 to 40 percent of the vocabulary of the Maltese language!
Interestingly, a recent study suggests that speakers of Maltese understand around 30 percent of what is said to them in Tunisian Arabic, which is related to Siculo-Arabic, while Tunisians understand around 40 percent of what is said to them in Maltese.
The period during which the Maltese spoke solely Siculo-Arabic was rather brief. Malta was quickly introduced to a more Latin cultural influence with the Norman conquest in the 12th century. (By 1249, the island, most of whose inhabitants had been Muslim, was wholly Christianized.) Now cut off from Arab culture, Maltese evolved until it became its own distinct language.
Given its close proximity to the southern Italian island of Sicily and the fact that it fell under the same political administration, Malta came to be referred to as one half of the Two Sicilies. Being part of the Two Sicilies brought about the second biggest influence yet on the Maltese language – Sicilian and Italian. In fact, analysis of Joseph Aquilina’s Maltese-English Dictionary shows that 52.46 percent of Maltese words are of Sicilian and Italian origin, compared to 32.41 percent of Arabic provenance.
As it happens, this linguistic split denotes separate spheres of influence: the Arabic parts of the Maltese language relate to the needs of a rural society, as well as a good chunk of personal and domestic situations; Sicilian words find use in traditional crafts (such as woodwork, fishing, and building); and, particularly following the arrival of the Knights of St John in 1530, Italian has carved out a niche for itself in the pursuits of “higher” society, through use in education, culture, religion, government, and the law.
The final major influence on the Maltese language is, unsurprisingly, English. Yet despite 180 years of British rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Maltese language today contains only some 2,500 English words. The reason for this is probably the Maltese people’s tendency toward bilingualism. However, more English words might well make their way into Maltese with time, in part because the Akkademja tal-Malti (the entity in charge of laying down the orthographic rules of the Maltese language) has grown more open to approving transliterations of English-language loanwords. The result is terms such as “friġġ” (fridge), “futbol” (football), and “televixin” (television) becoming part of the Maltese lexicon.
With that, our brief journey through the fascinating topic that is Maltese comes to an end. The language itself, of course, will not come to an end – at least not anytime soon! These days, some Maltese might not like the linguistic changes brought about by the widespread influence of English-language media both foreign and local, but the phenomenon looks set to continue, and perhaps even to accelerate.
It’s also something that might make it easier for English-speakers, including AUM students, to become proficient in the language. If you’d like to find out more about Maltese, or even try your hand at learning it, do let us know!
In the meantime, consider familiarizing yourself with common Maltese words and expressions.