MED Magazine - Issue 27 - February 2005

Maltese - an unusual formula
by Professor Joseph M. Brincat

The majority of tourists who visit Malta come from the United Kingdom and they are pleased that almost everybody here speaks English, obviously with different degrees of competence. However foreigners are often intrigued when they hear Maltese being spoken. They are invariably struck by some sounds that recall Arabic, when they read it they easily recognize a number of Italian words, and when they follow the locals' conversation they wonder at the mixture of Maltese and English phrases. These impressions are not mistaken because the Maltese language faithfully reflects the historical experiences of the country and each individual speaker's own use of two or three languages.

Malta's many languages

Situated right at the centre of the Mediterranean (90 km south of Sicily) the island of Malta (316 square km, 400,000 inhabitants) was not only exposed to the four winds and the main sea currents; it was always at the mercy of the powers that sailed these waves. The first inhabitants, who erected the oldest free-standing buildings in the world (unique temples from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age), may have spoken a Mediterranean language or, more likely, an Indo-European language as early as 5500 BC. The Phoenicians left the first writings from around 700 BC, the Romans took over in 218 BC, and were followed by the Byzantines in 535 AD. During those long periods of colonization the small population, numbering between 5,000 and 10,000, practised bilingualism and probably underwent language change with every new conquest.

The turning point came in 870 when the Arabs made a violent raid on the islands. Arabic was certainly introduced then, although the conquering army would have spoken Berber, but the real beginning of the Maltese language took place in 1048 when the Arabs brought in a new community which absorbed the few survivors of the old one, who did not leave their mark on the new language. This was a variety of Arabic that had developed in Sicily and was still spoken in its western parts under the Normans.

Originally Maltese was an Arabic dialect but it was immediately exposed to Latinisation because the Normans conquered the islands in 1090, while Christianisation, which was complete by 1250, cut off the dialect from contact with Classical Arabic. Consequently Maltese developed on its own, slowly but steadily absorbing new words from Sicilian and Italian according to the needs of the developing community. The population kept growing, mainly through immigration from the north, especially under the Order of Saint John which brought prosperity to the island, raising it to the social levels of a contemporary European town (from 17,000 in 1530 to 96,000 in 1797).

Before the coming of the Knights, Malta's dominant languages were Latin and Sicilian but the Knights, although the majority were French or Spanish, chose Italian as their local official language. Nowadays it seems incredible that Italian also enjoyed this status for most of the British period but, although the Colonial Office declared a policy of Anglicisation as early as 1813, the Maltese resisted it, and stuck to Italian and the Catholic faith as the shields of their national identity. In the meantime Maltese writers built up a decent literary tradition in the vernacular (the native language), others wrote grammars and compiled dictionaries and so, when the time was ripe, Maltese could be raised to official status. This happened in 1934, at the height of preparations for World War II which pitted Britain against Italy, and Italian was dropped from official status in 1936.

Although English was introduced to Malta as early as 1800 (when Nelson helped the Maltese to remove Napoleon) it did not make much headway among the local population. In the Mediterranean it was practically unknown then; moreover, the troops were housed in isolated barracks and rarely mixed with the locals, although many were employed as craftsmen, gardeners, cooks and maids. In 1842 when all the literates (11%) learned Italian, only 4.5% could read, write and speak English, and not before 1911 did English overtake Italian, reaching 13.1% against 11.5%. Political pressure in the pre-war period raised it to 22.6% by 1931, and compulsory primary schooling in 1946 set it on its way towards the 100% mark.

Blending Arabic, Romance and Germanic elements

The effect of these historical events is reflected in the data shown by the latest census. In 1995 almost all the inhabitants of Malta declared that they know Maltese (97.8%), while 75.8% knew English and 36.4% knew Italian. The island's history is also evident in the composition of the Maltese vocabulary. An analysis of the etymology of the 41,000 words in Aquilina's Maltese-English Dictionary shows that 32.41% are of Arabic origin, 52.46% are from Sicilian and Italian, and 6.12% are from English. Although nowadays we know that all languages are mixed to varying degrees, this is quite an unusual formula. However, the words derived from Arabic are more frequent because they denote the basic ideas and include the function words. Grammar is mainly Arabic, although drastically simplified, but syntax, possibly through the influence of schooling, is more akin to Italian and English.

These ratios show how the language has grown in the past nine hundred years to keep pace with the social and cultural development of the community. Although the basic Arabic lexical core satisfies the communicative needs of a rural society and of most personal and domestic situations, the vocabulary acquired over the centuries kept growing together with the new skills. Therefore Sicilian words are frequently used in traditional crafts like woodwork, fishing and building, while Italian words are mostly used in education, culture, religion, administration and law. On top of this the terminology of new areas and activities that were introduced in the British period – the dockyards, aviation, accountancy and taxation – or which have been drastically renewed, like medicine, the sciences and technology, especially those involving electrical and electronic appliances and practices, is full of English words.

Anyone familiar with Malta will find it odd that only about 2,500 English words wriggled into the Maltese dictionary, considering that British rule lasted 180 years and that English became compulsory sixty years ago. Actually many English words are used in everyday conversation but this, in itself, does not make them Maltese words. Although it is very difficult to draw a neat line, our bilingualism on a national scale makes the speaker aware that he is using an English word, even though it is fitted into Maltese grammatical patterns. This helps to distinguish between words like trakk, vann, fann, ans, strajk, kejk, etc, which are modified in spelling and sometimes in pronunciation (they transcribe truck, van, fan, chance, strike, cake), and words which are still felt as English, and are usually avoided in writing or written without any modification.

Bilingualism and language switching

The government's policy is to make Malta truly bilingual, and schools teach most subjects in English and some in Maltese, while administration uses bilingual forms. However not everyone feels equally confident in both languages. At university most subjects are taught in English and in some environments like banks, accountancy offices, medical services and IT firms, English is preferred but non-specialists prefer Maltese. The vitality of the local language and political insistence on national identity have helped Maltese to encroach on areas where fifty years ago English dominated (even ATMs and Google offer an option), but this came at a price. Language switching and mixing is very common. At school one hears sentences like: 'id-diameter, le, mhux ir-radius' (the diameter, no, not the radius) in a Maths lesson; or 'l-istructure tal-leaf' (the structure of the leaf) in a Biology lesson; at home: 'ibli n-napkin minn fuq id-dishwasher' (get me the napkin which is on the dishwasher); 'Tih il-bottle lill-baby' (give the bottle to the baby), and in the office: 'Il-maoranza tat-taxpayers ma jkollomx bonn jimlew ir-return ta' l-income tax' (the majority of the taxpayers do not need to fill in the income tax return).

Switching between languages is condemned by everyone but at least one third of the population practise it regularly. Will it ruin the language? Will Maltese be abandoned? At present this danger seems remote because most speakers do not consider mixing as a permanent structure. It is a compromise one resorts to in informal speech between people who know both languages, when one does not bother to search for the right word but speaks the one which comes up first, whether Maltese or English. In fact nobody switches between languages when speaking to Maltese monolinguals or to English people or foreigners.

Problems are more likely to arise with structures than with single words. Many Maltese do not realize that certain expressions are not used in English and may innocently use them when addressing English people or foreigners. These will be puzzled to hear 'I'm going to cut, now' in a telephone conversation, meaning 'I'm going to hang up', or 'Did you cut the tickets for the film?', meaning 'Did you buy the tickets for the film?'. Other frequent expressions are 'I'm going to buy', for 'I'm going shopping', or 'I'll pay you a drink' meaning 'I'll buy you a drink'.

False friends

Another area which is going through rapid innovation is the formal register, where the influence of English is now stronger than that of Italian. Since most of these English words happen to be of Latin or French origin, when they are adopted into Maltese they are given Italianate or Sicilianate forms. This gives new meanings to Italian words or creates words which do not exist at all in Italian. Some examples show how easy it is to turn prosecutor, evaluation, industrial action and chemical armaments into prosekutur, evalwazzjoni, azzjoni industrjali and armamenti kemikali. Most Maltese people take it for granted that these are Italian words but the Italians say pubblico ministero, valutazione, vertenza sindacale and armi chimiche! Some English words undergo more complex modifications: the verb to assess is conjugated by adding Arabic prefixes and suffixes (nassessja, tassessja, jassessja, nassessjaw, tassessjaw, jassessjaw) while the derived noun takes the Italian suffix -are to produce assessjar. Past participles take the Italian suffix -ato or -uto, and thus English affected, involved and alleged become affettwat, involut and allegat, keeping the English meanings, as does attentat which Maltese journalists use to translate attempt, while the Italian word attentato means that someone has made an attempt on somebody's life!

The future of Maltese

Contrary to instances of language switching, these examples are immediately adopted into standard Maltese, passing easily from hurriedly-written news broadcasts on radio and television to newspapers. Is this dangerous? It is too early to say, but although the Maltese language absorbed thousands of words from Sicilian and Italian and yet it survived, one must note that this process spread over 700 years, passing orally from the educated minority to the illiterate majority. Conditions are different today because everybody learns both English and Maltese, so that virtually all the English words (said to be a million) can be used when switching between languages. This shows how necessary it is to protect the Maltese language, not by old-fashioned censorship but by strengthening the standard variety.

A few facts

Maltese is the only survivor of the Arabic dialects spoken in Spain and Sicily in the Middle Ages. It is also the only language of Arabic origin that is written in the Latin alphabet. Although Maltese and English are both official languages, Maltese has been recognized as an official language of the European Union when Malta became a member state on 1 May 2004.

Further reading

'Languages in Malta and the Maltese Language', by J. M. Brincat, in Malta. Roots of a Nation, edited by K. Gambin, pp213-224 (Heritage Malta, Malta, 2004)
'The Language Question and Education: a Political Controversy on a Linguistic Topic', by J. M. Brincat, in Yesterday's Schools. Readings in Maltese Educational History, edited by R. Sultana, pp137-158 (PEG, Malta, 2001)
A comprehensive social history of Maltese has just been published in Italian (Malta. Una storia linguistica by J. M. Brincat (Le Mani, Genova, 2004)). An English edition is due out in 2005.
Maltese-English Dictionary, by J. Aquilina, 2 volumes (Midsea Books, Malta, 1987-1990)
For a description of its grammar and syntax of Maltese, see Maltese, by Albert Borg and Marie Azzopardi-Alexander (Lingua Descriptive Grammars, London, 1997)
To read a sociolinguistic description of language use in Malta today, see Malta. A Linguistic Landscape by Lydia Sciriha and Mario Vassallo (Malta, 2001)

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