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Steve Farrugia ? 2003

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my-malta.com presents
            ? An overview on ?

    The Maltese Language
(Part One)


Excerpt from 
Pietru Caxaru's 
15th cent. poem 
in Maltese, 
discovered by
Prof G.Wettinger
and Fr M.Fsadni This commentary is based on research, however, it should not be taken as the ultimate, authoritative theory on the origins of the Maltese language.

Reference material is provided in the numerated 'Notes' linked via hypertext and it is strongly suggested that you read an entire sentence, if not the paragraph, before clicking to the relevant
Note (and back) so as not to lose sight of the context.

? ? ? A note of caution: ? ? ? Many could profess to be more scholarly on the subject and, indeed, some may even argue against certain aspects of this commentary. ? But, in all fairness, this may also be said of all historical theories since the so-called, long-held 'truths' of yesteryear are today being challenged and disproven 1 by findings, at times, even coming from other, independent disciplines.

Such intriguiging
findings 2 have, in fact, shed new light where Malta's native tongue is concerned, stirring different hypotheses about its origins, although at this present time most local and international scholars, by and large, appear to agree on a central idea.

Steve Farrugia

L-ilsien Malti
(The Maltese Language)

Fundamentally, Maltese is a Semitic tongue, the same as Arabic, Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), Hebrew, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Ethiopian. ? These, in turn, are said to have evolved from the earlier Semitic language of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, whose empire stretched westwards from the Middle East till as far as the shores of Palestine in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Unlike other Semitic languages, however, Maltese is written in the Latin alphabet, but with the addition of special characters to accommodate certain Semitic sounds. ? It would not be fair, however, to stop here. For there is much in the Maltese language today that is NOT Semitic, due to the immeasurable Romance influence from our succession of (Southern) European rulers through the ages.

the 29 letters of the Maltese Alphabet

It is perhaps also important to mention here that in Maltese we have a special glottal sound for the letter "Q" which resembles neither the Arabic, nor the European sounds for its equivalent (which are more akin to our 'k' sound), but is rather like the sound produced by a 'silent cough'. ? You may refer to the section on the Maltese alphabet for more.

Over the ages, our people have been subjected to various dominions. ? Every significant power dominating the Mediterranean basin vied for a foothold over Malta, so that they could keep an eye on such an arterial sea corridor, while ensuring safe haven for their own ships.

MALTA -- at the hub of the 'Ancient World'
shown in this Western Mediterranean Map 
depicting Punic times
Map of the Western Mediterranean Sea, showing
Punic/Roman Malta (Melita) as a central hub.

Naturally, the languages (and customs) of such ruling nations would leave their footprints on the native tongue and lifestyle of our Islands; adding colour to, yet strangling the life out of extant forms of speech and local traditions.

The seafaring Phoenicians may have found the Maltese Islands largely uninhabited and used them as safe anchorage for their ships. It is a known fact that the Carthaginians ? -- who were themselves descendants of the Phoenicians -- later colonized Malta and, until fairly recently, the Maltese language was held to be a direct descendant of the "Punic" tongue of these early settlers.

Artifacts found in Malta3, inscribed in both Carthaginian and Classic Greek writing -- apart from being the 'key' to decyphering4 the former -- indicated that the Punic language was spoken by whoever else inhabited (or made use of) these Islands at the time.

The main problem with the Punic tongue is that nowadays it is a 'dead language' to which no one really knows the true pronunciation of the written text. ? Reference has been made by Quintinus to passages from Plautus' play Poenulus, containing words in this ancient 'Carthaginian' form of speech, but it is merely an intelligent guess that Punic pronunciation resembled Hebrew. ? Words from the Bible, such as Ephtha (open up!) and Cumi (wake up/arise!) were cited by Quintinus as if to corroborate the kinship between the spoken-Maltese he heard during his stay at Malta in 1536 and the Aramaic/Hebrew vernacular thought to have been its origin.

See Horatio C. R. Vella -- The Earliest Description of Malta; Lyons 1536 -- 1980

Roman remains at Rabat,
outside Mdina's walls

Thereafter, the mighty Carthaginians were challenged by the warring Romans for domination over Sicily and Malta (for one was unsafe unless the other was also secured). ? Classic literature suggests that the small Maltese population of Punic times preferred Roman rule over the Carthaginian.

Jean Quintin d'Autun 5 mentions that "Malta was more inclined towards the Romans" and he cites the Roman chronicler Livius [Livy], whose words actually imply a popular Maltese 'betrayal' of their Semitic rulers in favour of the Romans; an investment which paid off nicely according to history. ? Pax Romana thus reigned over Malta (then known as Melita) at the height of the Roman Empire, with the Maltese populace being considered as ? socii (partners, as it were) rather than a conquered people.

Koran inscription

The Arabs, who -- towards the end of the 1st century AD -- were spreading their might, religion, language and customs across the Berber wastelands of North Africa, advanced northwards into Spain and then overran Sicily and Malta. The Aghlabid Arab occupation 2 is claimed to have vacated the Maltese Islands of ALL their inhabitants around the year AD 869, carrying 'one and all' into slavery. ? Consequently, it is claimed, neither Punic, nor Latin, survived.

It is now widely held by scholars that the Maltese language -- as it is spoken today -- originated from Arabic, rather than Punic, and goes back to circa 1050 AD. ? Some, perhaps emotionally-motivated, diehard loyalists still find it hard to admit that the entire Punic origin has since been wiped out of our language, especially since both are Semitic tongues and it would, therefore, be possible to obscure one beneath the other; the older beneath the new, the 'dead' Punic beneath the 'surviving' Arabic? The subsequent Romance overlay that followed gave our language its unique Mediterranean character, as will be shown hereunder.

The Norman Count Roger of Hauteville recaptured Sicily and Malta for the Christian Faith but he is said not to have expelled the Arabs, and thus their influence here remained strong until his heir, Roger II, had his own way. ? Now officially a part of Europe and divested of direct Arabic influence, the Maltese Islands would be affected by whatever political interactions occured between the Royal Families of the European continent.

Needless to say, foreign families settled in Malta, bringing with them their European family names and native parlance. ? And so, aside from Latin, the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and of the European scholar, Sicilian and, eventually, Tuscan Italian contributed to the re-Romanization of the Islands.

Latin inscription at Mdina's
Main Gate, proclaiming
 the cession of these
Islands by Alphonsus of
  Sicily to the Order
Latin plaque on Mdina's Main Gate

The ceding of the Maltese Islands by Charles V (in the year 1530) to the Order of the Knights of Saint John (made up of 8 Langues) further increased the cultural and linguistic influences on the Maltese population.

The Order was a cosmopolitan institution, comprised of French knights, of the Provence and Auvergne langues, the Spanish from Aragon, the Italians, the Portughese from the langue of Castille & Leon, German (Bavarian) knights and even a group of English knights, though this langue became unpopular following Henry VIII's quarrels with the Roman Catholic Church. ? Perhaps not all the mentioned languages left their imprint on the extant Maltese vernacular, but a few certainly did.

re-enactment of
 French troops'
defence against
  the Maltese
French Republican soldiers

Napoleon's victory over the Order brought French Rule to Malta in 1798. ? Practically throughout this brief occupation, the French garrison was confined to the shelter of our walled cities (following a Maltese insurrection), so little influence could be imparted. While Napoleon left us a wealth in Codes of Law the opposite could be said about our own national treasures, carried off by General Buonaparte on L'Orient which eventually met her own doom at the bottom of the Mediterranean, treasures and all. ? Though French rule was brief and highly unpopular, we still retain a few French words in common, everyday Maltese.

The coming of Britain's Royal Navy to the aid of the besieging Maltese citizens brought about the surrender and ousting of Napoleon's army from our nation. ? At this point, it seemed natural to return the Islands to their formal rulers, the Knights of S.John, but as the people of Malta had had enough of the Order, the decision reached by the Treaty of Amiens (Article X) was most unwelcome. ? The Maltese people united against the return of their Islands to the despotic Order, and requested the status of Protectorate of the British Empire? And so, from the year 1800, when Sir Alexander Ball was made Britain's first Civil Commissioner (later to become Governor General) for Malta, till 1964 when Malta officially attained Independence, for a period of approximately 165 years the United Kingdom ruled over the Maltese Islands.

This was perhaps the coming of age of the Maltese Language, which hitherto was hardly ever written, except for a few attempts by some far-sighted Maltese patriots. ? For more on this subject and on the strange circumstances of Maltese Society during British Rule refer to Part 2, which also deals with some of the above topics in more detail.

Go to Part 2 now.

Steve Farrugia

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"The strange thing is that, during this period, the culture of the Maltese Islands was modelled on the Italian culture of the day, rather than on the British."

"There was even the "Language Issue" hotly debated in the early 1900's when the fashionable Italian was by far the more favoured, especially by the cultured classes and Maltese aristocracy; more than the English language and even the native Maltese tongue, they championed Italian as a "national" language of the Maltese Islands! ? And thus, the mother-language was shamefully shunned by the Maltese upper class, relegating it to the status of 'language of the kitchen'. This comes as no novelty to our own times, when English is preferred in many a posh household -- whose members often daren't utter one word of the lowly Maltese."

Street scene: Saint John Street -- Strada San Giovanni -- Valletta (1900's)

Go to Part 2 now.

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Nitolbuk tibghat din il-pagna lil hbiebek kollha, biex inhegguhom jibizghu ghall-kultura Maltija kollha.


? Note: ?????? Remember to read the "whole" passage before referring to these notes. ? Return to the Forward.

  1. To cite an example, archaeological discoveries may uncover new facts and perhaps even disprove previously-held Linguistic theories. The converse could also be true.

    History offers us some practical examples in this regard. Call to mind, for example, Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, whose findings radically changed universal beliefs when the Catholic Church -- the foremost authority of the time -- eventually accepted their theories. ? Or Rembrant's Night Watch which turned out to have been misunderstood, once it was restored and cleaned! ? Indeed, yesterday's truths may become tomorrow's anecdotes of misconceptions.

    return to main text

  2. Cf. J.Brincat : Malta 870-1054. Al-Himyari's Account -- 1991
    This may well be the most important and controvertial finding about the origins of the Maltese Language to-date, to say the least. ? The Arabic conquest of the Maltese Islands (circa 870 AD) is claimed to have wiped out their 'entire' population, thereby annihilating any traces of a Punic vernacular. Habitation of the Islands is said to have been restored around the year 1050 AD by "Arabic-speaking" people.

    It might be prudent to reflect, however, that this account (from the hand of an Arabic chronicler) Ghajn Abdul (Abdun) Cave 
Dewllings in Gozo, lesser 
affected by the Arabic influx may have omitted the practical consideration that -- however small -- a section of the Maltese population in the past, though even up to the year 1835 (i.e. during British occupation), were habitually troglogytes (i.e. cave-dwellers).

    This fact alone, recorded both in Quintinus' Insulae Melitae descriptio (see Horatio C.R.Vella -- The Earliest Description of Malta; Lyons 1536 -- 1980) as well as the later account of Kircher's 1637 visit to Malta as given in Mundus subterraneus (see J. Zammit Ciantar -- A Benedictine's Notes on Seventeenth-Century MALTA -- 1998), may render it plausible to believe that at least some of the original Punic tongue may have survived.

    return to the 'Forward' ? ? ? return to BODY text

  3. The Cippus were a pair of candleabre-shaped marble columns discovered in 1694 at the Tas-Silg Punic temple, but, unfortunaltely for Malta, then Grand Master de Rohan found it fit to present one of them to French King Louis XIV and this is, at present, housed in the Louvre in Paris. The other remains at Malta. The Cippus were ex voto gifts offered by the brothers Abdasar and Aserkemor to their Carthaginian god Melqart -- apparently for having shown his mercy in saving them from an ill fate at sea. ? Read Andrew P. Vella's Storja ta' Malta, 1993, Vol 1, pp 31-33.

    return to main text

  4. The Cippus were inscribed in two languages -- one known and the other hitherto undeciphered -- Classic Greek and Carthaginian. ? This made it possible for French scholar, Abbe Barthelemy, to decipher and reconstruct the Carthaginian alphabet. ? See also Andrew P. Vella's Storja ta' Malta, 1993, Vol 1, pp 33. ? A free translation in English of the said inscription would be:

    To our Lord Melqart, Lord of Tyre ??
        [Tyre & Sidon were two principal cities in Phoenicia on the E. Med. shore]
    Abdasar and his brother Aserkemor,
    sons of Asirxehor, son of Abdasar,
    made this vow ?? ? [a solemn promise/gift]
    for hearing their prayer and blessing them.

    return to main text

  5. See Horatio C. R. Vella -- The Earliest Description of Malta; Lyons 1536 -- 1980, an annotated translation of Jean Quentin d'Autun Insulae Melitae descriptio: ? (sic.) 'Haec nempe in magno secundi belli Punici apparatu dum a Poenis possideretur; sedente iam ad Trebiam Annibale, advenienti Sempronio consuli, qui in eam a Lilybaeo traiecerat, cum Amilcare Gisconis filio praefecto praesidii, et paulo minus duobus millibus militum statim tradita est, [ut] inquit Liuius libro eius belli primo.'

    H.C.R.Vella's translation reads: "... it was practically in these places that those famous Punic wars were fought and took place in naval battles ... As Livy says in his first book on that war, while great preparations were being made in the second Punic War and Hannibal was still encamped near Trebia, Malta, which was still in the hands of the Carthaginians, together with Hamicar, son of Gisco, the commander of the garrison, and a little less than two thousand troops, surrendered immediately to Sempronius the consul, who had crossed thither from Lilybaeum."

    return to main text

  6. See Arnold Cassola -- The Literature of Malta; An example of Unity in Diversity -- 2000, pp 2.

    " . . . the languages that the Maltese adopted in order to write their literature were Arabic, Latin, Sicilian and Tuscan Italian."

    return to main text

  7. Pawlu Mizzi in The Grand Masters of Malta - Heritage Books 1993/2000 - claims that it was not really that the Maltese had opposed the return of the islands to the Order, but rather a question of Britain's wanting to retain the foothold in the central Mediterranean once her battles with the French resumed. Mizzi claims that the Protectorate was merely a "pretext" of the British crown. page 34

    return to main text

    Go to Part 2 now.

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While every effort has been made to provide accurate dates and details, no responsibility can be accepted for any error and/or omission found herein. Webmaster, "my-malta.com" 2002.