Malta’s Mediterranean sayings, a linguistic conundrum

In the most frequently travelled islands in the Mediterranean, as is Malta, language picks up the echo of every tongue that has been heard in its lands. And from that linguistic alchemy, adages bring together popular wisdom they express through every culture’s adaptation, while preserving the message of the general meaning.

View of the mouth of the port of La Valetta. ©Pixabay

The European continent has always faced one of the most complicated issues in the world regarding language language ̶ questions of historical origin related to the rights of some minorities or their official recognition, to mention a few. However, there is a language where these issues do not arise, a language whose origins are very well known, which is spoken by all the inhabitants of the country where it is stablished as the national language, and that could be described as the closed one in Europe due to its “schizophrenic” character.

Urban scene in the modern city centre of La Valletta. ©Pixabay.

The Maltese, or Maltí, as the very inhabitants of Malta call it, may be an “official” European language, one of the twenty-three acknowledged by Brussels, although it may be easier to understood for the people in Baghdad, Cairo, or Casablanca, than for their closest European neighbours, scarcely ninety kilometres away across the Malta Channel in Sicily

Indeed, Maltí speakers visiting Rome or Palermo are often mistaken for Arabs from Tunisia or Libya and with the Italians who bear the red passport. As a language with a clear “dual personality”, while not clinically schizoid, the Maltí is a language blended with an almost mathematical accuracy, whose entries in the dictionary, recognised by its National Academy, are exactly composed of half words of Italian origin, and the other half of Arabic. However, as Maltícolloquial words are frequently used, with its basic grammatical rules coming from Arabic, the spoken language is not heard as much as the Italian.

On top of that, the division between Arabic and Italian regarding basic vocabulary results in the increase of borrowings from English, informally adopted from neologisms coming from expressions from the pop culture and new technologies. Official Maltí language was in such a danger of being invaded by “Maltenglish”, that in the year 2005 the government founded an agency, the National Council of Maltese Language to act as a mediator.

A view of the port of La Valletta. ©Pixabay

In any case, if we would undertake a mere statistic count of the words included in the dictionary, it would be useless if what we want to show is the way people really speak. More reliable results come by checking the Maltese proverbs compiled in A Comparative Dictionary of Maltese Proverbs, by Joseph Aquilina (1972). As expected, their vocabulary is mainly of Arab origin, although the same expression is closely linked to popular knowledge in Sicily, France, Spain and even England and Germany. After all, as people say in the Maltese city of Victoria (whose former name was Rabat, having been renamed in 1887 in honour of queen Victoria): “Il-bniedem jinkixef minn kliemu”, which means “Everyone speaks as they are.”

Victoria Gate in the port of La Valletta, in honour the British monarch of the same name. ©Pixabay

It is probable that the saying: “Min ihobb il-kelb, ihobb ‘il sidu” has its equivalent expression all over Europe: “Quien bien quiere a Beltrán, bien quiere a su can”, “Qui m’aime, aime mon chien”, “Wer mich liebt, der liebt auch meinen Hund”, “Love me, love my dog”. However, this is not the case in Arabic, for no doubt dogs are not appreciated whatsoever in the Arab world. Actually, from this proverb it is said that it was Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who first wrote it in Latin: “Qui me amat, amet et canem meum”, not long after the Arab conquest of Malta.

It looks to me, Sancho, that there is no proverb that is untrue, for they all come from the same experience

Don Quixote. Part I Chapter 21.

Malta is the name under which this group of islands in know, the large and the smaller ones, Gozo (left) and Comino (right). ©Pixabay

Malta has a very unusual linguistic history. It emerged well before the Christian Era from a kind of mixed language used by traders and the jargon of seafarers who called at the Punic, Greek, and Roman commercial ports, even before Saint Paul’s times, who was shipwrecked there in the year 60 A.D., and called these people “Barbarians” because they could not speak Greek intelligibly.

The Bizantine colony was embroiled in struggle, and it succumbed to the violent Arab conquest in the war of the 9th century, which substancialy diminished the population, according to Arab geographer Ibn Abd al-Mu’min al-Himyari. This conquest brought the settlement of Arab-Sicilian speakers that lasted only a few years, before the islands fell into the hands of the Normans, who in the year 1224 succeeded in expelling the Muslims, but not the Arabic language, which at that time was the common language in the island. It was then that the long process of both Christianisation and Romanisation started, which continued without interruption until today.

Therefore, over the last eight hundred years, the speakers of Maltí have been stripped of what should be named their “base language”. Martin Zammit, of the University of Malta, made a comparative study of the vocabulary of the Koran used in Arabic dialects of Syria and Morocco, and of Malta, and he found that the Maltese words in the Coran matched the Syrian ones at least five times more than those of Morocco. This proves that, in some respects, the Maltese could be considered as sort of “fosillised” Arabic, closer to Koran’s language, just as it evolved in the Islamic East, than the Arabic dialect that is spoken in the Maghreb.

Mezquita Street, in the historic quarter of La Valletta, with the charasteristic layout of traditional Arab quarters. ©Pixabay

Rather than remaining a living language, a language traditionally spoken as a result of the evolution of vernacular Arabic, as it happened throughout the Arab world, people from Malta, on the contrary, faced with a jumble of European languages that were introduced in a chaotic way by the European colonists, who all spoke different languages: from Normand and angevin French (the language of Anjou) to Aragonese, Spanish, and the eight languages (German included) of the Knights of the Order of Saint John, who ruled the island from 1530 to the Conquest of Napoleon. And finally, English, which came along with the British as they defeated the French military man and remained in power on the islands until Malta proclaimed independence in 1964, with military occupation having its end in 1979.

Celebrating the Independence of Malta from Great Britain in 1964. ©Pixabay

While colonial “Lords” expressed themselves in their own languages in their castles and citadels, the countrymen from Sicily were assigned to till the soil and repopulating the island’s interior, keeping their own Italian dialect, with a thick accent. In the 20th century, a new type of linguistic colonialism arouses: the Italian radio and television broadcast from the continent with easy reception in Malta. Therefore, people from Malta were able to listen to pop songs, political discourses, and new emissions in standard Italian. An ultimate language reigned here, in the most Catholic country in Europe: Tridentine Latin, the one used at the altar in daily mass, at least until the reforms of Vatican Council.

“Talk in Maltí, if you want me to understand you”; each and every word have an Arabic origin. Meanwhile, in the Arab countries they will tell you: “let’s talk bil arabi fushsah” (standard Arabic), meaning that you should not speak the local Arabic dialect if you expect to be understood in every Arab country. We should remark that there are some 4 million Maltí speakers, half of whom are bilingual with English, and that out of the almost 250 million speakers of Arabic dialects, the vast majority can hardly understand classical Arabic, let alone speak it. This would be the equivalent of an Italian peasant from the times of Dante speaking perfect Latin.

Most of the urban spaces in the island are oriented to the sea, toward which its steep streets descend, as in La Valletta. ©Pixabay

With those comings and goings of such a linguistic circulation in Malta in mind, the best adage of all might be: “When one door closes, a hundred open”: the Maltí version includes the word God, “Allah” (notice that Maltí words to express key Christian concepts like God, Lent, Heaven, Church, Priest and Saint, have all Arabic roots: Allah, Randam, Jennah, Kanissa, Qassis, Qaddis), instead of referring to the hordes of invaders who go around opening and closing doors.


By Louis Werner. Writer and filmmaker.

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