The curious case of Maltese, the only Semitic language in the European Union

The special location of Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and halfway between Africa and Europe, gave the country (which are actually three islands: Gozo, Comino and Malta itself) unique cultural characteristics within the European environment. There are megalithic temples built in the fourth millennium BC by a culture that disappeared a millennium and a half later.

Around 700 B.C. the islands were colonized by Phoenicians, and in 218 B.C. the Romans arrived to stay (it is known that St. Paul was shipwrecked in Malta when he was taken prisoner on his way to Rome in 55 and spent three months there). These were followed by the Byzantines in the 6th century A.D., and later in 870 A.D. by the Aghlabids of the North African emirate of Ifriqiya in Tunisia. The Muslim presence in Malta continued with the Fatimid Caliphate and the Emirate of Sicily, which dominated the area from 909 A.D., until the islands were conquered by the Normans in 1091.

More than 200 years of Muslim presence, especially since the repopulation of the main city of Mdina in 1048, left a profound imprint. The farming of products such as cotton and citrus together with new irrigation techniques were introduced at this time in the islands. And many of the names of Maltese places have their origin in those years.

Hagar Kim Megalithic Temple / image Hamelin de Guettelet – Wikimedia Commons

But perhaps one of the most unique legacies is the Maltese language. The language spoken in the Emirate of Sicily, to which Malta belonged, was Sicilian colloquial Arabic, a dialect of Arabic which in turn came from Maghrebi Arabic spoken by the Tunisian conquerors. The siculo-arabic became extinct in the 13th century, with Sicily already under Norman rule, but it persisted in Malta, where it developed in an isolated and independent manner.

In addition to the Siculo-Arabic basis, which accounts for about a third of the vocabulary, influences and borrowings from other languages such as Italian, Sicilian (Romance), Spanish, Catalan or Greek were added, and a little later English. About half of the vocabulary is of Italian and Sicilian origin.

Bilingual signs in Malta / photo Caron Badkin – Shutterstock

Thus, it underwent a process of Latinization due to the influence of Romanesque languages that led to it being written in Latin characters at least from the 18th century onwards. It is not known whether it could have previously been written in Arabic characters, because no document has survived to prove it.

However, the first surviving example of Latin writing dates back to the late Middle Ages, although it was also occasionally written in Hebrew characters, at least until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. This makes Maltese a unique rarity in the world, the only standardized Semitic language (Hebrew, Arabic, Phoenician, Ethiopian, etc.) that is currently written in Latin script.

But the Maltese alphabet is a model adapted from the Latin alphabet that has 30 characters, since it uses three consonants with a diacritical sign (Ċ, Ġ, Ż) and two digraphs (GĦ, IE) to represent specific sounds of the Maltese language. The letters Y and C (this one only with the diacritical sign) are not present.

The founders of the Alliance of Maltese Writers / image public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

For a long time the hypothesis that Maltese derived from Phoenician was the most accepted, mainly because Maltese elites refused to recognize Arab origin. But starting in the 1920s a group of intellectuals founded the Alliance of Maltese Writers (Għaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti), which would be responsible for establishing the orthography and alphabet of modern Maltese, made official by law in 1934 and which are the ones used today.

Before that there were other attempts, such as Vassalli’s at the end of the 18th century, who invented some new letters and added others imported from Cyrillic.

Vassalli’s First Maltese Alphabet / image Hamelin de Guettelet – Wikimedia Commons

The oldest surviving document in Maltese is, as we said before, from the late Middle Ages, more precisely from the 15th century. It is a poem of 20 verses titled Il-Kantilena (Xidew il-Qada), composed by Pietru Caxaro around 1460.

Original document of Il-Kantilena, in the Notarial Archives of Malta / image Hamelin de Guettelet – Wikimedia Commons

Xideu il cada ye gireni tale nichadithicum
Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom
Calb mehandihe chakim soltan ui le mule
Bir imgamic rimitine betiragin mecsule
fen hayran al garca nenzel fi tirag minzeli
Nitila vy nargia ninzil deyem fil-bachar il hali
Huakit hy mirammiti Nizlit hi li sisen
Mectatilix il mihallimin ma kitatili li gebel
fen tumayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Huakit thi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Huec ucakit hi mirammiti vargia ibnie
biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe
Min ibidill il miken ibidil il vintura
halex liradi ‘al col xebir sura
hemme ard bayda v hemme ard seude et hamyra
Hactar min hedaun heme tred minne tamarra

(Witness my predicament, my friends (neighbours), as I shall relate it to you:
[What] never has there been, neither in the past, nor in your lifetime,
A [similar] heart, ungoverned, without lord or king (sultan),
That threw me down a well, with broken stairs
Where, yearning to drown, I descend the steps of my downfall,
I climb back up and down again, always faced with high seas.

It (she) fell, my building, its foundations collapsed;
It was not the builders’ fault, but the rock gave way,
Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay
It (she) fell, my edifice, (that) which I had been building for so long.

And so, my edifice subsided, and I shall have to build it up again,
You change it to the site that suits her/it
Who changes his place, changes his fate!
for each (piece of land) has its own shape (features);
there is white land and there is black land, and red
But above all, (what) you want from it is a fruit. / Il-Kantilena, Pietru Caxaro)

As Malta belongs to the European Union and Maltese is its official language along with English, Maltese is the only official language from Semitic origin in the European Union, as well as the world’s westernmost one.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on September 29th, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en El curioso caso del idioma maltés, única lengua semítica de la Unión Europea


National Council for the Maltese Language | Georg Rehm, Hans Uszkoreit, ed., The Maltese Language in the Digital Age | Albert Gatt, The languages of Malta | Wikipedia.