The next time you’re baffled by an odd Maltese word on a menu, muttered by an old man in the village square, or perhaps scrawled on the back of a lorry in the dust, then help is at hand. Launched last autumn, the English-Maltese online dictionary – www.englishmaltesedictionary.com – is proving already a popular place to resolve many linguistic puzzles of Malti; ones that fox not just foreigners but the Maltese too.
The online dictionary is the culmination of years of research, and a labour of love, of its compiler Ian Vella. The online English-to-Maltese dictionary is becoming a community-driven project as well; content is constantly growing thanks to responses and suggestions received from users, ranging from university students to Maltese emigrants in Australia and Canada. In the near future, users will also be able to add translations and articles, so it becomes a kind of ‘Wiki’ on the Maltese language.
In fact, Maltese emigrants to the new world are an interesting insight into Maltese. It is thought that they and their descendents may be speaking an older version of the language, with its rigid rules and fewer words derived from alien languages, just as the emigrants did in the ’60s when they left Malta. Maltese in émigré communities may well be speaking a Malti in a time capsule.
The origins and evolution of Maltese are fascinating. The Maltese language was adopted in Malta officially in 1935 when Malta was still an English colony. Estimates on how many people speak it vary, but it’s probably around the 600,000 mark.
The Maltese language became an officially-recognised European Union language, which means that most documents and laws are being translated from English to Maltese. There are also interpreters in the Maltese language. A press contact told me however that the European Parliament and Commission pigeon holes with EU documents in Maltese are always brimming full – implying that Maltese journalists prefer to pick up the English versions.
However, on the flip-side, joining the EU has in fact cemented Maltese as a less widely-spoken European language and given its learning a boost. The EU is keen to promote diversity and retain customs and minor and regional languages (take Manx and Basque for instance) to off-set the impression of a European ‘superstate’. What this means is that Maltese translation services are in demand more than ever.
Most scholars agree that the Maltese language formed after being influenced from a mixture of Arabic and Sicilian dialects. Although Maltese is Semitic in its spoken nature, it is written using the Latin orthographic rules.
Around 75% of the words and rules that exist in the Maltese language at present derive from a dialect spoken in Sicily. Scholars think though that certain rules which these dialects are based upon resemble more the ancient Punic language rather than today’s Italian language.
The Maltese language also borrows vaguely from Arabic morphological rules (that is, the structure and content of words). Recently, a dialect very similar to the Maltese language was discovered being spoken in parts of Tunis. The close geographic location and the historical links between Malta and the Arabic world suggest that some rules have been morphed into the Maltese language.
However Maltese evolves from now on though, its neologisms are sure to be recorded for posterity in the English-Maltese online dictionary!
Photo: Amanda Holmes
Elizabeth Ayling says
@Chris, I wondered when and if someone would notice the @Ponto comment. Thanks for your reply – very well put and presented.
Chris Oliver says
@ Ponto,Arabs do not speak Arabic? ! wow !! this is such a new piece of info !! You are probably one of those who do not understand that not all Muslims are Arabs. Islam is a religion while Arabic is a language. Most muslims do not speak Arabic simply because they are not Arabs. However, Arabs in 22 Arab countries do speak Arabic and they belong to three religions ( Islam, christianity & judaism) They have dialects and slangs just like any other language but in the end they all speak and understand Arabic. I honestly do not either like or understand this post 9/11 mentality & how some look at the mid east and the Arabs !
Maltese is not Arabic. It is Maltese but it has been clearly influenced by the Arabic language and it has many specifically Arabic words that do not necessarily exist in other Semitic languages. not to mention, which Semitic people have been to the island of malta and likely to have influenced it’s clture? The Arabs did. not some unknown Semitic people like you tried to make it sound ! Maltese people themselves know this and have no issues with it. However, some in the English speaking parts of the world and people of North European origins seem to have issues with this fact ( thanks to the right wing fanatics who gained grounds in those countries after 9/11) but it is all non sense.
I am not Maltese nor Arabic but I have been studying Arabic for 8 years now and i can understand some Maltese because of my knowledge of the Arabic Language, i can understand many Maltese words. when maltese people say Malta is a beautiful island in Maltese ( i personally believe that Malta is definitely a beautiful island) they say Malta hija gzira sabiha. this is pure Arabic not just general Semitic. There are many ways to say the same sentence in Arabic but still the above is Arabic. the same goes for many other words like: Hello ( merhaba) mother, boy , girl, you, yes, no and so on i understand all those words when i see them written in maltese words simply because they match Arabic words that i have studied and heard while traveling in Arab countries.
anyhow, i smell prejudice in your reply. prejudice may explain why you wrote a lot of what you wrote even though it is clearly non sense. a little advice, you may hate a culture, a region or a race all you want but still facts remain facts.
I am Australian but born in Malta. I don’t speak Maltese though I understand some of it. The Maltese language is not really Arabic and Arabic is just a concoction of Semitic languages supposedly based on Medieval Semitic spoken about Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Actually few “Arabs” or whatever they are speak Arabic, a frozen North Arabian language based on a number of extinct North Arabian dialects. It is a myth this Arabic language. Maltese is actually a Semitic language from Sicily used by the North African conquerors to themselves and with the conquered. It contains a lot of Sicilian words, and lost much of the Semitic phonology. If you want to call Maltese an Arabic language, okay, but, that is like saying English is a German language and mutually understood by German and English alike.
Eventually Maltese will die out like the Semitic parent of Maltese in Sicily or the Semitic forms used in Spain and Portugal. English is the No.1 language, and Maltese is just a hangover of the Sicilian Muslim and Moorish period. It deserves to die.
James Rankin says
Malta is in me, or at least it once was. Growing up in England with the babble of Maltese in the background never really aroused good feelings for that language, mostly because I kept thinking they were talking about me — Jimma. LOL
I later, laughingly, tried to learn it, but when I went out there to visit my uncle they all spoke with an English cockney accent!
All right mate? ‘ow you doin’?. WTF LOL
…What’s even funnier now is, I’d really like to have another go at learning that funny old language. LOL
Carmel Vella says
We the Maltese look the way we look after many thousands of years of mixing with every Mediterranean nation that captured Malta. It makes us that much more cosmopolitan than many other nation . In the Roman conquest period , they said “Una fazza, una razza” to people they conquered in the Med. One face, one race , is really what we the Maltese are. I for one am proud of that. Sahha
Carmel Vella says
I have a good friend here in California who came many years ago from Beirut. We speak almost the same language. Beirut being the old home of the Phoenicians. So “hobz biz seyt is precisely what we both like.
Elizabeth Ayling says
Erick, Malta isn’t ‘promoting the Arab dialect’ whatever that means. It does like to talk of its unique language and its etymology and roots though and its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean. It shares with Spain, Sicily and S. France, and more Med countries close historic-cultural links with cultures across the sea. Marseilles, Marsa (Malta), Marsala – all ports sharing the stem ‘Marsa’ which means port in Arabic. Malta gets plenty of tourists and every week here on Malta Insideout we have people contacting us from overseas who are thinking of emigrating here. So few people seem ‘deterred’. Enough said.
Erick Washington says
Prejudice? Do not believe I fit the definition…one must note there is just too much unrest among the Arab world; it is natural for people to frown upon their behavior. The bottom line, Malta survives on tourism…promoting the Arabic dialect will deter certain people. I cannot speak for a large scale of people; however, I can account for those that at any Arabic context are turned off! Are they prejudice? Whether they are or not is not the point. The point is to attract all nationalities, even Americans. I am not Maltese but have lived in New York City among many Maltese so this has been an interesting endeavor.
Elizabeth Ayling says
Erick, clearly it’s a geo-political positioning thing. You’re in the US, we’re right in the middle of the Med, a mere 300km or so from Libya, and less from the nearest N African coastline, Tunisia. Malta has a European cultural calling, has a 98 per cent Catholic population (indigenous population) and is an EU member. But it is a country that needs to understand its neighbours, whether north or south of it. It does not ‘maintain an Arab presence’ but has its dose of historical ties, as I pointed out. Cultural understanding is imperative in this part of the world; any part of the world in fact. I am British, with Malta my adoptive home. I have learnt a lot by living here, and have been to Libya (a few years back) and do appreciate the way my education has grown by living in proximity to different cultures. It’s not about ‘popular’ or unpopular; it’s a case of ironing out prejudice. See this link for some way some people here are trying to do just that: http://www.maltainsideout.com/17467/suspended-lives-a-film-on-real-people-not-migrants/
Erick Washington says
Obviously, the Arabs have played a major role in history; however, maintaining the Arabic presence definitely presents an unpleasant stigma. On this side of the world Arabs are not popular! I cannot relate to your views!
Elizabeth Ayling says
@Erick, I am not entirely sure I understand your comments in this context of tracing the morphological roots of the Maltese language and the etymology of some Maltese words. Inevitably, given the many cultures that settled the islands over 2,000 years, Malta has a fascinating linguistic heritage drawn from neighbouring languages and some farther afield in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Arabs were in Malta between around 870 and 1160, not entirely displaced by Count Roger the Norman in one fell swoop. As in Sicily, Arabic peoples lived side by side with the Norman invaders for some time. Some Arabic elements live on in the language though barely in any physical remains on the islands; we credit the Arabic culture for introducing oranges, the winding layout of some old Maltese villages, some aspects of our southern Mediterranean cuisine and agricultural techniques (irrigation). Sicily has a similar Arabic legacy. This is part of Malta’s unique cultural make-up that is to be celebrated, as much as any other period. It is a period that is often missed by guide books and in education here, mainly because there is so little physical a reminder, unlike the vast Baroque heritage from the period of the Knights, or the well-documented British period. The Libya crisis this year has seen Malta in the spotlight vav its N. African neighbours. I heard from someone in education here, a Maltese who is a fluent Arabic speaker, that more learners, mainly adults, are interested in taking up Arabic (for work – in the diplomatic service or for business). Why not learn the language of your neighbours? Through language learning comes cultural understanding. I am heartened to think that the islands can, as the EU’s most southerly state, celebrate their position between continental Europe and Africa and lever on their unique history and heritage to try to understand more about what lies to our south, not just north. I expect you see it differently from Washington.
Erick Washington says
Why is there such an excitement about the Maltese language??? Maltese are not Arabic!!?? Right? And why would any one would want to be associated with the Arabs is beyond me. Just the word Arabic gives Maltese a bad name!! Hope to hear from you…
Oh I am just a tad bit excited about this!!!