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