Maltese is the national language of Malta, and an official language of the European Union. It is derived from and most closely related to Arabic—in particular, the North African dialect—but in the course of its history it has adopted many loans and even phonetic and phonological features from (Southern) Italian (particularly Sicilian) and English. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet.
Maltese became an official language of Malta in 1936, alongside English. Before that year, the official language of Malta was Italian. Today, there are an estimated 330,000 Maltese speakers. There are a significant number of Maltese expatriates in Australia, the United States and Canada who can still speak the language.
Although influenced by Romance, Maltese grammar is still strongly Semitic. Adjectives follow nouns, there are no separately formed native adverbs, and word order is fairly flexible. As in Arabic and Hebrew, both nouns and adjectives (those of Semitic origin) take the definite article (for example L-Art l-Imqaddsa, lit. "The Land the Holy = The Holy Land"; cf. Arabic Al-Ardh al-Muqaddasa). This rule does not apply to nouns and adjectives of Romance origin.
Nouns are pluralized and also have a dual marker (unique among modern European languages, with the exception of Icelandic, Slovene and Sorbian). Verbs still show a triliteral Semitic pattern, in which a verb is conjugated with prefixes, suffixes, and infixes (for example ktibna, Arabic katabna, Hebrew katavnu "we wrote"). There are two tenses: present and perfect.
What is unusual about the Maltese verb system is that it incorporates Romance verbs and adds Arabic suffixes and prefixes to them (for example iddeċidejna "we decided" < (i)ddeċieda 'Romance verb' + -ejna 'Arabic first person plural perfect marker'). Arabic only rarely does this, although several Arabic dialects like Tunisian do.
Maltese grammar generally shows two patterns: a Semitic pattern and a Romance pattern. It is like two grammars in one. An Anglo-saxon pattern in the form of English words adapted to a Maltese structure is a recent linguistic phenomenon.
The Romance pattern is generally simpler. Words of Romance origin are usually pluralized in two manners: addition of -i or -jiet (for example lingwa, lingwi "languages"; arti, artijiet "arts"). Semitic plurals, however, are much more complex; if they are regular, they are marked by -iet/-ijiet (cf. Arabic -at and Hebrew -ot) or -in (cf. Arabic -een and Hebrew -im). If irregular, they fall in the pluralis fractus category, in which a word is pluralized by internal vowel changes: ktieb, kotba "books", raġel, irġiel "men". This is very well-developed in Arabic and also exhibited by Hebrew (sefer, sfarim "books").
Maltese vocabulary is a hybrid of Arabic Semitic roots and Sicilian Italian (rather than Tuscan Italian) words. In this respect it is similar to English (Germanic-Romance mix) and Persian (Indo-Iranian/Arabic mix).
Usually words expressing basic concepts and ideas are of Arabic origin, whereas more 'learned' words, having to do with new ideas, objects, government, law, education, art, literature, and general learning, are derived from Sicilian. Thus words like raġel man, mara woman, tifel child, dar house, xemx sun, sajf summer, are of Arabic origin. While words like skola school, gvern government, repubblika republic, re king, natura nature, pulizija police, ċentru center, teatru theater, differenza difference, are derived from Sicilian. It is estimated that 50% of the vocabulary is Semitic, the rest being Romance.
Romance words usually reflect Sicilian and not Tuscan pronunciation. Thus final 'o' becomes 'u' in Maltese, after Sicilian (e.g. teatru not teatro as in Tuscan). Also, final Italian 'e' becomes 'i': arti art, fidi faith, lokali local (cf. Italian arte, fede, locale). This effect is also found in Portuguese. (English 'sh') is written 'x' and this produces interesting spellings: ambaxxata /ambaʃːaːta/ is 'embassy', xena /ʃeːna/ is 'scene'.
English loan words are commonplace, including strajk strike, daljali dial, along with union (as in trade union), leave and bonus, which are not transliterated.
Below is the Maltese alphabet, with IPA symbols and approximate English pronunciation:
||Approximate English Pronunciation
||similar to 'a' in father
||bar, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [p].
||day, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [t].
||game, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [k].
||has the effect of lengthening and pharyngealizing associated vowels, except when immediately followed by a 'h', in which case it has the sound of a double 'ħ'. (It is slightly akin to English silent 'gh' in words such as "fight", "though", "sigh").
||not pronounced unless it is at the end of a word, in which case it has the sound of 'ħ'.
||no English equivalent; sounds like a breathy "h" or like the "ch" in German or Scottish 'loch'.
||like 'aw' in law, but shorter.
||glottal stop, found in the Cockney English pronunciation of "bottle".
||no English equivalent; like a Spanish or Italian 'r'.
||like 'oo' in boom, but shorter.
||vast, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [f].
||pizza, but in some loan words it is pronounced as [dz].
||maze, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [s].
Last updated: 08-19-2005 01:43:22