Maltese is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is the national language of Malta, and an official language of the European Union. It is derived from, and most closely related to, Arabic. Apart from its phonology, Maltese bears considerable similarity to urban varieties of Tunisian Arabic. Maltese also shares similarities with other North African Arabic dialects; however in the course of Malta's recent history, the language has adopted many loanwords, and even phonetic and phonological features, from Southern Italian, Sicilian, and English.
Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet in its standard form. It is also the only Semitic language native to a geopolitically European country, although, geophysically, Malta is generally regarded as forming part of the African continental plate.
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 371,900 Maltese speakers. There are a significant number of Maltese expatriates in Australia, the United States and Canada who can still speak the language.
The oldest known document in Maltese is "Il Cantilena," a poem from the 15th century written by Pietro Caxaro. For centuries, Maltese was nearly exclusively a spoken language, with writing being done in Arabic or, later, Italian.
Maltese grammar is fundamentally derived from Arabic, with a very large influx of Romance vocabulary, especially Sicilian and Norman French. Although influenced by Romance languages, 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 It-tifel il-kbir, lit. "The boy the elder=The elder boy"; cf. Arabic 'al-'ar? 'ul-muqaddasa, Hebrew ha'arets hakkedoa). This rule does not apply to nouns and adjectives of Romance origin.
Nouns are pluralized and also have a dual marker (rare among modern European languages, others including 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.
The Maltese verb system incorporates Romance verbs and adds Arabic suffixes and prefixes to them (for example iddecidejna "we decided" < (i)ddecieda '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, usage being selected by word origin and tradition. 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", from Italian lingua, lingue; art, artijiet (a Semitic example) "lands (territorial possessions or property)". 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 -in 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", ragel, irgiel "men". This is very well-developed in Arabic.
Maltese vocabulary is a hybrid based on a foundation of Arabic Semitic roots with a heavy borrowing of Sicilian (rather than Tuscan Italian) loanwords. In this respect it is similar to English (a Germanic language heavily influenced by French, particularly the Norman variety rather than the standard language.).
It is estimated that 80% of the vocabulary is Semitic, the rest being Romance. Zammit (2000) found that 40% of a sample of 1,820 Quranic Arabic roots were found in Maltese (a lower percentage than found in Moroccan (58%) and Syrian Arabic (72%)). 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. (These learned Sicilian words are usually identical or very similar to their Standard Italian counterparts, with minor differences such as unstressed u and i instead of o and e.) Thus words like ragel 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, centru center, are derived from Sicilian. The perverse result of this highly uneven distribution of loanwords throughout the language is that a speaker of the loanword-source language (in this case Romance language speakers) can understand, for instance, know the subject of a newspaper article, but cannot understand even such basic things as The man is in the house. This situation resembles that of a monolingual English speaker, who will often be able to guess the content of something in French if it's formal, academic writing but not understand much simpler sentences (or conversely will be able to read simple German sentences, Der Mann ist im Haus, but be totally lost when reading formal, academic German).
An example of this is the first article of the Declaration of Human Rights:
Il-bnedmin kollha jitwieldu hielsa u indaqs fid-dinjità u l-jeddijiet. Huma moghnija bir-raguni u bil-kuxjenza u ghandhom igibu ruhhom ma' xulxin bhala ahwa.
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). /?/ (English 'sh') is written 'x' and this produces interesting spellings: ambaxxata /amba??a?ta/ is 'embassy', xena /?e?na/ is 'scene' (cf. Italian ambasciata, scena).
English loan words are becoming commonplace, including strajk strike, daljali dial, along with junjin (as in trade union), leave and bonus, which are not transliterated.
Below is the Maltese alphabet, with IPA symbols and approximate English pronunciation:
|Letter ||IPA ||Approximate English pronunciation |
|A ||a ||similar to 'a' in father |
|B ||b ||bar, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [p]. |
|C ||t? ||church (note: dotless C has been replaced by K.) |
|D ||d ||day, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [t]. |
|E ||? ||end |
|F ||f ||far |
|G ||d? ||jump, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [t?]. |
|G ||g ||game, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [k]. |
|GH || ?:, h: ||has the effect of lengthening and pharyngealizing associated vowels. When found at the end of a word or immediately before 'h' it has the sound of a double 'h' (see below). |
|H || ||not pronounced unless it is at the end of a word, in which case it has the sound of 'h'. |
|H ||h ||no English equivalent; sounds like a whispered "ah" with the tongue pressed as far back as possible. |
|I ||i ||seat |
|IE ||i?, i? ||yet, feet |
|J ||j ||yard |
|K ||k ||cave |
|L ||l ||line |
|M ||m ||march |
|N ||n ||next |
|O ||o ||like 'aw' in law, but shorter. |
|P ||p ||part |
|Q ||? ||glottal stop, found in the Cockney English pronunciation of "bottle" or the phrase "(?)uh-(?)oh". |
|R ||r ||road |
|S ||s ||sand |
|T ||t ||tired |
|U ||u ||food |
|V ||v ||vast, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [f]. |
|W ||w ||west |
|X ||? / ? ||shade, sometimes as measure; when doubled the sound is elongated, as in "Cash shin" vs. "Cash in." |
|Z ||z ||maze, but at the end of a word it is pronounced as [s]. |
|Z ||ts / dz ||pizza; when doubled may change to gods |