Maltese   7 comments

I’m back from a week-long visit to Malta. As I mentioned in the previous post, I was there for the Symposium Syriacum (first part of the week) and Conference on Christian Arabic Studies (last part). The official languages of Malta (since 1934, reaffirmed after independence in 1964) are English and Maltese, and Maltese is now an official language of the EU (from 2003). As a graduate student I studied Maltese a little in Bergsträsser’s Introduction to the Semitic Languages (206-208, with some scattered remarks on 185-198). On arriving to Malta, the first word I noticed was Ħruġ (= خروج) on a sign in the airport. The language is a fascinating arena for linguists to study language contact, sociolinguistics, and other areas of their field. Here are a few remarks on the language especially from a perspective of historical linguistics.

Some historical points

Maltese is a striking mixture of Arabic and Romance languages, and the background for this mixture is, of course, observable in its history. While the Muslim occupation of the ninth century and Romance contacts from the eleventh are perhaps the most salient events in Malta’s linguistic history, it is worth highlighting especially that a Semitic linguistic substratum is present thanks to earlier Phoenician presence, Phoenician and then Punic and Neo-Punic having been used on the island centuries before. With the expulsion of the Muslims in the mid-thirteenth century, classical Arabic as a standardizing anchor loses its potency and the mixture with Romance elements begins in earnest. Documents in Latin from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries reveal a recognition of “Maltese” as a distinct linguistic entity; among those cited by Wettinger (and Borġ) is one from 1521 with the words ut maltensi lingua dicimus.

  • Neolithic farmers from Sicily arrive around 5000 BCE
  • Bronze Age people arrive around 2000 BCE
  • Phoenicians arrive in the eighth century BCE
  • Carthaginians rule during the Punic period
  • Under Roman rule (province of Sicily) from 210 BCE
  • In the third century CE Vandal and then Ostrogoth rule
  • Byzantine rule from 535 CE
  • Muslims take Malta in 869 or 870 CE
  • They are expelled in the mid-thirteenth century

Pronunciation and orthography

The developed phonological features of Maltese are known from other Arabic dialects (and other Semitic languages), too. These include:

  • h > 0
  • ḫ > ḥ (ħ in the standard orthography)
  • ġ > ʿ which itself somewhat weakens to a pharyngealizing force on a nearby vowel, in Maltese orthography; at word end, ʿ has completely died away, as with the genitive particle, ta < (ultimately) متاع “property, goods (of)”
  • see below for some examples of vowel changes

Maltese orthography was standardized in 1924; for the most part, it still conveys relatively well how one pronounces the language, but it does look a little strange at first glance.

Below are listed some words that reveal divergences of Maltese from (literary) Arabic, and many of these divergences are likewise known from other Arabic dialects. The sign < below, it should be stressed, is meant to indicate genetic relationship, but not necessarily a direct genetic link, that is, the movement is not necessarily directly from high classical Arabic as a literary, recited, or formal linguistic entity, but perhaps from some form of colloquial Arabic spoken on the island in centuries prior.

  • minkeb “elbow” < mankib (Ar. “shoulder”)
  • musmar “nail” < mismār
  • muftieħ “key” < miftāḥ (the correspondence Ar. ā : Mlt ie is very frequently attested)
  • raġel “man” < raǧul
  • mara “woman” < (al-)marʾa
  • baqra “cow” < baqara
  • mejda “table” < māʾida
  • xiħ “old man” < šayḫ
  • xitan “devil” < šayṭān
  • kelb “dog” < kalb
  • ħġieġ “glass” < certainly from zuǧāǧ, but I can’t immediately interpret the change z > ħ


-semantic change in Arabic words

  • ħażin “bad” (Ar. “sad”)
  • ġawhra “pearl” (Ar. more generally “jewel, gem”)
  • ġebla “stone” (Ar. “mountain”)

-when Arabic is used and when Romance

  • skur “dark” (adj.) (cf. It. scuro; note, too, the chance similarity with the root šḥr in Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew!)
  • kannella “brown” (< It. cannella “cinnamon”?)

Many words pertaining to Christianity are of Latin or Italian origin — artal [metathesis!], kappella, kruċifis, anġlu, priedka, &c. — but some, including the following, are from Arabic:

  • knisja “church”
  • xemgħa “candle”
  • isqof “bishop”
  • magħmudija “baptism”
  • nisrani “Christian”
  • qrar “confession”
  • xitan “Satan”
  • alla “God”
  • quddiesa “Mass”
  • talba “prayer”
  • qassis “priest”
  • qaddis “saint”

Four of the elements in the Maltese title are Semitic, one Romance.


For nouns and adjectives, the plural forms of Arabic (sound and broken) appear also in Maltese, but Italian or Sicilian nouns generally end with -i in the plural.

In verb conjugation, there is nothing surprising if we keep in mind developments that show up in other Semitic languages and especially Arabic dialects. There are six main vocalic structures for the perfect (3ms), e.g. talab, ħareġ, fehem, seraq, kiser, qorob. For the 3fs the theme vowel is reduced and -et comes at the end, and for 2cs and 1cs the ending is -t (no vowel) and the first vowel of the stem has been reduced, as with fehmet “she understood”, fhimt (NB -e- theme vowel > -i-!) “you/I understood”. These same patterns occur again in the plural: for 3cp, we have e.g. fehmu, etc., for 2mp fhimtu and for 1cp fhimna. Imperfect and imperative forms are similarly unsurprising: joħroġ/oħroġ, joqtol/oqtol, jifhem/ifhem, jifraħ/ifraħ. Non-Semitic verbs in Maltese are adapted to the attachment of these prefixes and suffixes. Space here precludes further presentation of verbal forms (including the derived forms, which do occur in Maltese), but suffice it to say that anyone familiar with morphological developments across the Semitic languages will find few snares in the language.

I hope to look into syntax in a future post.


Borġ, Alexander. “Maltese as a National Language.” In Stefan Weninger, ed., The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook. Berlin, 2011. Pp. 1033-1041. [With bibliography.]

Brincat, Joseph M. Maltese and Other Languages: A Linguistic History of Malta. Sta Venera, Malta, 2011.

Moser, Manfred. Malti-Ġermaniż ‧ Dizzjunarju kbir. Deutsch-Maltesisch ‧ Großes Wörterbuch. Wiesbaden, 2005.

Schabert, P. “Text aus Malta.” In W. Fischer and O. Jastrow, eds., Handbuch der arabischen Dialekte. Wiesbaden, 1980. Pp. 286-291.

Wettinger, G. “Plurilingualism and Cultural Change in Medieval Malta.” Mediterranean Language Review 6-7 (1993): 144-153.

*There are a few items on Maltese listed in the section “Arabic (dialectal)” of del Olmo Lete’s bibliography for Semitic languages.

7 responses to “Maltese

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Welcome back 🙂

    The sound change h > 0 is quite interesting – it appears to occur more often in varieties of Arabic spoken by non-muslims, like the Judeo-Arabic dialects of Tunisia and Morocco.
    With morphology, it is important to note the Maltese prefix for 1SG imperfect: like in the dialects of Maghrib, it’s n- (nifhem, nikteb, noħroġ).
    For the Christian words of Arabic origin, you ommitted the most striking one: randan = “Lent”. Still blows my mind. għid (< عيد) is another one.

    but Italian or Sicilian nouns generally end with -i in the plural
    Not entirely true, in fact, I’d say it’s an exception. As I noted elsewhere, borrowed nouns either form a broken plural (storja/stejjer, forma/forom) or take suffix -ijiet (< Arabic feminine plural). I'm not entirely sure if there's any clear rule to it.

    You may know there is a society devoted to the study of Maltese. Wanna join us?

    • Thanks for the clarifications and emphases. It’s especially too bad you couldn’t make it to Malta with your familiarity with Maltese! Any idea about the first consonant of ħġieġ? Thanks!

  2. I actually was in Malta, earlier this month, in a completely unrelated context and there’s only so many days in a month… As for the etymology of ħġieġ, I must admit I have no idea, but I do recall someone somewhere saying something about assimilation. The best place to start would be Aquilina’s dictionary, which I don’t have on me at the moment. Will get back to you.

  3. Dear Sir,

    I am from Malta.

    Hgiega was originally ZGIEGA (glass)

    Regarding Maltese religious terminology I am still looking for an answer to this question;From where did it come and who and how has the christian arabic words found themselves in Maltese?
    If the Maltese were all Muslims during the arab period and then slowly but decisevly shifted to christianity christian religious terminology could have been introduced from italian/sicilian.
    Additional Examples of Christian Arabic words in Maltese

    Salib pl slaleb or solbien

    xbin verb xebben






    L-ahhar dehna

    Ruh il-Qodos

    Gid il-Kbir

    Ghid il-Hammiem Epiphany

    Ghid il-Qaddisin Kollha

    Ghid l-Imwiet

    Ghid il-Milied Christmas

    Ghid il-Hamsin Pentecost

    Madbah Artal

    Hadd il-Gdid


    Muslim words




    Possibly gilwa

    several placenames and phrases (ref to Wettinger)

    Over a year ago I have attended a presentation at the Univ of Malta by Dr Martin Zammit on the subject.It was very detailed and very professional .

    • Hi, Chris. Yes, there are very many examples. I think it’s important to note that just because we refer to some term as “Christian” Arabic, it hardly means that Muslims were (or are) unaware of it. I was also privileged to hear Dr Zammit when I was on Malta recently; he gave another presentation (which I had to miss) on the very subject you are asking about, religious terminology in Maltese.
      Of course, ħġieġ is from zġieġ, but the question is how z > ħ!
      Thanks for reading!

  4. Pingback: A week on Malta « His memories in a trunk

  5. When I was in Libya, I was told that Libyans and Maltese can understand each other. I don’t know whether that was true, or a legacy of Gaddafi’s attempts to build bridges with Malta.

Leave a Reply to bulbul Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: