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Language portraits -- Part II: Maltese

Welcome to the second part of the series "Language Portraits". This time it's the turn of a special language: Maltese. Find out what exactly is so special about Maltese here.

Read this article in: Deutsch, English, Italiano

Estimated reading time:20minutes

It's summer, even if the weather, at least for me, is not quite so summery. Maybe you're on holiday right now, maybe even on the Mediterranean. Of course, freedom of travel is partly restricted. Corona sends its regards. In the Mediterranean Sea there are islands and micro-islands called Malta, Manoel, Gozo, Comino, Cominotto, Fifla, St. Paul's Islands and Fungus Rock, which together form the Republic of Malta. 


You may know that English is spoken there. When I was at school, there were always brochures in the school offering language trips to Malta to improve one's English. Well, in Malta you can get along with English. Apart from Maltese, it is also one of the official languages. But what is Maltese?

Maltese -- a hybrid language?

Maltese is a Semitic language and the only one written in Latin characters. Other Semitic languages you probably know are Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic. You may also know that Arabic has a large number of dialects, some of which are very different from each other (at this point I refer you once again to the article on how to distinguish a language from a dialect). In linguistics, for example, it is assumed that Maltese was initially an Arabic dialect, because it is very similar to ancient Tunisian, as well as to Siculo-Arabic. Other linguists define Maltese as a Semitic-Romance hybrid language.

How did Maltese come into being? -- A brief history

The islands were inhabited as early as the Stone Age, were resettled in the Bronze Age and over the centuries were under the changing influence of almost all the great cultures of the respective periods that were predominant in the Mediterranean. For example, the archipelago was influenced by the Phoenician culture from 800 BC onwards. This culture is Semitic and some linguists have assumed that Maltese is influenced by it. However, this has not been proven and is highly controversial. Another culture with which the archipelago came into contact was the Roman culture from 217 BC, and the Eastern Roman-Byzantine culture from 395 AD. In 455 Malta belonged to the empire of the Germanic Vandals, in 494 it became Ostrogothic and thus also Germanic, and in 533 Malta became Byzantine again. The extent to which these conquerors have shaped today's culture and language cannot be fully explained.

However, the influence of the Arabs, who conquered Malta in 870, is undisputed. They islamised the archipelago and introduced Arabic as a new language. Around 991, there were around 6339 Christian and 14972 Muslim families living on the islands. Around 1049, Arabic-speaking settlers from Sicily came to Malta and Sicilian Arabic had a huge impact on the language there. After 1091, Malta was under Norman rule and was eventually repopulated by Arabic-speaking Sicilians. After 1240, the Muslim population of Malta was expelled by the Hohenstaufen king Frederick II. However, a large part of the population remained there and converted to Christianity. Like Sicily, Malta was under the rule of the Hohenstaufen, the Angevins, over the following centuries and fell to the Kingdom of Aragon from 1284. Siculo-Arabic disappeared, but the language on Malta persisted. Under Arab rule, the individual varieties were strongly tied to Koranic Arabic. This prevented the language from developing too quickly. Now, however, Maltese was independent of this and Romance influences shaped the language. 

From 1530, Malta belonged to the united kingdom of Spain, but then to the Order of St John (called the Order of Malta since the takeover of the Maltese archipelago), which strengthened the fortifications at the harbour and defended the island against Ottoman attacks. 

In 1798, the island fell under French Napoleonic rule. In 1800, a British regiment was finally stationed on Malta and in 1814 the islands became a British Crown Colony. For this reason, English is still the official language of Malta today and it continues to shape the Maltese language. After the Second World War, Great Britain granted Malta self-government in 1947 and Malta finally gained independence as a parliamentary democracy in 1964. However, Malta remained a member of the Commonwealth until 13 December 1974. On that day the Republic was proclaimed and since then the Queen has no longer been Malta's Head of State. On 1 May 2004, Malta joined the EU and Maltese is one of the EU's languages.

In terms of language policy, the following should also be mentioned: Binding spelling rules on Maltese were issued as early as 1924, and in 1934 Maltese became an official language in Malta alongside English. A problem known to linguistics is the (non-)existence of sources.  The oldest Maltese text is the 15th century poem Il Cantilena. The first Maltese lexicon was written as early as 1649.


As already mentioned, you can see from the above data that the archipelago has been shaped by various languages and cultures. What this means in concrete terms, you will learn in the following section. 

Characteristics of Maltese


Maltese vocabulary originally came from Siculo-Arabic. However, it has many Romance influences, especially Sicilian (There is general debate in linguistics as to whether Sicilian is a dialect of Italian or a language in its own right. More about the languages in Italy can be read here. However, it is indisputably a Romance variety), Italian and French ones. 

  1. Maltese: skola

Sicilian: scola

Italian: scuola


  1. Maltese: pulizija

Sicilian: pulizzìa

Italian: polizia


English loanwords make up about 20% of today's Maltese vocabulary. On the other hand, there are numerous English words of Romance origin where one cannot clearly say whether they come from English or from Romance.

  1.  Maltese: futbol

 English: football


In Maltese grammar, too, the Semitic affiliation is visible, but alongside it, the English and Romance influences are equally evident. 

In Maltese, adjectives follow nouns. Nouns and adjectives of Semitic origin need a definite article.

  1. it     -tifel il    -kbir

the-boy the-elder

‘the elder boy’


Adjectives of Romance origin, however, do not follow this pattern. 

Maltese nouns of Semitic origin are very complex in their plural formation. According to regular formation, these are marked with -iet or -ijiet, for example art (SG) - artijiet (PL)("land"). Irregular forms fall under the pluralis fractus category, a phenomenon typical of Semitic languages. Here, the plural is formed by internal alternation of vowels, e.g. ktieb - kotba (book-books).

This does not apply to nouns of Romance origin. These are marked in the plural at the end either with -i, as in Sicilian, or with -jiet, e.g. in lingwa-lingwi (language-languages). For comparison: in Sicilian it would be lingua-lingui.

Nouns from English are put in the plural with -s or with -ijiet. Depending on the context, they can also be given one or the other ending. The word brikksa (brick) can be brikks or brikksiet in the plural.

Maltese has a definite proclitic article il-. It becomes l- before and after a vowel, as in l-omm ('the mother'). In addition, the article can assimilate with certain consonants, e.g. ic-cikkulata (‘the chocolate’).

The Maltese definite article il- is pronounced like the Italian masculine article il, but behaves like the Arabic article al-, so it can be assumed to be of Arabic origin. 


The Maltese verbal system is complex, as in other Semitic languages. A special feature is that Maltese also inflects Romance verbs in a Semitic way. 

Living multilingualism in Malta in everyday life

Most residents in Malta are multilingual and speak at least Maltese and English. Today, English is used in parallel with Maltese, especially in higher and tertiary education. English also plays a decisive role in long-distance trade, technical professions and tourism management. 

Although Italian has not been an official language in Malta since 1934, many Maltese continue to speak it and learn it at school. In addition, Italian television and radio play an important role in spreading the Italian language in Malta.

So Maltese is exciting and behaves differently from Romance languages and also a bit differently from Semitic languages. It is also the only Semitic language in the EU. So if you want to learn a language that not everyone speaks, I recommend Maltese. 






https://abrahamicstudies.com/2017/03/06/maltesisch-eine-europaeisch-arabische-geschichte/ (19.08.2021, 16:35)

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malta (19.08.2021, 16:34)

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltesische_Sprache (19.08.2021, 16:33)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltese_language (19.08.2021, 16:34)

https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maltais (19.08.2021, 16:34)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7VdeHdBn-g (19.08.2021, 16:36)


Photo: Paula De la Pava Nieto via Unsplash

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