H. E. Chehabi

Notes on Maltese

In the summer of 2008, continuing my exploration of Europe’s islands, I visited Malta. One of the many joys of visiting Malta was exposure to the archipelago’s language. As many of you know, Maltese is considered a dialect of Arabic, its wide use being a challenge to the notion that only classical Arabic, Fus.ha, can serve as an Arabophone nation’s written and official language. The Maltese are Roman Catholics, and given the proximity of their islands to Italy, Maltese elites and the clergy preferred Italian in the past, considering Maltese to be a peasant dialect. But when Mussolini tried to annex the islands in World War II, the mood changed, and Maltese was promoted along with English, which 75 % of the people now speak as well. The enduring legacy of this Italophilia is the existence of many Italian loanwords in Maltese, which is thereby in a sense the mirror-image of Persian: where Persian is an Indo-European language with many Semitic borrowings, Maltese is a Semitic language with lots of Indo-European words, most of them Italian.

You can imagine how curious I was to know more, and so on my very first day in Valetta, the (then largely uninhabited) capital, I looked around to see if I could decipher anything. The main street is called Triq ir-Repubblika, and I deduced that the distinction between shamsi and qamari letters has survived in Maltese – a deduction confirmed when a parallel street turned out to be Triq il-Merkanti. While Maltese has genders, the only definite article is il, but being the dialectal form of the Arabic al rather than an avatar of the Italian masculine definite article il, we get the – for me at least – counterintuitive il-Madonna. Walking along on Republic Street, I soon reached a bookshop that my Maltese acquaintances had recommended, where I started looking for books on the Maltese language. I found an opuscule titled Maltese: How to Read and Speak it. Describing the language, the author avers: “The Maltese Language is a mixture of the Semitic and the Romance. Years of Arab domination have strengthened the Maltese way of thought to the Semitic language (sic), whereas, the large vocabulary of Romance words, which are the heritage of successive occupations (Siculo-Norman, Spanish, Italian, French and English) have, in their turn, changed the whole cultural pattern and the way of life in the Maltese Islands. It is, in fact, this marriage of Semitic and Romance which has raised the status of Maltese to that of a language.”[1] Hmm. Could Maltese be a separate Semitic language overlaid with Arabic? My tourist guidebook seemed to suggest as much, going so far as to claim that “Malti, the language of the Maltese, appears to be a living legacy of spoken Phoenician…, which helps to explain its often outlandish appearance to European eyes.” Later it adds that the greatest legacy of the 200-year rule of the Arabs “lies in the Arabic words and phrases added to Malti.”[2] The reference to “Phoenician” triggered all the associations you can imagine, and I started suspecting that in these two convoluted attempts to de-Arabize Maltese discursively we can detect an effort to distance it (and those who speak it) from the Arab world so as to “reassure” Europeans – an effort all too familiar to me. Except that in this case it seemed even more stupid than in the case of Iran or Lebanon, since the Arab world is defined by its language. But I kept an open mind, having not had the chance to consult academic writings on the topic.

A few days later I went to the village of Siġġiewi to meet a local priest who had kindly offered to chat with me about his country. One of the issues I wanted to talk about was language. He took me to a café, ordered a number of delicious dishes that reminded me of tapas and mezes, and when an acquaintance of his entered he pointed to me and said: “Habib min Amerika.” Before I could say “Phoenician, my foot” in my mind, he brought up the language issue himself, asserting unambiguously that Maltese was an Arabic dialect, and adding that when he had taught at the University of Malta he had studied some classical Arabic with an Iraqi professor who had been hired to teach it. In the section on grammatical number, my little book mentioned singular and plural but said nothing about the dual, so I asked him about that. He answered that of course Maltese has a dual, but it is used mostly with parts of the human body: għajnejn means ‘two eyes’. I was dying to know why he gave me the genitive form rather than the nominative għajnān, but I did not want to leave him with the impression that I am a show-off in matters of grammar, so I kept silent. Later a Lebanese friend of mine told me that Arab-speakers usually think of the dual as being embodied in the object case. And, come to think of it, why should one consider the nominative case by definition the ‘first’ one, as one does in German, Latin, or Russian?

The padre and I had a most enjoyable evening talking about the two political parties, the press, and the church. He was a leftist and had on occasion read the opening prayers at Labour Party events. That he had no problem with recognizing that Maltese was a variety of Arabic now made sense: I remembered how as prime minister Dom Mintoff had played with the idea of joining the Arab League. As we parted, I said: “given where the wind is blowing in the Catholic Church, it must be difficult for you as a priest to be identified with the political left.” He sighed and said: “yes, but how did you guess?”

Back in the highly urbanized area around the capital, I resumed my long aimless walks to get a feel for the place. Near Valetta, which the locals call Il-Belt, on the other side of the Grand Harbour (Il-Port Il-Kbir) lie the historic “Three Cities”: tiny areas occupying two peninsulas about one kilometer long and 150 to 200 meter wide. In spite of their miniscule size, each city has its own accent. Although these two peninsulas are in parts very picturesque, smart Maltese are not moving in, preferring the cosmopolitan blandness of places like Sliema (where my hotel was) and St. Julian. The result is that the local accents are maintaining themselves. I was walking on Triq San Pawl towards the tip of Senglea, one of the two peninsulas, when the letter ‘q’ started to exercise my mind. Nobody pronounces it as the standard Arabic qāf, but I had learned that it is rendered differently in various parts of the islands. My little guide to the Maltese language proclaimed that it was the most difficult letter in the Maltese language, comparing it to “the cockney sound of the final letter in the English word that (dhaq).”[3] In other words, a glottal stop, familiar to Persian-speakers as the final sound in words such as jam‘. But the people of Kalkara, about two kilometers from where I was, pronounced it as a k, while still others made a guttural sound that I can neither describe nor reproduce. The uncertainty was killing me, so I went into a small café and ordered a cup of tea. I had a plan. I feigned serenity as I emptied my cup, but inside I was burning with anticipation. Trying not to betray my nervousness, I got up nonchalantly, ambled without haste to the counter, and paid for my tea. After the lady behind the counter had given me back my change, I put my plan into action. I asked her: “How do you say ‘moon’ in Maltese?” Taken aback, she asked back: “you want to know what the Maltese word for moon is?” I assured her that that was precisely what I had in mind. The tension was becoming unbearable. She mercifully defused it by informing me that the word for the earth’s satellite is amar. Exactly what I had expected, but I restrained myself and did not show any triumph when a furtive check in my dictionary revealed that it is written qamar. Her answer brought back pleasant memories of the wonderful village of Deir al-(Q)Amar in the Shouf mountains, and I wondered whether the Maltese might perhaps be Phoenicians after all…

What had prompted my preoccupation with the letter q was the fact that the first word I recognized was triq, meaning, as you will have gathered, ‘street.’ The plural of triq, someone explained, is toroq, giving me acute nostalgia for the good old days when the Ministry of Transportation in Iran was called Vezārat-e Toroq va Shavāre‘, which sounds so much more noble, dignified, and melodious than today’s insipid Vezārat-e Rāh.

Having solved the q problem (pace, Jean-Luc Picard), I went out into the street and continued walking towards the tip of Senglea. A new question was forming in my mind: are there synonyms in Maltese analogous to the Anglo Saxon/Latinate dualism in English (freedom/liberty) or the Persian/Arabic one in Persian (āzādi/horriyat)? The gods had mercy on me this time, for at that very moment I reached a street called Triq Habs il-Antik, Old Prison Street. When I looked down on my map to find out where I was I read: Triq Habs il-Qadim.

On the way back, walking towards Cospicua, I came across a big sign that read: Qalb ta Gesù, Salvana: ‘Heart of Jesus, save us.’

I ask you: how much niftier can a language get? (Ta means of, but at the time I could not figure out how it derived from Arabic. I later learned that in colloquial Arabic it has the same sense.)

As that invocation indicates, the Maltese are intensely beholden to Roman Catholicism. Every village and town has a parish church the size of a cathedral, and the crusaders’ flag (a red cross on a white background, like England’s St. George’s flag) flies over many buildings – I kid you not. Many Maltese seem to see their islands as a European (= Christian) outpost vis-à-vis the Muslim world, not realizing that it is this very bigotry that makes them more Middle Eastern than European. And when I say bigotry, I do not mean piety. Let me give two examples of what I perceived to be bigotry. When you visit Valetta, much is made of the heroic resistance of the Order of Malta against an attack of the Ottoman fleet in 1565, the “Great Siege.” Not content to depict the battle as an example of military prowess, the pompous diction of the narrators in the Grandmaster’s Palace leaves no doubt that they see the events of 1565 as a battle of good against evil. I could still understand such a Manichaean view if the attack had come out of the blue, but such is not the case, for what the official narrative does not tell tourists, is that the Ottoman fleets (manned overwhelmingly by Christian Greeks, incidentally), came to punish the Order for carrying out incessant acts of piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the course of one of which a bride of the Sultan had been kidnapped. Nor does this narrative explain what one is to make of the statues of Moorish slaves in the cathedral: how had these slaves, no doubt beneficiaries of the injunction to love one’s neighbor, been obtained by the ever-so-pious knights in the first place, I wondered? Since then I have learned that the private vessels of Jean Parisot de Valette, who had become Grand Master of the Order in 1557, took 3,000 Muslim and Jewish slaves during his tenure as Grand Master.[4] This makes Malta the only country I know of whose capital is named after a slave raider.

Another example I encountered when visiting an underground church. The guide showed us lovely frescoes of saints, and, pointing to their defaced faces, explained that the damage had been done by Muslim invaders (of the 4th century!) who wanted to “obliterate all traces of Christianity.” This kind of pious vandalism is not unknown in Protestant areas of Europe, but at the end of the day the church still exists after 1,500 years. Where, by contrast, are the remnants of the mosques the Muslims must have built during the two centuries they ruled over the island? I did not see a single reminder of that presence, even though far older Neolithic sites have been preserved through the ages. What no one tells you (I read it in my German guidebook) is that in 1249 all Muslims on Malta were forced to leave or to convert.[5]

It is this sort of selective memory that reminded me more of the Middle East, where a sense of grievance against all those who have different beliefs is endemic, than Europe, where official narratives tend to include a healthy dose of self-criticism and, more important still, self-relativization. Incidentally, the Maltese word for Lent is Randan, and for God Alla. They share the latter term with Arab Christians, of course, and perhaps someone should bring this fact to the attention of the Muslim bigots in Malaysia who burned churches recently, ostensibly because they objected to the Malaysian Christians’ use of that word.

When religion becomes so socially dominant, anti-religious resentment is never far from the surface and manifests itself in all sorts of ways, including foul language. In Quebec, whose francophone inhabitants used to be intensely religious until one or two decades ago, the paraphernalia of Catholic doctrine and ritual still furnish some of the juiciest expressions with which to vent one’s anger and frustration, and they are cumulative too: crisse de câlisse de sacrament de tabarnak d’osti de ciboire is a classic example.[6] The same is true of Spain, where until recently me cago en dios, I sh– on god, was a common way to express rage. So I naturally wondered whether this might be the case in Malta as well. I put the question to a professor of economics who had invited me to dinner and in whom I detected a healthy aloofness from organized religion. He immediately confirmed my hunch: one of the most widely used swearwords, he told me, is għoxx il-madonna, a part of the Virgin’s anatomy whose precise location should be obvious to anyone who knows Arabic or Persian.

After a week on Malta, I decided to visit Malta’s other inhabited island, Gozo, whose name I would not know how to spell if I were writing this memoir in Persian. On the ferry I reviewed what I had learnt about Maltese and could not help thinking of that famous story by Rumi where a traveling grammarian asks a sailor on his ship whether he knows Arabic grammar, and upon being told that the sailor does not, tells him that half his life is wasted. A storm arises, the ship starts sinking, and the sailor asks the grammarian whether he knows how to swim. When the answer is negative, the sailor says: “all your life is wasted.” I can’t swim, but the trip was short, the weather calm, and the ferry sturdy.

Gozo is far more beautiful and unspoilt by development than Malta. I also immediately noticed that the accent is harsher – more like the Maghrebine Arabic one hears on the streets of Paris. In one town, Qala, they also pronounce the q as k, but that is because after the island was depopulated by a Moorish raid, the town was resettled by people from the aforementioned Kalkara.

On Gozo I stayed for three nights in the town of Xagħra, pronounced Shaahra. Here the prolongs the preceding vowel, rather like the yumuşak ge, i,e., the letter ğ of the Turkish alphabet. Of course as one moves east from Istanbul, the ğ becomes more audible, until it is a full-blown gh in Tabriz and Zanjan. Similarly, the Maltese seems to stand for both the Arabic ‘ayn and ghayn, and its pronunciation is even trickier than that of q. But I was too mentally exhausted after my quest for the quintessential q to probe the matter further.

Speaking of diacritics, one oddity of the Maltese alphabet is that it has a ċ but no c, the letter representing the voiceless palatal affricate that in Turkish is rendered by ç and in English by ch. The reason for this anomalous situation, I seem to have read somewhere, is that the simple c was still used in names whose spelling goes back to the time when Italian provided the template for orthography, a good example being the surname Micallef.

One reason it is so pleasurable for me to write about this is, as you may have guessed, that I am having great fun locating such uniquely Maltese letters as ħ (known as a crossed h) in my word-processing program. It is a good thing I did not meet any Icelanders in Malta, for if I had, I would have called them Þórdís and Guðmund, even if in reality their names had been Haraldur and Hildur, and gone on and on about them.

In Xagħra I was the house-guest of a Maltese gentleman named Mario Tucci, who indulged me by teaching me more cool facts about his native tongue. The daytime greeting is bongu, but nobody quite knows why, since the French ruled the islands for only two years over two centuries ago. ‘Good night,’ however, becomes Il-lejl it-tajjeb (the j is pronounced y, as in German), which may be native or a calque from European languages. Originally, the word for ‘water’ was ma, but since that came to mean ‘mother’ under Italian influence, the article is routinely added to the word, as a consequence of which addition the Maltese word for ‘water’ is ilma, ‘[the] water’. Another interesting feature is use of the kunya Bu to create family names. Thus tiġieġ, meaning ‘chicken’, generates the surname Buttiġieġ, which originally designated a chicken farmer. Another example is Buhagiar, an obviously Italianized spelling of a family name that derives from ħaġar, meaning ‘stone’: originally a stonemason.

In sum, Maltese is a most interesting and amusing language, especially for a Persian-speaker acquainted with Arabic. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the great Arthur Arberry, who was Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at Cambridge but is equally known for his contributions to Persian studies, was also interested in Maltese, and published a collection of his translations of Maltese literature.[7]

If any of my readers is interested in learning more, I can refer them to a wonderful book that I was given as a farewell present by a colleague from the University of Malta: Papers in Maltese Linguistics.[8] The scrupulous honesty of the author’s writing shines through in his suspirious remark that “in Malta, as elsewhere, neither the concept of ‘race’ nor that of ‘language’ has been treated with scientific objectiveness.”[9] “As elsewhere” indeed.


[1] Capt. Paul Bugeja, Maltese: How to Read and Speak it (1958, S.l.: s.n., 2004), p. iv.

[2] Paul Murphy, ed., Insight Guide: Malta (S.l.: APA Publications, 2005), pp. 23-24.

[3] Bugeja, Maltese, p. 5. Bold characters in the original.

[4] Godfrey Wettinger, Slavery in the Islands of Malta and Gozo (Malta: Publishers Enterprise Group, 2002), p. 34.

[5] Roland Benn, “Samariter auf Kaperfahrt,” Merian: Malta, p. 103.

[6] Dan Nosowitz, “The Delightful Perversity of Québec’s Catholic Swears: The Canadian province has expletives like no other,” www.atlasobscura.com, accessed on 27 October 2016.

[7] A. J. Arberry, A Maltese Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

[8] Joseph Aquilina, Papers in Maltese Linguistics (S.l.: The University of Malta, 1997).

[9] “Race and Language in Malta,” in ibid., p. 167.