Logotip de la revista Noves SL





Spring - Summer 2004

A view of the linguistic situation in Malta, by Ignasi Badia i Capdevila

The object of this article is to provide an introduction to the Maltese language, giving a brief overview of its history and the conditions under which it is developing at the present time. The uniqueness and interest of Maltese in the European context is obvious: it is Europe's only Semitic language, and at the same time an authentic example of a mixed language owing to deep Sicilian and Italian influence. It has never enjoyed a dominant position in its own territory despite the fact that it is spoken by virtually all the inhabitants of the Maltese islands. Subordinated first to Italian, and then to English, it is today the only European language existing under colonial conditions analogous to those pertaining in a large part of the so-called Third World. The language has co-official status in Malta and is an official language of the European Union, but its future is not, however, assured, since it has to compete with English in many domains, the real language of power and prestige in Malta, and cannot rely on the language loyalty of its speakers.

Printing version. A view of the linguistic situation in Malta, by Ignasi Badia i Capdevila PDF printing version. 48 KB



1. Malta: background information

2. Summarised history of Malta

3. The Maltese language

4. Summarised history of the Maltese language

5. The legal standing of Maltese and the current language policy in Malta

6. Patterns of language use in Maltese society

7. The state of the Maltese language

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

1. Malta: background information

The Maltese archipelago is situated right in the middle of the Mediterranean and, situated as it is at some 90 kilometres of the southern coast of Sicily, and 300 from Eastern Tunisia, it constitutes one of the European entrepôts for Africa. Note however that lying between Malta and the North African coast there is Pantelleria, and the Pelagic isles, both of which belong to Italy (Region of Sicily).

The five islands that make up the Maltese archipelago, with a surface area of 316 km2, are Malta (in Maltese, Malta), Gozo (Gawdex), Comino (Kemmuna), Cominotto (Kemmunett) and Filforta (Filfla), of these, only the first three are inhabited (and Comino, in any case, has very few inhabitants). The climate of this comparatively flat and riverless country is warm, and the vegetation tends to maquis or scrub.

Given that other sectors of production are weak, especially the primary sector (owing to the physical conditions), Malta's economy is devoted largely (around 70%) to services, especially tourism. The latter is the source of at least a quarter of Malta's Gross Domestic Product. Malta exports mainly to the rest of the European Union, and it is from the Union that most of her imports come. 

Malta currently has some 400,000 inhabitants. The population density of the country is very great, exceeding 1,000 per km2, and this has brought about considerable emigration to English-speaking first world countries, above all Australia. A large part of Malta's population is concentrated in a few towns on the east coast of the island of Malta, or close to it, where the capital Valletta (Il-Belt) is located.

The great majority of the country’s population is ethnically Maltese (96%) - although there are also some British and Italian residents - and Roman Catholic in religion (98%). Church-going is very strong in Malta, and the Church has considerable clout (the constitution lays down that Catholicism is the religion of Malta). Note that in Malta neither divorce nor abortion are legal.

Malta gained her independence in 1964, the year in which the present constitution came into force. In 1974, Malta ceased to be a monarchy (with Queen Elizabeth II of England as the head of state) and became a republic with the official name, in Maltese and English, of Repubblika ta' Malta/Republic of Malta. The political party system is simple: the only parties with representation in Parliament are the Nationalist Party (in power since 2003) and the Labour Party of Malta. Malta is a non-aligned or neutral state, is a member of the United Nations, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, of the Council of Europe and, as of 2004, a member state of the European Union.

2. Summarised history of Malta

Towards the end of the prehistoric era, a culture developed on Malta which left behind it some impressive ruins. Later the Maltese entered into the Phoenician world, and then, as in other parts of the Mediterranean the islands were ruled in turn (and to quantitatively and qualitatively very different degrees) by the Carthaginians, (1) Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines and Arabs. The Arabs also overran Sicily and conquered Malta in the second half of ninth century, though they did not colonise it until the mid-eleventh century, with population most likely from Sicily who brought Islam and the local Magrebi Arab dialect. At the end of the eleventh century, however, Normans occupied both Sicily and Malta, which brought about Malta's reintegration into European Christendom, even though the Islamic population was not expelled from Malta until the early thirteenth century.

With the expulsion of the Moslems Malta became cut-off once and for all from the Arab world. The Norman conquest of Malta meant that the islands remained link politically with the Kingdom of Sicily for the whole of the latter Middle Ages (from 1282 the Maltese were ruled over by the Catalan-Aragonese kings or by their relatives the Sicilian monarchy). The political situation changed completely in 1530, the year in which Emperor Charles, acting in defiance of the will of the Maltese people, ceded the islands to the Order of the Knights Hospitalers -who thus became known as the Knights of Malta - after the order had been driven out of the Greek island of Rhodes by Turks, a few years earlier. After centuries of close political union, Malta cut her ties with Sicily and came into being as a separate community. Despite that, in the realms of culture, Malta continued to be situated within the orbit of Italian influence.

The rule of the Knights Hospitalers came to an end with the arrival of modern times and, after two years of French rule, Malta became part of the British Empire in 1800, for whom it was a strategic base of considerable importance. From that moment, the twin process of  simultaneous Anglicisation and de-Italianisation of Maltese society began to take its gradual course. This process culminated with the end of the Second World War, and was complicated by yet another that began to be noted from the closing decades of the nineteenth century onward, consisting of renewed appreciation and promotion of distinctive local culture, above all the Maltese language.

In 1921, the British government gave Malta its autonomy (devolution); this was suspended just before the outbreak of the Second World War, during which the islands were heavily bombed, and then resumed soon after the War in 1947. Finally, ongoing tension with the British was solved by the declaring of complete independence. The final cutting of political ties with Great Britain came when the British abandoned their naval base in 1979

3. The Maltese language

Maltese (malti), the language of the islands, is the only language of the Afro-Asiatic language family (traditionally named Hamito-Semitic) spoken indigenously in Europe. There are various branches to this family which extends principally along the north of Africa and into South West Asia. These branches are: the Semitic languages, the most important in terms of geographical extension and number of speakers; Berber; Cushitic; Chadic, and Egyptian (now extinct). It is calculated that at the present time, there are more than 200 million speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages. Maltese is a member of the Western group of the Semitic branch, the latter originating in the Arabian peninsula where Common Semitic is spoken. The main Semitic languages are Arabic; Hebrew; Amharic; Aramaic; Akkadian (the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians), and Phoenician. The last two are of course dead. The common feature of Afro-Asiatic languages is that nouns and verbs related to a basic idea are formed by inserting different vowels into roots consisting only of consonants which express this meaning or idea, or by affixing prefixes or suffixes.

In Malta, the number of speakers of Maltese is close to 400,000 (virtually all the inhabitants of the islands have Maltese as their first language). In addition, there are the thousands of Maltese emigrants who still speak the language in various places around the world (above all Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada). (2) It is not known for sure how many of the descendents of these emigrants have an active knowledge of the language.

Maltese was originally a variety of Arabic, alongside the other Arabic dialects, and in fact retains many features reminiscent of the contemporary Arabic varieties, above all those spoken in the Magreb (North Africa, from Morocco to Libya), features which are not found in classical Arabic. After living for centuries cut off from the Moslem world, Maltese speakers do not understand spoken Arabic, and indeed Maltese exhibits phonetic features which set it apart from the Arabic dialects we have been mentioning. If we compare these languages on the grammatical level we see that at times Maltese is more conservative and at times more innovative, and suddenly because of the Romance influence.

This influence, however, can be seen above all in lexis, where we see a veritable avalanche of terms of Romance origin (French, Occitan, and especially Italian, more specifically Sicilian and Tuscan, many of which have conserved in Maltese the original Italian form and pronunciation). (3) The lexis of culture and science is in large part of Italian or English origin.

Malta’s secular inclusion in the Western European world was aided by the fact that Maltese is always written in the Latin alphabet (4) and not in Arabic script, and by the transformation of Maltese into a mixed language. The latter, caused in the main by massive Romance relexification, is comparable to the changes undergone by medieval English when it was invaded by Norman French words. These developments led to Maltese, already far removed from Arabic, being perceived by its speakers in the end as an entirely autonomous and irreducible language in its own right.

4. Summarised history of the Maltese language (5)

The Maltese language, at first just another local variety of Arabic, seemed destined to die out, in the same way as other dialects of Arabic in Europe, either by language shift or as a result of the expulsion of the speakers. This is what happened in other territories that were settled by a Moslem population such as the Iberian peninsula, Crete or Sicily itself where the local Italian dialect replaced Arabic in the latter Middle Ages; interestingly, an Arabic dialect did survive on the island of Pantelleria down to modern times and an Arabic dialect is still today spoken, if precariously, by a few speakers on the island of Cyprus.

Possibly the Maltese language World might gone the same way if Malta had continued to be politically subordinate to Italy. At the very least, Maltese would today probably be a minority language of the Italian state comparable to Sardinian or Friulian, in the more or less accelerated process of language shift. In point of fact, there were signs that this process had already begun: on the one hand, certain social classes made extensive use of Italian (formerly Sicilian), which was the language of culture and an official language until World War II; secondly. Maltese, at least in certain fields, was saturated with Italian terms (6) and as is well-known, a language swamped in this way is often in the process of  disappearing. (7) Political circumstances, however, took a hand in the matter, so that this mixed dialect crystallised to become the only Semitic language still spoken indigenously in Europe.

Malta’s becoming a part of the British Empire marked the beginning of the decline of Italian, at first very slowly, but later gathering speed, and the beginning of the gradual penetration of English in the islands – at first timidly, and then on a large scale. This linguistic change, part of a far-reaching culture shift, met with considerable resistance, in the reluctance to abandon the use of Italian. Italian, after all, was seen by many as the national language of Malta and the most genuine vehicle of Maltese culture (Maltese itself was considered to be a dialect used almost exclusively in speech rather than writing). And the British, along with Maltese Anglophiles, were not able completely to overcome this resistance until the pre-war events in Europe -- that is, the enmity between the United Kingdom and Fascist Italy, which latter intended to annexe Malta. Italian ceased to be an official language in 1936.

The question of what status the Maltese language should have, further complicated the Maltese language conflict. From the 16th century onwards, and more particularly in the 17th century and 18th century, there was growing scholarly interest in the native language of the Maltese people, but it was not until the second half of the 18th century that Maltese began to be written more or less continuously. (8) Then in the second half of the 19th century there was a revival of interest in the language, seeking the dignifying of the language of the country, the improvement of its legal standing and the increase in its formal use. At the beginning of the 20th century the present-day standard orthography and grammar began to be developed (the introduction of the modern spelling system dates from 1924, although there have been some subsequent modifications) and, after its achievement of official status in 1934 and even more so after independence (in 1964) the ambits in which the language is used (government, school, workplace, literature, cultural habits, etc.) have been continually expanding, although always in uneasy competition with English, the latter co-official, and playing a considerable role in the life of the country.

1 de 3