By Joseph Felice Pace

As far back as 1481 the inhabitants of Malta, calculated at the time at not more than 20,000, claimed for themselves a language different from that of their Sicilian administrators.

The University of Mdina, the island's capital at the time, resisted the imposition of a priest from Sicily on the grounds that he was young and he did not know the vernacular.

Over two hundred years following the expulsion of the Muslims from Malta by the King of Sicily, the Maltese did not seem to have been in a position to understand the language of Maghrebi Arabs who, after leaving the island, practically uninhabited after the razzia of 870 A.D. when they overcame the Byzantine garrison defending the island, colonized Malta in 1048;in all probability they came from Sicily. Muslim rule theoretically came to an end in 1091 but their stay was extended well into the 13th centur y by benign Norman, Hohenstaufen and Anjevin rulers who successively wore the Sicilian crown.

Count Roger the Norman conquered the island and annexed it to his Sicilian domain in 1091. He subjected the Muslims in Malta to pay him an annual tribute but let them continue running the affairs of the island. Norman rule was, however, consolidated in 1 127 by Count Roger II.

It is possible the first language spoken by the Maltese was Punic. Malta had formed part of the Carthaginian empire and changed hands a number of times during the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.) before becoming Roman "civitas foederata" in 218 B.C.

It has been argued that this linguistic affinity could have provided the right platform for Arabic to replace or superimpose itself on a related Semitic tongue and get established as the language of the inhabitants of Malta. But it has to be said that Pu nic inscriptions in Malta stop in the 1st century A.D.

Archaeological evidence points to a Roman and, later, Greco-Byzantine presence during the next six centuries. Sicily, with which the inhabitants of Malta were certainly in contact, at this time was open to these same influences but most of the island was converted to the Muslim faith in the 8th century A.D. and subsequently adopted the Arabic language. The same probably happened in Malta (1).

What is practically certain is that the Maltese were cut off from the mainstream of spoken Arabic and so, within the space of a few decades after 1048, a process must have began by which the Arabic dialect would gradually become an independent branch of Semitic.

This phenomenon of independent growth or development was further helped by the expulsion of Muslims from Malta about the mid-13th century and by the increasingly closer ties with Sicilian overlords, and their retinue, whose language the inhabitants had t o start absorbing in order to be able to communi-cate with them at least on matters of an administrative nature.

Thus began a bilingual trend that has, ever since, always been present in the Maltese linguistic milieu.

Linguistic contacts with the overlord, or with a "superior culture", brought about the acceptance, but with phonetic adaptation, of foreign vocabulary and phraseology. The roots of one's own language to create neologisms as the need arose were neither ex plored nor exploited; the trend still remains unabated.

In the course of this process the Maltese, while retaining the basic Arabic forms for the conjugation of verbs of Semitic origin or of loan-verbs which, by phonetic analogy, could fit into this pattern, created an additional verbal form to accept and int egrate verbs formed from the Sicilian or Italian vocables. And since verbs might be considered as forming the vertebra of the language, it could well be argued that this development must have taken place very early in the formative stage of an independent Maltese language.

This verbal form is, to some extent, analogical to the Vth Form of verbs of Semitic origin, but is more likely to have originated from Sicilian in that it reduplicates the opening consonant of a word, this being a distinctive feature of Sicilian.

The phenomenon might be a further indication of the independent tract that Maltese took both from its parent Arabic or Semitic and from Sicilian which must certainly have exerted growing and continuous influence due to the administrative dependence of Ma lta on the Sicilian capital Palermo in civil and religious matters (2) and to the constant family (3) and commercial relations between the two countries.

It is here pertinent to point out that the overall linguistic structure of Maltese has always remained kindred to North African and also Middle East Arabic; nonetheless the language has always been written in a Latin script.

At the same time it can also be surmised that, for a number of decades, there was considerable similarity between the evolving Maltese and Sicilian Arabic.

To some extent the language developed slowly, the island being rather cut off from the Siculo-Italian mainland, even if it formed part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and, when ceded to the Knights of St John in 1530, retained this constitutional stat us and relations with Sicily were quite continual.

Nevertheless, languages eveolve their vocabulary according to need, and the needs of the Maltese were too few to necessitate too large a widening of the lexical base, which remained Maghrebi Arabic.

The broadening probably started some years, or decades, following the advent of the Knights all of whom were of European origin. Their administration strengthened the position of Italian as the language of culture as it had been in the Middle Ages when c ivic and notarial acts were written in a miscellany of base Latin cum Sicilian cum Italian.

The Semitic element of the language must have retained its predomi-nance in the villages where the people eked out a living from agriculture. But in Valletta, built by the Knights to be the new capital of the island, and in the now- developing towns within the harbour area, constant contact with Sicilian and Italian mariners and traders slowly but gradually expanded the Siculo-Italian element to such an extent that over 20 percent of the entries in a 4-volume manuscript dictionary co mpiled in 1755 by Agius de Soldanis are of Sicilian or Italian origin.

Up to this time Maltese had only developed orally and this situation can be said to have remained constant till the end of the 19th century. The few extant texts of written Maltese up to the end of the 18th century consist only of sporadic literary exerc ises (4).

In 1895 Mikiel Anton Vassalli, acknowledged as the Father of the Maltese Language, made a case for the teaching of Maltese in schools but found little or no response. His dream only started becoming a reality in the early years of the 20th century follow ing a few tentative efforts from the mid-19th century onwards. It was only in 1924 that the Maltese alphabet was standardised, and another ten years had to pass before the language was officially recognised as the language of the Maltese people.

In the meantime the Romance element of Maltese was given a strong impetus by increasing contacts, this time with the Italian mainland. The Italian Risorgimento brought to the island a great number of cultured monarchical and republican exiles and also a spate of literature in Italian. The vocabulary was therefore expanded to satisfy new needs, and these being of Romance provenance the new vocables were also of Romance origin, a phenomenon which is repeating itself currently when, with new needs being mai nly presented to the Maltese through the medium of English, there is a definite influx of words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Within the linguistic framework, and with only an infinitesimal percentage of the population who cared to learn how to read and write (which they did in Italian), it is no wonder that Maltese literature was very late in developing.

The first serious attempts at writing in Maltese were made by Vassalli who called for schooling in Maltese as a means to have a literature in the vernacular. These were only followed by a few authors some 50 years later. In the early years of the 20th ce ntury a group of writers promoted Maltese literature as a means of disseminating popular education. In 1921 the Society of Maltese Authors was born and this gave added impetus to the movement for the use and recognition of the language as a valid literary medium.

The early Maltese writers sought their inspiration from Italian romanticism, contacts with English literature being rather infrequent in spite of the British presence on the island since 1802.

The turning point came after the achievement of independence in 1964. A group of young writers formed the Movement for the Promotion of Literature in 1968 and grafted into the mainstream of Maltese literature the culture of English, Continental, American and Russian literary figures.

Nevertheless theirs was an evolution rather than a revolution. The romantic substratum could still be felt. So also the religious one, a natural factor in a small island where religion has always played a dominant role.

(Copyright © Joe Felice Pace - Malta, 1995)


(1) In 1176 the Bishop of Strasbourg visited the island and noted that it was inhabited by Muslims.

(2) The diocese of Malta was cut off from the diocese of Palermo only in 1831.

(3) The vast majority of Maltese surnames are of Siculo-Italian origin and are generally found also in Sicily.

(4) The first text in Maltese is a 20-line poem written in the mid-15th century. It is followed by another short poem written in the mid-17th century.


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