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Maltese ( ) is the national language of Maltamarker, and a co-official language of the country alongside English,while also serving as an official language of the European Union, the only Semitic language so distinguished. Maltese is descended from Siculo-Arabic (the Arabic dialect that developed in Maltamarker, Sicily and the rest of Southern Italy between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries). About half of the vocabulary is borrowed from Italian and Sicilian, and English words make up to 20% of the Maltese vocabulary. It is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet in its standard form.


Maltese became an official language of Malta in 1934, alongside English, when Italian was dropped from official use. The oldest reference to Maltese comes from the Benedictine Monks of Catania, who were unable to open a monastery in Malta, in 1364, because they could not understand the native language. In 1436, in the will of a certain Pawlu Peregrino, Maltese is first identified as lingua maltensi. The oldest known document in Maltese is "Il Cantilena" (Maltese:Xidew il-Qada) a poem from the 15th century, written by Pietro Caxaro and the first known Maltese dictionary was written by the French Knight Francois de Vion Thezan Court in 1640. It includes notes about Maltese grammar and a concluding section detailing, in Italian and Maltese, phrases to be used when giving orders to soldiers. Facsimilies of the work are currently published.

In his book Dell’Istoria della Sacra Religione et Illustrissima Militia di San Giovanni Gierosolimitano ( ), written between 1594 and 1602, Giacomo Bosio endorses the notion that Maltese descended from Carthaginian. Bosio writes that when the cornerstone of Vallettamarker was placed, a group of Maltese elders said "Iegi zimen en fel wardia col sceber raba iesue uquie" (Which in modern Maltese reads, "Jiġi żmien li fil-Wardija [l-Għolja Sciberras] kull xiber raba’ jiswa uqija," and in English, "There will come a time when every piece of land on Sciberras Hill will be worth its weight in gold"). This is the oldest example of printed Maltese.

In 1584 Pasquale Vassallo, a Dominican friar, wrote a collection of songs in Italian and Maltese. In 1585 the poems were burned at the order of the Inquisition, for allegedly 'obscene' content. German traveler Hieronymus Megiser includes a list of Maltese words in his Thesaurus Polyglottus (published in 1603), and also in his more celebrated work Propugnaculum Europae, published in 1606. Megiser, who visited Malta from 1588 to 1589, proposed a Punic heritage for the language, a suggestion rebuffed in 1660 by Burchardus Niderstedt in his book Malta vetus et nova. In 1677, Domenico and Carlo Magri gave the etymologies for various Maltese words in their book Hierolexicon, a Latin version of the encyclopedia Notitia de vocaboli ecclesiastici first published in 1644.


In 1975, there were an estimated 371,000 Maltese speakers, of whom 300,000 resided in Malta. Thousands of Maltese emigrants in Australia, Canadamarker, Gibraltarmarker, Italymarker, the UKmarker, and the USmarker still speak the language, and in 2007 it was reported that Maltese is still spoken by descendants of Maltese immigrants in Tunisiamarker.


Maltese is a Semitic language descended from Siculo-Arabic,C.F. & F.M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages. Elsevier.
Merritt Ruhlen. 1991. A Guide to the World's Languages, Volume 1: Classification. Stanford.
David Dalby. 2000. The Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech Communities. Linguasphere Observatory.
Gordon, Raymond G., Jr., ed. 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 15th ed. Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Alan S. Kaye & Judith Rosenhouse. 1997. "Arabic Dialects and Maltese," The Semitic Languages. Ed. Robert Hetzron. Routledge. Pages 263-311. that in the course of its history has been influenced by Sicilian and Standard Italian, to a lesser extent French, and more recently English.

Today, the core vocabulary (including both the most commonly used vocabulary and function words) is Semitic, with large numbers of loan words.

Due to the Sicilian influence on Siculo-Arabic, Maltese has many language contact features and is most commonly described as a language with a large number of loanwords.

The Maltese language has historically been classified in various ways, with some claiming that the ancient Punic language was the base of the language, instead of Siculo-Arabic, while others believed the language to be Berber, and under Fascist Italy, it was considered a dialect of Italian.



Consonants of Maltese
  Bilabial Labio-
Dental Post-
Velar Pharyn-
Plosive voiceless      
Affricate voiceless          
Fricative voiceless      


Maltese has five short vowels, , written a e i o u; six long vowels, , written a, e, ie, i, o, u, and seven diphthongs, , written aj or għi, aw or għu, ej or għi, ew, iw, oj, and ow or għu.



The modern system of Maltese orthography was introduced in 1924.Below is the Maltese alphabet, with symbols and approximate English pronunciation:

Letter Name Maltese example IPA Approximate English pronunciation
A a a anġlu (angel) similar to 'u' in nut in RP
B b be ballun (ball) bar, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to .
Ċ ċ ċe ċavetta (key) church (note: undotted 'c' has been replaced by 'k', so when 'c' does appear, it is to be spoken the same way as 'ċ')
D d de dar (home) day, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to .
E e e envelopp (envelope) end
F f effe fjura (flower) far
Ġ ġ ġe ġelat (ice-cream) gem, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to .
G g ge gallettina (biscuit) game, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to .
GĦ għ ajn għasfur (bird) , has the effect of lengthening and pharyngealizing associated vowels (għi and għu are and ). When found at the end of a word or immediately before 'h' it has the sound of a double 'ħ' (see below).
H h akka hu (he)   not pronounced unless it is at the end of a word, in which case it has the sound of 'ħ'.
Ħ ħ ħe ħanut (shop) no English equivalent; sounds similar to but is articulated with a lowered larynx.
I i i ikel (food) bit
IE ie ie ieqaf (stop) , no English equivalent; sounds similar to , as in yield, but opened up slightly towards towards
J j je jum (day) yard
K k ke kelb (dog) kettle
L l elle libsa (dress) line
M m emme mara (woman) march
N n enne nanna (granny) next
O o o ors (bear) like 'aw' in law, but shorter.
P p pe paġna (page, sheet) part
Q q qe qattus (cat) glottal stop, found in the Cockney English pronunciation of "bottle" or the phrase "uh-oh".
R r erre re (king) road
S s esse sliem (peace) sand
T t te tieqa (window) tired
U u u uviera (egg-cup) put
V v ve vjola (violet) vast, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to .
W w we widna (ear) west
X x exxe xadina (monkey) shade, sometimes as measure; when doubled the sound is elongated, as in "Cash shin" vs. "Cash in."
Z z ze zalza (sauce) pizza; when doubled may change to lots
Ż ż że żraben (shoes) maze, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to .

Final vowels with grave accents (à, è, ì, ò, ù) are also found in some Maltese words of Italian origin, such as libertà ("freedom"), sigurtà (old Italian: sicurtà, "security"), or soċjetà (Italian: "società; "society").

The official rules governing the structure of the Maltese language are found in the official guidebook issued by the Akkademja tal-Malti, the Academy of the Maltese language, which is named Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija, that is, Knowledge on Writing in Maltese. The first edition of this book was printed in 1924 by the Maltese government's printing press. The rules were further expanded in the 1984 book, iż-Żieda mat-Tagħrif, which focused mainly on the increasing influence of Romance and English words. In 1992 the Academy issued the Aġġornament tat-Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija, which updated the previous works. All these works were included in a revised and expanded guidebook published in 1996.

Nowadays, the National Council for the Maltese Language (KNM) is the main regulator of the Maltese language (see Maltese Language Act, below) and not the Akkademja tal-Malti. However, these orthography rules are still valid and official.

Written Maltese

Since Maltese evolved after the Normans ended the Arab rule of the islands, a standard, written form of the language was not developed for a long time after the Arabs' expulsion in the eleventh century. Under the rule of the Order of the Knights of Malta both French and Italian were used for official documents and correspondence. During the British colonial period the use of English was encouraged through education, with Italian regarded as the next most important language.

In 1934 Maltese was recognised as an official language. In the nineteenth century, philologists and academics such as Mikiel Anton Vassalli made a concerted effort to transcribe spoken Maltese in a comprehensive written form. Many examples of written Maltese exist from before this period, always in the Latin alphabet.


From the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe:

English Maltese
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail. L-Unjoni hija mibnija fuq il-valuri ta' rispett għad-dinjità tal-bniedem, ta' libertà, ta' demokrazija, ta' ugwaljanza, ta' l-istat tad-dritt u tar-rispett għad-drittijiet tal-bniedem, inklużi d-drittijiet ta' persuni li jagħmlu parti minn minoranzi. Dawn il-valuri huma komuni għall-Istati Membri f'soċjetà karatterizzata mill-pluraliżmu, in-non-diskriminazzjoni, it-tolleranza, il-ġustizzja, is-solidarjetà u l-ugwaljanza bejn in-nisa u l-irġiel.


Although the original vocabulary of the language was Siculo-Arabic, it has incorporated a large number of borrowings from Romance sources of influence (Sicilian, Italian, and French), and more recently Germanic ones (from English).

The historical source of modern Maltese vocabulary is 52% Italian/Sicilian, 32% Siculo-Arabic, and 6% English, with some of the remainder being French. Today, most function words are Semitic. In this way, it is similar to English, which is a Germanic language that had large influence from French - although less so than Maltese. As a result of this, Romance language-speakers may easily be able to comprehend more complex ideas expressed in Maltese, such as "Ġeografikament, l-Ewropa hi parti tas-superkontinent ta' l-Ewrasja" (Geographically, Europe is part of the Supercontinent of Eurasia), while not understanding a single word of a simple sentence such as "Ir-raġel qiegħed fid-dar" (The man is in the house), which would be easily understood by any Arabic speaker.


An analysis of the etymology of the 41,000 words in Aquilina's Maltese-English Dictionary shows that words of Romance origin make up 52% of the Maltese vocabulary, although other sources claim from as low as 40%, to as high as 55%. These vocabulary tend to deal with more complicated concepts. They are mostly derived from Sicilian and thus exhibit Sicilian phonetic characteristics, such as in place of , and in place of (e.g. tiatru not teatro and fidi not fede). Also, as with Old Sicilian, (English 'sh') is written 'x' and this produces spellings such as: ambaxxata ('embassy'), xena ('scene' cf. Italian ambasciata, scena).

Maltese Sicilian Italian English
skola scola scuola school
gvern cuvernu governo government
repubblika ripùbblica repubblica republic
re re re king
natura natura natura nature
pulizija pulizzìa polizia police
ċentru centru centro centre
teatru tiatru teatro theatre

A tendency in modern Maltese is to adopt further influences from English and Italian.Complex Latinate English words adopted into Maltese, are often given Italianate or Sicilianate forms, even if the resulting words do not appear in either of those languages. For instance the words "evaluation", "industrial action" and "chemical armaments" become "evalwazzjoni", "azzjoni industrjali", and "armamenti kimiċi" in Maltese, while the Italian terms are valutazione, vertenza sindacale and armi chimiche respectively. English words of Germanic origin are generally preserved relatively unchanged.


Siculo-Arabic is the ancestor of the Maltese language, and supplies between 32% and 40% of the language's vocabulary.

Maltese Siculo-Arabic English
bebbuxu babbaluciu snail
kapunata caponata caponata
qassata cassata [Sicilian cake]
ġiebja gebbia cistern
ġunġlier giuggiulena sesame seed
saqqajja saia canal
kenur tanura oven
żaffran zaffarana saffron
zahar zagara blossom
żbib zibbibbu raisins
zokk zuccu tree trunk
tebut tabbutu coffin

 found that 40% of a sample of 1,820 Quranic Arabic roots were found in Maltese, a lower percentage than found in Moroccan (58%) and Lebanese Arabic (72%). An analysis of the etymology of the 41,000 words in Aquilina's Maltese-English Dictionary shows that 32% of the Maltese vocabulary is of Arabic origin, although another source claims 40%. Usually, words expressing basic concepts and ideas, such as raġel (man), mara (woman), tifel (boy), dar (house), xemx (sun), sajf (summer), are of Arabic origin. Moreover, belles lettres in Maltese tend to aim mainly at diction belonging to this group.

The Maltese language has merged many of the original Arabic consonants together, in particular the emphatic consonants, with others that are common in European languages. Thus, original Arabic , , and all merged into Maltese . The vowels, however, separated from the three in Arabic ( ) to five as is more typical of other European languages ( ). Some unstressed short vowels have been elided. The common Arabic greeting as salāmu 'alaykum is cognate with is-sliem għalikom in Maltese (lit. the peace for you, peace be with you), as are similar greetings in other Semitic languages (eg. shalom aleichem in Hebrew).

Since the attested vocabulary of Siculo-Arabic is limited, the following table compares cognates in Maltese and some other varieties of Arabic:

Maltese Cairene Damascene Iraqi
(Jewish Baghdad)
Moroccan English
qalp 'alb 'alb qalb galb galb qəlb heart
waqt wa't wa't -- wagt wagt wʌqt time
qamar 'amar 'amar qamaɣ gumar gamar qəmr moon
kelp kalb kalb kalb čalb kalb kəlb dog


It is estimated that English loanwords, which are becoming more commonplace, make up 20% of the Maltese vocabulary , although other sources claim amounts as low as 6%. This percentage discrepancy is due to the fact that a number of new English loanwords are sometimes not officially considered part of the Maltese vocabulary, hence they are not included in certain dictionaries. English loanwords are generally transliterated, although standard English pronunciation is virtually always retained. Below are a few examples:

Maltese English
futbol football
baskitbol basketball
klabb club
lift lift/elevator
friġġ fridge


Maltese grammar is fundamentally derived from Siculo-Arabic, although Romance and English noun pluralization patterns are also used on borrowed words.

Adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives follow nouns. There are no separately formed native adverbs, and word order is fairly flexible. Both nouns and adjectives of Semitic origin take the definite article (for example It-tifel il-kbir, lit. "The boy the elder"="The elder boy"). This rule does not apply to adjectives of Romance origin.


Nouns are pluralized and also have a dual marker. Semitic plurals are complex; if they are regular, they are marked by -iet/-ijiet, e.g., art, artijiet "lands (territorial possessions or property)" (cf. Arabic -at and Hebrew -ot) or -in (cf. Arabic -īn and Hebrew -im). If irregular, they fall in the pluralis fractus category, in which a word is pluralized by internal vowel changes: ktieb, kotba "books", raġel, irġiel "man", "men".

Words of Romance origin (whether from Italian or English) are usually pluralized in two manners: addition of -i or -jiet. For example lingwa, lingwi "languages", from Sicilian lingua, lingui.

Words from English of Germanic or assimilated Latin origin are pluralized by adding either an "-s" or "-jiet", for example friġġ, friġis from the word fridge. Some words can be pluralized with either of the suffixes to denote the plural. A few words borrowed from English can amalgamate both suffixes together, like brikksa from the English brick, which can adopt either collective form brikks or the plural form brikksiet.


The proclitic il- is the definite article, equivalent to "the" in English.

The Maltese article becomes l- before or after a vowel.
  • l-omm (the mother)
  • rajna l-Papa (we saw the Pope)
  • il-missier (the father)

The Maltese article assimilates to a following coronal consonant (called konsonanti xemxin "sun consonants"), namely:

  • Ċ iċ-ċikkulata (the chocolate)
  • D id-dar (the house)
  • N in-nar (the fire)
  • R ir-razzett (the farm)
  • S is-serrieq (the saw)
  • T it-tifel (the boy)
  • X ix-xemx (the sun)
  • Ż iż-żarbun (the shoe)
  • Z iz-zalzett (the sausage)

Maltese il- is coincidentally identical in pronunciation to the one of the Italian masculine articles, il, which is also l’ before, but not after, a vowel. Because of this many nouns borrowed from Standard Italian did not change their original article when used in Maltese. Romance vocabulary taken from Sicilian did change where the Sicilian articles u and a, before a consonant, are used.


Verbs show a triliteral Semitic pattern, in which a verb is conjugated with prefix, suffixes, and infixes (for example ktibna, Arabic katabna, Hebrew katavnu "we wrote"). There are two tense: present and perfect. The Maltese verb system incorporates Romance verbs and adds Maltese suffixes and prefixes to them (for example iddeċidejna "we decided" (i)ddeċieda "decide", a Romance verb + -ejna, a Maltese first person plural perfect marker).


Urban varieties of Maltese are closer to Standard Maltese than rural varieties, which have some characteristics that distinguish them from Standard Maltese. They tend to show some archaic features such as the realization of kh and gh and the imala of Arabic ā into ē (or ī especially in Gozo)-considered archaic because they are reminiscent of 15th century transcriptions of this sound. Another archaic feature is the realization of Standard Maltese ā as ō in rural dialects. There is also a tendency to diphthongize simple vowels, e.g., ū becomes eo or eu. Rural dialects also tend to employ more Semitic roots and broken plurals than Standard Maltese. In general, rural Maltese is less distant from its Siculo-Arabic ancestor than Standard Maltese.


With Malta being a multilingual country, the usage of Maltese in the mass media is shared with other European languages, namely English and Italian. The majority of television stations broadcast from Malta are in English or Maltese, although broadcasts from Italymarker in Italian are also received on the islands. Similarly, there are more Maltese language radio programs than English ones broadcast from Malta, but again, as with television, Italian broadcasts are also picked up. Maltese generally receives equal usage in newspaper periodicals to English.

The use of the Maltese language on the internet is not altogether common and the number of websites written in Maltese are few. Out of a survey conducted on 13 Maltese websites, 12 of them were English only, and the remainder was bilingual with neither language being Maltese.


The Maltese population, being fluent in both Maltese and English, displays code-switching (referred to as Minglish) in certain localities and between certain social groups.

See also

External links


Literature and linguistics




Glossaries and resources

Translation services


  1. Constitution of Malta, I.5.(1),
  2. Times of Malta, 11 February 2007
  3. [1]
  4. Alexander Borg. 1997. "Maltese Phonology," Phonologies of Asia and Africa, Vol. 1. Ed. Alan S. Kaye. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. Pp. 245-285.
  5. [2]
  6. [3]
  7. Malta, Sean Sheehan, pg. 80
  8. Maltese. Albert J. Borg, Marie Azzopardi-Alexander, Azzopardi-Alexa. Routledge, 1997.
  9. About Malta; GTS; retrieved on [2008-02-24]
  10. BBC Education - Languages
  11. [4]
  12. Brincat, Joseph, M; Maltese – an unusual formula MED Magazine; [2005-02]; retrieved on [2008-02-22]
  13. All forms are written phonetically, as in the source
  14. Alan S. Kaye & Judith Rosenhouse. 1997. "Arabic Dialects and Maltese," The Semitic Languages. Routledge. Pp. 263-311.
  15. Isserlin. Studies in Islamic History and Civilization. BRILL 1986, ISBN 965264014X
  16. Country report for MINERVA Plus in 2005; Multilingual issues in Malta; Retrieved on [2008-02-24]


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