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Maltese Citations Maltese Links Select a New Language
Number of Speakers: 500,000
Key Dialects: See below
Geographical Center: Malta
Maltese is a Semitic language spoken in Malta. It is essentially a dialect of Arabic, being closest to Tunisian and Algerian Arabic, but is different from the other Arabic dialects in that it has been under heaving influence of Italian and Sicilian for much of its history and due to the fact that Maltese is not influenced by Standard Arabic. Maltese is written in a Latin-based orthography, and the Maltese are further differentiated culturally from other Arab societies by the fact that they are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and that they were under European rule from 1090 to their independence in 1964. As a national language with a long written history, Maltese is the only spoken dialect of Arabic which is used in newspapers and books. Because of these and other differences, Maltese is treated separately from other varieties of Arabic on this website.
Maltese is spoken by virtually all of Malta's 400,000 inhabitants, and by a significant number of emigrant speakers living in other countries, including 85,000 speakers in Australia.
Like the various dialects of Arabic, Maltese is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew and more distantly also to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, including Amharic and Trigrinya.
Two varieties of Maltese can be identified. The first is that spoken by educated and middle class speakers in Valletta (the capital) and Sliema. Code-switching between Maltese and English is frequent among these speakers. The second variety is spoken in agricultural and industrial areas. This variety is more conservative, retaining certain sounds found in mainstream varieties of Arabic and retaining more vocabulary of Arabic origin.
Maltese is written in a Latin-based script which became standardized in the 1920s and officially adopted in 1934. The special characters used in the orthography are the dotted ġ, ċ, and ż and barred ħ. Dotted ċ is pronounced like English ch. Dotted ġ is pronounced like English j, distinguished from the dotless g, which is pronounced like the g of grape. Dotted ż is pronounced like English z, while the undotted z is pronounced as ts or dz. J is pronounced as English y, x is pronounced as English sh, and q is a glottal stop. Barred ħ is pronounced like English h, while unbarred h and the digraph (two-letter symbol) għ are silent, but usually indicate a lengthened vowel. The għ digraph historically represents two sounds which are retained in Arabic, but which have been lost in most dialects of Maltese. Most vowel length contrasts are not normally indicated in the orthography.
Maltese has 22 consonants, 5 short vowels, 6 long vowels, and 7 diphthongs. (Additional vowels and consonants are sometimes used in borrowings.) Stress is generally on the penultimate syllable, unless the final syllable is heavy (ending in more than one consonant or a long vowel and a consonant). Stress can therefore shift if a consonant-initial suffix is added to a word, as in jaħsel [yáh-sel] "he washes" > ma jaħsilx [ma-yah-sílsh] "he doesn't wash". Consonants can be geminated (doubled), resulting in contrasts such as ħabat "he ran into" and ħabbat "he knocked". There is a process of final consonant devoicing. For example, the voiced consonant b will be pronounced as unvoiced p in final position, as see in the contrast between logħba [lo:ba] "a game" and lagħab [la:p] "he played". Regressive voicing assimilation also occurs. For example, when the voiceless consonant k comes to immediately precede the voiced consonant b, the k is pronounced as voiced g, as shown in the contrast between kiber [kíber] "he got big" and kbir [gbi:r] "big".
As in other Semitic languages, much of the Maltese vocabulary consists of words formed by the application of templates (vowel patterns and affixes) to triliteral (3-consonant) and quadriliteral (4-consonant) roots. For example, from the triliteral root k-t-b are formed a variety of words related to the concept of writing: ktieb "book", kiteb "he wrote", and kitba "writing". However, the large number of European borrowings in Maltese is one of the characteristics which sets it apart from mainstream dialects of Arabic, which prefer to borrow terms used in either Standard Arabic or another variety of spoken Arabic rather than borrow terms from European languages. For example, Maltese uses skola for "school" (compare with Italian scuola) and pulitka for "politics" (compare wtih Italian politica) where other Arabic dialects use forms related to Standard Arabic madrasa(t) and siyaasa(t) for these terms.
A noun or adjective is marked for gender (masculine and feminine) and number (singular, dual, and plural), and definiteness. Dual number is limited to a few classes of nouns, such as measure words and parts of the body that come in pairs. Masculine gender is unmarked, while feminine singular nouns are usually marked with the suffix -a. Maltese nouns and adjectives are divided into those that have a "sound plural" (regular plural), and those with a "broken plural" (irregular plural). Nouns that have a sound plural, form it with just a suffix, as in baħri "sailor" > baħrin "sailors", bravu "clever (masc.)" > bravi "clever (pl.)". Broken plurals are formed according to several different patterns or templates, such as tifel "child" > tfal "children", raġel "man" > rġiel "men" . Definiteness is indicated by the article il-, which can take various forms, as in il-ktieb "the book", ix-xiħ "the old man", l-iskola "the school".
The verb is marked for perfect or imperfect tense. The perfect is used to denote completed events and is usually translated into English as a past tense, while the imperfective aspect denotes uncompleted actions. The imperfect usually translates into an English present tense or present progressive. The verb agrees with its subject in person, number (singular and plural), and gender (but only in the third person singular). The conjugation of the perfect employs only suffixes, as in qatel, qatlet, qtilna "he killed, she killed, we killed", while the imperfect employs both prefixes and suffixes, as in joqtol, toqtol, noqtlu "he kills, she kills, we kill". The future is formed by prefixing the future particle se to an imperfective tense verb, as in tiktib "she writes" > se tiktib "she will write". The imperative is formed by omitting the prefix from the imperfect, as in tmorru "you (pl.) go" > morru "go! (pl.)". There is no infinitive in Maltese.
A verb can be followed by both a direct object clitic (pronoun suffix) and an indirect object clitic, għamel "he made" > għamelhom "he made them" > għamelhomlok "he made them for you". Verbs and certain other elements are negated by the simultaneous use of ma before the verb and the suffix -x after it, as in kitbitlu "she wrote to him" > ma kitbitlux "she didn't write to him".
The usual word order in Maltese is SVO (subject verb object), as in Is-sajjetta (S) laqtet (V) il-kampnar (O) "The lightning hit the steeple."
ROLE IN SOCIETY
Maltese is the national language of Malta, as well of one Malta's two official languages (alongside English). It is used in parliament, the courts, and the church. It is the medium of instruction in state schools, although in many private schools instruction is in English. Since Malta gained independence in 1964, there have been an increasing number of publications in Maltese, including newspapers and other periodicals.
Diglossia with English is widespread among the middle and upper classes, a situation which is encouraged by the importance of the tourism industry in Malta. Knowledge of Italian is also widespread. Italian is taught as a third language in the Maltese school system, and Italian television programming available in Malta is popular.
Malta is thought to have been sparsely populated or uninhabited before the arrival of the Arabs, who ruled it from 870 to 1090 A.D. Since that time, Malta has been in European hands. It was a Sicilian Crown dependency from 1090 through 1530, and during the second half of this period, Sicilian (an Italian dialect) was widely spoken among the upper classes and the educated. From 1530 through 1798, Malta was ruled by the Knights of Malta (known earlier as the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem), and during this period Italian was the main language of culture and administration in Malta. From 1800 to 1964, Malta was a British colony and English gradually replaced Italian as the most important second language in Malta, a trend which culminated in 1936, when all remaining official uses of Italian were eliminated and replaced with Maltese, including in the court system. The Maltese language, which is essentially a dialect of Arabic, shows a profound influence from these three languages—Sicilian, Italian, and English—in the many words it has borrowed from them.
Falzon, Grazio. 1998. Maltese-English English-Maltese Dictionary and Phrasebook. New York: Hippocrene Books.
Aquilina, Joseph. 1965. Teach Yourself Maltese. London: English Universities Press.
Borg, Albert and Marie Azzopardi-Alexander. 1996. Maltese. In Descriptive Grammars series. Ed. Bernard Comrie. London: Routledge.
Cremina, Joseph. 1998. "Maltese", in Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe. Glanville Price, ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
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