The Maltese language is the only Semitic language written in the Latin script and the only official Semitic language of the European Union, of which Malta forms part. Originally an Arabic dialect, over the centuries it has picked up words from several other European languages – depending on who ruled Malta and for how long.
The Maltese language’s ability to adapt and grow inorganically has ensured its survival throughout the millennia. Even in these modern times, the Maltese language continues to absorb foreign words with such ease that those steering the language debate are left… wordless.
Maltese language basics
Spoken by half a million people in the whole world, Maltese sounds strange to visitors – some feel they should be able to understand it, but many cannot.
This is mostly because three out of every ten words in Maltese are words from either English, French or Italian, while the rest have Semitic roots. Common expressions like ‘thank you’ or grazzi (grazie in Italian), and greetings like ‘hello’, bonġu (bonjour in French) or bonswa (bonsoir, also French), have almost completely replaced their Maltese equivalents.
Unfortunately, not many Maltese people are able to write well in Maltese. It is a sad truth. Many complain that written Maltese is a grammatical nightmare but probably the true reason is that few have the patience to do it right.
Local linguists are concerned about a modern society that writes Maltese as they like, without any care to grammatical rules that are so important. Others believe that this way of writing should be embraced, arguing that the written language should follow the spoken. The debates continue.
What is the official national language of Malta?
Malta has two official languages – Maltese and English – and both are spoken fluently by the vast majority of the population.
For hundreds of years, the Maltese language was left to its own devices, spoken by the commoners, ignored by those who ruled. This perhaps ensured its survival. With the arrival of the British in 1800, English was introduced and quickly absorbed by the Maltese. Today, a considerable portion of the population prefer to speak English, or were raised as English-speaking primarily. Both English and Maltese are compulsory academic subjects in schools.
Although the vast majority of the population speak English, most prefer to speak Maltese with fellow-countrymen. Being spoken to in English by another Maltese person is often questioned and although it’s just my guess (being a foreigner) it could be a matter of pride. Even though English is an official language, the language of the people remains Maltese, which is very much part of the Maltese identity and important to most.
What other languages are commonly spoken in Malta?
The Italian influence can be greatly felt in Malta – from food to fashion, and also by the fact that Italian is spoken by roughly 60% of the Maltese. This influence has multiple facets – since ancient times, people crossed from Italy and Sicily to inhabit the island or to trade.
The Romans for example, spent a long while cultivating olive trees and vines. Later on in history, Malta became part of the Kingdom of Sicily – Malta’s vicinity and trade ties with Sicily have strongly left their mark – linguistically and culturally. In 1530, Italian was declared the official language by the Knights of St John, and remained so until 1934. In more recent times, Italian TV stations were practically the only stations the Maltese tuned into for a period that lasted about 40 years, between the 60’s and 2000.
Every year, a growing number of books are published by a handful of local authors and publishers. Quality has increased greatly in recent years with a number of Maltese publications winning prestigious international awards. A number of Maltese books have also been translated in foreign languages, such as Pierre J. Meilak’s ‘Dak li l-lejl iħallik tgħid’, a book that won the European Union Prize for Literature and was later published in English as ‘Having said goodnight’.
There are two major literature events in Malta. One is the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, held in August at St. Elmo’s Fort in Valletta and the second one is the Malta Book Festival, which takes place every November at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. Both events are held over a span of days and include plenty of activities related to literature.
Origin, foreign influences and brief history
The exact origins of the Maltese language are difficult to determine. Some say Maltese is closer to Lebanese then to Northern African Arabic dialects, owing to the Phoenician influence. Others argue that the closest form of Semitic language to Maltese is Tunisian. Another popular theory is that Maltese is a Siculo-Arabic (an Arabic dialect of Sicily) derivative that has continued to evolve undisturbed.
What one can easily determine is that the Maltese language today has a definite Semitic platform into which words from English, Italian and French have plugged themselves, making it a hybrid language written in Latin script. Maltese uses the Roman alphabet with a number of additional letters: ie, ż, ċ, ġ, ħ, and għ.
In 1968, a 15th century poem written in Maltese was discovered by two renowned Maltese researchers. The poem, called ‘Il-Kantilena‘, was attributed to Pietru Caxaru and was written in Latin script.
The earliest Maltese dictionary was compiled by Agius de Soldanis in 1766 – however it was only published in 2015.
Langfocus, a channel on Youtube offers a good overview of Maltese language:
Where can I learn Maltese?
Learning Maltese the proper way can only be achieved by staying in Malta for a while, attending a few courses and practising. However, there are also some online resources for the traveller who just wants to learn a few quick words to impress while on holiday. Let’s take a look at the options:
Learning Maltese online
Available online resources will only get you as far as learning some commonly used words and expressions such as basic numbers, greetings and simple questions. Here are some good online sources:
Maltese language schools
For foreigners living in Malta there are courses available every year. All of them start at the very basic, building up vocabulary as they go along and are intended for those who would like to learn how to communicate using the Maltese language in everyday life situations:
- Maltese for Foreigners is a course offered by The Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology, commonly known as MCAST. The course costs €105.00 and takes 40 hours in total. Lessons are held once a week at the Institute of Business and Commerce in Paola between 1730 hrs and 2000 hrs.
- Maltese as a Foreign Language is a 32-week course of 3 contact hours weekly that runs from October to May.
- Certificate in Maltese as a Foreign Language is an evening course offered by the University of Malta, intended for persons who do not have a basic knowledge of Maltese.
Some common phrases in Maltese
Below is a list of phrases (and their pronunciations in English) that may be helpful when traveling to Malta and Gozo. Don’t worry though, most people understand and speak English just fine.
Sorry / Excuse me
Kemm hemm bogħod
(kemm emm bood)
How much / how many?
Where can I find a bus/taxi?
Fejn nista’ nsib karozza tal-linja / taxi?
(feyn nista insib karotsa tallinja/taxi?)
Can you take me to the airport please?
Tista’ teħodni l-ajruport?
(tista tehodni layruport?)
How much does this cost?
Where is the nearest bathroom?
Fejn qiegħda l-kamra tal-banju?
(Feyn qeda ilkamra talbanyu)
Where can I get something to eat?
Minn fejn nista’ nixtri ikel?
(minnfeyn nista nishtree ikel?)
I need help.
Għandi bżonn l-għajnuna.
(andee bzonn laynuna)
Call the police.
(chempel lill pulitseeya)
I need a doctor.
Għandi bżonn tabib.
(andee bzonn tabib)
Maltese language books for foreigners
Books that help you learn Maltese exist, and here we have listed a selection of popular titles available from Amazon and other sites:
- Learn Maltese, Why Not? by Joseph Vella
- Beginning Maltese (Book & CD) by Lydia Sciriha
- Merhba Bik: Welcome To A Course In Maltese For Foreigners (Book + CD) (Maltese) by Antoinette Camilleri
- My First 750 Words in Maltese by Charles Daniel Saliba
Maltese language apps on Play Store and iTunes
For the tech savvy tourists, there are a couple of apps that can help you articulate yourself around the Maltese language. Check out these apps for Android and Apple phones and tablets: