The origin of the Maltese language

Dr Joe Vella Gauci

The origin of the Maltese language has for a long time baffled scholars and linguists. Now accepted as a branch of Arabic, it was thought to be an offshoot of Punic, mainly by scholars and dillettanti who wanted to deny the former and accept the latter as being more prestigious.

In a seminal article Dr. Joseph Brincat of the University of Malta has detailed out the importance of Al-Himyari’s account on the Arabic Period in Maltese history, a text which has far-reaching implications for the origins of the Maltese language. [1] The Proceedings of the Conference which was held in Malta between the 26th – 29th of September 1991 were published in 1994 by the Institute of Linguistics, University of Malta.

Starting with the statement that the current information on the Arab period in Malta (870 to 1090) is basically that of Michele Amari, [2] a fact recognised by Godfrey Wettinger who judges it to be “still the standard work on its subject”, [3] Brincat notes that the most informative primary texts are those of Ibn al-Atir, the anonymous Kitab al-cUyun, the Chronicle of Cambridge and al-Qazwini; Amari, writing in the nineteenth century, could not have known of al-Himyari who was not discovered before 1931 by E. Levi Provencal. Brincat refers to his own Malta 870-1054: Al Himyari’s account (1991) for a discussion on the merits of al-Himyari’s text. [4]

These and other salient facts are recounted in detail by al-Himyari. Brincat maintains that “some scholars are convinced that al-Himyari may help to reconstruct the lost texts of al-Bakri.” [5] Brincat even maintains that “al-Himyari reproduced faithfully the text concerning Malta written by al-Bakri in 1068, then this text is based on almost contemporary information regarding the Byzantine raid of 1053-54.”[6] Then, if one takes into consideration that al-Bakri is indebted to al-Warraq (who wrote around 970) and al-cUdri (m. 1085) and the latter to al-Turtusi (at the beginning of the 10th Century), one can make out that even the events of 870 can be seen in a contemporary light. [7]

From a linguistic point-of-view the invasion of 870 A.D. is important for the fact that the island is described as “an abandoned ruin”. The destruction of the population explains the problem that many level-headed historians and archaelogists complain about, that is, the total absence of all building during the Arab period, 870-1090 A.D. It also explains the lack of a linguistic substratum much more cogent than the simple hypothesis which interprets the ease with which the inhabitants of Malta and Gozo learned Arabic because they already talked a Semitic language, namely Punic. [8] Anthony Bonanno argues that “none of the ancient authors specifies that the population of the islands was indeed Punic or if the native community was subject to Carthaginian administration.” [9] He cites Levy to the extent that Malta was held by the Carthaginians “a Carthaginiensis tenebatur” in 218 B.C. when the Romans took it.

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke terms the Maltese as “barbaroi” but Bonanno observes that the Maltese who helped the shipwrecked “were probably farmers who spoke neither Punic nor any other language.” [10]

Still the Punic theory held sway among many scholars and amateurs who dabbled in it. The linguistic question became instrumentalised for imperialist political reasons with the hope that Maltese be given the prestige emanating from the mythical Phoenicio-punic origin, more than Arabic as the latter was deemed beyond the pale. This was considered an indispensable manoeuvre to help the teaching of English. [11]

The “punic” hypothesis is now fortunately discarded. The Arabo-Maghribite origin of Maltese as the ultimate source of the language is not subject to debate. One can now study Punic more scientifically and determine its consistency as regarding the origin of the Maltese language. One must not wholly deny that the inhabitants of the Maltese Islands still spoke the Punic language up to the time of the Arab invasion but one must concede that there is an immense gap of time from the last linguistic evidence (that of Luke 60 A.D.) and the archeological (1st century A.D.) to 870 A.D.

It should be borne in mind that during the millennium which divides the two semitic cultures (218 B.C. – 870 A.D.) the islands were colonised by two Indo-European powers with great linguistic prestige. Even though, following Bonanno, one must conclude that latinization progressed at a very slow pace. It is hard to imagine that the Romans, who had changed the language of the majority of their territories, except where Greek, a language of greater prestige, was spoken, had not helped the linguistic latinization also in Malta and Gozo.

Talking of Greek one must consider this language as another candidate for the solution of the language problem before the Arab invasion. In 535 A.D. the islands became part of the Byzantine Empire and the same deductions concerning Latin apply to this language as well: the isolated conservative environment permitted the continued use of Latin (or possibly Punic), while the length of time (350 years) and the proximity to Sicily convey one to a search for analogies with the linguistic milieu which existed in a zone only 93 km away. [12]

Lack of evidence for the language spoken before the acceptance of the new language could be a result of a violent and rapid imposition.

Aquilina presumes “the preponderance of the Arabs (as a vital factor) because otherwise they would not have succeeded in influencing the language so much.” [13]

The utility of al-Himyari’s text lies precisely here: the description he gives of the ferocity of the Muslim attack of 870 A.D. explains the fact why it is so difficult to recognise the elements of the language spoken in Malta before the Arab invasion. If the island was ravaged and left uninhabited for 178 years there could not exist the continuity which was necessary for two languages to co-exist and the resultant fusion of the elements of one into another could not take place. [14]



1 G. BRINCAT, Gli Albori della Lingua Maltese: Il Problema del Sostrato alla Luce delle Notizie Storiche di Al-Himyari sul Periodo Arabo a Malta (870-1054), in Languages of the Mediterranean, Msida 1994, 130-140.
2 “Una svolta nel modo di affrontare la storia del periodo arabo-islamico delle isole maltesi, viene nella seconda metà dell’Ottocento, in seguito alla pubblicazione della Storia dei Musulmai di Sicilia e dei due volumi della Biblioteca Arabo-Sicula di Michele Amari. Un tipo di approccio, più moderno e meno legato alle preoccupazioni delle istituzioni ecclesiastiche, viene inaugurato dagli studi del grande studioso siciliano. E gli storici maltesi, ovviamente, non poterono non tenerne conto.” (A. BARBATO, ibid, 172-173.)
3 G. BRINCAT, ibid, 130.
4 He states that it is “the longest text which has come down to us and gives information which was published, as for instance, the name of the last Byzantine governor of the island (Amros?) the
names of the leaders of the Arab military expedition… and then the fierce Sawada Ibn Muhammad who was later appointed governor of Sicily”. (Ibid, 132.)
5 Ibid, 133.
6 Ibid, 133.
7 Ibid, 133.
8 Ibid, 133.
9 Ibid, 133.
10 Ibid, 133-134.
11 Ibid, 134.
12 Ibid, 136.
13 Ibid, 137.
14 Ibid, 137.


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.


Aquilina J. – Papers in Maltese Linguistics; 1961
Aquilina J. – Maltese Linguistics Surveys; 1976.
Aquilina J. – Maltese-English Dictionary; 1987-1990.
Brincat J. – Malta 870-1054. Al-Himyari’s Account; 1991.
Brincat J. – Language and Demography in Malta, in Fiorini S. – Mallia Milanes V. Malta. A case study in International Cross-currents, pp. 91-110; 1991.
Brincat J. – Gli albori della lingua maltese; il problema del sostrato alla luce delle notizie storiche di Al-Himyari sul periodo arabo a Malta (870-1054) in Brincat J. (ed.) Languages of the Mediterranean: Substrata, the Islands, Malta, pp. 130-140; 1994.
Micallef J. – The Sicilian Element in Maltese (M.A. Thesis, University of London), 1959.
Mifsud M. – Loan Verbs in Maltese. A Descriptive & Comparative Study. E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1995.


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