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About Maltese Language

Maltese (Maltese: Malti) is the national language of Malta, 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 Malta, 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 as much as 20% of the Maltese vocabulary. It is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet in its standard form.

History

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 (English: The History of the Sacred Religion and Illustrious Militia of St John of Jerusalem), written between 1594 and 1602, Giacomo Bosio endorses the notion that Maltese descended from Carthaginian. Bosio writes that when the cornerstone of Valletta 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.

Athanasius Kircher spent two years in Malta (1637-38) and made observations running counter to ideas of Punic ancestry accepted by his contemporaries. In his Mundus Subterraneus he says of the Maltese, "they speak the purest form of Arabic, corrupted by neither Italian nor any other language." Other theories include those in Johann Friedrich Breithaupt's Christliche Helden Insel Malta (English: Malta, Home of Christian Heroes), published in 1632, where he calls Maltese a mixed 'barbaric' language and John Dryden's description of the language as 'Berber' on his visit to the islands (the memoirs of those journeys appeared in 1776).

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.

Classification

Maltese is a Semitic language descended from Siculo-Arabic, 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.

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.

Vocabulary

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.

Dialects

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.

 

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