The languages of Malta

Mar 24, 2010 by

Malta, a small island 93 km south of Sicily, is a fascinating place from a linguistic point of view. It is the only country in Europe where a Semitic language is spoken and it also boasts one of the highest levels of multilingualism in Europe if not in the world.

The population of Malta is predominantly southern-European in origin: according to the Maltese population census, about 97% of the island’s population are ethnic Maltese people (and most of the remaining 3% are retired Brits). Genetic studies further indicate close ties of the Maltese people with southern Europeans and a less close connection with the peoples of the Middle East or North Africa. Apparently, whatever genetic ties may exist between the Maltese and the Middle East/ North Africa go back to the time of the Phoenicians.

Yet, the Maltese language is a Semitic language, a close relative of the Arabic varieties spoken in Northern Africa and a descendant of Siculo-Arabic, the language of the Arab rulers of Malta in the 9th-11th centuries. It is true that much of the Maltese vocabulary (up to 70%, according to some estimates) has been borrowed from Italian, Sardinian, Sicilian, French and English (which makes reading the title page of the Maltese Wikipedia a breeze even for someone with no knowledge of Arabic or any other Semitic language); moreover, the Maltese language is written in the Latin alphabet. Still, it retains many features of a classical Semitic language, such as a heavy reliance on non-concatenative, or “root-and-template”, morphology. Unlike in more familiar languages such as English, Spanish or Russian, grammatical meaning – for example, plural number on nouns or past tense on verbs – is expressed not through adding a suffix (or more rarely a prefix) to the nominal or verbal root/stem, but through changing the vowels in the stem. In fact, it is like the English man-men, mouse-mice or sit-sat alternations – on steroids!

The way most linguists analyze Semitic non-concatenative morphology is by considering only consonants as part of the noun or verb root, while vowels – and where they are placed in relation to the consonants of the root – constitute the “template”. To treat the English alternations above in a similar fashion we would have to consider the root for ‘man’ to be M-N, the root for ‘mouse’ to be M-S and the root for ‘sit’ to be S-T, with the vowels being part of the template indicating singular vs. plural number or present vs. past tense. Note that the roots M-N and M-S would have to belong to different inflectional classes (declensions), since we do not want to have moun-mine for ‘man-men’ or mas-mes for ‘mouse-mice’. So English has the beginnings of a non-concatenative Semitic language!

The real difference between English and Semitic languages is in the predominance of the concatenative (suffix-adding) and non-concatenative (“root-and-template”) morphology: most English nouns and verbs follow the concatenative pattern, while the majority of nouns and/or verbs in a Semitic language follow the non-concatenative pattern.

Let is now go back to Maltese. Consider some native Maltese nouns: the plural of tifel ‘boy’ is tfa:l ‘boys’ (note that the symbol : indicates that the preceding sound is long), the plural of shahar ‘month’ is shhu:r ‘months’, the plural of felli ‘slice’ is flieli ‘slices’, and the plural of nbi:d ‘wine’ is nbeyyed ‘wines’. Interestingly, even some loan words from Romance languages or English follow the non-concatenative pattern: for instance, the plural of forn ‘oven’ is fra:n ‘ovens’ (analogous to the plural ‘boys’), the plural of vers ‘poem’ is vru:s ‘poems’ (analogous to the plural ‘months’), the plural of kitla ‘kettle’ is ktieli ‘kettles’ (analogous to the plural ‘slices’) and the plural of skuna ‘schooner’ is skejjen ‘schooners’ (analogous to the plural ‘wines’). Thus, not only most native Maltese nouns follow the non-concatenative pattern but loanwords too can do so. Note that this is not true for English: only native Germanic words ever fit into the “irregular” (vowel-changing, rather than suffix-adding) pattern.

According to the official statistics, the Maltese language is spoken by 100% of the people in Malta (and what about those retired Brits, I ask?). In addition, 88% of the population speak English (which serves as a co-official language of Malta), 66% speak Italian (which used to be a co-official language of Malta), and 17% also speak French. If these statistics are to be believed, this is a very high level of multilingualism even by European standards.

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