Il-lingwa Maltija ‒ The Maltese Language

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.❞ ‒ Rita Mae Brown

A lot of Maltese people find it hard to understand a Gozitan when they speak. I am very lucky to have been born of both Maltese and Gozitan parents for the simple fact that as a child, I was brought up hearing both La Maltija (Maltese) as well as the Gozitan dialect. I can understand both very well, I can say this with confidence because my dad (who was born and raised in Malta) finds it hard to understand a Gozitan in full-blown conversation with another Gozitan, for me I don’t find it hard at all. When dad tries to pronounce Gozitan words that are different to the typical Maltese word, he sounds so foreign, and I find it quite amusing that I can understand and speak Gozitan better than him considering he can speak the language itself a lot more fluently than me.

I must say though, compared to when I was younger, when speaking it, I get mixed between the two sometimes. I found myself speaking to my nanna (mum’s mum) last year La Maltija and when she would respond in Għawdxi (Gozitan) I’d then adapt my speech to Għawdxi. But I do feel more comfortable speaking La Maltija because that is what is spoken more so at home.

This is one of the things that makes me fall in love with the language even more than what I already am, the Maltese language itself (La Maltija), you have Gozitan, but then you have different dialects in some of the villages in Malta, and even in Gozo itself! For example a person from Xewkija in Gozo pronounces the “Q” with a “K” sound and in villages in Malta it’s usually the vowels in a word that change the pronunciation (like that in Għawdxi).

Not only that but hearing each word and trying to depict where it originates from. The Maltese language has many influences; Italian, Arabic, Spanish, French… Its deepest roots more specific to Sicilian Arabic and Maghrebi Arabic. I have also read that some words are very similar to Aramaic – the language Jesus spoke. It is the only Semitic language written in Latin script and the only official Semitic language of the EU. Did you know that it is the only European language which addresses God as ‘Alla’, a relic of the Muslim occupation of Malta where God is addressed as ‘Allah’. There is a whole long history behind to the language we know today and it has evolved over time just like any other language has.

As a child, mum and dad always spoke to me in Maltese, I couldn’t tell you at what point I understood it. It’s kind of like English… I just knew it from a young age, like any kid would, which I am so grateful for. Thing is, I would always reply back in English, which there was nothing wrong with, but the older I got the harder it was to speak it back fluently because my tongue wasn’t used to the Maltese words when it came to pronouncing them. I knew what words to use, but I’d sound like a toddler learning to speak for the first time trying to get the words out.

After mum taking my brother and I to Malta in 1996 when I was 7, I had an interest in learning to read and write it. So I would ask mum to teach me. She would take me to our local library where they had an international section, and fortunately a Maltese section. They had children’s books like ‘Spot the dog’ (in Maltese of course) and an older popular book in Malta ‘Id-Denfil’ and I would borrow them and read through with mum.

Up until last year I was more confident in reading than writing. For the past maybe, three years I have been wanting to start Maltese language school, and finally built up the courage to go October of last year. It was the best thing I could have done. I am so glad I built interest in reading and writing at a young age, and so grateful that my parents always spoke to me in Maltese as it made it that little bit easier grasping onto the whole concept of taking on the language at full speed. In the past year, I can say proudly that I can hold a conversation more fluidly (I wouldn’t say I’m 100% fluent, but I speak quicker than I did a year ago and more confidently… My speech flows a lot better) and I make more of an effort to communicate to my parents in Maltese so that I am speaking it on a daily basis. My vocabulary has grown a heap also. When I read, I don’t sound like a drone, and I actually understand what I am reading. My spelling has improved immensely, to the point where I can correct and help others in my class. I was proud before I went to school, but the pride I have now with how much I have improved is beaming. Even seeing the progress of improvement in my fellow class mates, we are all at different levels, but they have improved immensely also, I am so proud of them.

It’s not just the language you learn, it’s the culture too, their sayings compared to our sayings in English. You also understand how to describe and communicate things better in English because of it. You know how you come across words we don’t have in the English dictionary that may describe a feeling? Like the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ describing a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. I have come across so many words and sentences where they sound so beautiful in Maltese, and when they are translated, it just doesn’t have the same feeling. I get so excited when I find a quote and I woo over how beautiful it is, and when my friends in class ask me to translate it, it doesn’t have the same wow-factor as it does in Maltese.

I was asked to be interviewed by the Maltese SBS radio station based in Melbourne in July of this year. They were kind enough to give me the questions beforehand, where I prepared the answers and practiced them till I knew them off by heart. A few weekends ago, another radio station 89.3FM (an initiative of the Maltese Community Council of NSW) asked us if we would like to come on their program (when I say us, I mean MAYC). Myself and another two members of our committee went along where we also prepped our answers beforehand. But this time around I felt a heap of a lot more confidence than the last one and I felt more conversational when delivering what I wanted to say. I guess in the last 6 months, like I said, I don’t feel like a drone when reading. The words that flow through my mouth are also flowing through my head and it all makes sense.

As I have mentioned in one of my previous posts (Maltese Traditions in Australia), MAYC are going to a convention next year in Malta where we will be addressing pressing issues the Maltese community are facing in Australia. One of these is the Maltese language. The way I see it is, the first generation Maltese that migrated here in the 50s and 60s, their kids would have grown with the language and would have been able to speak and understand it better than I do. So then those kids who are second generation, had kids of their own where they may have spoken it in the household, but not like their parents did, therefore the third generation Maltese kids either know very little or nothing at all. My parents migrated here in the 80s, so they are first generation Maltese and I am second. I see myself as those that grew up in the 50s and 60s, and I found myself realising that if I don’t make the effort to learn the language, it dies out with my children, who will be third generation and when they have their kids, it’s scary to think that they will hear the Maltese language and it be foreign to them. It makes me sad to think that when Maltese blood is running through their veins.

I see my cousins who are all married with kids, my cousins all grew up with the language being spoken in their household too, but there are some who can understand and hold a conversation like me, other cousins that just understand and can say a word here and there, others that get bits and pieces of what is being said but can’t speak a word, and then others that know nothing.

I get that we live in Australia, and we are ‘Aussie’, we speak English and do Australian things… But that’s exactly it, we live in a country like Australia, where we are fortunate to be surrounded by different cultures from all over the world, and those cultures in turn are so fortunate to bring their traditions with them to this multicultural land… I see other cultures and how strong their traditions are within their communities in Australia and I think, why can’t our community be the same?

For something like the Maltese language in particular, I guess when our elders migrated here, it was during a time where kids would get teased at school for being ‘wog’ and they were forced to change their names from Pawlu to Paul. This is probably the main factor as to why the language wasn’t passed on the way it should have been, because they were Australianised and assimilated to Australian culture. Also, like those second generation kids, I went to school with Australians. Even if I had friends of Maltese background like me, English is what we spoke, so therefore the Maltese language wasn’t something of use for our everyday lives. That’s exactly how I thought back then, that mentality of “I don’t need it”… But the older I get the more I realise, it’s not the fact that I don’t need it for everyday life as such, it’s that I do need it for the simple fact of keeping it alive. I know it will always be there, at least longer in Malta than here in Australia. But even Malta is worrying, the fact that English is an official language in Malta (not that it’s a bad thing) but I hear my cousin’s kids all speaking to each other in English rather than their mother tongue!

If I could do something about it, I would not only propose, but implement language lessons in all primary schools. Not just for the Maltese, but other cultures too, so that we won’t have lowering numbers for those sitting a language for the HSC, in particular Maltese. I didn’t even know you could sit the Maltese language for the HSC until a year ago! If I knew I could, I would have done it in a heartbeat! That’s another issue, is promotion and awareness of not only the Maltese language and what is available to us out there, but other things like Maltese community events.

So I plead with anyone who is reading this with a Maltese background, to make an effort in knowing where you came from, where your parents, grandparents came from. Learn the language that your elders knew and teach it to your kids. I have no doubt that you are proud of your Maltese background, and you’d be living under a rock if you didn’t know that the Maltese community here in Australia is dying out, that Maltese traditions aren’t as popular as they used to be when we were growing up. So if it’s one thing we can keep alive, it is the Maltese language. Something so easy to carry on for generations to come – even if it’s starting up a conversation with your parents, or a relative that speaks Maltese, ask them to teach you a few words – it is a start to something so rich, and like they say about travel being something you buy but still remain rich, so is knowing the language of your soul, it is so very very rich.

Il-Kantelina is the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language. It dates from the 15th century (no later than 1485, the death of its author, and probably from the 1470s) but was not found until 1966 or 1968 by Prof. Godfrey Wettinger and Fr. M. Fsadni (OP). The poem is attributed to Pietru Caxaro, and was recorded by Caxaro's nephew, Brandano, in his notarial register (Dec. 1533 -- May 1563). Although written in Maltese, in Latin script, it was a very early Maltese that had not yet been influenced much by Italian or English, and as such is an example of historical Maltese.

Il-Kantelina is the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language. It dates from the 15th century (no later than 1485, the death of its author, and probably from the 1470s) but was not found until 1966 or 1968 by Prof. Godfrey Wettinger and Fr. M. Fsadni (OP). The poem is attributed to Pietru Caxaro, and was recorded by Caxaro’s nephew, Brandano, in his notarial register (Dec. 1533 — May 1563).
Although written in Maltese, in Latin script, it was a very early Maltese that had not yet been influenced much by Italian or English, and as such is an example of historical Maltese.

Here is the original orthography of Il-Kantelina, see if you can pick words we still use today:

Xideu il cada ye gireni tale nichadithicum
Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom
Calb mehandihe chakim soltan ui le mule
Bir imgamic rimitne betiragin mucsule
Fen hayran al garca nenzel fi tirag minzeli
Nitla vu nargia ninzil deyem fil bachar il hali.

Huakit hi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Mectatilix mihallimin me chitali tafal morchi
fen timayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
vackit hi mirammiti.

Huakit by mirammiti Nizlit hi li sisen
Mectatilix li mihallimin ma kitatili li gebel
fen tumayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Huakit thi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Huec ucakit hi mirammiti vargia ibnie
biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe
Min ibidill il miken ibidil i vintura
haliex liradi ’al col xibir sura
hemme ard bayad v hemme ard seude et hamyra
Hactar min hedann heme tred mine tamarra.

© Copyright Charmaine Cassar 2014


  One thought on “Il-lingwa Maltija ‒ The Maltese Language

  1. December 24, 2014 at 2:36 AM

    Interesting thoughts about the Maltese language. I have to say that I find the Maltese language fascinating and Malta a bastion of hope for languages that are losing their native speakers. I do think in some ways we disagree though, In my opinion, Maltese is growing ever stronger (for example many of the signs are now being written in Maltese rather than English (Il Belt Valetta rather than Valetta) to the point where English is suffering. Don’t get me wrong, the Maltese still speak wonderful English, but Maltese is becoming much more prominent and they need to maintain their English. English has enabled them to be a much better trading port and tourist destination than say Sicily which speaks the less ubiquitous Italian. I think English is essential to maintain Malta’s economy. That being said. It was a joy visiting Malta and seeing a rare language that was being maintained so diligently. In general, I was very very impressed by how hard the Maltese were working on maintaining their culture as well as how proud they were of their unique and incredibly interesting language!

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 9, 2015 at 7:59 AM

      I am reading your comment from a point of view as a Maltese living in Malta yes? My writing is based on a Maltese (in particular a 2nd or 3rd generation Maltese) living in Australia. I know that Maltese is ever strong in Malta, but in my opinion, that is not the case here in Australia. I too think having English as an official language in Malta is great for the Island’s economy and tourism.


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