- We do not really know what languages were spoken by the general populace of Malta before it became Arabic-speaking in the Middle Ages. As Malta is geographically close to Sicily and in historical times has frequently been influenced from Sicily (even its Arabic settlement may have come from Sicily, not from Northern Africa), and it also during many periods – but not through all archeological periods - shows ties to Sicily in its material culture, it can be assumed that often the same languages were spoken on Malta as on Sicily, but that only replaces an unknown by a not-very-well-known.
- As inscriptions have been found on Malta, we know that Punic, Greek, and Latin were known at least to some people there, but we do not know whether these were the languages of the general populace or only of a small elite. It is not even certain that Malta became fully Romanized during the Roman Empire, as there are references to Maltese as “barbari” from early Christian times, implying that they did not speak Latin or Greek.
- The available sources seem to indicate that Malta was uninhabited or only sparsely populated by a few bee-keepers etc. during the 7th – 8th centuries, the period of Islamic conquest, when constant pirate raids threatened the inhabitants of small islands. Therefore, it’s doubtful whether the current inhabitants of Malta have any genetic (not to speak of linguistic) continuity with the pre-Arabic inhabitants of the island.
- Nevertheless, such continuity is part of some national myths. One myth is Malta as a “Christian nation baptized by St.Paul” (while actually modern Maltese most likely are the descendants of Arabic speaking Muslim settlers that were converted after the Norman conquest). The other myth is one that Malta shares with Lebanon, another nation of Arabic-speaking Christians, the myth that Maltese (Lebanese) is not Arabic, but a descendant of Phoenician. Linguistically, these myths have no base, but are easily explained as an attempt to find an alternative Semitic ancestry instead of Arabic, an ancestry that is not “tainted” by its association with Islam.
- After the Norman conquest, Malta came under strong Italian influence, first by Sicilian (11th – 16th century) and then by Standard Italian (from the 16th century). The Sicilian influence is still effective in the form Italian and even modern Latin-based internationalisms are loaned into Maltese – the suffixes show Sicilian forms and, like Sicilian, Maltese accepts only /a/, /i/, /u/ as final vowels in such loans.
- During the 19th and early 20th century, there was a three-way linguistic battle between Italian, English, and Maltese for dominance on Malta, with the local elites favoring Italian, the British administration trying to promote English, especially after the unification of Italy, when they feared irredentist currents on Malta, and in the 1920 and 30s, when the supporters of Italian were suspect of Fascist sympathies. Maltese initially was promoted only by a few intrepid writers, until the British administrators discovered its promotion as a weapon in the fight against the Italian-speaking native Maltese elites.
- As a result of these influences, Maltese is curiously similar to English in that it has an inherited grammar and basic vocabulary (Maltese’s are Arabic, English’s are Germanic), but that most of its culture words are loaned (from Italian and English in Maltese’s case, French and Latin in English’s case). The Arabic character of the Basic lexicon of Maltese is shown by a Swadesh list Brincat publishes (p. 398), where he marks only four words as of Italian origin (he writes “seven words”, but lists only four): persuna “person”, muntanja “mountain”, tond “round”, and qarn “horn” – and of these four, qarn surely is Arabic as well and not from Italian corno. I’ll discuss this Swadesh list in a separate post.
- The book discusses the fate of Arabic on Sicily (where it left a sizeable amount of loans in the dialect) and on Pantelleria, where seemingly the populace switched from heavily Italian-influenced Arabic (as spoken on Malta) to a heavily Arabic-influenced Italian a couple of centuries ago. One could speculate that this could have happened on Malta as well, if it had returned to the Kingdom of Sicily after Napoleon expelled the Maltese order, instead of being occupied by Britain.
- Compared to Maghreb Arabic, Maltese exhibits some “Eastern” traits and some traits (like a development of /a/ to /i:/) that it shares with (extinct) Andalusian Arabic. Brincat seems to suggest that this is due to changes in Maghreb Arabic that were caused by a second inflow of Bedouins in the Middle Ages, i.e., that Maltese has retained traits that were typical for Western Arabic (including Andalusian and Sicilian) before that inflow.
Misunderestimation of the month
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