Situated in the Mediterranean Sea just 80km south of Italy lies the one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated countries, Malta. The country is small geographically but culturally, historically and linguistically Malta is one of the most fascinating places in Europe.
Throughout the centuries Malta has had many rulers including the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St John, French and most recently British. Given Malta’s location within the Mediterranean Sea the country has always been appealing to foreign powers because of its great location as a naval base. The language of Malta, Maltese, gives a fascinating insight into the history of the country. The language has been hugely shaped and moulded by the different ruling classes from different historical periods which gives us a deep insight into the evolution of the country.
Maltese is a dialect of Arabic and has roughly 450,000 native speakers in the island of Malta and Gozo. Maltese is the only surviving language of the Arabic dialects that were spoken in Spain and Sicily in the Middle Ages. Maltese is also the only Semitic language written in the Latin script. When spoken, the English influence can be detected and when written visually there are strong similarities with Italian. The origins of the language are very similar to the origins of the country. The language is a result of centuries of cultural mingling.
From the early 9th Century to 1964 when Malta gained its independence, a wave of conquerors left their mark on the country which has had a profound influence on the country’s culture and language. The main impact from a linguistic perspective came around 1050 when the ruling Arabs absorbed the existing community and replaced the country’s local language with their own language. After this period the Sicilians and the Knights of Malta came next. Sicilian, Latin and Italian where then declared the country’s official language but the Arabic influence remained. In the 19th Century Britain took over Malta and English was then mixed into the existing linguistic climate of the time.
Maltese developed and changed with the nationalities who ruled the country. The language took on new elements which were placed into simplified Arabic structures. Maltese and English are today the country’s two official languages. Interestingly until 1959 television was only available in Italian. Malta has a polyglot culture woven into the fabric of its society. Shop signs and menus can be found in English and Italian. Newspapers are widely read in both English and Maltese.
The use of English in informal speech is getting more and more prominent within Malta. Some now fear that this growing influence will put the Maltese language in jeopardy but at this stage it is premature to make such predictions. While the language has roughly 450,000 native speakers in Malta and Gozo there are also an additional 100,000 speaker’s spread across Australia, the US, Canada, Italy and the UK. Maltese is the only Semitic language which is written in Roman script, The Maltese alphabet consists of 30 letters which include six special characters.