Maltese language

Last updated

Il-Malti 1925.jpg
Publication by Għaqda Tal-Kittieba Tal-Malti in 1925
Pronunciation [ˈmɐltɪ]
Native to Malta
Ethnicity Maltese
Native speakers
520,000 (2012) [1]
Latin (Maltese alphabet)
Maltese Braille
Official status
Official language in
Flag of Malta.svg  Malta
Flag of Europe.svg  European Union
Regulated by National Council for the Maltese Language
Il-Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti
Language codes
ISO 639-1 mt
ISO 639-2 mlt
ISO 639-3 mlt
Glottolog malt1254
Linguasphere 12-AAC-c
Idioma maltes.PNG
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
A Maltese speaker, recorded in Malta

Maltese (Maltese: Malti, also L-Ilsien Malti or Lingwa Maltija), is a Semitic language derived from late medieval Sicilian Arabic with Romance superstrata spoken by the Maltese people. It is the national language of Malta [2] and the only official Semitic and Afro-Asiatic language of the European Union. Maltese is a latinised variety of spoken historical Arabic through its descent from Siculo-Arabic, which developed as a Maghrebi Arabic dialect in the Emirate of Sicily between 831 and 1091. [3] As a result of the Norman invasion of Malta and the subsequent re-Christianisation of the islands, Maltese evolved independently of Classical Arabic in a gradual process of latinisation. [4] [5] It is therefore exceptional as a variety of historical Arabic that has no diglossic relationship with Classical or Modern Standard Arabic. [6] Maltese is thus classified separately from the 30 varieties constituting the modern Arabic macrolanguage. [7] Maltese is also distinguished from Arabic and other Semitic languages since its morphology has been deeply influenced by Romance languages, namely Italian and Sicilian. [8]


The original Arabic base comprises around one-third of the Maltese vocabulary, especially words that denote basic ideas and the function words, [9] but about half of the vocabulary is derived from standard Italian and Sicilian; [10] and English words make up between 6% and 20% of the vocabulary. [11] A 2016 study shows that, in terms of basic everyday language, speakers of Maltese are able to understand around a third of what is said to them in Tunisian Arabic, [12] which is a Maghrebi Arabic related to Siculo-Arabic, [13] whereas speakers of Tunisian Arabic are able to understand about 40% of what is said to them in Maltese. [14] This reported level of asymmetric intelligibility is considerably lower than the mutual intelligibility found between other varieties of Arabic. [15]

Maltese has always been written in the Latin script, the earliest surviving example dating from the late Middle Ages. [16] It is the only standardised Semitic language written exclusively in the Latin script. [17]


Oldest Maltese text: Il-Kantilena
by Pietru Caxaro, 15th century Il-Kantilena.png
Oldest Maltese text: Il-Kantilena by Pietru Caxaro, 15th century

The origins of the Maltese language are attributed to the arrival, early in the 11th century, of settlers from neighbouring Sicily, where Siculo-Arabic was spoken, reversing the Fatimid Caliphate's conquest of the island at the end of the 9th century. [18] This claim has been corroborated by genetic studies, which show that contemporary Maltese people share common ancestry with Sicilians and Calabrians, with little genetic input from North Africa and the Levant. [19] [20]

The Norman conquest in 1091, followed by the expulsion of the Muslims—complete by 1249—permanently isolated the vernacular from its Arabic source, creating the conditions for its evolution into a distinct language. [18] In contrast to Sicily—where Siculo-Arabic became extinct and was replaced by Sicilian—the vernacular in Malta continued to develop alongside Italian, eventually replacing it as official language in 1934 – alongside English. [18] The first written reference to the Maltese language is in a will of 1436, where it is called lingua maltensi. The oldest known document in Maltese, Il-Kantilena (Xidew il-Qada) by Pietru Caxaro, dates from the 15th century. [21]

The earliest known Maltese dictionary was a 16th-century manuscript entitled "Maltese-Italiano"; it was included in the Biblioteca Maltese of Mifsud in 1764, but is now lost. [22] A list of Maltese words was included in both the Thesaurus Polyglottus (1603) and Propugnaculum Europae (1606) of Hieronymus Megiser, who had visited Malta in 1588–1589; Domenico Magri gave the etymologies of some Maltese words in his Hierolexicon, sive sacrum dictionarium (1677). [21]

An early manuscript dictionary, Dizionario Italiano e Maltese, was discovered in the Biblioteca Vallicelliana in Rome in the 1980s, together with a grammar, the Regole per la Lingua Maltese, attributed to a French Knight named Thezan. [22] [23] The first systematic lexicon is that of Giovanni Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis, who also wrote the first systematic grammar of the language and proposed a standard orthography. [22]


SIL Ethnologue (2015) reports a total of 522,000 Maltese speakers, with 371,000 residing in Malta (close to 90% of the Maltese population) according to the European Commission (2012). [1] This implies a number of around 150,000 speakers in the Maltese diaspora. Most speakers are bilingual, the majority of speakers (345,000) regularly use English, and a reported 66,800 regularly use French. [1]

The largest diaspora community of Maltese speakers is in Australia, with 36,000 speakers reported in 2006 (down from 45,000 in 1996, and expected to decline further). [24]

The Maltese linguistic community in Tunisia originated in the 18th century. Numbering several thousand in the 19th century, it was reported to be only 100 to 200 people as of 2017. [25]


Maltese is descended from Siculo-Arabic, a Semitic language within the Afroasiatic family, [26] that in the course of its history has been influenced by Sicilian and 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 loanwords. [10] Because of 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. [27]

The Maltese language has historically been classified in various ways, with some claiming that the ancient Punic language (another Semitic language) was its origin instead of Siculo-Arabic, [21] [28] [29] while others believed the language to be one of the Berber languages (another family within Afroasiatic), [21] and under the Fascist Kingdom of Italy, it was classified as regional Italian. [30]


SIL reports six varieties, besides Standard Maltese: Gozo, Port Maltese, Rural Central Maltese, Rural East Maltese, Rural West Maltese, and Zurrieq. [1]

Urban varieties of Maltese are closer to Standard Maltese than rural varieties, [31] which have some characteristics that distinguish them from Standard Maltese. They tend to show some archaic features [31] such as the realisation of kh and gh and the imāla of Arabic ā into ē (or ī especially in Gozo), considered archaic because they are reminiscent of 15th-century transcriptions of this sound. [31] Another archaic feature is the realisation of Standard Maltese ā as ō in rural dialects. [31] There is also a tendency to diphthongise simple vowels, e.g., ū becomes eo or eu. [31] Rural dialects also tend to employ more Semitic roots and broken plurals than Standard Maltese. [31] In general, rural Maltese is less distant from its Siculo-Arabic ancestor than is Standard Maltese. [31]



Consonant phonemes [32] [33]
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Pharyngeal Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive p b t d k ɡ ʔ
Affricate t͡s d͡z t͡ʃ d͡ʒ
Fricative f v s z ʃ ʒ ħ
Trill r
Approximant l j w
Vassalli's Storja tas-Sultan Ciru (1831), is an example of Maltese orthography in the 19th century, before the later standardisation introduced in 1924. Note the similarities with the various varieties of romanized Arabic. Silta minn Vassalli.jpg
Vassalli's Storja tas-Sultân Ċiru (1831), is an example of Maltese orthography in the 19th century, before the later standardisation introduced in 1924. Note the similarities with the various varieties of romanized Arabic.

Voiceless stops are only lightly aspirated and voiced stops are fully voiced. Voicing is carried over from the last segment in obstruent clusters; thus, two- and three-obstruent clusters are either voiceless or voiced throughout, e.g. /niktbu/ is realised [ˈniɡdbu] "we write" (similar assimilation phenomena occur in languages like French or Czech). Maltese has final-obstruent devoicing of voiced obstruents and voiceless stops have no audible release, making voiceless–voiced pairs phonetically indistinguishable. [34]

Gemination is distinctive word-medially and word-finally in Maltese. The distinction is most rigid intervocalically after a stressed vowel. Stressed, word-final closed syllables with short vowels end in a long consonant, and those with a long vowel in a single consonant; the only exception is where historic and meant the compensatory lengthening of the succeeding vowel. Some speakers have lost length distinction in clusters. [35]

The two nasals /m/ and /n/ assimilate for place of articulation in clusters. [36] /t/ and /d/ are usually dental, whereas /t͡s d͡z s z n r l/ are all alveolar. /t͡s d͡z/ are found mostly in words of Italian origin, retaining length (if not word-initial). [37] /d͡z/ and /ʒ/ are only found in loanwords, e.g. /ɡad͡zd͡zɛtta/ "newspaper" and /tɛlɛˈviʒin/ "television". [38] The pharyngeal fricative /ħ/ is velar ([ x ]), uvular ([ χ ]), or glottal ([ h ]) for some speakers. [39]


Maltese has five short vowels, /ɐ ɛ ɪ ɔ ʊ/, written a e i o u; six long vowels, /ɐː ɛː ɪː iː ɔː ʊː/, written a, e, ie, i, o, u, all of which (with the exception of ie/ɪː/) can be known to represent long vowels in writing only if they are followed by an orthographic or h (otherwise, one needs to know the pronunciation; e.g. nar (fire) is pronounced /naːr/); and seven diphthongs, /ɐɪ ɐʊ ɛɪ ɛʊ ɪʊ ɔɪ ɔʊ/, written aj or għi, aw or għu, ej or għi, ew, iw, oj, and ow or għu. [4]


Stress is generally on the penultimate syllable, unless some other syllable is heavy (has a long vowel or final consonant), or unless a stress-shifting suffix is added. (Suffixes marking gender, possession, and verbal plurals do not cause the stress to shift).[ clarification needed ] Historically when vowel a and u were long or stressed they were written as â or û, for example in the word baħħâr (sailor) to differentiate from baħħar (to sail), but nowadays these accents are mostly omitted.

When two syllables are equally heavy, the penultimate takes the stress, but otherwise the heavier syllable does, e.g. bajjad[ˈbɐj.jɐt] 'he painted' vs bajjad[bɐj.ˈjɐːt] 'a painter'.

Historical phonology

The original Arabic consonant system has undergone partial collapse under European influence, with many Classical Arabic consonants having undergone mergers and modifications in Maltese:

Classical Arabicت/t/ث/θ/ط/tˤ/د/d/ض/dˤ/ذ/ð/ظ/ðˤ/س/s/ص/sˤ/ح/ħ/خ/χ/ع/ʕ/غ/ɣ/ق/q/ه/h/
Maltese/t//d//s//ħ//Vː//ʔ~k/not pronounced



The modern system of Maltese orthography was introduced in 1924. [40] Below is the Maltese alphabet, with IPA symbols and approximate English pronunciation:

LetterNameIPA (Alphabet Name(s))Maltese exampleIPA (orthographically representing)Approximate English pronunciation
A aaanġlu (angel)ɐ, aː, æːsimilar to 'u' in nut in RP [aː] similar to father in Irish English [æː] similar to cat in American English, in some dialects it may be [ɒː] in some locations as in what in some American English Dialects
B b bebeːballun (ball)bbar, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to [p].
Ċ ċ ċet͡ʃeːċavetta (key)t͡ʃchurch (note: undotted 'c' has been replaced by 'k', so when 'c' does appear, it is to be spoken the same way as 'ċ')
D d dedeːdar (home)dday, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to [t].
E e eenvelopp (envelope)eː, ɛ, øː, ə[e:] somewhat like face in Northern England English [ɛ]end when short, it is often changed to [øː, œ] when following and more often when followed by a w, when at the end in an unstressed syllable it is pronounced as schwa [ə, Vᵊ] comma
F f effeɛf(ː)ᵊfjura (flower)ffar
Ġ ġ ġed͡ʒøːġelat (ice cream)d͡ʒgem, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to [tʃ].
G g gegeːgallettina (biscuit)ɡgame, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to [k].
GĦ għ ajn ajn, æːngħasfur (bird)(ˤ)ː, ħːhas the effect of lengthening and pharyngealising associated vowels (għi and għu are [i̞(ˤ)j] (may be transcribed as [ə(ˤ)j]) and [oˤ]). When found at the end of a word or immediately before 'h' it has the sound of a double 'ħ' (see below).
H h akkaak(ː)ɐhu (he)not pronounced unless it is at the end of a word, in which case it has the sound of 'ħ'.
Ħ ħ ħeħeː, heː, xe:ħanut (shop)ħno English equivalent; sounds similar to /h/ but is articulated with a lowered larynx.
I i iikel (food)i̞ː, iː, ɪ[i̞ː] bite (the way commonly realized in Irish English or [iː] in other words as beet but more forward) and when short as [ɪ] bit, occasionally 'i' is used to display il-vokali tal-leħen(the vowel of the voice) as in words like l-iskola or l-iMdina ,in this case it takes the schwa sound.
IE ie ieiːᵊ, ɛːieqaf (stop)ɛː, iːᵊsounds similar to yield or RP near, or opened up slightly towards bed or RP square
J j jejə, jæ, jɛjum (day)jyard
K k kekə, kæ, kɛkelb (dog)kkettle
L l elleɛl(ː)ᵊlibsa (dress)lline
M m emmeɛm(ː)ᵊmara (woman)mmarch
N n enneɛn(ː)ᵊnanna (granny)nnext
O o oors (bear)o, ɔ, ɒ[o] as in somewhere between similar to Scottish English o in no[ɔ] like 'aw' in RP law, but short or [ɒ] as in water in some American dialects.
P p pepeː, pəpaġna (page, sheet)ppart
Q q qeʔø, ʔ(ʷ)ɛ, ʔ(ʷ)æ, ʔ(ʷ)əqattus (cat)ʔglottal stop, found in the Cockney English pronunciation of "bottle" or the phrase "uh-oh" /ʔʌʔoʊ/.
R r erreɛɹ(ː)ᵊ, æɹ(:)ᵊ, ɚ(ː)ᵊ or ɛr(ː)ᵊ, ær(:)ᵊ, ər(ː)ᵊre (king)r, ɹ[r] as in General American English butter, or ɹ road (r realization changes depending on dialect or location in the word.)
S s esseɛs(ː)ᵊ sliem (peace)ssand
T t teteːtieqa (window)ttired
U u uuː, ʉuviera (egg cup)u, ʉ, ʊ[u] as in General American English boot or in some dialects it may be realized as [ʉ] as in some American English realizations of student, short u is [ʊ] put
V v vevøː, veː, vəvjola (violet)vvast, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to [f] may be said as [w] in the word Iva(yes) sometimes this is just written as Iwa.
W w ve doppja /u doppja/wevedɒp(ː)jɐ, uːdɒp(ː)jɐ, wøːwidna (ear)wwest
X x xeʃə, ʃøːxadina (monkey)ʃ / ʒshade, sometimes as measure; when doubled the sound is elongated, as in "Cash shin" vs. "Cash in".
Ż ż że/żetazə, zø:, ze:t(ɐ)żarbun (shoe)zmaze, but at the end of a word it is devoiced to [s].
Z z zet͡sə, t͡søː, t͡seːt(ɐ)zalza (sauce)t͡s / d͡zpizza

Final vowels with grave accents (à, è, ì, ò, ù) are also found in some Maltese words of Italian origin, such as libertà ("freedom"), sigurtà (old Italian: sicurtà, "security"), or soċjetà (Italianː società, "society").

The official rules governing the structure of the Maltese language are recorded in the official guidebook Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija (English: Knowledge on Writing in Maltese) issued by the Akkademja tal-Malti (Academy of the Maltese language). The first edition of this book was printed in 1924 by the Maltese government's printing press. The rules were further expanded in the 1984 book, iż-Żieda mat-Tagħrif, which focused mainly on the increasing influence of Romance and English words. In 1992 the Academy issued the Aġġornament tat-Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija, which updated the previous works. [41] All these works were included in a revised and expanded guidebook published in 1996.[ citation needed ]

The National Council for the Maltese Language (KNM) is the main regulator of the Maltese language (see Maltese Language Act, below). However, the Academy's orthography rules are still valid and official.

Written Maltese

Since Maltese evolved after the Italo-Normans ended Arab rule of the islands, a written form of the language was not developed for a long time after the Arabs' expulsion in the middle of the thirteenth century. Under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller, 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 being regarded as the next-most important language.

In the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, philologists and academics such as Mikiel Anton Vassalli made a concerted effort to standardise written Maltese. Many examples of written Maltese exist from before this period, always in the Latin alphabet, Il-Kantilena from the 15th century being the earliest example of written Maltese. In 1934, Maltese was recognised as an official language.


The Maltese language has a tendency to have both Semitic vocabulary and also vocabulary derived from Romance languages, primarily Italian. Words such as tweġiba (Arab origin) and risposta (Italian origin) have the same meaning (answer) but can and are both used in Maltese. Below are two versions of the same translations, one in vocabulary derived mostly from Semitic root words while the other uses Romance loanwords (from the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe , see p. 17):

EnglishMaltese (Semitic vocabulary)Maltese (Romance vocabulary)

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

L-Għaqda hija mibnija fuq is-siwi ta' għadir għall-ġieħ il-bniedem, ta' ħelsien, ta' għażil il-ġemgħa, ta' ndaqs bejn il-ġnus, tas-saltna tad-dritt [lower-alpha 1] u tal-għadir għall-ħaqq tal-bniedem, wkoll il-ħaqq ta' wħud li huma f'minoranzi. [lower-alpha 2] Dan is-siwi huwa mqassam bejn il-Pajjiżi [lower-alpha 3] Msieħba, f'nies li tħaddan il-kotrija, li ma tgħejjibx, li ddann, li tgħaqqad u li tiżen indaqs in-nisa u l-irġiel.

L-Unjoni hija bbażata fuq il-valuri tar-rispett għad-dinjità tal-bniedem, il-libertà, id-demokrazija, l-ugwaljanza, l-istat tad-dritt u r-rispett għad-drittijiet tal-bniedem, inklużi d-drittijiet ta' persuni li jagħmlu parti minn minoranzi. Dawn il-valuri huma komuni għall-Istati Membri f'soċjetà fejn jipprevalu l-pluraliżmu, in-non-diskriminazzjoni, it-tolleranza, il-ġustizzja, is-solidarjetà u l-ugwaljanza bejn in-nisa u l-irġiel.


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). [42]

The historical source of modern Maltese vocabulary is 52% Italian/Sicilian, 32% Siculo-Arabic, and 6% English, with some of the remainder being French. [10] [43] Today, most function words are Semitic, so despite only making up about a third, they are the most used among Maltese people when conversing. In this way, it is similar to English, which is a Germanic language that had large influence from Norman French and Latin (58% of English vocabulary). As a result of this, Romance language-speakers may easily be able to comprehend conceptual 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 functional sentence such as "Ir-raġel qiegħed fid-dar" (The man is in the house), which would be easily understood by any Arabic speaker.


An analysis of the etymology of the 41,000 words in Aquilina's Maltese-English Dictionary shows that words of Romance origin make up 52% of the Maltese vocabulary, [10] although other sources claim from as low as 40%, [11] to as high as 55%. This vocabulary tends to deal with more complex concepts. They are mostly derived from Sicilian and thus exhibit Sicilian phonetic characteristics, such as /u/ in place of /o/, and /i/ in place of /e/ (e.g. tiatru not teatro and fidi not fede). Also, as with Old Sicilian, /ʃ/ (English 'sh') is written 'x' and this produces spellings such as: ambaxxata/ambaʃːaːta/ ('embassy'), xena/ʃeːna/ ('scene' cf. Italian ambasciata, scena).

Maltese Sicilian Italian English
rerereking (Germanic)

A tendency in modern Maltese is to adopt further influences from English and Italian. Complex Latinate English words adopted into Maltese are often given Italianate or Sicilianate forms, [10] even if the resulting words do not appear in either of those languages. For instance, the words "evaluation", "industrial action", and "chemical armaments" become "evalwazzjoni", "azzjoni industrjali", and "armamenti kimiċi" in Maltese, while the Italian terms are valutazione, vertenza sindacale, and armi chimiche respectively. (The origin of the terms may be narrowed even further to British English; the phrase "industrial action" is meaningless in the United States.) This is also comparable to the situation with English borrowings into the Italo-Australian dialect. English words of Germanic origin are generally preserved relatively unchanged.

Some influences of African Romance on Arabic and Berber spoken in the Maghreb are theorised, which may then have passed into Maltese. [44] For example, in calendar month names, the word furar "February" is only found in the Maghreb and in Maltese - proving the word's ancient origins. The region also has a form of another Latin named month in awi/ussu < augustus. [44] This word does not appear to be a loan word through Arabic, and may have been taken over directly from Late Latin or African Romance. [44] Scholars theorise that a Latin-based system provided forms such as awi/ussu and furar in African Romance, with the system then mediating Latin/Romance names through Arabic for some month names during the Islamic period. [45] The same situation exists for Maltese which mediated words from Italian, and retains both non-Italian forms such as awissu/awwissu and frar, and Italian forms such as april. [45]


Siculo-Arabic is the ancestor of the Maltese language, [10] and supplies between 32% [10] and 40% [11] of the language's vocabulary.

Maltese Siculo-Arabic
(in Sicilian)
Arabic textEnglish
bebbuxubabbaluciuببوش (babbūš)
ġiebjagebbiaجب (jabb)cistern
ġunġliengiuggiulenaجنجلان (junjulān)sesame seed
saqqajjasaiaساقية (sāqiyah)canal
kenurtanuraتنور (tannūr)oven
żagħfranzaffaranaزعفران (zaʿfarān) saffron
żahrazagaraزهرة (zahrah)blossom
żbibzibbibbuزبيب (zabīb)raisins
zokkzuccuساق (sāq)tree trunk
tebuttabbutuتابوت (tābūt)coffin
kapunatacaponata(non-Arabic origin) caponata
qassatacassata Cassata

Żammit (2000) found that 40% of a sample of 1,821 Quranic Arabic roots were found in Maltese, a lower percentage than found in Moroccan (58%) and Lebanese Arabic (72%). [46] An analysis of the etymology of the 41,000 words in Aquilina's Maltese-English Dictionary shows that 32% of the Maltese vocabulary is of Arabic origin, [10] although another source claims 40%. [11] [47] Usually, words expressing basic concepts and ideas, such as raġel (man), mara (woman), tifel (boy), dar (house), xemx (sun), sajf (summer), are of Arabic origin. Moreover, belles-lettres in Maltese tend to aim mainly at diction belonging to this group. [31]

The Maltese language has merged many of the original Arabic consonants, in particular the emphatic consonants, with others that are common in European languages. Thus, original Arabic /d/, /ð/, and /dˤ/ all merged into Maltese /d/. The vowels, however, separated from the three in Arabic (/a i u/) into five, as is more typical of other European languages (/a ɛ i o u/). Some unstressed short vowels have been elided. The common Arabic greeting as salāmu 'alaykum is cognate with is-sliem għalikom in Maltese (lit. the peace for you, peace be with you), as are similar greetings in other Semitic languages (e.g. shalom ʿalekhem in Hebrew).

Since the attested vocabulary of Siculo-Arabic is limited, the following table compares cognates in Maltese and some other varieties of Arabic (all forms are written phonetically, as in the source): [48]

Maltese Cairene Damascene Iraqi
MoroccanModern Standard ArabicEnglish
qalb'alb'alebqalbgalbgalbqalbقلب (qalb)heart
waqtwa'twa'etwagtwagtwaqtوقت (waqt)time
qamar'amar'amarqamaɣgumargamarqmarقمر (qamar)moon
kelbkalbkalebkalbčalbkalbkalbكلب (kalb)dog


It is estimated that English loanwords, which are becoming more commonplace, make up 20% of the Maltese vocabulary, [11] although other sources claim amounts as low as 6%. [10] This percentage discrepancy is due to the fact that a number of new English loanwords are sometimes not officially considered part of the Maltese vocabulary; hence, they are not included in certain dictionaries. [10] Also, English loanwards of Latinate origin are very often Italianised, as discussed above. English loanwords are generally transliterated, although standard English pronunciation is virtually always retained. Below are a few examples:


"Fridge" is a common shortening of "refrigerator". "Refrigerator" is a Latinate word which could be imported into Maltese as rifriġeratori, whereas the Italian word is frigorifero or refrigeratore.


The days of the week (Maltese: jiem il-ġimgħa) in Maltese are referred to by number, as is typical of other Semitic languages, especially Arabic. Days of the week are commonly preceded by the word nhar meaning 'day'.

MondayIt-Tnejnsecond [day]
TuesdayIt-Tlietathird [day]
WednesdayL-Erbgħafourth [day]
ThursdayIl-Ħamisfifth [day]
FridayIl-Ġimgħasixth [day]
SaturdayIs-SibtSeventh [day]
SundayIl-Ħaddfirst [day]

The months of the year (Maltese: xhur is-sena) in Maltese are mostly derived from Sicilian, but Frar and Awwissu are possibly derived from African Romance through Siculo-Arabic.



dayjum or ġurnata

Question words

What (standalone)XiexXiex?What?
What (preceding)X'X' għamilt?What did you do?
WhoMinMin hu dak?Who is he?
HowKifKif inti llum?How are you today?
WhereFejnFejn sejjer?Where are you going?
Where (from)MnejnMnejn ġie?Where did he come from?
WhyGħala, Għaliex, Għalxiex, IlgħalaGħala telaq?Why did he leave?
WhichLiem, LiemaLiem wieħed hu tajjeb?Which one is good?
WhenMetaMeta ħa titlaq?When will you leave?
How MuchKemmKemm jiswa dan?How much does this cost?


Maltese grammar is fundamentally derived from Siculo-Arabic, although Romance and English noun pluralisation patterns are also used on borrowed words.

Adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives follow nouns. There are no separately formed native adverbs, and word order is fairly flexible. Both nouns and adjectives of Semitic origin take the definite article (for example, It-tifel il-kbir, lit. "The boy the elder"="The elder boy"). This rule does not apply to adjectives of Romance origin.


Nouns are pluralised and also have a dual marker. Semitic plurals are complex; if they are regular, they are marked by -iet/-ijiet, e.g., art, artijiet "lands (territorial possessions or property)" (cf. Arabic -at and Hebrew -ot/-oth) or -in (cf. Arabic -īn and Hebrew -im). If irregular, they fall in the pluralis fractus (broken plural) category, in which a word is pluralised by internal vowel changes: ktieb, kotba " book", "books"; raġel, irġiel "man", "men".

Words of Romance origin are usually pluralised in two manners: addition of -i or -jiet. For example, lingwa, lingwi "languages", from Sicilian lingua, lingui.

Words of English origin are pluralised by adding either an "-s" or "-jiet", for example, friġġ, friġis from the word fridge. Some words can be pluralised with either of the suffixes to denote the plural. A few words borrowed from English can amalgamate both suffixes, like brikksa from the English brick, which can adopt either collective form brikks or the plural form brikksiet.


As in Arabic, nouns are often derived by changing, adding or removing the vowels within a triliteral root. These are some of the patterns used for nouns: [49]

  • CaCiC - xadin (monkey), sadid (rust)
  • CCiC - żbib (raisin)
  • CaCCa - baqra (cow), basla (onion)
  • CeCCa - werqa (leaf), xewqa (wish)
  • CoCCa - borka (wild duck), forka (gallows)
  • CaCC - qalb (heart), sajd (fishing)
  • CeCC - kelb (dog), xemx (sun)
  • CCuCija - tfulija (boyhood), xbubija (maidenhood)
  • CCuCa - rtuba (softness), bjuda (whiteness)
  • CaCCaC - tallab (beggar), bajjad (whitewasher)

The so-called mimated nouns use the prefix m- in addition to vowel changes. This pattern can be used to indicate place names, tools, abstractions, etc. These are some of the patterns used for mimated nouns:

  • ma-CCeC - marden (spindle)
  • mi-CCeC - minkeb (elbow), miżwed (pod)
  • mu-CCaC - musmar (nail), munqar (beak)


The proclitic il- is the definite article, equivalent to "the" in English and "al-" in Arabic.

The Maltese article becomes l- before or after a vowel.

The Maltese article assimilates to a following coronal consonant (called konsonanti xemxin "sun consonants"), namely:

Maltese il- is coincidentally identical in pronunciation to one of the Italian masculine articles, il. Consequently, many nouns borrowed from Standard Italian did not change their original article when used in Maltese. Romance vocabulary taken from Sicilian did change where the Sicilian articles u and a, before a consonant, are used. In spite of its Romance appearance, il- is related to the Arabic article al- .[ citation needed ]


Verbs show a triliteral Semitic pattern, in which a verb is conjugated with prefixes, suffixes, and infixes (for example ktibna, Arabic katabna, Hebrew kathabhnu (Modern Hebrew: katavnu) "we wrote"). There are two tenses: present and perfect. The Maltese verb system incorporates Romance verbs and adds Maltese suffixes and prefixes to them, for example; iddeċidejna "we decided" ← (i)ddeċieda "decide", a Romance verb + -ejna, a Maltese first person plural perfect marker.

An example would be the Semitic root X-M-X, which has something related to the sun, example: xemx (sun), xmux (suns), xemxi (sunny), xemxata (sunstroke), nixxemmex (I sunbathe), ma xxemmixtx (I didn't sunbathe), tixmix (the act of sunbathing). Maltese also features the stringing of verb suffixes indicating direction of action, for example; agħmilhomli "make them for me"← agħmel "make" in the imperative + hom from huma "them" + li suffix indicating first person singular; ħasletielu "she washed it for him"←ħaslet "she washed" from the verb ħasel "to wash" + ie the object + lu suffix indicating third person masculine singular.


With Malta being a multilingual country, the usage of Maltese in the mass media is shared with other European languages, namely English and Italian. The majority of television stations broadcast from Malta in English or Maltese, although broadcasts from Italy in Italian are also received on the islands. Similarly, there are more Maltese-language radio programs than English ones broadcast from Malta, but again, as with television, Italian broadcasts are also picked up. Maltese generally receives equal usage in newspaper periodicals to English.

By the early 2000s, the use of the Maltese language on the Internet is uncommon, and the number of websites written in Maltese are few. In a survey of Maltese cultural websites conducted in 2004 on behalf of the Maltese Government, 12 of 13 were in English only, while the remaining one was multilingual but did not include Maltese. [50]


The Maltese population, being fluent in both Maltese and English, displays code-switching (referred to as Maltenglish) in certain localities and between certain social groups. [10]

See also


  1. Dritt (pl. drittijiet) is derived from Italian diritto (right).
  2. Minoranza (pl. minoranzi) is derived from Italian minoranza (minority).
  3. Pajjiż (pl. pajjiżi) is derived from Sicilian pajisi (country).


  1. 1 2 3 4 Maltese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. "Constitution of Malta" . Retrieved 3 December 2017.
  3. So who are the 'real' Maltese. September 13, 2014. Archived from the original on 2016-03-12. The kind of Arabic used in the Maltese language is most likely derived from the language spoken by those that repopulated the island from Sicily in the early second millennium; it is known as Siculo-Arab. The Maltese are mostly descendants of these people.
  4. 1 2 Borg and Azzopardi-Alexander, 1997 (1997). Maltese. Routledge. p. xiii. ISBN   978-0-415-02243-9. In fact, Maltese displays some areal traits typical of Maghrebine Arabic, although over the past 800 years of independent evolution it has drifted apart from Tunisian Arabic
  5. Brincat (2005): "Originally Maltese was an Arabic dialect but it was immediately exposed to Latinisation because the Normans conquered the islands in 1090, while Christianisation, which was complete by 1250, cut off the dialect from contact with Classical Arabic. Consequently Maltese developed on its own, slowly but steadily absorbing new words from Sicilian and Italian according to the needs of the developing community."
  6. Hoberman, Robert D. (2007). "Chapter 13: Maltese Morphology". In Kaye, Alan S. (ed.). Morphologies of Asia and Africa. Vol. 1. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrown. p. 258. ISBN   9781575061092. Archived from the original on 2017-09-30. Maltese is the chief exception: Classical or Standard Arabic is irrelevant in the Maltese linguistic community and there is no diglossia.
  7. "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: ara".
  8. Hoberman, Robert D. (2007). "Chapter 13: Maltese Morphology". In Kaye, Alan S. (ed.). Morphologies of Asia and Africa. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrown. pp. 257–258. ISBN   9781575061092. Archived from the original on 2017-09-30. yet it is in its morphology that Maltese also shows the most elaborate and deeply embedded influence from the Romance languages, Sicilian and Italian, with which it has long been in intimate contact.... As a result Maltese is unique and different from Arabic and other Semitic languages.
  9. Brincat (2005): "An analysis of the etymology of the 41,000 words in Aquilina's Maltese-English Dictionary shows that 32.41% are of Arabic origin, 52.46% are from Sicilian and Italian, and 6.12% are from English. Although nowadays we know that all languages are mixed to varying degrees, this is quite an unusual formula. However, the words derived from Arabic are more frequent because they denote the basic ideas and include the function words."
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Brincat (2005).
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 "Languages across Europe - Maltese, Malti". BBC. Archived from the original on 13 September 2017. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  12. "Mutual Intelligibility of Spoken Maltese, Libyan Arabic and Tunisian Arabic Functionally Tested: A Pilot Study". p. 1. Retrieved 23 September 2017. To summarise our findings, we might observe that when it comes to the most basic everyday language, as reflected in our data sets, speakers of Maltese are able to understand less than a third of what is being said to them in either Tunisian or Benghazi Libyan Arabic.
  13. Borg, Albert J.; Azzopardi-Alexander, Marie (1997). Maltese. Routledge. ISBN   0-415-02243-6.
  14. "Mutual Intelligibility of Spoken Maltese, Libyan Arabic and Tunisian Arabic Functionally Tested: A Pilot Study". p. 1. Retrieved 23 September 2017. Speakers of Tunisian and Libyan Arabic are able to understand about 40% of what is said to them in Maltese.
  15. "Mutual Intelligibility of Spoken Maltese, Libyan Arabic and Tunisian Arabic Functionally Tested: A Pilot Study". p. 1. Retrieved 23 September 2017. In comparison, speakers of Libyan Arabic and speakers of Tunisian Arabic understand about two-thirds of what is being said to them.
  16. The Cantilena. 2013-10-19. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08.
  17. Il-Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti. Archived from the original on 2014-01-06. Fundamentally, Maltese is a Semitic tongue, the same as Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Ethiopian. However, unlike other Semitic languages, Maltese is written in the Latin alphabet, but with the addition of special characters to accommodate certain Semitic sounds. Nowadays, however, there is much in the Maltese language today that is not Semitic, due to the immeasurable Romantic influence from our succession of (Southern) European rulers through the ages.
  18. 1 2 3 Brincat (2005)
  19. Felice, A. E. (5 August 2007). "Genetic origin of contemporary Maltese". Times of Malta . Archived from the original on 9 November 2019. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  20. Capelli, C.; et al. (Mar 2006). "Population structure in the Mediterranean basin: a Y chromosome perspective". Ann. Hum. Genet. 70 (2): 207–225. doi:10.1111/j.1529-8817.2005.00224.x. hdl: 2108/37090 . PMID   16626331. S2CID   25536759.
  21. 1 2 3 4 L-Akkademja tal-Malti. "The Maltese Language Academy". Archived from the original on 2015-09-23.
  22. 1 2 3 Agius, D. A. (1990). "Reviewed Work: A Contribution to Arabic Lexical Dialectology by Al-Miklem Malti". Bull. Br. Soc. Middle East. Stud. 17 (2): 171–180. doi:10.1080/13530199008705515. JSTOR   194709.
  23. Cassola, A. (June 2012). "Italo-Maltese relations (ca. 1150–1936): people, culture, literature, language". Mediterr. Rev. 5 (1): 1–20. ISSN   2005-0836.
  24. "As at the 2006 Australian Census, the number of Australians speaking Maltese at home was 36,514, compared to 41,250 in 2001 and 45,243 in 1996. The 2006 figures represent a drop of 19.29% when compared with the 1996 figures. Given that many of those who speak Maltese at home are over the age of 60, the number of Maltese speakers will invariably go for a nosedive by 2016." Joseph Carmel Chetcuti, Why It's time to bury the Maltese language in Australia, Malta Independent, 2 March 2010.
  25. Nigel Mifsud, Malta's Ambassador meets Maltese who have lived their whole life in Tunisia, TVM, 13 November 2017.
  26. Merritt Ruhlen. 1991. A Guide to the World's Languages, Volume 1: Classification. Stanford.
    David Dalby. 2000. The Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech Communities. Linguasphere Observatory.
    Gordon, Raymond G., Jr., ed. 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 15th ed. Summer Institute of Linguistics.
    Alan S. Kaye & Judith Rosenhouse. 1997. "Arabic Dialects and Maltese", The Semitic Languages. Ed. Robert Hetzron. Routledge. Pages 263–311.
  27. Borg (1997).
  28. Vella (2004), p. 263.
  29. "Punic language". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 2013. Archived from the original on 15 June 2013. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
  30. Sheehan, Sean (12 January 2017). Malta. Marshall Cavendish. ISBN   9780761409939 . Retrieved 12 January 2017 via Google Books.
  31. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Isserlin. Studies in Islamic History and Civilization. BRILL 1986, ISBN   965-264-014-X
  32. Hume (1996), p. 165.
  33. Borg (1997), p. 248.
  34. Borg (1997), pp. 249–250.
  35. Borg (1997), pp. 251–252.
  36. Borg (1997), p. 255.
  37. Borg (1997), p. 254.
  38. Borg (1997), p. 247.
  39. Borg (1997), p. 260.
  40. Auroux, Sylvain (2000). History of the language sciences: an international handbook on the evolution of the study of language from the beginnings to the present. Berlin: New York : Walter de Gruyter. ISBN   978-3-11-011103-3.
  41. Mifsud, Manwel (1995). Loan Verbs in Maltese: A Descriptive and Comparative Study. Brill Publishers. p. 31. ISBN   978-90-04-10091-6.
  42. Friggieri (1994), p. 59.
  43. About Malta [ permanent dead link ]; GTS; retrieved on 2008-02-24
  44. 1 2 3 Kossman 2013, p. 75.
  45. 1 2 Kossman 2013, p. 76.
  46. Żammit (2000), pp. 241–245.
  47. Compare with approx. 25–33% of Old English or Germanic words in Modern English.
  48. Kaye, Alan S.; Rosenhouse, Judith (1997). "Arabic Dialects and Maltese". In Hetzron, Robert (ed.). The Semitic Languages. Routledge. pp. 263–311.
  49. "Teach Yourself Maltese Joseph Aquilina".
  50. "Country report for MINERVA Plus in 2005". Multilingual issues in Malta. Archived from the original on 2008-02-27. Retrieved 2008-02-24.

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