History of the Maltese Language

Only half a million people speak Maltese. It’s the official language of Malta and one of the official EU languages since 2004. Maltese is the only Semitic language in Europe. It has a strong influence from Roman languages – mainly via Italian – and from English, as well. This influence is noticed in all aspects of the language. Maltese became official in independent Malta in 1936, along with English.

Origins

Maltese derives from the Arabic languages, being the only Semitic language in Europe. It was 'inherited' after the Arab domination of those parts of Europe – domination which linguistically affected the Iberian Peninsula to a major degree. The language has suffered a huge impact from Sicilian Italian. Later, it was also influenced by English in terms of grammar and vocabulary, until both languages were declared official in 1936.

Official Language

Maltese has been official for the independent state of Malta ever since 1936, though it shares the title with English. The language is also spoken in Gibraltar.

Varieties

Maltese doesn’t have many dialects, and this is quite logical. Native speakers of the language number about 500,000. On the other hand, Maltese is a language which only became official less than a century ago. Still, a slight variety can be differentiated within the speakers in Gibraltar.

Brief History

The history of Maltese is followed back to the Arab invasion of south-western Europe. After the domination of the Arabs finally ended, a distinct dialect remained on the Islands of Malta. It quickly mixed with Sicilian Italian. Moreover, the clergy language being Latin made the fusion even quicker.

The language developed throughout the centuries as a local tongue – the islands had barely seen independence. It had no written form, which explains the lack of early written documents. Latin was used as its graphic expression, and in fact a written document in Maltese can be dated back to the 15th Century – a poem called 'Il Cantilena'.

In 1936, Maltese was declared the official language of the state of Malta. Some say it was more an act of establishing English domination versus Italian impact. Nevertheless, the state was finally independent, and its second official language was English. After Malta joined the European Union in 2004, Maltese entered the family of EU languages.

Did you know?

Maltese is spoken by 400,000 people in Malta, as well as immigrants in the United States, Australia, Gibraltar and Canada. It was reported that this unique language is still spoken by Maltese descendants in Tunisia.

For the last four centuries before its establishment as official, Maltese was the only language to co-use the Arab alphabet together with Latin to graphically express itself.

The only Semitic language in Europe symbolises a culture which is, unfortunately, accepted with apathy by a considerable part of the population of the country. Some believe the reason is the lack of sufficient written evidence of the history of that culture, and of some solid identity background, easily separable from Italy or Britain.