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If you have never been to Malta, you must go

Not a terrible place to visit (AP Photo/Lino Azzopardi)

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is to take place shortly in Malta, and to mark the occasion The Economist has published an explainer on the origins of the Maltese language. 

This magazine, and this writer, have always taken a very strong interest in all things to do with the Maltese Islands, so a few observations cannot be resisted.

The Maltese language was, until very recently, a lingua di cucina, that is to say, a language that existed primarily in spoken form, and whose grammar and spelling were formalised rather late in the day. While there were folk songs, poems and even novels in Maltese before the 19th century, until the 20th century the literary language of Malta was Italian. Maltese only became the official language of Malta in 1934. It was the British who brought this about, wishing to demote Italian, until then the language of the law courts, and to delegitimise the Maltese fascist movement, which wanted Malta to be part of Italy.

Nevertheless, Maltese people born in the 1920’s, whom I spoke to back in the day, all told me that they spoke Maltese at home, and English at school; though they understood Italian, it was not the language of the home. Malta has always been bilingual, but probably never trilingual. In the eighteenth century, when the Knightrs of St John ruled the islands, French was widely spoken, as most of the Knights were French.

Malta was, until 1964, ruled by foreigners, none of whom ever mastered the language. It is said that only one Grand Master ever spoke Maltese, and that was the last one, the unlucky Ferdinand von Hompesch, who was expelled by Napoleon in 1798. The British, who learned languages like Swahili and Gujurati, were stumped by Maltese, though the Maltese themselves, early on under British rule, learned English. One such was the Blessed Ignatius Falzon, who mastered English so he could catechise the British troops. Because the Maltese were so keen to speak English, one supposes the English never bothered to learn Maltese.

Maltese is a Semitic language. A Maltese speaker can make himself understood in places as far away as Syria, as well as in neighbouring Libya. There used to be a myth peddled that Maltese was the last surviving remnant of the language of the Phoenicians, and that the inhabitants of the islands, like the Lebanese, were Phoenician in origin, rather than Arab or Italian.

Lord Strickland, Malta’s Prime Minister from 1927-1932, supposedly held this, though it has no real historical basis. But it was a politically useful myth, as Lord Strickland was an early proponent of the integration of the Maltese Islands with Britain. After all, hadn’t the Phoenicians sailed as far as Cornwall? Gerald Strickland is one of the most interesting figures in twentieth century Maltese history, but he is largely forgotten these days. The son of a Maltese mother, I am not sure he could speak Maltese. His daughter Mabel certainly could not.

As the Economist rightly observes, the Maltese language is a dialect of Arabic, and was once spoken all over Sicily, and its neighbouring islands such as Pantelleria and Lampedusa. As such it represents a fascinating historical survival. When I was in Africa I was fascinated to see how Swahili and Maltese have rather a lot in common, at least with regard to vocabulary, as Swahili was originally the language of Arab traders. Again, Maltese place names are echoed all over the Middle East: Rabat, Mdina, Zejtun… that last means a place with an oil press, and occurs in Egypt and Palestine, though the transliteration may be different.

The language also contains quite a few words that have been adopted from other tongues and which are spelled as they sound, according to the logic of Maltese orthography. Xmundifer, a railway (chemin de fer), is one of my favourites. Sadly, the Maltese railway closed down many years ago, so one never gets a chance to use it, though one can still ask Fejn hi x-xarabank, jekk joghgbok? (“Where is the bus, please?”) though this would mark you out as somewhat old-fashioned, the word for bus now being “tal-linja” (“of the line”) rather than “charabanc”. The advance of neologisms has not spared Malta, alas.

Many foreigners, in my experience, are a little sniffy about Maltese. They find the orthography daunting, though it only takes about five minutes to grasp it, thanks to its innate logic. They also claim it is guttural. For me, it is beautiful, because its words evoke the lovely places of my childhood, that Garden of Eden to which I can never return. Think of the word Ghajn, repeated again and again in so many place names. It is pronounced like the German “Ein” and means spring. Anyone who has ever lived in a country where rain is a rare event will know the joy of places where water springs from the earth. Which reminds me, as a tiny child the very first word of Maltese I ever learned was ilma (water); there is not so much of it in the Maltese Islands, but when you find it, it is a joy.

If you have read this far, and have never been to the Maltese Islands, trust me, you need to go. And if you have been, then you need to go again. As do I.