Posts Tagged ‘Semitic languages’

The Maltese Fact Hunt

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been to Malta twice. Once when Warner Bros. were paying (don’t ask) and once when Sheffield United were paying (don’t ask). Or possibly the Maltese government, I don’t know (don’t ask; I’m not really as exciting as these random snippets make me sound). On both occasions I spoke English. Defiantly so, in fact. Although what I was defying, I’m not really sure, since Malta is officially bilingual and the ling of those bies which isn’t Maltese is English.

Since I last went to Malta, in 2009, I have started learning Arabic. In fact, looking back at my old notebooks, it looks like I started learning Arabic only a month or so after returning from Malta, though the two weren’t connected.

Maltese is something of a curiosity. It’s a Semitic language, an offshoot of Arabic in much the way that English harks ultimately from an ancient German language, and French, Spanish, Portuguese and so on from Latin. The big difference with Maltese being that its ancestor, Classical Arabic – or something very much like it – is still spoken today. By about 300 million people.

The fact that Maltese is a descendant of Arabic tends to surprise even a lot of very knowledgeable, well-travelled folks, though does elicit knowing nods from those who’ve been there and witnessed its truly unpronounceable place names.

That’s not a prank. (For the record, it’s pronounced ‘Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx’.)

The oddity of Maltese is more than just a linguistic claim to fame, though. It reflects the islands’ importance out of all proportion to their size, and their central location at the crossroads of history: its people have been Christian since Roman times but speak a language derived from a form of Arabic that arrived centuries later; it’s a country where 98% of the population is Catholic but call their god Allah. Separating it, ultimately, from Arabic (or more accurately the other Arabic dialects) is the influence in the interim of the Normans, Italians and British.

Given that I’ve been to Malta (and, in fact, my late grandmother grew up there, and spoke Maltese in her youth) and that I’ve since reached a level of Arabic where not only can I butcher the language but where people will know I’m doing it, I was curious as to how similar the two actually remain. So, today, on a short soiree to the library to get out of the rain, I picked up a somewhat ancient copy of Teach Yourself Maltese. (Indeed, there is no less ancient copy; it was written in the 1960s and is long out of print – supply and demand and tiny island with unpronounceable place names and all that.) Since Sheffield Library recently installed self-service machines, and I can now take out books about languages without being asked inane questions about “Going there on holiday?” (it makes me very sad to have to avoid libraries for the same reason I avoid hairdressers, but such is the way of the world), I decided to borrow it and bring it home with me for a fuller analysis.

I already had a vague idea of how the letters of the Latin alphabet used to write Maltese might correspond to the Arabic script, and this proved to be more or less the case, with a few difficult to guess ones (like ‘x’, pronounced sh, apparently) finally explained (though a few inconsistent variations in equivalents seem to exist). I started flicking through the sample vocabulary and phrases, finding many similarities: Maltese baħar ‘sea’ (Bahrain means ‘two seas’, from the same root), daar ‘house’ (Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania means ‘House of Peace’), layl ‘night’ (origin of the name Layla; the 1,001 Arabian Nights are known in Arabic as Alf Layla wa-Layla; don’t know who Alf was or why there were two Laylas), and gżira ‘island’ (from the Arabic equivalent of which comes Al-Jazeera) all being essentially identical. I expected nouns to be similar, but even verbs – qara ‘he read’ (the name of the Qur’an just means ‘reading’ – it comes from exactly this word) – and short phrases proved similarly recognisable. Obviously, the longer the phrase, the more English and Italian loanwords crept in and the more my understanding declined accordingly (from the Italian, you swines, and the overall effect of the changed word balance – not from the English).

I daresay pronunciation varies a bit, so I’m not sure how much actual, live Maltese I’d be able to understand if attempting to communicate in person – certainly very little if attempted at anything like normal talking speed – but I still find it fascinating that Maltese still displays such similarity to a language from which it diverged much as English long ago split from the ancestors of German, Dutch, and Geordie. And look how distant and incomprehensible those languages have become to one another since.

I can’t say this exercise has achieved a great deal – other than, you know, providing me a bit more trivia in a life built around its pursuit – but I’ve tended to find the principle of ‘drinking from many wells’ is a worthwhile one, particularly when it comes to languages. Some concepts obscure or difficult to comprehend in one language – like when is it ‘I’ and when is it ‘me’ in English and why do they differ (answer: because of case) – are better illustrated and might be more easily understood in languages where they’re used more broadly – such as, in this case, Greek, Russian, or  Yankunytjatjara (yeah, yeah, yeah, I got that last one off Wikipedia) – and grasping the concept doesn’t always require learning the language in any comprehensive sense. Perhaps my afternoon spent taking the comparative approach to Semitic languages will do something to reinforce my vague understanding of Arabic.

As far as Maltese goes, though, I’m not really in a position to do much more than make the odd (fairly confident) guess at the meaning of a few basic words, and the odd (rather less confident) stab at pronunciation. To take our earlier example – Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx – I can now say confidently it’s probably something to do with the sunset, and rather less confidently that it’s probably pronounced something like: ترجقت انزل الشمش

Roughly speaking.