If you’ve been hanging around our social media, you may have noticed that Maltese is our language of the week! One of Malta’s two official languages, Maltese holds the unique position of being the only Semitic language that is also an official language of the EU. But Malta’s tumultuous history has led to many other languages, including English, having a significant impact on the development of Maltese. In today’s post, you’ll find out all about Maltese’s linguistic history, what Maltenglish is, and why code-switching is significant, no matter its context.
Lying between Sicily and Tunisia, Malta is a small archipelago with three main, inhabited islands—Malta, Gozo, and Comino. Malta’s capital, Valletta, is the smallest European Union capital (by area) and with a population of just under 500,000 people, it is also the smallest EU country in this regard.
However, it has had a fascinating history. Malta has historically had great importance as a naval base because its location, in the centre of the Mediterranean, is very strategic. As a result, the country has been ruled by a number of powers, including the Phonecians and Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, and British.
So, just a few!
All of this, as well as obviously having an impact on the culture and make-up of the modern Republic of Malta, has also had a huge impact on the language. Maltese has been changed as a result of who has been in power and when. However, the way in which the language is used—and which languages are used in which situations, have also been affected.
First of all, what is Maltese?
Maltese, like Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew, is a Semitic language. Out of all of these, Maltese is the only language to be written with the Latin script, despite the fact that, generally, most Semitic languages have had their own written forms from very early historical dates.
As a result of the Norman invasion in 1090, Maltese began to develop independently of Classical Arabic, moving away from its roots. This was taken further with the expulsion of all Muslims from the archipelago by 1292, which isolated Maltese from Arabic speakers. However, modern Maltese takes about one-third of its vocabulary from the Arabic base.
Italian and Sicilian then became the languages to influence Maltese heavily—today, about half of all Maltese vocabulary is derived from these languages. This has affected the way in which words are formed, as Romance languages do that in a different way to Semitic ones.
After this, we have the influence of English. In 1814, Malta became part of the British Empire, serving as a shipping way-station and fleet headquarters. This has led to English being one of the more recent influences on Maltese, with English words making up between 6% and 20% of Maltese vocabulary.
So, Maltese itself is interesting in that all of these different languages have come together to make it what it is today, but its contact with English, specifically, has led to another phenomenon.
Code-switching: The rise of Maltenglish
Maltenglish is the phenomenon of code-switching between Maltese and English.
If you don’t know what code-switching is, it is when a person who (usually) speaks two or more languages switches between them. There are many reasons for this, though they primarily fall under five categories: switching inadvertently (out of fear, for example); switching to fit in (at work, or with friends); switching to get something you want; switching to say something in secret; or switching because it is easier to talk about things in one language or another.
So, while this does often happen when someone speaks more than one language, it can also occur within a language. This is often the case in English where a speaker is a person of colour and interacting with people of a different ethnic group to themselves. Depending on your gender, class, race—or anything else—it is likely many people have had to code-switch at some point in their lives.
Back to Maltenglish
Maltenglish, as a case of code-switching between two languages, appears to be that (generally) speakers are switching for ease of communication.
This especially seems to be true by the way in which the code-switching takes place. As 88% of Maltese people can understand English, code-switching can happen in one of two ways: either, Maltese words are subbed into an English sentence (i.e. where the grammar is based on English); or, English words are subbed into a Maltese sentence.
For example, the English sentence, ‘The actor of that film took the limo to meet the director,’ translates in Maltese to, ‘L-attur ta’ dak il-film mar jiltaqa’ mad-direttur bil-limużin.’
In Maltenglish, this would most likely be said this way: ‘L-actor ta’ dak il-film mar jiltaqa’ mad-director bil-limo.’ Here we can see that the words ‘actor’, ‘director’ and ‘limo’ have been used in the place of the Maltese words ‘attur’, ‘direttur’, and ‘limużin’—so English words have been subbed into a Maltese sentence.
The other way around, then: the English sentence ‘So tell him I’m coming now, you know, because I can’t make it tomorrow’, in Maltese, is, ‘Mela għidlu li ġejja issa, ta, għax ma nistax għada.’ In Maltenglish, a speaker might say, ‘Mela tell him I’m coming now, ta, għax I can’t make it tomorrow.’
In this example, ‘mela’, ‘ta’, and ‘għax’ have been put in the place of ‘so’, ‘you know’, and ‘because’.
Code-switching is found to be practised by around one-third of the Maltese population in their everyday conversations. The first example—code-switching in an English sentence—happens most often in the Northern Harbour District, while Maltese sentence code-switching is more common across the rest of the country. Usually, this is because the Maltese word is less well-known or used.
It has also, in fact, become such a widespread phenomenon across the country, that in 2016, the Council for Maltese Language declared that lots of Maltenglish words should be spelt the English way—as some of these words had been adopted into Maltese sentences and their spellings adapted accordingly. This was later argued against by academics, who said the languages should be able to evolve together in harmony.
The future of Maltenglish
No one is certain what will happen with Maltenglish in the future; though it seems that as an official language and with half a million speakers, Maltese will not be going anywhere any time soon. However, with more and more people around the world speaking English, those Maltese speakers already code-switching will likely continue to do so—and increase in number.
Although it is also likely that many Maltese speakers are code-switching for ease of communication, it is important to remember that this is not always the case. Many communities feel pressured to code-switch to fit in, usually at work or school, and can feel like they are not expressing their true selves in the process.
Hopefully, as the world becomes more and more globalised, with more and more cultures interacting and working together, this will happen for this reason less often. One way you can help with this is to start learning a language yourself! If you learn more about another language or culture, you’ll have the chance to meet more people, make more friends, and you’ll develop a unique outlook on how we all communicate.
Start communicating from day one with uTalk, where you can learn any of over 140 languages. We have national languages, endangered languages—and even dialects, like variations of English, Arabic, or Spanish! Subscribe today and you can learn exactly what you need, when you need it.
And, if you’re wondering which language to learn, you could always start with Maltese!