The Maltese language is unique due to its mixture of Italian and Arabic-language influences that have resulted in its being the only type of Arabic written using a Latin alphabet. Maltese is spoken primarily in the European country of Malta, an island archipelago nation located in the central Mediterranean Sea. Malta's central location opened it throughout history to a variety of external influences, both linguistic and cultural, which gave the Maltese people an extremely interesting history of development.
Classification and Origins of the Maltese Language
Maltese is classified as a Semitic language, part of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages that are spoken primarily in Asia and Africa and have roots dating as far back as the third millennium BC. There are varying theories regarding the exact origins of the Afro-Asiatic language family. While some scholars suggest that early Afro-Asiatic speakers originated in Africa and later migrated to the Middle East, others claim that the Afro-Asiatic languages originated in the Middle East and migrated to Africa, except for a group of Semitic speakers who remained in the Middle East.
It is agreed that Semitic languages all developed from a single Proto-Semitic language. Today the most widely spoken of modern Semitic languages is Arabic. The modern Maltese language developed from a dialect of Arabic known as Siculo-Arabic and is closely related to western Arabic dialects found in areas such as Algeria and Tunisia.
The Unique Language of Maltese: Arabic and Italian Influences
Malta's central-Mediterranean location allowed it to come into contact with a wide variety of cultures and affected the development of Maltese to make it the distinct language it is today.
Thanks to Malta's location, the island's inhabitants came into frequent contact with other peoples from the nearby island of Sicily, as well as North Africa. Consequently, Maltese evolved as a fusion of the Arabic spoken in areas of North Africa and the dialect of Italian spoken in Sicily. The influence of the Sicilian language also extended to the Maltese writing system, resulting in the language turning to the use of a Latin-language alphabet. Today, the Maltese language is considered unique because it is the only form of the Arabic language to be written using a Latin alphabet.
Thanks to the diversity of influences exerted on Malta throughout history, the modern Maltese vocabulary includes a great number of loan-words borrowed from Italian and Sicilian. In more recent years, words borrowed from the English language also have contributed significantly to the Maltese language's lexicon.
Early Maltese History
Archaeological evidence reveals that human beings inhabited Malta as early as 5000 BCE, and a number of early civilizations are thought to have inhabited the island in secession from this point on. The site where human remains and other artifacts on the island have been unearthed was actually designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Early contact between the native Maltese and Semitic cultures is thought to have taken place between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, most likely with the Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians. It is know for sure that Malta, along with Sicily, came under Roman rule in 218 BC.
Malta remained in Roman hands until 395 CE, when the division of the Roman Empire resulted in the island's being given to the eastern portion of Rome based in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Malta's trajectory throughout history remained closely linked with Sicily's, as the two islands both went through periods of Roman, Byzantine and Arab rule. Malta was greatly influenced by these early rulers, especially in terms of cultural development.
Modern Maltese History
Malta later came under control of the Holy Roman emperor King Charles V who, in 1530, gave the territory to a religious military order of the Catholic Church later known as the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights of Malta. The island subsequently became a fortress capable of withstanding Ottoman attacks throughout the 16th century and began to flourish as a center of cultural and commerce thanks to the influence of the knights' order.
In 1798, Malta came briefly under French control when the island was taken by Napoleon Bonaparte. His rule was short-lived, however, as British troops ousted the French by the mid-19th century. Malta subsequently acknowledged British sovereignty and came under British control.
British control of Malta lasted well into the 20th century, with the small island nation finally gaining independence in 1964, making it a both a Commonwealth country as well as a member of the Council of Europe. The post-independence period proved politically difficult, as Malta's two major political parties vied for power and Maltese leaders took part in an ongoing struggle to totally remove British presence from the country.
Malta finally became an official republic in 1974, and British troops were fully removed from the island in 1979. The closing of the British troop base that resulted in the full removal of British troops in 1979 is often celebrated as the "real" date of Maltese independence. Malta became a member of the European Union in 2004 and adopted the currency of the Euro in 2008. Today, the Maltese language is distinguished as an official language of the European Union.
Modern Maltese Language
The modern nation of Malta consists of an island archipelago with three primary inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, with Malta being the largest. Two uninhabited smaller islands, Comminotto and Filfla, are also considered Maltese territory.
Today the majority of Maltese language speakers - an estimated 300,000 of about 370,000 - are found in Malta, where Maltese is identified as the national language and also serves as an official language, alongside English. Migrant communities of Maltese-speakers are also found in other countries around the world, including Australia, Italy, the United States, the UK and Canada.
Maltese Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Malti
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, Central, South, Arabic
Official Language of: Malta
Spoken by Approximately 372,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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