Introduction

The languages of Malta

Malta has two official languages spoken fluently by nearly the whole population, Maltese and English. Italian is also widely used - approximately half of the population speak it.

Knowing English is enough to get by but having knowledge of Maltese and Italian can give you a real advantage on the island.

Maltese

Maltese is descended from Siculo-Arabic, a dialect which developed in Malta, Sicily and Southern Italy following the Arab conquest of the area in the ninth century. References to Maltese appear as early as the fourteenth century, when a group of Benedictine Monks had to renounce building a monastery on the island because they could not understand the local language. The first written document we know of in Maltese date's from the 15th century and is a poem called 'Il Cantilena' by Pietro Caxara. In 1640 a French knight called Francois de Vion Thezan Court wrote up the first Maltese dictionary, which contains notes on the Maltese grammar and a section on how to give orders to soldiers.

Maltese uses the Roman alphabet with some additional letters such as the ż (also used in Polish), ċ, ġ, ħ, and għ. It is the only Semitic language in the world that is written with the Latin alphabet. About half of the Maltese vocabulary is derived from Italian and Sicilian and approximately 20% from English. There are an estimated 371,000 Maltese speakers in the World (2007) of whom 300,000 live in Malta. Many variations and dialects of the language exist, despite the small size of the island. However, these distinctions have tended to decrease under the influence of modern and centralised media.

The knowledge of Maltese is not necessary to get by on the island, as nearly everyone speaks English. Nevertheless, it can be a plus and could attract you the sympathies of the locals.

English

English is the joint official language of Malta and is spoken by almost the whole population. It was introduced to the island in 1800, when the British ousted the French garrison, which had taken control of Malta in 1798. Due to Malta's strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean, it became the headquarters of the British navy. Some attempts were made in the 1950's to integrate the island as a full part of the United Kingdom. Despite this, Malta became independent in 1964 as a Dominion within the British Commonwealth, with Elisabeth II as head of state. Finally, in 1974, the island became a Republic and the last British troops left in 1979.
English is very important in Malta as it is the language in which the majority of affairs are conducted. A good example is the University of Malta, which offers most of its courses in English. It is therefore easy for Anglophones to get by in Malta, as the language is used in every aspect of life on a daily basis.

Italian

The Italian influence over Malta began in 1194, when the island was seized from the Arabs and became a part of the Kingdom of Sicily. In 1530 Charles V handed Malta over to the Knight Hospitallers of St John, who had been expelled from Rhodes by the Ottomans in 1522. Italian was established as the official language of Malta. However, being introduced by the Knights, Italian remained the idiom of the aristocratic families and elites. This meant that at the beginning of the last century only around 15% of the population could speak the language.

Since 1934, Italian is no longer an official language of Malta, yet it has regained importance. Italy is one of the main commercial partners of the island and a lot of businesses, products and supplies are Italian. Today, the language is spoken by more than 60% of the population and will give you a real advantage as many businesses have direct links with Italy.

Malta Today

Maltese, English and Italian are all used in the media. The majority of TV broadcasts in Malta are either in English or Maltese, although Italian broadcasts reach the island. Radio programmes tend to be in Maltese and not English. The majority of websites are written in English with, on average, only two websites out of twelve in Maltese.

Both English and Maltese are compulsory academic subjects from primary school.

As Malta is multilingual, certain words and phrases are know as 'Minglish'. This is not universally spoken in Malta, but it does exist in certain localities and certain social groups.


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