J. Cassar Pullicino



Much has been said and written about G. F. Abela's out-standing contribution to Maltese historical studies, and it was very fitting indeed that his death was commemorated by his compatriots in this tercentenary year. Abela lived in an age when scholars had not yet channelled their studies into special lines of research, in an age when one could still take all know-ledge for one's province without incurring the wrath of fastidious but well informed critics. Several topics that are now considered as subjects in their own right with special methods or techniques were then taken by the general historian in his stride archaeology and antiquities, political, social and economic history, mythology, language and topography claimed equally the attention of the 17th century historian. Now in a way this was not without its advantages. Indeed, it is Abela's merit that he considered History as a whole, that he saw beyond the narrow view of political history as something apart from its social background or its ecclesiastical setting.

My intention here is to deal only with those passages scattered here and there in Abela's Descrittione di Malta which, pieced together, reflect his interest in the Maltese Language and cognate subjects -- its origin, Maltese topography, family names etc. I hope that any comments I shall make on his views will not be misunderstood for it is not my purpose to detract in any way from his merit as "Father of Maltese History". His work has to be judged as a whole, and against the contemporary background.

We shall deal with the various aspects of his interest in Maltese under separate headings.


Abela set out with the specific purpose of debunking the Punic theory of the origin of the Maltese Language, which had already engaged the attention of European scholars. Ribera de Gattis (16-17th C.) a learned Maltese ecclesiastic who ended his days at Oxford, Bochart, de Gebelin, Scaligero, Munter and others all tried to establish the origin of Maltese in some way or other, and although the lexical and morphological material at their disposal must have been extremely limited, serious claims were put forward not only for a Punic and Arabic origin of the Maltese Language, but also for a Syriac and an Egyptian descent.[1]

Abela was a strong advocate of the Arabic origin of the language. He emphasized that Maltese was easily understood in N. Africa, Egypt and Syria, and that it was also related to Chaldean and Hebrew. In his opinion the Maltese spoken in his day was the Arabic language which had been corrupted, both lexically and phonetically, after the liberation of the islands from the Arabs in 1090. This admixture of the language was largely due to Malta's commerce and trade links with nearby nations, i.e. Italy and Sicily. When Malta cut off commercial relations with Africa, the native Arabic language was discarded together with its use as a written medium. Indeed, for the preceding five centuries, Italian and Latin had been used instead of the native language in the Law Courts. Hence the great number of loan-words which had crept in, even in the every-day speech of the Maltese masses.

Abela contended that, with the Arab conquest, Arabic immediately supplanted the original language both in Malta and in Sicily. But he was at a loss to explain why Arabic was retained in Malta after the Norman Conquest in 1090, while in Sicily, where the Saracenic occupation was more thorough, the influence of Arabic was hardly noticeable in the Sicilian speech. Abela suggested that, because Sicily was so [p.32] near to Italy, its inhabitants could preserve their native dialect limiting the use of Arabic to their relations with their Moslem rulers. Besides, when Count Roger drove out the Saracens, the Italian garrison which he left intermarried with the Sicilians and thus obliterated most traces of Arabic influence in Sicilian.

Events in Malta, continued our historian, had taken a different turn. Well-to-do families had evacuated to Constantinople when the news of the Saracen advance reached Malta. Those that remained were for the most part illiterates and they had perforce to adopt the language of the Arab conquerors. After 1090 the Norman garrison left by Count Roger lived on side by side with the Maltese and formed a small minority group. According to tradition, they also took their share of lands and estates when these were reapportioned among the Maltese. As a result they picked up the Maltese, i.e. Arabic language without, however, discarding the Italian or Sicilian which they continued to use for official correspondence.[2]

Abela's theory makes interesting reading, but on analysis it is found to be rather vague. He tried to explain linguistic facts exclusively in terms of corresponding historical events. His failure to explain the linguistic phenomenon in Sicily satisfactorily betrays a lack of appreciation of the natural growth of languages and of their power to assimilate foreign elements without losing their individuality. And because he could not admit this process of linguistic growth and change, he based his whole theory on the supposition that a change of rulers must necessarily and invariably, nay almost abruptly, imply a change in the people's language, which History shows is not always the case. Abela's linguistic theory exposed him to some indignant criticism at the hands of A. E. Caruana,[3] whose strictures were not wholly unjustified.


Abela made one interesting observation which offers scope for further study. He noticed a few traces of Greek influence in the Maltese language, in such words as liti, prayers; Lapsi, Ascension; Miru, Confirmation; Malluta, which he derives from Gr. Meloty, "pelle con la quale si solevano ricoprire i Monad, per denotare la mortificazione"; and kuccija, the practice of distributing cooked grain with sweets to friends of the deceased.[4]

Abela suggested that these words were introduced by the early Christian Greeks who formed a small community in Malta when the Islands were converted to Christianity by St. Paul in A.D. 60.[5] He mentioned this as a fact and he could think of no other alternative way of importation, such as the existence of the Byzantine rite in Malta during the 4th 9th centuries, of which further traces have been suggested by Saydon[6] in such words as Ghid il-llamiem, "Epiphany"; Situ Laiiru, "Sabbatum Sitientes", called "Lazarus Day" by the Greeks; and in the cult of St. Venera, whose feastday falls on the 14th November in the Latin Church and on the 26th July in the Greek Church and in Malta. Throughout his work one can see that Abela had a deep sense of admiration for things Greek and he strove to establish an early Greek origin for several otherwise obscure phenomena which one finds in the warp and woof of Maltese History. But for all this, he may have been right in stressing the presence of an early Christian Greek community in Malta. The matter certainly deserves careful study.


Maltese had not yet been reduced to a written system in Abela's day. So the Maltese historian had to devise some way of writing down the Maltese place-names which occupy a [p.34] good part of his description. He chose the Roman letters of the Italian alphabet, to which he also adhered in the main for sound correspondences. However, he did not express the same sound by the same letter uniformly and some of his combinations are rather strange and fanciful. The more noteworthy features of his system of orthography are:

Ch denoted the Ti (aspirate) sound, e.g. Dachlet el Kasab, Tan Nachla.

Y, corresponding to English y, denoted the modern Maltese j or long i, as in Deyr el Binet and Aayn it Kibira, but the same symbol appears in the diphthong ye (Modern Maltese ie) as in Uyed Casrun, Dar el Duyeb.

The W sound is written indifferently as U, as in Uyed el Rum, Hal Uarda, Siggeui, Bir el Uasa; or as u as in Eskak el Uati; Cerkeua and Ta Sciaueki, Bir e tauyl; Tal Aasieui; Fauara; Maauec.

C (soft) is gi as in Italian, e.g. Targia; Gineyna and Redum to Segira.

G (hard) is given as gh, as in Italian, e.g. Uyed gherzuma. But gh also stands for initial gh in Hal Ghul, Ghar Elma, while initial gh is ignored and shown as a reduplicated vowel + y in Aayn Ghrab and Aayn Rihana. Medial gh in Xaghra is given as aa, i.e. Sciaara.

K stands for the Q sound in Kattara and Kolla, but the K sound may be either K, as in Aayn el Kibira, Tal Karlin and L'Eskrivit, or C, as in Ras el Cneyes and Cortin.

The main faults in Abela's system of transliteration are:

(a)        Unwarranted alteration of place-names in violation of Maltese pronunciation, e.g. Cineyna tal Miggiar (for Gnejna tal-Imgarr); Bidenia (for Bidnija); Ginen el Feres (for Cnien il-Fieres).

(b)        His inability to appreciate the true nature of Maltese, its structure, morphology and above all its phonetic laws. Thus he ignores the assimilation of article 1- in such place-names as Wied it-Rum (given as Uyed el Rum); Dar id-Dwieb (given as Dar el Duyeb); tan-Nadur (given as tal Nadur); Wied is-[p.35] Sewda (given as Uyed el Seuda); Wied id-Dis (given as Uyed el Dis); Ix-Xwieki (given as El Sciueki) and Wied in-Naiilija (given as Uyed el Nahlia).

One might also mention the unconvincing and sometimes fanciful etymology of some Maltese place-names. Here, however, Abela was often quoting folk-etymology and therefore he was not always to blame for the etymologies suggested.


In spite of the above grammatical shortcomings, Abela deserves our gratitude for having preserved for us an appreciable number of place-names in his Description of Malta. In this respect he was a pioneer and his work paved the way for subsequent studies by other writers.[7]

We have already shown that Abela often tampered with the current form of Maltese place-names in order to make it conform to his own notions of Maltese orthography, with the result that the modern student in several cases has to check the recorded version with its surviving form and pronunciation. Abela's abiding merit lies in the fact that the place-names he recorded far exceeded in number those given in any map of Malta published before or in his time. To this extent the topographical material he collected stands as a monument to his assiduity and although he was not immune from the tendency to Italianise local names which was prevalent in his day, perhaps he was less so than most of his contemporaries and certainly avoided the extremely fanciful transliteration of the 19th century official and survey maps (e.g. Shileyli Tower for Torri Xulliela).

Other items of information contained in Abela's work show that he took an intelligent interest in the Maltese language. He gives examples of Maltese words compounded with prefix bu- meaning "father of, possessor, origin", e. g. Buhagiar, Bughaddas, Bugharwien, Bughadam, Buqrejqa, Bufula, Bumunqar and others (p. 82). Regarding the word misrali "open space, square" he tells us that in his time it had already come to mean "quel piano o piazza ch'anno ne' casali, dove si riducono ne' giorni festivi a divisar fra loro" (p. 86). He suggests that the word raba', "fields", which strictly speaking means "the fourth part or portion", may have originated from the partition of Maltese lands and fields among the Norman soldiers and the local inhabitants which took place at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1090, and he links it up with the term gasam, "partition, division" denoting possessions and fields (p. 107). The word rahal originally meant "stations" used by shepherds and their flocks, thus linking up with place-name Imriehel. In the course of time many new "stations" grew up near each other forming hamlets or tiny settlements which continued to be known as Rahal, though this word is more appropriately associated with a nomadic life and should have given way to Djar, houses, which figures in such place-names as Djar id-Dwieb, Djar Handul, Djar ii-Zara', Dejr il-Baqar, Dejr il-Bniet, L-Abbatija tad-Dejr, Dejr is-Saf, Dejr Limara and others. From the evidence of such place-names Abela deduced the existence of villages and hamlets in pre-Norman times (p. 77). His derivation of rahal from Arabic Rah, which means "to go", has been proved wrong by modern scholars.[8]


Patronymics, the study of family surnames, is nowadays considered as subsidiary to the Science of Linguistics. Surnames did not come into general use before 1400 and in tracing the family histories of some 115 families in Malta and Gozo [p.36] from 1350 to 1647[9] Abela provided the earliest material on which later scholars could draw for an ethno-linguistic study of the Maltese people.[10] Abela's service in this field would have been greater had he extended his researches to families other than those belonging to the nobility and the governing stock. But Abela was breaking new ground, and one cannot help wondering how so much of enduring value could have been accomplished by one man.

[1] CARUANA, ANT. EM., Sull'origine della lingua maltese: studio storico, etnografico e filologico. Malta, 1896, pp. 6-7.

[2] ABELA, Gio. FRANCESCO, Della Descrittione di Malta..., Libro Secondo, Notitia IX. Malta, 1647, pp. 257-259.

[3] CARUANA, ANT. Em., op. cit., pp. 8-12; 299-305.

[4] ABELA, GIO. FRANCESCO, op. Cit., p. 265.

[5] Ibidem, p. 231.

[6] SAYDON, P.P., Traces of the Byzantine rite in the Church of Malta, in "Melita Theologica", Vol. VII, No. 1, 1954, pp. 47-48.

[7] The following are the main contributions to the study of place-names in Malta: A PRECA, Malta Cananea, 1904, pp. 437-624; N. TAGLIAFERRO, On the Similarity between certain Names of places in Western Palestine and in Malta, in "Archivum Melitense", Vol. 1, pp. 229-234; C. L. DESSOULAVY, Quelques Noms Propres Maltais, in "Journal of the Faculty of Arts", No. 1, 1957; J. AQUILINA, A Brief Survey of Maltese Place-Names, 1955 (Unpublished Lecture), D. BELLANTI: Why Malta Why Ghawdex (1941). Prof. P. P. SAYDON also read a paper on Maltese Place-names at the International Congress of Orientalists, 1954.

[8] For various conflicting opinions regarding the origin of the word "Hal" in Maltese place-names see Il-Malti, Vols. I-II (1925-26) I, pp. 82, 112; I1 pp. 16-19, 56.

[9] ABELA, Gio. FRANCESCO, op. Cit., pp. 449-548.

[10] [footnote missing]