[p.91] LANGUAGE AND DEMOGRAPHY IN MALTA:

THE SOCIAL FOUNDATIONS OF THE SYMBIOSIS

BETWEEN SEMITIC AND ROMANCE IN STANDARD MALTESE.

Joseph M. Brincat

The history of the language spoken in Malta is essentially concerned with the convergence of two unrelated linguistic families, Southern European Romance and North African Semitic. The meeting point should have been, perhaps was for a short time, Sicily where the same political and social circumstances existed. Geographically Sicily is nearer both to the Italian mainland and the Tunisian coast but Malta's isolation, geographic and administrative, allowed the natural process of symbiosis to go on unhindered, while in Sicily re-Latinization took place rapidly, following a deliberate demographic and linguistic policy.[1]

Although the stratigraphy of the Maltese language was perceived relatively early,[2] the way in which the fusion actually took place proved to be rather difficult to account for. A certain amount of responsibility for this lies with the advocates of the Romantically inspired (and politically motivated) Phoenician theory. A century and a half links its main promoters, De Soldanis, Vassalli and Fr. E. Magri, who were on the wrong track, but more reliable results were produced by followers of the positivist movement which relied on linguistic contacts to disprove the exclusively genetic approach as embodied in Schleicher's family tree (1863). The German and French geolinguists had rehabilitated the dialects and showed that there was nothing shameful or impure in linguistic contacts. In Malta N. Tagliaferro and T. Zammit laid solid foundations and [p.92] then N. Cremona and J. Aquilina raised the study of Maltese above the eighteenth century's style of impassioned polemics. However etymological interests still dominated the field and the most substantial results to this day have been E. Serracino Inglott's and J. Aquilina's dictionaries.[3] Nowadays nobody questions the prevalence of Romance in the lexicon (though not in frequency), but as Serracino Inglott has rightly pointed out the official grammar still ignores the Romance element.[4]

The fact that we lack a comprehensive history of the Maltese language is mainly due to the scarcity of texts and documents before the second half of the eighteenth century.[5] Maltese began to be written regularly in the early decades of the nineteenth century and literary attempts before the Romantic age were few and far between. Moreover Pietro Caxaro's Cantilena of about 1450, G.F. Bonamico's celebrative poem of 1675 and the few popular rhymes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are of very little use since the literary style tends to avoid Romance words (this tendency was only challenged in the 1960s). For example in the Cantilena, which has been taken as proof of the language's exclusively Semitic character in the fifteenth century,[6] the only Romance word, vintura, betrays the author's conservative attitude because it is obliged by the rhyme with sum. On the semantic level it also reveals the adoption of Sicilian proverbs in calques.[7] Up to 1600 the only helpful sources available are the legal documents written in Latin or Sicilian from which G. Wettinger has patiently dug up about 4,000 place names and 500 names, surnames and nicknames.[8] Of a more specifically linguistic interest are the word lists compiled by early comparatists like Megiser (1606, 1610 and 1611) and Maius (1718 and 1725).[9] The material is obviously too scanty to explain [p.93] the transition from the presumably completely Semitic language of the year 1090 to the Semitic and Romance amalgam which is already evident in G.F. Agius De Soldanis' unpublished dictionary of 1750.[10] The word-lists quoted, moreover, do not contain many Romance words because the scholars, in their effort to place Maltese in its "rightful" slot in the Semitic family set-up, focused on the basic notions which are usually conservative. However new light is expected from the dictionary in the Vallicelliana manuscript attributed to a French Knight called Thezan, which may have preceded De Soldanis' by almost a century.[11]

Since documentation is scarce one has to rely on internal linguistic evidence and this established the Arabic, Sicilian, Italian and English strata which correspond to the historical, political and social development of the Maltese community. Thanks to Tagliaferro, Cremona and Aquilina[12] - but the Phoenician/Punic controversy should have been definitively resolved by Gesenius' intervention as early as 1810[13] - scholars agree that the starting point of the history of Maltese is the Arab invasion of 869/870. This event apparently brought about a rapid and complete upheaval in the language spoken, wiping out the one spoken before. Whether the inhabitants of the Maltese islands previously spoke Punic, Vulgar Latin or Greek remains largely hypothetical because up to now inquiries into the substratum have uncovered very few concrete clues.[14] Highly interesting, however, is Wettinger's reference to increasing Greek pointers[15] because it tallies with Fanciullo's hypothesis attributing to Byzantine-Greek influence the origin of Sicilian's three-tier [p.94] vowel system[16] which is shared by and is still productive in Maltese.[17] At this stage therefore the historian of the language can only underline two contradictory but decisive phases in the formation of Maltese: the sudden and complete Arabicization after 870 and the slow but cumulative Latinization which started in the Norman period and is still going on.

Since a language mirrors the experiences of the community that speaks it, any attempt to describe the evolution of the language has to keep track of the islands' demographic development. And when serious gaps are met, as in the case of the Arab domination (870-1090, dragging on till 1127 and perhaps up to 1241), linguists, like historians, have to seek light in the parallel situation in Sicily. We must therefore consider that Varvaro describes the latter's heterogeneous ethnic and cultural character[18] and that Bresc attributes the religious, linguistic and cultural upheaval to massive migration from Africa.[19] The situation in Malta should have been similar, perhaps simpler. If Palermo in 1170 had a population of 100,000, one-sixth that of all Sicily,[20] and was completely Arabicized, Malta, where the inhabitants numbered about 5,000, was much easier to mould. Therefore if Arabicization was massive in Sicily it could not have been less so in Malta, as the large majority of our place names testify. It is interesting to note that Wettinger, in view of the Muslim conqueror's "stern punitive measures" during Habashi's final conquest, surmises "an expulsion of the few thousand inhabitants and "a re-peopling of the island by Arabic speakers who were not necessarily directly of Arab ethnic origin".[21]

The question is indeed an intriguing one but, in the absence of reliable documents, I prefer to draw on a purely linguistic argument: even if the majority of the Christian inhabitants had remained on the island, the acquisition of the Arabic language would have been easy if a specific policy had been determined. Moreover, if Islamization was enforced on the natives full possession of the Arabic language would have been indispensable, and by itself [p.95] this would explain the completeness of the new language's acquisition. Contrary to what has often been stated this does not imply that the inhabitants previously spoke Punic: when a language replaces another one it tends to absorb more of the substratum if it is genetically related. The lack of a substratum, especially in toponomy, would rather point to Vulgar Latin (as in contemporary North Africa) or, more likely, to Byzantine Greek (as in most of nearby Sicily) as being the language of the islands' inhabitants before the Arab conquest. A comparative glance at late Punic and its absorption or not into Tunisian Arabic as well as, possibly, into Sicilian Arabic could shed further light on the question. But whatever the substratum the decisive factor was time.

As regards the demographic aspect, figures giving the islands' population before, say, 850, the numbers of the Maltese who fled to the North after the first exploratory assaults, and the count of the invading Arab forces and subsequent settlers, would have been extremely helpful. But we have to be content with Blouet's[22] deduction from Idrisi's description of Malta's agriculture that the population density was low.[23]

During the period of Latinization statistics are luckily abundant, and although they may not always be exact they allow a better view of the bonds between language and society. The data must be considered in the framework of two fundamental premises: first of all the absence of an explicit linguistic policy on behalf of the early European rulers, from the Normans to the Knights; secondly that re-Christianization did not require linguistic Latinization. It is a fact that while Islam does not permit the translation of the Koran, Christianity always used the local dialects to spread the Gospel and its doctrine. This means that the 23 Semitic religious terms listed by Aquilina[24] could have been introduced during as well as after the Arab period and cannot be regarded as proof of continuity. Even after Roger II's reconquest in 1127, references to a [p.96] bishop of Malta in 1156 and 1168 show that he resided in Sicily, and according to A.T. Luttrell the first mention of a Latin presence in Malta is recorded in 1184 and there is no evidence of Latin colonization before 1194.[25] However in a personal communication he has drawn my attention to " a royal document of 1198 which makes it clear that there was a Christian community of some sort on the island in the time of King Roger II who died in 1154.[26] This would imply the presence of Latins in Malta as early as 1127 or as late as 1154.

During the twelfth century therefore exposure to a Romance language would have been minimal, limited to contacts with a few sailors, soldiers and merchants in and around the castle guarding the Grand Harbour, especially under the Genoese counts. In 1224 there are the first results of a deliberate religious and demographic policy which was concluded in 1249. In between these dates Frederick II maintained a garrison of some 150 men, 70 of whom were accompanied by their wives,[27] presumably Sicilian or Southern Italian. The conversion of Muslims who wished to stay in Malta implies that although the language of liturgy was perhaps at first Greek (up to 1130 Greek monks outnumbered the Latin ones in Sicily) and then certainly Latin, the sermons and prayers must have been in the local language. However the Church, since it spread everywhere and in all social strata, was certainly the first and main channel of Romance terms and expressions on account of its frequent relations with Neo-Latin Sicily.

The demographic evolution of the Maltese islands can be followed on Table I. The figures are generally those proposed by Blouet[28] based on estimates of other authors and on calculations of contemporary sources which are not always reliable. The round figures are approximate. Statistics from 1680 to 1797 are those proposed by Fiorini[29] based on the Status Animarum registers with the addition of about 500 members of the clergy and 2,000 other persons who were not subject to the Holy Office. The Order's dependants in 1632 were 621 Knights, 3,080 sailors and 649 slaves. Their total is presumed to have been stable up to 1797. Figures concerning British troops are not readily accessible.

[p.97] TABLE I

The Population of Malta and Gozo

Year

Maltese Foreign

Total

Comments

900

?

?

?

Uninhabited?

1054c.

?

?

5,000?

Natives? and conquerors

1127-54

A Christian community

1224

?

7,000?

Muslims expelled

?

Immigrants from Celano

1240c.

220

Latin garrison and wives

1241

10,000

Gilibertus' report, amended

1249

?

?

Definitive expulsion of Muslims

1283

300

Catalan soldiers

1419

8,500

1429

5,500

Moorish invasion; 3,000 losses

1480

10,000

Annual population increase 1%

1528

17,000

1530

17,000

3,000

20,000

Arrival of Knights etc.

1547-50

10,000

3,000

13,000

Turkish assaults

1551

?

Labourers from Sicily

1565

10,000

4,000

14,000

Reinforcements:1000(?)

7,000

Losses: 7,000(?)

1566

?

Labourers from Sicily

1582

20,000

3,000

23,000

1590

28,864

3,426

32,290

1614

41,084

3,500

44,500

Annual population incr. 1.4%

1617

43,798

4,000

48,000

1632

48,550

4,350

52,900

1680

51,329

4,350

55,679

1740

75,320

4,350

79,670

1784

90,169

4,350

94,519

1797

96,156

4,350

100,506

1807

98,558

22,000

British forces

1842

112,500

2,000

Annual population increase 1%

1818-42

Emigration 20,000

1849

891

Italian exiles

1931

241,621

1945-83

Emigration total 150,509

1965

47,804

316,440

Tourist arrivals

1972

3,500

British forces

1988

783,846

349,014

Tourist arrivals

[p.98] As regards the period before the Knights it is significant that the population rose considerably, by about 10,000 in three hundred years, in spite of the expulsion of Muslims, the occasional epidemic and a number of Moorish attacks, the worst of which claimed 3,000 victims in 1429. Although the era has not left any concrete signs of prosperity the cotton industry is said to have been labour-intensive and there must have been a steady flow of immigrants from the North, especially following the settlement of noble families from Sicily and Aragon and the establishment of the religious orders between 1372 and 1450. The building of about 400 churches and rural chapels bears witness to the regular contact of the entire population with clerics of Sicilian origin or Maltese priests and monks with a fair knowledge of Latin and Sicilian, and perhaps Italian too. The basis for the Sicilian superstratum of the Maltese language was slowly but solidly laid during this period.

The Order of St. John actually kept detailed records and a glance at Table I shows how the population grew from 20,000 in 1530 to 100,000 in 1798, outpacing the average for Europe which increased only after 1750. For example in Sicily between 1570 and 1713 the number of inhabitants remained stable around a million, while in Naples between 1595 and 1669 the number of families went down from 540,000 to 394,721.[30] The increase in Malta was not due to relative prosperity alone but also thanks to immigration. The Knights brought sailors, soldiers, slaves and a number of Greeks from Rhodes. The losses arising from invasions, natural calamities and the famous Great Siege were compensated for by the importation of labourers and artisans, mainly from Sicily and Southern Italy, to hasten the building of the fortifications before and after the Siege of 1565 and to raise the entire city of Valletta between 1566 and 1615.

As to the history of the Maltese language, the crucial event was the Order's shifting of the seat of power from the old capital Mdina, perched on top of a hill in the centre of the island, to the harbour area. Admittedly in 1530 the importance of Mdina was already declining: somebody wrote that by the middle of the fifteenth century the old city was already partly deserted. The new demographic tendency was to abandon the tiny rural hamlets to flock to the larger towns some way from the coast. Mdina, so small and enclosed within its bastions, exerted little gravitational pull and was by then relegated to the role of an administrative centre and a refuge in case of large-scale invasions.

[p.99] One must remember that the Aragonese showed very little interest in the port and were content with the small Castello a Mare to defend it and the little borgo which had gone up behind it to serve commercial activities. The prevailing social and cultural situation was therefore one where three or four zones were rather cut off and kept only occasional contacts with the capital. The linguistic consequence was the development of a handful of dialects which were de-scribed by Vassalli towards the end of the eighteenth century.

On the contrary for the Knights, who had a fleet and kept a constant flow of traffic with Europe besides marshalling the Mediterranean, the island's major attraction was the harbour. The Order therefore preferred to settle in the borgo, fortifying it, rather than in Mdina which was too far from their ships. The old city was therefore ignored and the area behind the harbour's castle was immediately developed. Palaces were built in the Borgo and two new towns arose near it in barely thirty years. When the grave losses of 1565 showed up the area's shortcomings from the military viewpoint, the Order again refused to move inland and decided to build a new fortified town on top of the uninhabited hill which divided the two large harbours. All that work on the building sites, the opportunities for jobs on the ships, and the services of all kinds that were necessary, proved to be a great attraction for the more adventurous or desperate inhabitants of the rural areas. In 25 years, from 1590 to 1614, the inhabitants of Valletta rose from 3,397 to 10,744. And yet the extraordinary growth of Valletta did not entail the evacuation of the three cities

TABLE II

The Population of the Harbour Area

Year

The Order

Valletta

Three Cities

Total

All Malta

%

1530

3,000

1,000

4,000

17,000

5.8

1590

3,500

3,397

5,458

8,855

31,914

27.7

1614

3,500

8,000

6,656

17,400

41,084

1632

4,350

8,601

9,890

18,491

52,352

1658

4,350

9,219

9,584

18,803

50,073

1670

4,350

7,242

9,772

17,014

50,790

1680

4,350

8,038

7,438

15,476

51,329

30.1

1740

4,350

17,597

13,901

31,430

75,320

1797

4,350

20,108

17,780

37,888

96,156

39.4

[p.100] on the southern side of the Grand Harbour. Due to their creeks these remained extremely useful for the construction and repair of the Order's galleys, while Valletta was assigned administrative, religious, commercial and cultural duties. The Knights and their followers took up residence in the new city.

Table II shows the growth of the harbour towns under the Order and will illustrate the area of most frequent contacts between the Knights (and their foreign followers) and the Maltese residing and working there. The sources are Blouet and Cutajar/Cassar.[31] The percentages exclude the Order.

From the linguistic point of view the new social situation resulting from the rapid growth of the harbour area is significant on two counts: first of all because it brought an increasing number of Maltese people in daily contact with foreigners (the three or four thousand direct dependants of the Order were augmented by another thousand providing services of various kinds); secondly the coming together of so many Maltese peasants from the different towns and villages forged a new community which did not have a homogeneous linguistic tradition. The latter case set in motion a process which is different to the one that normally takes place in large cities which are expanding, where immigrants are absorbed into an already established community and therefore have to conform to its prestigious linguistic habits.

Let us examine first the contacts between the Maltese and the Order. Whereas up to 1530 only the small community of the Borgo, with less than a thousand inhabitants, was in close contact with a few foreign soldiers, sailors and merchants, the Order of St. John suddenly brought in some 4,000 people, mostly Italians and Greeks. The strength of the linguistic exposure is strated by the overwhelming mathematical ratio of four foreigners to one Maltese resident, but this was soon inverted when the latter kept increasing. By 1590 the Maltese inhabitants in the area rose to 9,000 but the figures still show a very strong exposure in the first 60 years of the Order's rule, especially when one considers the close collaboration which was necessary between the Knights and the Maltese in those feverish years before, during and after the Great Siege, both in the military and the construction fields. Proof of the former is found in the Vallicelliana manuscript, datable to about 1700 but probably earlier, which contains instructions for carrying out military exercises in the Maltese language, translated from the Italian.[32] During the sixteenth [p.101] century military reinforcements from abroad were constant while the work-force imported from Sicily and Southern Italy was estimated at about a thousand men. Apart from this, commercial activity was increasing. Mallia-Milanes sees the "thriving urban market as an effective force of change in Valletta's redevelopment during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" and points out that there were more than ninety Maltese consulates or commercial agencies scattered all over the Mediterranean.[33] These social, and consequently also linguistic, forces were influencing an increasing number of local inhabitants. By 1590 internal migration had revolutionized the islands' demographic pattern, for in 60 years the percentage of the population living in the harbour area rose from 5.8 to 27.7, and it kept rising steadily, reaching 30.15% in 1680 and 39.4% in 1797. Obviously a lower percentage implies a stronger exposure to foreign innovatory forces, but the social process is cumulative and a higher percentage of inhabitants indicates a wider influence.

How can one quantify the linguistic impact exerted by the foreigners on the local population? There are two significant pointers. The first is that the Order immediately gave up the practice of shutting itself up in a "collacchio", an area exclusively reserved for the Knights which could segregate them from the locals. Such an area was enjoyed by the Knights in the island of Rhodes but, in spite of pressure from the Holy See, they refused to set it up in Malta. The second pointer is the marriage of local girls to foreign immigrants. A number of dissertations written by B.A. and M.A. graduates of the department of History at the University of Malta provide very interesting statistics gleaned from the parochial registers.

The Baptism registers of the parish of Porto Salvo, which catered for half of the city of Valletta, are particularly revealing. For the period 1600-1613 they do not only show a fair number of illegitimate births, which is not surprising in any port. More interesting is the fact that half of these babies have a Knight as godfather. Responsibility cannot be ruled out in some cases, but anyway the choice of godfather was (and still is) considered a sign of respect and favour, and therefore this proves that the relations between the Knights and the Maltese were far from cold. Still more significant is the information supplied by an analysis of the surnames, for they show up how the immigrants were being assimilated into the community. Together with nine typically Maltese surnames (Abela, Azzopardi, Bonnici, Borg, Ciantar, Farrugia, Grech, [p.102] Mallia, Pace) which occur more than 20 times each, and six of the same kind which occur between 10 and 20 times (Magro, Portelli, Schembri, Sciberras, Spiteri, Zahra) there is the unique instance of Napolitano which appears 13 times, and then there are no less than 244 surnames, mostly Italian, which occur only once or twice.[34]

Naturally the most reliable documentation of the intimacy of the relations between the Maltese and the foreigners is found in the Marriage registers. These are particularly useful because the comparison between the registers of various areas shows up the differences between the harbour parishes and the rural ones, and even represents the relativity between them according to their distance from the harbour. Table III reproduces a small but informative sample drawn from the above-mentioned dissertations. These do not cover every parish and even the dates differ, but in spite of the lacunae it is possible to obtain indications of the trend from the percentages of the weddings to a foreign groom out of the total number of marriages in the parish. The ceremony traditionally takes place in the bride's parish. The data are pre‑

TABLE III

Marriages between Maltese brides and foreign grooms

Place

Period

Marriages

Foreign grooms

%

Ital (Sic)

Unspec.

Valletta

1600-1613

235

51

21.0

13 (5)

24

Valletta

1627-1650

1,131

366

32.0

112 (53)

74

Tarxien

1596-1650

235

16

6.8

Naxxar

1600-1650

381

8

2.1

7 (5)

Bir Miftuħ

1600-1635

332

6

1.8

4 (1)

2

Senglea

1750-1798

1,388

80

5.8

64 (37)

Vittoriosa

1750-1797

?

40

Qormi

1750-1797

?

2

Gudja

1770-1800

208

0

[p.103]-sented in two groups, one for the first half of the seventeenth century and one for the second half of the eighteenth.[35]

Obviously the place which shows the highest number of marriages to foreign grooms is Valletta, where foreigners disembarked and found opportunities to work. It was also the point of convergence for Maltese settlers from every area of the island. Quite understandably these assumed a more open outlook, socially and linguistically. In the first half of the seventeenth century (but records for 1616-26 are missing) out of a total of 1,366 marriages celebrated at the parish of Porto Salvo in Valletta the groom was a foreigner in 417 cases, which gives a percentage of 30.5% of the total. The other localities are rural but Tarxien lies only 2 km from the harbour, at Naxxar the Order had some fortifications, and at Bir Miftuħ a Capitania. In the second half of the eighteenth century percentages were much lower in the harbour towns of Senglea and Vittoriosa because presumably the influx of foreigners had slowed down and the harbour area was already heavily populated with Maltese settlers (Table II shows a rise from 31,430 to 37,888 between 1740 and 1797). Qormi is only 2 km from the inner end of Grand Harbour. Although information is not complete it is worthy of note that between 1750 and 1798 no marriages to foreigners were registered in the rural parishes of Balzan, Lija, Mosta, Kirkop and Siggiewi.

The origin of the groom is given either by specifying the town or the region, but in some cases it is simply indicated as estero, "foreign". As is to be expected the majority of foreigners marrying Maltese girls came from Sicily or from the Italian peninsula, as is clearly shown where data are complete: in Senglea 64 out of 80 were Italian, 37 of whom were Sicilian; in Naxxar 7 out of 8, 5 being Sicilian, and at Bir Miftuh 4 out of 6. Even in Valletta where French grooms apparently outnumbered the Italians 149 against 125, a look at the surnames of those 98 classified as estero reveals that most of them were presumably of Italian origin. This tendency is confirmed by another interesting source: the register of applications by foreigners to marry locals presented at the Bishop's Curia between 1750 and 1759. Unfortunately out of 252 applications Ciap‑[p.104]-para[36] lists only 170, but of these 123 are by Italians and 34 are by French applicants. One should also note that not surprisingly the suitor's place of birth is very often a port: Naples (15), Marseilles (12), Venice (10), Livorno (10), Genoa, Palermo and Procida (9 each). It is also interesting to observe the applications by Maltese people who had lived abroad; again these used to reside mainly in harbour towns: 272 in Valletta, 228 in Cospicua, 168 in Senglea and 125 in Vittoriosa. To complete the picture of the most intimate relations between Maltese citizens and foreigners all we need is an estimate of the illicit affairs! There actually is an indication: a report drawn up by a priest in 1777 points out that 4,200 marriages were broken because of the Knights; however this figure has been dismissed as an exaggeration.

The statistics quoted above show that Valletta and the Three Cities surrounding Grand Harbour were a hive of intense practical and social activity in the times of the Knights. These facts are of interest to the linguist because they form the social basis for the progressive Latinization of the Maltese language. The more frequent and intimate are the social contacts, the more numerous and long-lasting the linguistic contacts will be. The figures strongly establish Valletta and the Cottonera area as the centre of linguistic innovation. The next step will therefore be an attempt to see how these innovations spread from the new capital city to the rural areas. In comparison with other countries such an exercise would seem to be superfluous since in Malta's 246 sq. km. the distance between Valletta and the farthest towns or villages is rarely over 10 km., but in those days people did not commute much and the communities tended to be rather stable. In fact whatever variant of Arabic was introduced in the ninth or in the eleventh century, the absence of a strong social and administrative centre and the isolation of the main rural towns led to the development of dialectal variations. As a consequence of the abandonment of the small hamlets from 1419 to 1800[37] the Maltese islands came to be divided into five linguistic areas. These were defined by Malta's first linguist, Michel Anton Vassalli, in the "Discorso preliminare" of the Lexicon Melitense-Latino-Italum which was published in Rome in 1796.[38] Vassalli described the dialects according to their characteristic peculiarities at a crucial point in the history of the language. It can actually be seen as the end result of its development after 600 years of close contacts with Sicily and Italy, and just before new factors came into play in the British period.

[p.105] Regarding Vassalli's work, allowances have to be made for the puristic prejudices of the Semitist (comparative philology was still in its infancy in those days) and ironically (but this is far from unusual in the history of the individual languages) we are more interested in what he denounces than in what he extols. A careful look at his severe censure of the "dialect of the cities" which he called "of the port" shows perspicacity. This particular way of speaking seemed to him "the most corrupt, not only because of the many foreigners who influence the language a lot, but because of the craze some city-dwellers have of giving a Maltese form to foreign words and barbarize the native idiom with Sicilian, Italian, French and other expressions, not only in new denominations of foreign objects and habits, which is sometimes necessary, but in adapting them instead of the truly national and more expressive ones" (p. XVI). Few would dare find fault with this statement but, as for Probus' fourth century Appendix, its value today appears from a different standpoint to the author's. Vassalli, influenced by the Enlightenment, which had a static concept of language, idealized rural speech and saw it in an abstract way as the "true" language. He therefore ignored the hesitant written register of his time and considered only the spoken forms (this was actually a step in the right direction and perhaps a methodological innovation) in an attempt to find the "best" one which could be adopted as the basis for a reformed writing medium, whence the selective approach of his dictionary (this was in line with the prevalent theory of language reconstruction, the quest for the mythical Ursprache). In spite of his intentions, therefore, beneath the patriotic outburst we can perceive the symbiosis taking shape, under the pressures of practical needs and the force of prestige. The new phase may have seemed shocking at the time but it was destined to prevail over the conservative forces. Apart from these historiographical considerations, which are necessary to place Vassalli's views in their true perspective, Vassalli deserves credit for leaving us an informative sketch of Maltese as it was spoken in the eighteenth century. His distinction of four rural areas (Gozo, and the West, Middle and South of Malta) and the description of each one's peculiar speech characteristics is extremely interesting for it confirms the relative isolation of the inner towns and the negligible gravitational pull of the old capital Mdina.

On the technical level Vassalli points out the main innovations which will lead to standard Maltese, first of all the difference between the frequent diphthongs pronounced in the rural dialects and the clear vowels of city speech. He perceived the fusion of the Arabic gutturals ghajn and rghajn and deplored the dropping of the three Semitic consonants ghajn, rghajn and the glottal stop (q) which city-dwellers substituted by an aspirate [h] and a [k]: [p.106] "Some people never learned these sounds, not even in childhood. Many others however had acquired them but they either refrain from using them believing that this is more fashionable, or else use them in the wrong place" (Vassalli 1796, p. XVII). When making this comment Vassalli was obviously illustrating the unifying process of selectivity and the loss of the non-economical phonemes. With the coming of the Knights the hundreds of Maltese who left the countryside to settle in the harbour cities did not meet only foreigners. Most of all they met and worked with other Maltese settlers from all over the island. When the peasant was uprooted from his native town or village he became aware of his peculiar manners, which he soon learnt to discard, and naturally felt that the way he spoke betrayed his origins. The natural reaction was to avoid carefully the peculiar sounds, words and phrases of his home dialect. This mimetic urge is felt by all immigrants everywhere, who do their best to pick up the characteristics of the social group they wish to join, and in Malta it can still be observed where new residential areas spring up with a heterogeneous influx. The difference between what happened abroad in the same age and what happened around the Grand Harbour in the first 100 years under the Knights was very significant. The first rush to the Three Cities overwhelmed the original inhabitants, while the second rush to Valletta brought settlers to a place which was previously uninhabited. In this way we have an extremely interesting case of a new form of speech created in a kind of vacuum: the first waves of immigrants do not have a linguistic tradition to conform to, so they simply shed their old peculiarities. An elective koine is thus formed by sifting the various dialects and by assuming a receptive attitude towards the languages of social prestige and practical innovations. These were Sicilian and Italian, and it is significant that Latin, enclosed within the fields of religion and learning, played a very minor part in the formation of the superstrata.

The increase in the population of the towns around Grand Harbour (Table II) meant that this koine was adopted by a rising percentage of the population, from about 28% in 1600 to almost 40% in 1800. This form of speech did spread to the whole population later but progress was very slow for it depended on the contacts between the respective residents of the harbour cities and of the rural areas. Tangible evidence of internal migration can be obtained from the matrimonial registers of the parishes. According to tradition weddings are celebrated in the parish where the bride resides, and very frequently that is also the place where the couple takes up residence, within easy reach of the bride's family. Available data from these sources reveal that, for instance, between 1750 and 1798 weddings between dwellers of the same town or village [p.107] in the rural areas accounted for a minimum of 24.4% of the total weddings in Balzan and Kirkop to a maximum of 58.1% at Mosta and even 61.8% in Siġġiewi.[39] One must bear in mind however that Balzan and Kirkop were tiny villages while Mosta and Siġġiewi had a larger population and were relatively isolated. The same preference for partners from the same place of residence was shown in the cities around Grand Harbour. In Valletta between 1627 and 1650 two thirds of the Maltese grooms resided in Valletta (521 out of 767), making up 46.1% of the total weddings, while between 1750 and 1798 in Senglea 443 girls out of 1388 (31.9%) married someone who was not from Senglea. However it can be noticed that a good number of the grooms from outside the town actually came from the other cities in the harbour area, and therefore in both the latter cases the weddings between inhabitants of the port and of the country made up only 18% and 11.5% of the total respectively. On the other hand one must not forget that in Senglea, and more so in Valletta, the groom was likely to have moved in from the country only a few years before, or at best his parents had moved in, especially in the seventeenth century.

All in all these figures show that the Maltese tended to remain closed within the areas defined by Vassalli, and this explains the difference between the way people talked in the harbour areas as opposed to the conservative registers in the rural areas. But they also show a slow but steady link between the two zones, and from the linguistic point of view family contacts must have been the main channel spreading Romance words. In Malta family ties have always been strong and the settlers in the harbour towns must have maintained regular contacts with their country relatives. In this way personal contacts favoured the spreading out of linguistic innovations and helped wear away the more conservative peculiarities. The progressive Latinization of the language did not remain closed in the cultured, administrative or commercial circles, but from the port centre it opened out fan-like and gradually penetrated rural speech at all social levels. Another channel for language change must have been commuting, and although details are lacking we can safely take one activity as symptomatic: the market. Quoting G.F. Abela,[40] V. Mallia-Milanes writes that "markets in Valletta were held on a daily basis throughout the year, bringing in regularly people from the countryside. [...] More than a hundred cartloads of merchandise were driven to Valletta every morning. Moreover, a large number of peasants, travelling on foot, proceeded to the city, carrying [p.108] similar consumer goods and other wares". He tells us that most of the traders and peasants came back in the afternoon with fresh loads and concludes that "markets were as much a meeting place for social intercourse as they were for business transactions".[41] One may add here that this social web is still reflected today in the structure of public transport, since all the buses converge on the capital. Linguistically it means that if only the upper classes adopted city-speech in the rural areas, a number of peasants must have practised some form of diglossia.

A common fallacy regarding the Latinization of the Maltese language is that it was effected mainly through the schools and the professions, that is by influence "from above". These channels did play their part, but it was certainly not a major one, for up to the nineteenth century the school system was very poor.[42] During the Knights' era the main channels were certainly the lower strata of society because Latinization was reflecting mainly material, not cultural, progress. An important example is the terminology of the building industry. L. Mahoney has shown that the great majority of technical terms are Romance (31 out of 36 tools, 117 out of 147 operations), and these prove the contribution of craftsmen and skilled or unskilled labourers who were brought over from Sicily and Southern Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century.[43] These terms were carried from Valletta by word of mouth and were assimilated all over the islands in a process which is symptomatic of social and linguistic interaction, first between foreigners and the inhabitants of the harbour cities, then between the latter and the residents of rural towns and villages.

The few attempts that have been carried out on these lines, like J. Cassar Pullicino's analysis of the terminology of shoemakers and of clothing[44] and Aquilina's on fishing and maritime activities,[45] confirm the interdependence of immigration, material progress and the Latinization of the Maltese lan-[p.109]-guage. In the same way that immigration since the thirteenth century, mostly from Sicily and Italy, has been considerable but not overwhelming, and has therefore been absorbed naturally into the local population, the absence of an authoritarian linguistic policy has made it possible for the local language to assimilate gradually an enormous amount of Romance words without dissolving the morphological structure and the basic lexical nucleus. At the same time the city register increased its distance from the rural registers by eliminating the less economical phonetic and lexical features of the latter and by forging the common traits with the innovations that proved necessary in order to keep pace with a social situation which was more varied and dynamic. In this way an autonomous language developed which by the time academics took it seriously had become practically equidistant from both Arabic and Italian.[46]

During the British period, the harbour area became even more important to the islands' economy and the demographic movement towards it kept rising steadily, producing a conurbation, especially with the rapid growth of Hamrun, Marsa, Paola, Giira and Sliema. In this way the percentage of inhabitants speaking the city register kept increasing: C. Cassar[47] quotes L.H. Dudley Buxton who asserted that by 1921 one fourth of the population lived in the harbour towns, one third in the suburban areas and the rest in the rural areas. The city register naturally became the language of the majority of the Maltese. The Romanti erature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly the popular novels, and the development of a more sound primary school system helped in spreading it, while in the first half of the twentieth century public transport (buses in the 1920s), a daily paper (Il-Berqa 1930-67), official recognition (1934), local broadcasting (Rediffusion from 1935) and compulsory schooling (1948) promoted it to the status of a standard language, a task it performs efficiently, satisfying the aspirations of a politically independent community.

The progressive demographic shift towards the harbour area, which constitutes the social basis for Standard Maltese.
Source: H. Bowen-Jones, J.C. Dewdney and W.B. Fisher, Malta, Background for Development (Durham, 1961), 139.


[1] G. Caracausi, "Lingue in Contatto nell'estremo Mezzogiorno d'Italia", Bollettino del Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani, xv (Palermo, 1985), 4-14.

[2] G.F. Abela, Della descrittione di Malta isola nel mare siciliano (Malta, 1647).

[3] E. Serracino Inglott, Il-Miklem Malti, 9 vols. (Malta, 1975-1989). J. Aquilina, Maltese-English Dictionary (Malta, 1987-90).

[4] Serracino Inglott, ix, 169-251.

[5] G. Brincat, "Le prospettive storico-culturali della poesia maltese", Critica Letteraria, 21 (1978), 645-63.

[6] G. Wettinger and M. Fsadni, Peter Caxaro's Cantilena (Malta, 1968).

[7] G. Brincat, "Critica Testuale delta Cantilena di Pietro Caxaro", Journal of Maltese Studies, 16 (1986), 1-21.

[8] G. Wettinger, "Some Maltese Medieval Place Names of Archaeological Interest", Atti del Colloquio Internazionale di Archeologia Medievale (Palenno-Erice,1974), (Palermo, 1976), 3-39. Id., "Non-Arabo-Berber Influences on Malta's Medieval Nomenclature", Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Studies on cultures of the W. Mediterranean (Malta, 1976) (Alger, 1978), 199-213. Id., "Early Maltese and Gozitan Place Names", Civilization (Malta, 1982-).

[9] H. Megiser, Propugnaculum Europae (Leipzig, 1611). See also A. Cassola, "Un'edizione diversa della lista di voci maltesi del seicento di Hieronymus Megiscr", Incontri Siculo-Maltesi, ed. G. Brincat ( = Journal of Maltese Studies, vols. 17-18), (1987-88), 72-86. H.Maius, "Specimen linguae punicae in hodierna melitensium superstitis" (written in Jessa in 1718), in Graevius, Thesaurus Antiquitatum et Historiamm Siciliae (Lugduni, 1725), 469, 496.

[10] G.F. Agius De Soldanis, Damma tal-kliem kartaginis: 4 MS vols. in NLM Lib.

[11] A. Cassola, Regole per la lingua maltase. The "nobile, pio, cavalier francese Thezan" and his long-lost manuscript recovered (Malta, 1988), 58.

[12] N. Tagliaferro, Sugli elementi costitutivi del linguaggio maltese (Malta, 1910). N. Cremona, X'inhu l-Malti safi? (Malta, 1925). J. Aquilina, L-Ilsien Malti (Malta, 1945). Id., The Structure of Maltese (Malta, 1959, reprint 1973).

[13] W. Gesenius, Versuch über die maltesische Sprache (Leipzig, 1810).

[14] P.P. Saydon, "The Pre-Arabic Element in Maltese Toponymy", Orbis, v, 1 (1956), 191-7.

[15] G. Wettinger, "The Arabs in Malta", Malta: Studies of its Heritage and History (Malta, 1986), 87-104.

[16] F. Fanciullo, "Il siciliano e i dialetti meridionali", Tre millenni di storia linguistica della Sicilia (Pisa, 1984). Id, "Greek and Italian in Southern Italy", in Studies in Greek Linguistics (Thessaloniki, 1985).

[17] G. Brincat, "Etimologia e lessico dialettale net maltese: it carattere meridionale della componente romanza", in Etimologia e lessico dialettale (Pisa, 1980), 597-608.

[18] A. Varvaro, Lingua e storia in Sicilia (Palermo, 1981), 204-5, 217.

[19] H. Bresc, "La formazione del popolo siciliano", in Tre millenni di storia linguistica delta Sicilia (Pisa, 1984), 244.

[20] Varvaro, 205.

[21] Wettinger, 'The Arabs in Malta", 90-91.

[22] B. Blouet, The Story of Malta (Malta, 1984), 36.

[23] I have recently come across a relatively long and detailed passage in Al-Himyari's kitâb ar-Rawd, ed. I. Abbas (Beirut, 1975), 520, which I have published and commented on in The Sunday Times [Malta], 5 Aug., 9 Sept., 25 Nov. 1990. This passage provides a new framework for research into Malta's history between 870 and 1055, since it suggests a ferocious razzia in 870, complete disinterest in social development of the islands (left uninhabited?) for about 180 years and a settlement by Muslims and presumably non-Muslim slaves in 1048-9, with an estimated population of about 5,000 inhabitants in 1053-4.

[24] J. Aquilina, "Maltese Christian Words of Arabic Origin", Maltese Linguistic Surveys (Malta, 1976), 19-24.

[25] A.T. Luttrell, "Approaches to Medieval Malta", MM, 32.

[26] C. Schroth-Kohler, T. Kolzer and II. Zielinski, "Zwei staufische Diplome für Malta aus den Jahren 1198 and 1212", Deutsches Archiv, xxxii (1977).

[27] Luttrell, 36.

[28] Blouet.

[29] S. Fiorini, "Status Animarum: A Unique Source for 17th and 18th century Maltese Demography", MH viii, 4 (1983), 325-43.

[30] D. Cutajar and C. Cassar, "Malta's role in Mediterranean Affairs 1530-1699", Malta: Studies of its Heritage and History (Malta, 1986), 105-140.

[31] Blouet, 86. Cutajar/ Cassar, 117.

[32] Cassola, 41-58: "Taghlim aghl Soldat".

[33] V. Mallia-Milanes, Valletta 1566-1798: An Epitome of Europe (Malta, [1988]), xxvi.

[34] J.G. Testa and H.E. Zammit, "The Parish of Porto Salvo 1600-1613": unpublished dissertations, University of Malta, appendices V and XI.

[35] The sources are the following University of Malta dissertations (unpublished)): J.G. Testa and H.E. Zammit, op. cit.; R. Bowman and P. Sultana, "Marriages between 1627-1650" (1973); E. Camilleri and J. Pirotta, "The Parish of Naxxar 1600-1650" (1973); G. Zammit and S. Muscat, "The Parish of Bir Miftuħ 1600-1635" (1973); V. Rizzo, "Senglea 1750-1798" (1979); F. Ciappara, "Marriages in Malta in the late eighteenth century" (1980), for Vittoriosa and Qormi; P. Farrugia and F. Boffa, "The Parish of Gudja 1770-1800" (1973).

[36] Ciappara, 29.

[37] Blouet, 40-42, 70-100.

[38] M.A. Vassalli, Lexicon Melitense-Latino-Italum (Roma, 1796).

[39] Ciappara, 104.

[40] Abela, 137-8.

[41] Mallia-Milanes, xxv.

[42] G. Brincat, "II significato della lingua e cultura italiana a Malta: storia, scuola e society", in the proceedings of the international conference on Linguae cultura italiana in Europa (Amsterdam, 17-20 October 1988), in the press.

[43] L. Mahoney, A History of Maltese Architecture (Malta, 1988), 54-55, 337-40.

[44] J. Cassar-Pullicino, "Voci e termini maltesi usati dai calzolai", Journal of Maltese Studies, 2 (1964), 238-45. Id, "Notes for a History of Maltese Costume", Maltese Folklore Review, i, 3 (1966), 149-216.

[45] J. Aquilina, Nomi maltesi di pesci, molluschi e crostacei del Mediterraneo (Malta, 1969). See also G. Brincat, "L'utilità di un atlante linguistico siciliano per lo studio del maltese", Atlanti regionali: aspetti metodologici, linguistici e etnografici (Pisa, 1989), 79-82.

[46] H. Ludtke, "Sur la morphosyntaxe mélangée de trois parlers insulaires de la Méditerranée (maltais, arabe de Chypre, pantellerien)", in Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Studies on cultures of the Western Mediterranean, ii (Alger, 1978), 214-19.

[47] C. Cassar, "Everyday Life in Malta in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries", in The British Colonial Experience 1800-1964, ed. V. Mallia-Milanes (Malta, 1988), 95.