Getting to Grips with the Maltese Language

In which the Satnav swears at Jaqui and I curse David Brown.

After only a short time in Malta we have decided to abandon this year’s language project (Spanish) in favour of learning Maltese. It’s not at all necessary to speak the local language in Malta since English is one of the two official languages and almost everyone on the island speaks it well. However Maltese is the language of choice in everyday use, particularly in areas like Rabat where we are living, and it would be nice to understand more of what is going on around us.

Maltese is an interesting language having its roots in Arabic but with a large component of Romance languages, particularly Italian.

We are hoping to join a formal class in the Autumn. Language is one of the few many skills at which Jaqui clearly outshines me. For example as a schoolgirl she won the French Consul’s prize for the best spoken French in Northern Ireland. She also speaks reasonable German and a little Spanish. In a social situation where another language is being spoken I normally shut up and leave the talking to Jax. (Actually, come to think of it…)  I therefore thought I would get a head start by beginning now rather than waiting for the course.

The modern, and most effective, approach to learning a new language is to start speaking it straight away and allow vocabulary, spelling and grammar to catch up later. Needless to say, me being Lawrence, I decided to do exactly the opposite, to learn to read Maltese before attempting to speak it.

I was inspired to try this approach by David Brown, a great friend from university days. Back then, when we were undergraduates, he described to me how a certain very bright linguist had decided to learn twelve languages simultaneously. He did this by acquiring one classic novel in each of the languages, accompanied by a dictionary and a book of grammar. He spent an hour a day on each novel, using the dictionary to work out each sentence at a time. It was slow work at first, looking up every individual word, but sped up as time went on and the vocabulary started to build up. Before he had reached the end of the first chapter of each novel he had a good working knowledge of the language.

Not being a brilliant linguist, I decided to simplify the process by opting for a children’s book rather than a classic novel. I chose a translation of Oliver Twist which is nicely illustrated and seems to be aimed at the under tens. Armed with a good Maltese-English dictionary I sat down and began to read. It didn’t go well.

The first word in the book wasn’t to be found in the dictionary!  (I was soon to learn that less than 50% of the words could be found in the dictionary – at least not in their alphabetical order.) The first sentence in the book begins Fl-ewwel… Ewwel is very straightforward, it means “first” but what on earth is Fl-? There is nothing in the dictionary between fjus (“fuse”) and flaġell (“whip”). Later (much later) I was to discover that fl is a contraction of fi meaning “in” ad l- the definite article. But l- is itself a contraction of il- which drops the initial when it precedes (or indeed when it follows) a vowel. In the meantime I skipped over Fl- thinking “I’ll come back to that later”.

A few words later in that same first sentence I came across mill-bliet. Guess what? no mill- and no bliet in the dictionary! A Maltese friend was kind enough to translate bliet for me. It means “cities” and is the plural of belt or “city”. Bliet does not appear in the dictionary in its own right but is listed along with the root noun belt. Since the second letter in the word is different between the singular and plural, there is no easy way to find bliet without reading carefully through all the words beginning with “b”. Mill-is one of those contractions, being a combination of minn meaning “from” and the definite article il-.

After two weeks, despite recruiting additional help from Google Translate, I still hadn’t fully translated the first two paragraphs of Oliver Twist and was roundly cursing David Brown for putting this daft idea in my head!

Eventually I succumbed and obtained a language tutor book. Most such tutors come with an audio CD but we are currently operating in a CD-free mode, without even a CD-ROM capability on our MacBook Airs. I was lucky enough to find a traditional language tutor by Joseph Vella. This is structured rather like the schoolbook I used many years ago to learn French. Each chapter begins with a passage in Maltese followed by a discussion of the relevant points of grammar and vocabulary.  It only took a couple of chapters for pennies to start to drop and I began to appreciate much that had previously been going over my head in Oliver Twist.

There are many other aspects of the Maltese language which provide difficulties for a native English speaker, some of which are due to its basis in Arabic. We have mentioned that the definite article is il-. However this may change depending on the word following. For example il-kelb is “the dog” but this changes to id-dar for “the house” and ix-xemx for “the sun”.

The letter q is very common in Maltese words but only represents a mild glottal stop and is not explicitly pronounced.  For example the town of Qormi is pronounced something like “oormie”. Malta’s airport is located at Luqa which is almost invariable mis-pronounced by foreigners as “lookah”. It should more properly sound  like “loo-ah”. Which brings us to the swearing Satnav!

Jaqui had dropped me off at the beginning of one of my walks and was returning home with the assistance of the Satnav. She was rather shocked when it came out with a four-letter word – the dreaded f-word in fact. The female Satnav voice, on two occasions, distinctly said  something along the lines of “**** san ‘ell ink oran ass yawni” Actually what the synthetic voice was trying to say was Fuq San L-Inkurunazzjoni which translates as “Coronation Street”. The word fuq meaning “on” or “upon” should of course be pronounced “foo” with the “q” being pretty much silent.

Given our schoolboy sense of humour, I can foresee Jaqui and I making regular detours via Fuq San L-Inkurunazzjoni when we are travelling in the area with guests in the car and the satnav switched on!

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3 Responses to Getting to Grips with the Maltese Language

  1. Werner says:

    Dear Larry,

    your story had me completely bowled over! Es-Sjems is shining brightly overhead here in the Netherlands and I am in need of a hair of el Kelb who bit me…
    Es Selaam Aleikum!


  2. David Brown says:

    Roundly cursed on the Internet – fame at last! As I no longer remember the anecdote, I’m not sure how much credit is mine, but I will be incorporating it back into memory in case it comes in useful in the future.

    The problem, of course, was that you omitted the book of Maltese grammar.

    If you’re up for it, I can lend you both Harry Potter and the Alice books in Chinese. The dictionary is a REAL challenge.

  3. Keith Dibben says:

    Have just found this Larry. I hope you and Jaqui are both well and settling in to life in Malta. Regards and best wishes – Keith

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