The most ancient texts in Maltese at last translated into (Tunisian) Arabic with a useful annex about the relations between Malta and the neighbouring Libyan Jamahiriya.
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Think of an unthinkable one thousand year-old Maltese-Tunisian linguistic connection…
The «Repubblika ta' Malta» has become a full Member State of the
European Union in 2004. For a long time and for many and often complex
reasons, sometimes unsaid, unthought-of or even unthinkable, a fair
number of its citizens, including researchers, have denied
that the very morpho-syntactic structure and vocabulary of their own
national language were essentially Arabic. Interestingly, from the other
side of the Mediterranean, the very large majority of Tunisians have
not been aware that their own speak, within the vast family of Arabic
dialects, is actually the closest and more akin one to Maltese. It was
only beyond the second half of the 20th century, i.e.
about one millennium after the Arab conquest of the island, that sounder
scientific studies have been able to take the heat out of the debate,
eventually allowing the record to be put somewhat straight. Today, one
may agree (or not) that Maltese can be described as an Italianised
peripheral (Tunisian) Arabic dialect having followed a peculiar
historical route. In a first article
dated 20 June 2013, the author wished to lift the smokescreen so that
Arab speaking populations, and Tunisians in particular, may appreciate
the beauty of the language spoken, for more than 1000 years, in the
island of Malta, located just a few hundred kilometres away from their
coast and so closely related to their own dialect. Such an initiative is
now best exemplified by the first full translation ever of the
Cantilena and Blooming May -the two oldest Maltese texts (actually
poems)- into (Tunisian) Arabic, together with original English and
French versions, except for that of the Cantilena in English which is
based on one done by famous Maltese scholars.
The first document goes back to the 15th century and is
known as the Cantilena. It remains the most ancient known text in the
Maltese language. The second one comes a bit later (17th
century) and its title can be rendered by « Blooming May ». In both
case, the suggested translation is basically a literal one, even if, for
several reasons related to the complexity of the available materials,
this has not always been possible. In this regard, some figures of
language, were sometimes left « sticking » to the original Maltese
language and may even be deemed linguistically flawed or erroneous. For
instance, the feminine word « heart » (“calb”) (actually masculine in
Arabic); « deep well » literally rendered by « deepened well » (“bir
imgamic”) ; or the use of the word « waqa’a » (verb “to fall”, which
appears in several instances in relation to the poet’s house) instead of
its more Tunisian equivalent « taha » or « inhara ». Also noteworthy is
the fact that the Cantilena, much more than ‘Blooming May’, very likely
contains spelling mistakes (keeping in mind that there was no
“official” orthography by the time it was written…). In the same vein, a
word like « halex » also means « because», which may sound surprising
for Arabic readers, particularly Tunisians. The English translation of
the Cantilena, and only the latter, is based on the classical one by
Wettinger & Fsadni although, given the Tunisian Arabic approach, it
had to be modified.
Thanks to these striking examples taken from the very history and
civilisation of Malta, Arabic speaking peoples (and Tunisians and
Libyans in particular, whose dialects are very close to each other’s -
local actual variations apart) are free to appreciate by themselves the
beauty of these poems. Then, they may personally decide whether or not
the Maltese language derives to a great extent from Arabic (and its
Tunisian form in particular) since the related one thousand year old
academic debate –and in spite of the last five decades supposed to have
raised full "awareness " (about the Arabic-Maltese connection)- is not
really closed… For instance, in the author’s first article,
it was stressed that for a long period, many scientists (particularly
historians and linguists) used to describe Maltese as a “Semitic”
language, letting naïve people think that Maltese was more similar to a
language like Phoenician or Hebrew than Arabic [*]… Even today,
the epithet “Semitic” is sometimes used in some research to cover
varieties of Arabic supposedly having had some influence –together with
Romance languages- on the formation of Maltese. Amazingly, the very name
“Arabic”, certainly more adequate, seems to still pose problems… If one
were to follow the same logics, then the language spoken in 22 Arab
countries should also be referred to as “Semitic” and not “Arabic”,
shouldn’t it?… Such a trend apparently related to political correctness
was early noted by researchers like Cassar Pullicino (1979) and Mathias
Prevaes (1993). In various instances, the latter referred to the
frequent “arabophobia” (sic) of some Maltese scholars. It appears that
by the 21st century, the so obvious direct linguistic
Maltese-Tunisian seems an unbearable, unthought-of or even unthinkable
truth... In any case, by opening the two historic texts to a broad
critical public made up of Maltese and non-Maltese, Arabs and non-Arabs,
the author also hopes that alternative translations or personal
interpretations will see the light.
About the Cantilena
This poem, written around year 1470 by Pietro Caxaro, was discovered
by Godfrey Wettinger and Michael Fsadni about four decades ago.
Maltese Cantilena (ca. 1470) and its verse-by-verse translation into
Arabic (by the author). The English translation although based on the
classical one by Wettinger & Fsadni, contains innovative elements by
the author in order to conform with the new (Tunisian) Arabic reading
approach. Please note that the phrase made up of the first three words
(“Xideu il cada”) has a strong religious etymology. The poet calls out
his neighbours to stop doing the things of daily life (as set by Destiny
in a classical religious vision: that of the “cada”) in order to pay
attention to his own fate… Note: CLICK on the image for full size.
It is interesting from several standpoints. First, it is the oldest
text in Maltese (Brincat 2008). On a linguistic level, Cremona ( 1994)
cogently noted that such a poem showed that by the 15th
century, Maltese had already got the same linguistic structures
(phonological and grammatical) as the Arabic dialects of the
Mediterranean. Just like the Pater Noster (with the term “Missierna” (Father))[*],
the Cantilena contains only one word of non-Arab origin and, once
again, Sicilian ("vintura") which appears in verse n° 17 (« Min ibidill
il miken ibidil il vintura »). Such a phrase is also a perfect syntactic
and semantic calque of the Sicilian proverb "Cui muta loco muta
vintura" (Change the place and your destiny will also change)(Cassola
1994). The esoteric tone of the Cantilena is reminiscent of Sufism. Its
sounds are typically Tunisian. For a long time, some its elements
(“the construction site of my house” in Tunisian Arabic). A word not
well understood for a very long time although it is still in use in
today’s Tunisia as the photograph shows (heaps of cement and sand for
the building mortar vs. loose clay for the Cantilena poet’s house...).
because of misinterpretation of words typical of that Arabic dialect,
revealing by the same token the consequences of the surprising lack of
scientific collaboration between the two shores of the Mediterranean on
the issue of the Maltese language. For instance, words like “mirammati"
(the construction site of my house; still in use in today’s Tunisia...);
"hayran" (yearn for, especially in relation to love); "yeutihe" ("it
fits", "it is appropriate"; verse n° 16); "sisen" (bases; house
foundations), have long been misunderstood and sometimes mistranslated
by specialists of the Maltese language. A critical reading as that of
Kabazi (1989) is quite instructive in this respect. If, as they appear
in the transcript of the Cantilena, the words of embryonic Maltese may
be indecipherable by an average Arabic reader, they will immediately
become intelligible once the context has been clarified. In fact, such
terms are very often deeply rooted in the typically Tunisian lexicon as
the case of "sisen " (in fact the plural form of “eses”: "a foundation")
shows whereby much written about related academic discussions have
taken place in the past...
About the « Blooming May» poem
This is a poem of the sonnet type whose title is « Mejju gie'
bl'uard, u zahar ». It was authored by Grancesco Bonamico around year
1672 in honour of Nicolau Cotoner, Grand Master of the Order of Malta.
The 'Blooming May' Maltese poem (ca. 1672) translated into Arabic and English (by the author). Note: CLICK on the image for full size.
Given its pastoral nature associated with descriptions of the nature
and weather on the island, it is not surprising that its vocabulary
still remains Arabic to a great extent. From a merely linguistic
viewpoint, Cowan (1975) noted that such a poem does establish the final
inflexion of the "a" (long or not) into "a". There would be an evolution
by comparison with the previous literary production whereby one could
find an ending "e", as the Cantilena shows in particular. Verse n° 12
(“Kecu tepki el giuh phl lsira”), as the last one in the Cantilena,
remains uncertain as far its meaning is concerned. Based on the
comparative linguistic analysis and taking into account the phonological
evolution of Maltese through history, a Maltese correspondent (David)
already suggested to the author that it could be read as
(approximately): “She (the island, i.e. Malta) would have wept for
hunger as (a)/(the) (war) captive(s)”.
Bibliographical notes and references:
[*] Kamal Chaouachi. Malte, si proche et si lointaine de la Tunisie [Malta, so close to Tunisia but also so far from it]. Kapitalis, 20 June 2013.
Please note that a Maltese pronunciation simplified aid can be found at the end of the author’s first article.
The author –who has published in the past academic papers on the
material culture of the Mediterranean- has prepared a background paper
on the issue of the Maltese language and its chiefly Tunisian genealogy.
It is entitled: "Malta as seen from Tunis a thousand years later. An
anthropo-linguistic contribution to the long debate on the very nature
of the Maltese language”. Among other assumptions, he defends that of the existence, in the Malta of the 9th/11th
centuries, of speakers of various Arabic dialects. This would explain,
beyond the main Tunisian background, the presence of some Near-Eastern
and Middle Eastern features in Maltese. Quite early, a dialectical
adjustment process would have taken place. The publication of this
important document has been delayed because of obstacles related to the
sensitivity of the issue. Arab speakers in general (and Tunisians and
Libyans in particular) will certainly understand the underlying reasons.
Contact: [email protected]
Short notes have also been published in a Maltese journal:
-Letter: The Maltese-Tunisian Linguistic Link. The Malta Independent, 30 June 2013
-Article: Malta as seen from Tunis, a thousand years later… The Malta Independent on Sunday, 16 June 2013, p. 21.
Brincat, Joseph, 2008, “Malta”, In: Encyclopedia of Arabic Language
and Linguistics, Ed. Kees Versteegh. Leiden: Brill, pp. 141-145.
Brincat, Giuseppe, 1986, “Critica testuale della Cantilena di Pietro Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies, 16, p. 1-21.
Cassola, A, 1994, “Two Notes: Brighella and Thezan; The "Cantilena",
Maltese and Sicilian Proverbs”, Journal of Maltese Studies. 25-26, p.
Cowan, W., 1975, Caxaro's Cantilena : A Checkpoint for Change in Maltese. Journal of Maltese Studies, 10, p. 4-10.
Cremona, J, 1994, “The Survival of Arabic in Malta: the Sicilian
Centuries”, In: Source: The changing voices of Europe etc. : Papers in
Honour of Professor Glanville Price. – Cardiff : University of Wales
Kabazi, Fuad, 1989-1990, “Ulteriori considerazioni linguistiche sulla
Cantilena di Pietro Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies. 19-20, p.
Prevaes, Mathias Hubertus, 1993, The emergence of standard Maltese: the Arabic factor. The Netherlands, 121 pp.
Pullicino, Cassar, 1979, “The Mediterranean islands as places of
synthesis between Arab culture and European cultures”, Univ. of Malta,
Journal of Maltese Studies 13, p. 17-42.
Wettinger, Godfried, 1978, « Looking back on 'The Cantilena of Peter Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies, 12, p. 88-105.
Wettinger, Godfried & Fsadni, Michael, 1968, “Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena; a poem in medieval Maltese”, Malta.
Full version of the Cantilena (ca. 1470) and 'Blooming May' poems (ca. 1672) in Arabic. Note: CLICK on the image for full size.
ANNEX about Malta and the neighbouring Libyan Jamahiriya
Over the last decades, the great Arab neighbour of Malta has been the
Libyan Jamahiriya. Even when considering mere linguistic issues, it is
difficult to gloss over the relations between each other’s. Let us see
On the 3rd of December 1977, Godfried Wettinger, one of
the two Maltese researchers who stumbled upon the Cantilena, delivered
an important public lecture about it at the Libyan Arab Cultural
Institute in Valetta. Interestingly, and as far as the author has been
informed, it was during the same year that Libya officially became the
Great Libyan Jamahiriya [1-2]. Also noteworthy is that such a
centre has so far remained the only substantial Arab cultural
representation in the island. One may assume that the world renowned
Guide of the Libyan Revolution had early understood the issue at stake: i.e.
the kinship of Maltese with Arabic, particularly Tunisian Arabic (since
the Libyan variety is also very close to the latter). Such an
initiative is undoubtedly reminiscent of Mikiel Anton Vassali, the
linguist of the 18th century regarded as the father of the
Maltese language, who urged his fellow countrymen to learn Arabic in
order to better understand their own language ... Interestingly, two centuries later, Maltese institutions introduced Arabic as an optional language in (higher) education .
One may surmise that the latter measure was a result of both a cultural
and commercial new encounter between the Great Libyan Jamahiriya and
In any case, it appears that many researchers from Malta and abroad
have largely benefited from the unique resources provided by such a
scientific and cultural institute even if not all of them have
acknowledged this… Reinhold Kontzi, who has carried on thorough
comparative investigations between Maltese and Arabic, has even paid a
particular attention to the Green Book written by Colonel Al-Qaddafi and
translated into Maltese [5-7]. Finally, Malta has played an
important role – as a passage for many travellers from Europe- during
the decade that saw the sanctions imposed on the Jamahiriya on grounds
of the so-called “Lockerbie” case even if it is now quite clear that, as
in many other affairs, Libya was framed as US political experts like William Blum, Edward Herman, Linda Heard or even ex-CIA employee Susan Lindauer, showed [8-11].
The latter, in particular, has noted how one of the mains reasons for
the NATO illegal war against the Jamahiriya in 2011 was that the Guide
of the Libyan Revolution had demanded the return of the 2.7 billion
dollars he paid to the Lockerbie victims in order to get some “Western”
states “out of his people’s hair” and the embargo eventually lifted. If
it were not enough, the 800 page Lockerbie Report has exonerated Libya . Finally, and as far as Malta is directly concerned, a book by Joe Mifsud should also be cited here .
 Wettinger, Godfried, 1978, « Looking back on 'The Cantilena of Peter Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies, 12, p. 88-105.
 Libya - Declaration on the Establishment of the Authority of the People. ICL Document Status (2 March 1977).
 Saydon, Pietru Pawl, 1953, “Bibliographical aids to the study of
Maltese”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (2), Apr., p. 124-133.
 Prevaes, Mathias Hubertus, 1993, The emergence of standard Maltese: the Arabic factor. The Netherlands, 121 pp.
 Kontzi, Reinhold, 1981, « L'elemento maltese nel maltese », Journal of Maltese Studies 14, p. 32-47.
 The Green Book & The Third Universal Theory. 31 May 2012.
 Al-Qadhafi, Muammar, Il-ktieb l-aħdar. It-tieni parti.
Is-soluzzjoni tal-problema ekonomika « Is-soċjaliżmu ». Malta: Istitut
Kulturali Libjan, 1978.
 William_Blum. The Bombing of PanAm Flight 103 : Case Not Closed. March 2001.
 Edward Herman. The New York Times on the Libya-Pan Am 103 Case: A Study in Propaganda Service.22 Sept 2007
 Linda J. Heard. Lockerbie Bombing: Libya was Framed. Global Research, February 24, 2011
 Susan Lindauer. Lockerbie Diary: Gadhaffi, Fall Guy for CIA Drug Running. 9 March 2011
 The 800 Page Lockerbie Report that Exonerates Libya. By Alexandra Valiente, 26 March 2012
 Joe Mifsud (BOOK): Lockerbie: Qabel il-Verdett [Lockerbie: Before the Verdict]. In-depth report series ISBN: 999332-612-0-3
Reminder: a simplified aid for pronouncing Maltese can be found right at the end of the author’s first article (20 June2013).
The Maltese Cantilena (ca. 1470) translated into Arabic and French (by the author). Note: CLICK on the image for full size.
The 'Blooming May' Maltese poem (ca. 1672) translated into Arabic and French (by the author). CLICK on the image for full size.