Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Do you speak Malti?

Valletta, capital of Malta
I'm in Malta again, having spent the day in the heavily-fortified capital, Valletta, trying to find someone to open the ever-locked doors of the Church of St Paul's Shipwreck. Tomorrow, it seems, I'll be able to get inside... though I was told the same thing yesterday, as I recall, and the day before.

Something that strikes me every time I walk around the narrow streets of Valletta - surely one of Europe's most unsung capitals - is the "foreignness" of the Maltese language. Last night I was waiting to buy a ticket for the Manoel Theatre; the receptionist was talking to her friend in Maltese and not a single word, not a single syllable, even, was intelligible - just a series of guttural sounds (and lots of Italian-like arm-waving). Once I got her attention, though, she burst into perfect, unaccented English. In fact, everyone I have ever come across in Malta, with the exception of one very old man I met who lived on an isolated farm, speaks first-rate English.

The Maltese have two official tongues: Maltese - Malti - and English, with Italian also being widely spoken (and Juventus being one of the most popular football teams!). In public life, though, including parliament, the church and the press; as well as in quotidian conversation; it's Malti that is the preferred choice. No surprise, really, as this unique language has been one of the most important factors in enabling Malta to maintain it's status as a separate nation state.

If you think about it, none of the other Mediterranean islands - Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica; is a country in its own right (in spite of repeated attempts to gain independence in some cases). To the ears of most Western visitors, including me, the Malti language sounds distinctly like Arabic (just as parts of the countryside, dry and dusty, resemble Tunisia or Libya). And, sure enough, the origins of Malti can be traced back to the North African Arabs who invaded Malta and Gozo in 870 AD. In fact, Malti is the only Semitic language to be written in the Latin script - with the addition of special characters to accommodate certain Semitic sounds.

Whilst Malti has always preserved its Arabic roots, its development owes much to the Romance languages of the Normans, who occupied Malta in 1090, and the Italians some 500 years later; and, of course, to English.

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