The Maltese language and other languages spoken in Malta

The Maltese language is the only Semitic language written in the Latin script and the only official Semitic language of the European Union, of which Malta forms part.

Originally an Arabic dialect, over the centuries it has picked up words from several other European languages – depending on who ruled Malta and for how long.

The Maltese language’s ability to adapt and grow inorganically has ensured its survival throughout the millennia. Even in these modern times, the Maltese language continues to absorb foreign words with such ease that those steering the language debate are left… wordless.

Maltese language basics

Spoken by half a million people in the whole world, Maltese sounds strange to visitors – some feel they should be able to understand it, but many cannot.

This is mostly because three out of every ten words in Maltese are words from either English, French or Italian, while the rest have Semitic roots. Common expressions like ‘thank you’ or grazzi (grazie in Italian), and greetings like ‘hello’, bonġu (bonjour in French) or bonswa (bonsoir, also French), have almost completely replaced their Maltese equivalents.

Unfortunately, not many Maltese people are able to write well in Maltese. It is a sad truth. Many complain that written Maltese is a grammatical nightmare but probably the true reason is that few have the patience to do it right.

Local linguists are concerned about a modern society that writes Maltese as they like, without any care to grammatical rules that are so important. Others believe that this way of writing should be embraced, arguing that the written language should follow the spoken. The debates continue.

What is the official national language of Malta?

Malta has two official languages – Maltese and English – and both are spoken fluently by the vast majority of the population.

For hundreds of years, the Maltese language was left to its own devices, spoken by the commoners, ignored by those who ruled. This perhaps ensured its survival. With the arrival of the British in 1800, English was introduced and quickly absorbed by the Maltese. Today, a considerable portion of the population prefer to speak English, or were raised as English-speaking primarily. Both English and Maltese are compulsory academic subjects in schools.

Although the vast majority of the population speak English, most prefer to speak Maltese with fellow-countrymen. Being spoken to in English by another Maltese person is often questioned and although it’s just my guess (being a foreigner) it could be a matter of pride. Even though English is an official language, the language of the people remains Maltese, which is very much part of the Maltese identity and important to most.

What other languages are commonly spoken in Malta?

The Italian influence can be greatly felt in Malta – from food to fashion, and also by the fact that Italian is spoken by roughly 60% of the Maltese. This influence has multiple facets – since ancient times, people crossed from Italy and Sicily to inhabit the island or to trade.

The Romans for example, spent a long while cultivating olive trees and vines. Later on in history, Malta became part of the Kingdom of Sicily – Malta’s vicinity and trade ties with Sicily have strongly left their mark – linguistically and culturally. In 1530, Italian was declared the official language by the Knights of St John, and remained so until 1934. In more recent times, Italian TV stations were practically the only stations the Maltese tuned into for a period that lasted about 40 years, between the 60’s and 2000.