Arab Heritage in Malta

The history of Malta includes several centuries of Arab presence that were very influential in what its heritage today is, including language, and place names.

History of Arabs in Malta

From 870 CE to 1091 CE, the islands were almost exclusively Muslim by religion and Arab by language. Even after the Norman conquest, a significant Muslim segment in the society remained till the 13th century, since the initial Norman did not converted the population. This is similar to Sicily, where the Normans allowed the Muslims to remain Muslims for some time, and not forced to convert. For example, Al-Idrisi was a Muslim Arab nobleman who worked in the court of Roger, and wrote his geography book and named it The Book of Roger (Al-Kitab Al Rujari الكتاب  الروجري).

Eventually the Muslim presence in Malta ceased to exist, perhaps after it came under the Spanish Empire.  

Language of Malta

Their language remained Arabic though, and their family names remained Arabic, as well as most place names. Being non-Muslims the language slowly drifted to what it is today with heavy influence from Italian and Sicilian.

Why does the Maltese language remain spoken today and not vanish like Arabic in Iberia? I think that the more active suppression of Arabic by the Spanish authorities and the church is to blame here.

Nobility of Malta 

Much of the Maltese nobility have Arabic names referring to place names (Djar = Dar = house, Bneit = Bent = daughter/girl, Benwarrad = Sons/Descendants of Warrad, Gnien = Ganayen = Gardens, Tuffieha = Apple(?), Qajjed = Qa'ed = commander).

Place Names

Also, monuments and place names such as Hagar Qim are Arabic,  in this case a "Stone" in Arabic. Other place names include Mdina (The City), Flifla (pepper), Rabat (camp), Birzebbuga (Bir = well), Gzira (Island or peninsula), Marsa (port), Ghar (cave),  Qala (Fort), Gharb (west), il-Balluta (The oak), Triq (Way/Road), Isqaq (Lane), ...etc. A list of local councils of Malta reveal more.

It is interesting that the Maltese say that Zebbug and Birzebugga are derived from the name for olives,  while there is a town called Zejtun زيتون, which is the Arabic name for olives.

If one looks at the Attard anthem, one can see the extent of Arabic in it which sounds like a north African dialect.

Dissociation from anything Arab

Although the facts are there, some Maltese genealogists go out of their way to affirm that the Maltese are European and Christian, and have nothing to do with Arabs. The author,  Charles Said Vassallo claims descent from Cem, the younger brother of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II, who after a period of failed civil war, seeked refuge in Cairo, then Rhodes, then in Europe with the Pope.

This attempt to dissociate the Maltese from Arab influence is similar to the phobia in Iberia in the 1500s and afterwards, from anything to do with Moors and Islam, be it dress, language, customs, taking a bath, circumcision, ...etc.

This is an all too common phenomenon where people would like to stop history at a certain point for their own bias and ignore all other eras in history, religion, language  and culture. 

Closing Anecdote

A common saying in Egypt today is : "Like a call for [Muslim] prayer in Malta زي اللي بيأذن في مالطة", which alludes to the fact that no Muslims are left there, and hence no one will answer the call. This  must be an old saying indeed, given that  this happened many centuries ago.




Yes and no ...

It is not surprising that the Maltese people would have some Phoenician blood in them.

But saying that the Maltese language is Phoenician is unlikely. The language never survived anywhere after the decline of Carthage. Not even in its homeland of what is now Lebanon.

Where are the inscriptions that are evidence of Phoenician evolved into Maltese?

Even if this was the case, later evidence show that it was replaced by Arabic, just like what happened in Lebanon, Egypt, North Africa and Mesopotamia. All of which had Semitic languages before Arabic gradually became the spoken language of the majority.

Otherwise, how can you explain something like the ability of a modern day Arabic speaker to decipher Il-Cantilena and other texts like "May has arrived", ...etc.?

Science can never be wrong

Your statement that some Maltese are Phoenician contradicts all your convictions that Maltese is Arabic because it admits that in the year 869AD it's not true that all Maltese were taken into slavery but surely some (I think it was the majority, probaby the poor people which had nothing to be stolen by the Arabs) remained in Malta to continue with
(1)the Phoenician geneology
(2)the Maltese Language
(3)the Christian Faith
All 3 things have continued despite 200 years Arab rule and despite centuries of Roman, Knights and British rule.
Whilst thanking you for your admittance about some Maltese being Phoenician it would be good for you to know that your word SOME=44% of the Maltese people which is the highest amongst the Phoenician Colonies.
Still you have not explained why words which are not of European origin and are not Arabic are found in the Maltese language.
Of these I have found some which are surely not arabic but both Maltese and Lebanese (land of Phoenicians)
English Maltese Lebanese Arabic

cross-eyed werċ ورش ???
crook ħajjen هيّن ???
face wiċċ وشّ ???
bluff qarraq قرّق ???


I am half Irish/Maltese. I studied Arabic at university and have been living in the Arabian Gulf for 11 years. I agree with one of the writers, that the Maltese racially are not Arab. There were native Maltese prior to the Arab Period. Malta has had many invaders, but the Maltese remained Maltese. Of course, we must also recognise that fact that some contemporary Maltese must have Arab roots, being descendants of those Arabs who remained in Malta after the Norman conquest.

When it comes to the language though, Maltese is undeniably Arabic in its roots. It helped me immensely in learning Arabic - just as Portuguese would help someone from Lisbon to learn Italian, both language being Latin and therefore similar in structure and vocabulary. Denial of the Arab influence in the Maltese language is ridiculous and boils down to bigotry and ignorance. Maltese is at least 70% Arabic, of course with variations in pronunciation from the original Arabic. Yes it has many loan words from Italian, French etc, but its structure and lexis is Arabic! .... not Phoenician, as on particular website, very erroneously claims.

I'm not a historian and do not claim to be, but Arabic has in fact made me more aware of how Arabic Maltese actually is. Many Christians in our world are Arabic speakers and don't have a hang up about their language because Muslim Arabs happen to speak Arabic! Many Maltese basically are ignorant of Islam and Arabs, so base their denial of the truth of their linguistic origin on pure ignorance. Mux hekk?!

I'm proud of my Maltese language .... it helped me to learn Arabic, a skill which has helped me tremendously in my career, and made me unique amongst many. Malta has a rich and wonderful heritage. Let's be open-minded and stop denying! So many of my Kuwaiti/Saudi friends are so fascinated by Maltese and Malta. They are equally educated and well-travelled and would love to learn Maltese!

Well said ...

Denial of the Arab influence in the Maltese language is ridiculous and boils down to bigotry and ignorance. Maltese is at least 70% Arabic ...

Well said. I hope someone will listen to reason.
Khalid Baheyeldin

Maltese are not arab

For those Arabs that try to find commonality with Maltese is just as pathetic as those Maltese that try to find commonality with Europeans.

The reality is each isnow so far removed that the identity is clear albeit very common with the mediterranean. How the language survived and its real roots is very interesting. I would appreciate an arabic perspective of the oldest known Maltese verses of il Cantelina. Please do read it before lloking at the actual english translation and see how much of it you can actually understand. The funny thing is I as a Maltese can barely understand it:

Original orthography
This is the text of the Cantilena in the original orthography:

Xideu il cada ye gireni tale nichadithicum
Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom
Calb mehandihe chakim soltan ui le mule
Bir imgamic rimitne betiragin mucsule
Fen hayran al garca nenzel fi tirag minzeli
Nitla vu nargia ninzil deyem fil bachar il hali.

Huakit hi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Mectatilix mihallimin me chitali tafal morchi
fen timayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
vackit hi mirammiti.

Huakit by mirammiti Nizlit hi li sisen
Mectatilix li mihallimin ma kitatili li gebel
fen tumayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Huakit thi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Huec ucakit hi mirammiti vargia ibnie
biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe
Min ibidill il miken ibidil i vintura
haliex liradi ’al col xibir sura
hemme ard bayad v hemme ard seude et hamyra
Hactar min hedann heme tred mine tamara.

Modern orthography
Maltese orthography was not standardised until the 20th century; there were many variant spelling conventions in texts written before this time.

here's a table with the letter equivalents of modern maltese sounds

għ = ﻉ ʻayn but silent mostly elongates the following vowel
ħ = ﺡ ḥ very brief though as in 'help'
h = silent slightly elongates the following vowel
x = ﺵ sh as in ship
z = ﺯ as in zebra
j = ﺝ as in yellow
ie = a vowel, but a long ij
ż = ﻅ tz or ts
ġ = as in george
g = as get

e.g. a’ = the ’ signifies a dropped għ

In modern orthography, the text would be:

Xidew il-qada, ja ġirieni, talli nħadditkom,
Ma nsab fil-weri u la nsab f’għomorkom
Qalb m’għandha ħakem, sultan u la mula
Bir imgħammiq irmietni, b’turġien muħsula,
Fejn ħajran għall-għarqa, ninżel f’taraġ minżeli
Nitla’ u nerġa’ ninżel dejjem fil-baħar il-għoli.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni,
Ma ħtatlix mgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli tafal merħi;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, niżżlet hi s-sisien,
Ma ħtatlix l-imgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli l-ġebel;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni.
U hekk waqgħet hi, imrammti! w erġa’ ibniha!
Biddilha inti l-imkien illi jewtiha;
Min ibiddel l-imkien ibiddel il-vintura;
Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura:
Hemm art bajda, w hemm art sewda u ħamra.
Aktar minn hedawn hemm trid minnha tmarra.

Enjoy :)

Nearby Sicily's ,Arab speaking christians and their origin

Dear Sir,
Am I correct if I say that semitic maltese is a mixture of levantine and maghrebi dialects?
Some Points
Alex Metcalfe in Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily(2003);Stephen Perche(Chancellor 1167-8 & archbishop elect of Palermo) attempted to clarify the distincton between Arab Muslims and Arab Christians

Joseph M.Brincat;IL-Malti Elf sena ta storja
1.H.Bresc(La propriete fonciere des Musulmans dans la Sicilie du XII siecle;trois documents inedits 1995);even after the 12th century there were still communities of Arab Christians of the eastern rite in Palermo,Troina,Corleone
2. Religious words in the Garaid(public documents of the Norman era in Sicily published by Salvatore Cusa);kanisjah,qasis,qiddis,qiddisah,Sant Marijah,nasrani
3. Ludolph von Sudheim visited Sicily in 1330 and found that mass was still celebrated in Greek and Arabic.

Alexander Borg;On some Levantine Linguistic Traits in Maltese
The incidence in Maltese of Christian Arabic terms does not in itself yield certain evidence of eastern arabic influences on the language since such words could have been disseminated in the context of missionary activity (A thesis held by Wettinger).What is perhaps more indicative is the occurrence in maltese of a significant number of non-religious eastern arabic terms of ultimately aramaic provenience.


Maltese owe their civilized existance to ARABS..they ararabs

Maltese have hugr ARABIC influnce on Them. Lucky for them, cuz this is how they become developed..ask the spanish/ souther italians and even the french. Early moors had brought with them the irrigation systems, the unique architature and the science...Just taking a look at the maltese language, I can see that i can underdstand it fully...almost all phrases are arabic or a conversion of arabic language. Now relax YOU maltese guys, i think you should be proude of that

Which Arabs influenced the Maltese?

Dear Sir,
I am paricularly interested in two areas the maltese semitic religious terminology and the building sector semitic terminology.I have compiled a list of both although its labour of love rather then scientific.

I have refered to Vernacular Architecture Encyclopedia and its obvious that the arab speaking world is diverse as regards architecture.

For example Gaddafi lives in a tent but the maltese architecture is dominated by stone.My impression is that our architecture is closest to Houran and al Karak regions.


What is interesting here is

What is interesting here is the sort of hatred people have to be coupled with Arabs or Muslims. Arabic language has had great deal of influence throughout many families of languages. In English, words like algorithm, algebra, sugar come from Arabic.

I am just taken back by the share dislike of the Malta people who have commented in this blog of being remotely associated with Arabic language. I don't believe anyone called them Muslims or Arab. This article only pointed to the fact that Malta's language is a derivative of Arabic.

However, on the Day of Judgment they will acquire a different position.

"It may be that those who disbelieve wish ardently that they were Muslims."
Quran (15:02)