Il-Cantilena of Malta: How much can a modern day Arab decipher from the oldest Maltese literature?

Also known as Il-Kantilena ...

In a previous article on Arab heritage in Malta, I touched upon how the Maltese language (Ilsan Malti) is definitely derived from Arabic, and more specifically, from the North African dialect of Arabic.

A visitor to the site raised a nice challenge which was very interesting to me: He started on the off note and having his comment titled "Maltest are not arab", and by saying:

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.

Let us not confuse ethnicity and genetics with language.

Why is it "pathetic" to find commonality between Maltese and Arabic while all the evidence points to Maltese being derived from an Arabic dialect. 

They are not far removed at all.

He then adds:

I would appreciate an arabic perspective of the oldest known Maltese
verses of il Cantelina. Please do read it before looking 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:

Now that is a good idea!

He then lists the modern orthography of Maltese:

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

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

I have heard about the Cantilena before, as the first literature written in Malti.

I decided not to look it up on Wikipedia or other sources, and attempt to translate it independently and directly,
first from the modern orthography, then trying to read the old
orthography and fill in the gaps. The sole source here is my own knowledge of Arabic, and exposure to North African dialects of Arabic.

The result of this effort can be found below: First the line in the verse in modern Maltese orthography, then
my Arabic translation in Arabic letters, and then my English translation, without referring to any articles or the internet or any other reference.This is then followed by a word by word dissection of the verse.

There are a few cases where I did not stick to the orthography because the Arabic letter confirms better to what the word is.

After I hear from a few Maltese about how successful/unsuccesful the translation is, I will look up the relevant sources on the Cantilena and its English translation, in a future comment or amendment to this article.

The feminine is because Arabic and Malti has everything as either
masculine (he) and feminine (she), but no gender neutrality (it).

1. Xidew il-qada, ja ġirieni, talli nħadditkom,
شدوا القادة ? يا جيراني تاللي نحدتكم
... Oh My Neighbors, come/so-that we can tell [a story] to you

Xidew شدوا: This means "pull". Can also be from "Shadw" meaning singing or reciting poetry.

il-qada القادة:This means "the leaders, the commanders, but it is unclear what the exact meaning is in the context.

ja يا : this is an appleration in Arabic, when calling someone. Preceeds the appellant.

ġirieni جيراني : My neighbors, from singular جار and plural جيران. The -i at the end is possessive ("my...").

talli تاللي: Could be the same as slang Arabic تعالوا "come over here", otherwise, it is obscure in Arabic.

nħadditkom نحدتكم: From The n- means "we are going to ...", and the -kom prefix is "you"


2. Ma nsab fil-weri u la nsab f’għomorkom
ما نصاب في الوري و لا نصاب في عمركم
May I not be [punished] in [...?], nor I be punished in your life [age]
[Note: original orthography: gueri: جواري means little girls]

Ma: This is for negation of what follows.

nsab: the n- indicates plural, but that can be figurative. The "sab" part i derived from moseeba مصيبة which means "catastrophe" or calamity. nsab means "we have a calamity befall us".

fil-: is actually two things: fi menaing "in" and "il" meaning "the".

weri: was unclear until I checked the old orthography which had "gueri". This is a plural of "garia"which  means little girl as well as slave girl as well. Given the context, it must refer to little girls.

u: this is Arabic "wa-" meaning "and" and is still shortened to "u" in some present daydialects (e.g. in the Levant).

la: means "not".

nsab: same as above.

f’: is shortened form of "fi" meaning "in".

għomorkom: is a composite of "Omor" meaning "age" and also "life". The kom suffix is second person plural.


3. Qalb m’għandha ħakem, sultan u la mula
قلب ما عندها حاكم سلطان و لا موليأ
Her heart is ruler, a Sultan or a mawla

Qalb: is heart.

m’: can be possessive or negative. I lean towards the former.

għand: is "having" or "at"

ha: is feminine possessive. Unsure who it refers to, a female love interest of the poet, or the land.

ħakem: is ruler.

sultan:  Arabic term for king, ruler.

u la: this is the same as the previous verse, but can also be subtly different. The "u" can be أو which means "or". The entire "u la" can be the same as colloquial Egyptian و اللا also meaning "or".

mula: is a word with many meanings in Arabic, but "master" is what fits the context here.


4. Bir imgħammiq irmietni, b’turġien muħsula,
بير مغمق رميتني بترجين محصلة
A deep well you cast me in, with [?two drawers ...?]

: is the colloquial term for "well" in many dialects of today. The classical Arabic version is "bi'r"بئر

imgħammiq: is interesting. The Maltese "għ" indicates a ع but can also be غ gh as well. Either way it indicates depth, the first being closer to classical usage, and the latter from colloquial usage in Egypt and the Levant (unsure if it is North Africa too).

irmietni: is composed of the root "rmi" ("to throw, cast"), and the -ni is "me"

:This is an unclear term to me.

This is an unclear term to me.


5. Fejn ħajran għall-għarqa, ninżel f’taraġ minżeli
فين حيران عالغرقى ننزل في درج منزلي
Where am I, lost/disoriented, I descend the stairs on my house

This is a colloquial term in Arabic in Egypt and elsewhere, meaning "Where". It is not a classical Arabic term, whereas "Ayn" is.

Means disoriented or lost the way.

the suffix is identitical to colloquial Arabic in Egypt, meaning "On the".

għarqa: If we use the orthography, this would start with a ع . Not sure what it means in the context. With a  غ instead, it could mean "those who drowned"

: "I/we go down"

: is "in"

taraġ: Substituting the"t" by a "d" makes it Darag, which means stair case.

minżeli: My house.


6. Nitla’ u nerġa’ ninżel dejjem fil-baħar il-għoli.
نطلع و نرجع ننزل دايم في البحر العالي
We go out, and come back, and go out always in the rough sea

Nitla’: "ascend", or "go out"

: "and"

: "we come back", or "we return"

: "go down"

: This is a variant of the classical Arabic دائما (da'iman) meaning "always", which in Egyptian is "dayman", and in Tunisian "deema"

: "In the sea"

literally means "high", with a bit of skew of the "a" sound into "o". In colloquial Arabic this means "choppy", "stormy" or "rough" when describing the sea.


7. Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni,
وقعت هي مرمتي لإلي زمان نبني
Fell [? ...] my repair/restoration, I have been building for a long time

:"She/it fell [down]"


imrammti: "my repair/restoration". Not sure what this refers to: a house that the poet is building and fell down during repairs?

:the initial "L" is "for", the "ili" could be similar to Egyptian colloquial إللي which is used to refer to something or someone.

: Means "time".

"We build" or "Have been building".


8. Ma ħtatlix mgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli tafal merħi;
ما حطتليش معلمين إما قطعلي طفل مرحي
She did not put for me masters [builders?], or cut for me [clay?] [?]

:This is a negation in Arabic.

ħtatlix: a composite of colloquial Arabic identical to what is used in Egypt and elsewere, starting with  حط mean "put" , then  ت for feminine (she put), then   لي meaning "for me", and finally ش  for negation (she did not put for me).

: plural for معلم meaning "master" or "teacher", as well as an expert in any craft.Probably refers to a master builder/mason here.

: means "or" or "either"

: "cut for me", but in masculine as opposed to the first part of the verse.

: given the context, this is most probably a special kind of clay used in adobe style bricks and building.

It is unclear what this means. If the letter is خ  instead of  ح, then it could mean "weak/soft bricks".


9. Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
فين تميت نسيب الجبل سبت طفل مرحي
Where have I left the mountain, left [clay?] [?]

:"where" in colloquial Arabic.

: "finished"?

: "I/we leave/let go"

: "the mountain"

: "I left/let go"

: see previous verse.

see previous verse.


10. Waqgħet hi, imrammti.
وقعت هي مرمتي
She [fell?] my repair

Explained above in verse 7.


11. Waqgħet hi, imrammti, niżżlet hi s-sisien,
وقعت هي مرمتي نزلت هي سسيسن
She [fell?] my repair, she went down [...?]

Waqgħet hi imrammti:
Explained above in verse 7.

: "She descended/went down"

: She/her.

: Unclear to me.


12. Ma ħtatlix l-imgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli l-ġebel;
ما حططليش معلمين إما قطعلي للجبل
She did not put for me masters [builders?] or cutting [stones] from the mountain

Ma ħtatlix l-imgħallmin
: See verse 8. The only difference is that 

’mma qatagħli
: See verse 8.

"the mountain".


13. Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
فين تميت نسيب الجبل سبت طفل مرحي
Where have I left the mountain, left [clay?] [?]

See verses 8 and 9.


14. Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni.
وقعت هي مرمتي لإلي زمان نبني
[Fell? ...] repair/restoration, I have been building for a long time

Same as verse 7.


15. U hekk waqgħet hi, imrammti! w erġa’ ibniha!
و هيك وقعت هي مرمتي و ارجع ابنيها
And like that she fell, my repair, and I go [back] and [re]build it

: "And"

: A colloquial in Levant countries for "Like so" or "like that". Not used in Egypt, nor classical Arabic.

:"It/She fell"

: "She"

: "my repair/restoration"

: "And", seems interchangeable with "u" in Maltese orthography.

: "repeat" or "go back" and redo.

: "Build it"

16. Biddilha inti l-imkien illi jewtiha;
بدلها انتي المكان اللي جوتيها
You replace the place that is inside it

: "Replace [it]". It could also be Biddliha and not Biddilha, which would be second person feminine "You replace it".

: feminine "you".

: "The place". The inflection deviates from both classical and Egyptian colloquial (Al Makan or El Makan), and follows North African dialects by changing the last "a" to a "ie".

: Same as what is in verse 7.

: "Jowwa" is colloquial for "inside", and not classical Arabic. Here it is "inside it".


17. Min ibiddel l-imkien ibiddel il-vintura;
مين يبدل المكان يبدل الفنتورا
He who replaces the place replaces the fortune(s)

: "who"

: "change/replace"

: "the place"

: "Change/replace"

:Ventura is fortune in Latin/Romance. Obviously a non-Arab word.

18. Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura:
على إيش الاراضي عال كل شبر صورة
What of the lands, on every hand-span there is a picture

: Literally: "On what"

: "The lands", plural of "ard"

għal: could be على or derivative of it meaning "on".

: "every"

: a measre used in the Middle East: a hand span, about 20 cm.

: "picture/image"

19. Hemm art bajda, w hemm art sewda u ħamra.
هم ارض بيضاء و هم ارض سوداء و حمراء
[...] white land, and black land, and red

: Unclear what this is.

: "Land". Another example where the "d" sound is replaced with a "t" in Maltese.

: "white" feminine.

: "and"

hemm: Unclear, again.

: "Land"

sewda: "Black", feminine.

: "and", again interchangeable with "w".

ħamra: "red" feminine.

20. Aktar minn hedawn hemm trid minnha tmarra.
اكثر من هادون عم تريد منها تمرة
More than those [...] you want from it a fruit (or dates?)

: "More"

: "than"

: "those", again a colloquialism used in the Levant and North African, but not Egyptian cities.

: unclear to me, but close to عم in Arabic, but not conforming to the orthography given.

: "you want". Classical Arabic is "tureed",but "trid" is colloquial in North Africa.

: "From it"

: "fruit" or "dates"

The North African Arabic dialect is clearer and clearer to me as I see more examples of Malti.

For example:

  • Preceeding the classical Arabic word by "I", e.g. imghamiq [would be Mughamiq in classical Arabic], i-nsib.
  • Transposing some sounds: e.g. 'Omorkom [would be 'Omrokom in classical Arabic].
  • Reducing "Al" (The) to l- as a prefix. e.g. l-iradi.
  • Arabic orthography is evident, where prefixes and suffixes are part of the word , and this carried over to Malti (e.g. f'-something, ...etc.)

Here is a detailed discussion of terms, a glossary of sorts, in the Cantilena:
How close was my translation?


  • Kamal Chaouachi, a Tunisian author mentions the Cantilena as evidence of the proximity of Tunisian and Maltese, in this Malta Independent Article.
  • A recitation of the Cantilena poem bu Dr Martin Zammit on Youtube.
  • An interview with Professor Manwel Mifsud on Il-Kantilena.




Very interesting....

Innalhamdulillah wassalaat wassalaam alannabee, wa bad:
Assalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuh,

Very interesting and beneficial article.
You beat me to it, tarjumatan! (smile)

Im always interested in squeezing out Arabic influences out of ajamee languages, yet with Maltese/Al-Malteeyah, there seems to be such a fun challenge finding the wealth of Arabic history that it contains and is based upon.

I feel that the Maltese/Arabic link should be dealt with academically and thoroughly so as to really expose the language for what it is in light of its dominant, hereditary Arabic past that so blatantly flares up.

A shame so many Arabophiles don't take too much interest in the Maltese language.


I am Maltese and I write poetry in both Maltese and English.

I can definitely tell you that I was extremely interested in reading your interpration after reading about the challenge.

What I would like to impart here is my disagreement with the challenger, when he said that he, as a Maltese can barely understand the poem with the old ortography. The difference is only in the way the phonemes are represented e.g. 'eu' instead of 'w', because of the Italian ortography that is to be found in the old version.

Let me list for you some of the parts that you did not get right:

Qada= a state in which one is in; a predicament (leader in Maltese is mexxej)

Nsab= to be found in something or someone

Weri= though I do not believe that is used in Modern
Maltese, I believe it derives from the word "wara" at the back, obviously in this case used as 'past', which in Modern Maltese is either "passat" or "imgħoddi"

U la= and neither

Turġien= stairs, another plural for tarġa (literally one step from a staircase), of which the other plural is taraġ

Muħsula= the closest word I can think of in Maltese is "maħsula" which means "washed", perhaps they are washed by the sea, but the wikipedia interpretation is different. Muħsula can be found in some Maltese dialects, particularly in that of my hometown Qormi, it is called "tuf" (standard Maltese being called "taf")

Imrammti= an edifice; it fell because it was built on clay.

l'ili= that I have been

Tmajt= I had hoped, from 'tama' (hope), it comes from Arabic.

ġebel= rocks; mountain in Maltese is muntanja from Sicilian; in Italian it is montagna

Sisien= the pedaments, foundations; in my money it probably derives from 'sinsla' which means spine in Italian, thus referring to the 'spine of the building'. But then again I do not know, for the only word which is supposed to be from Romance in the poem is 'vintura' which means luck.

Hemm= 'There is', in the context of the poem. Can also mean 'over there'.

Tmarra= I did smile at your interpretation of this. It is actually to 'go away from' and in this case to 'stay clear of it'. It comes from the Maltese verb 'mur', which like all Maltese verbs has the prefixes of 'n' for the first person, 't' for the second person, and 'j' for the third person. I also realize why you thought they were dates. In Maltese 'dates' are called 'tamar' and we have a sweet-pasty called 'imqaret' which is made from 'tamar'.

Your translation, I must say, was very close; of course, you were aided by the fact that this was at a time when the Arabic imprint was still fresh in Maltese. Though what I say is true, most Maltese poetry still has a generally more overt Araic influence to it as I myself can say regarding my own poetry and other Maltese poets' poetry.

This a poem of mine called "Wardija" which is an idyllic hilltop village in Malta. I would like to see you translating this one as best as you can. The name, Wardija, to start you off comes from the word "Ward", which means "Rose", 'ija' is the suffix.


U morna darba kaħlana fuq l-għolja tal-Wardija
b’sidirna mġemmda fix-xemx musulmana
ta’ nofsinhar,— torbot u tagħmlek ilsir għal waqt,
għaliex il-gawwi jofroq ix-xefaq bi ġwienħajh.

Kullimkien mgħotti bil-velu umbgħad mill-Wardija
qalb in-namra ta’l-għasafar u ż-żgħażagħ,
kollha kemm’huma b’wiċċhom ħerqan għall-għajnejn
il-maħbub ħadrani w ikħal maqtugħ mis-sema.

U hu beda jrażżnilha lsiena w xuftejh bdew jerqgħu
ma’kull ħarsa li hi tagħtu; l-għasfura sfat
fix-xejn tal-waqt imbiegħed, u n-nifs, ħadu nifs.

Kollox waqa’ f’ħemda fuq il-għolja tal-Wardija,
għaliex kien wasal il-poeta w dan kien diġà
sfa, ‘mma m’hux bħall-għasfura, iżda bħan-namrati.

Thanks a lot for the interpration and keep up the good work!!

Ġakbu (James in Maltese)

Thanks, translated here

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on Il-Cantilena.

Here are comments on your comments:

Qada= "state".

Can't get the Arabic equivalent of "state" that looks similar to Qada.

Nsab= "found in someone or something".

The second part of the verse does not fit with your description. I read it as an appellation "May we not be tested/get-a-catastrophe


The word Wara in Arabic has no plural form. It is used to describe something relative to something else (behind, back). The use of a G in the old orthography made it look like Gawari (little girls) is meant.

U la= "neither"

This is the same as in classical Arabic and modern day Egyptin "Wa La"

Turġien= stairs.

Arabic is "Daraja" for one step, and "Darag" for stair case. The "Durjin" is not a valid form. "Darjaat" is though. The muthanna (two) form would be "Darajatain", and the form you mentioned could be derived from that.

Muħsula= "maħsula" which means "washed".

I find it interesting that ħ can mean two different Arabic sounds, the ح and غ. In Arabic the root gh-s-l is used for washing as in cleaning. Not washed in the sea as in "swept".

Muħsula can be found in some Maltese dialects, particularly in that of my hometown Qormi, it is called "tuf" (standard Maltese being called "taf")

I did not initially understand this sentence and what tuf/taf refers to. But, I later found Qormi dialect, and understood what it is.

Tmajt= I had hoped, from 'tama' (hope), it comes from Arabic.

This word is not used in Arabic for that meaning. Hope is Amal, Ya'mal, Mota'amel.

ġebel= rocks; mountain in Maltese is muntanja from Sicilian; in Italian it is montagna.

Very interesting. Jabal means mountain in Arabic and of course, it is a source of rocks for building and such.

Sisien= the pedaments, foundations; in my money it probably derives from 'sinsla' which means spine in Italian, thus referring to the 'spine of the building'.

Arabic Silsila is "chain". Also used for "spine" in colloquial Arabic such as in Egypt.

Hemm= 'There is', in the context of the poem. Can also mean 'over there'.

This is probably similar to "filler words" in some dialects عم such as Lebanese.

Tmarra= I did smile at your interpretation of this. It is actually to 'go away from' and in this case to 'stay clear of it'. It comes from the Maltese verb 'mur'

Yes, in Arabic: Marr means "pass by". It seems that over the centuries Maltese has developed a simpler conjugation system. See below.

which like all Maltese verbs has the prefixes of 'n' for the first person, 't' for the second person, and 'j' for the third person.

It is similar to Arabic, but simpler.

In Arabic, the n- prefix is plural first person (nebni, "We build"). For singular first person, it is a- (abni, "I build"). There is also a difference for feminine (t-, tebni, "she builds") and masculine (y- yebni, "he builds"). There are also suffixes for tense and a lot more complexity in Arabic.

As for your poem, here is an attempt to translate it: Wardija: Arabic translation modern Maltese poem.


For Qada, it may be قعدة (it's just my guess since the root q-gh-d (قعد) is related with "staying" in Maltese). As for "nsab", please follow the interpretation "to be found" because it's the actual meaning in Maltese (root نصب). For turgien, remember that ie stands for long Arabic a (consonant+alif) affected from imala. So it is ترجان. Anyway I think it's not possible to explain all the forms trying to find an equivalence among those you know from Standard Arabic amd other dialects... There maybe forms just peculiar to Maltese. The change of voiced and unvoiced consonant at the beginning of the word (in comparison with Standard Arabic) is found in several Maltese words, here are some examples: nine is "disgha", hen is "tigiega", and the root خسل for "to wash" is just another example of this phenomenon, it doesn't mean that "h" stands also for ghayn!

For a useful reference, please watch this video where Maltese professore Martin Zammit recites the Kantilena trying to reproduce the Medieval prnounciation of Maltese.

(Sorry I couldn't use the Maltese characters I hope it was clear)

Very useful ...

Thanks for an informative post. A rare occurance in this politicized discussion.

North African Arabic

It's very exciting to see how closely related to Arabic Maltese is! It's like discovering this whole new people who speak a language so close to ours, that it could be somewhat understood by us, that we never knew of! And all because of religious/political reasons. What a shame!

Anyway, I'd just like to say that, as an Algerian, I've noticed a few similarities between Maltese and North African Arabic that Khalid may have missed.

First of all, there's the prefix "n'", which in Classical Arabic does in fact denote "we", but in the North African dialects of Arabic, it means "I". So "Nektob" is "I write", not the Classical Arabic "We write".

"Qada" is derived from the Arabic "Qadaa'", I suppose.

There's also "Nsab", which sounds very similar to Tunisian "Nsib", which is "I find", which comes from "'Asaaba", Classical Arabic for "He struck".

"Turġien", being the plural form of "tarġa", as you pointed out, apparently comes from Arabic "Daraj", which also means "stairs".

"Sisien= the pedaments, foundations; in my money it probably derives from 'sinsla' which means spine in Italian, thus referring to the 'spine of the building'."

"Sinsla" is the North African pronunciation of "Silsila", Classical Arabic for "chain". Perhaps it's the same word?

It's really astonishing how similar our languages are! And it's really fantastic how a language so similar to my native language, Algerian Arabic, has standardized orthography and is recognized as a proper language! I must go to Malta sometime, learn more about their culture and language, as I plan to study for a PhD in Arabic.

I'd like to read more of your poetry and learn more about your language, could you possibly email some of your poems to me? My address is sofiankrt (at) gmail (dot) com

So anyway, saħħa!

i appreciate thsi surely a

i appreciate thsi surely a great job the above article is as informative as the previous article was i like this decipher :)


There are a number of things with which I do not agree in this challenger's interpretation but I believe he has the right interpretation for qada. A state (as in a situation) would be qagħda in modern Maltese (قاعد meaning a base in Arabic), which clearly has an għ in there. This would've been represented as an "h" in old Maltese. It'd be strange for Caxaro to have left it out, given that it was pronounced and written in other words like homorcom (għomorkom) and haliex (għaliex).

my friend i am algerian and i

my friend i am algerian and i can read the poem and understand 99% of it.
N.B. sisien means foundations in arabic, mainly in algerian , it is the plural form of sasse which also means the principle. it is also derived from the classical word Assass which means the fundamental.
algerian dialect is the old maltesse language, which also may includ tunisian and morrocan influences as do the algerian dialect.
in addition a lot of folklore songs in algerian have the same rhyme and rhythm. we call them eksayed plural for ksseeda which means a poem.they are sung in gaadat plural for gaada like in the poem above qada which means a sit-down, gaada or qada means to sit from the verb to sit uguud .
i think the only problem with all this is that the spoken language will differ from one to another when we try to write it down, and i bet you if we have a conversation you will be amazed with how we will understand each other.
keep up the good work.

In Arabic

I have now reviewed the Arabic version published on the Arabic Wikipedia here. So, I am no longer neutral.

It is very similar to what I have came up with as a translation, but still has differences. Those need a future article/comment.