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.




Thank you, but some comments

Thanks for your contribution. The Maghreb, including the Andalus, had its own dialects. A version of that spread to Malta and replaced whatever was there before. So no wonder the similarities between Maghribian Arabic and Maltese.

The more learned Maltese tell me that Andalusian Arabic as a dialect was transferred to Sicily, known as Siculo-Arabic, and that a branch of it became Maltese. After some time, Italian elements and later English were added and this is the Maltese of today.

As for Arabic being like Latin, there are differences: Latin was mainly liturgical 5 centuries ago. Arabic today is used everywhere except in day to day conversation. It is used on TV in news casts, speeches and lectures by officials, on road signs, ...etc.

The effort of codification of dialects عامية has already been done. An example is a book from early 20th centurty Egypt by Ahmad Taimur giving a list of thousands of proverbs/sayings of Egyptian. There are also dictionaries, and some novels are written in the dialect too.

Classical Arabic will remain, because of the need to read our heritage over 14 centuries. Also note that any work written in Classical Arabic is instantly usable by Arabs everywhere, and not limited to a market in Egypt only. Think about scientific references or translations of foreign works.

As for my translation of the Il-Cantilena, it was an experiment that I did to see what I could decipher from centuries ago. I intentionally did not look for any clues other than my knowledge of Arabic and its dialects (including Egyptian and West of Alexandira, very similar to Libyan).

As for Egyptians not understanding Libyan/Tunisian/Algerian/Moroccan, it is not a matter of vocabulary or grammar as much as it is that you guys talk too fast! Note that the issue is much less when it comes to Egyptians and other Arabic speakers from Iraq/Syria/Gulf.

sisien is pronounced as

sisien is pronounced as sisan in the libyan dialect and it is the plural of the single term sas , same as tunisian dialect, عندي بيت شعر تقول فيه جدتي يحوي نفس الكلمه التي تعني اساس كاستعاره ويعنى بها المبادئ والاسس

.. انسى الطمع ينساك فقرالدنيا ٧٧٧ واحفر على ساسك وجدد بنيه

علما بان الساس في الدارجه الليبيه يعني حائط اوجدار

Also in an Egyptian saying

Now that you mentioned this, we have that in an Egyptian saying too that escaped my memory up until now.

... من ساسه لراسه

"... Men Sasoh li-Rasoh"

The expression literally translates to : "From his sas to his head", and means : "all of him". Or perhaps the saying refers to a building and the head of a building is its top and the bottom is the foundation.

Sas here is the feet, probably from a similar meaning to the Libyan/Tunisian "foundation".

Thanks for your comment.

We also have a similar saying

We also have a similar saying in Maltese, Khalid; it goes: "Minn rasu sa saqajh" - literally, from his head to his feet; which means 'all of him' as you said. :)

The opinion of another Tunisian guy

Razin is quite right. I did laugh the same way when learning about the "difficulties" surrounding the word "sisien" which is just the plural form of sâs (that is the foundations) in TUNISIAN Arabic (and likely Libyan).

The same for many other words and proverbs and not less than 80% of the Maltese language.

We have written articles on this issue:

[IN FRENCH] Malte, si proche et si lointaine de la Tunisie. Kapitalis, 20 juin 2013.
Link to site
« Les Tunisiens ne se sont jamais préoccupés de s'informer plus en détail sur la langue parlée depuis plus de 1000 ans dans l'île de Malte, située à seulement 300 km de leurs côtes et si intimement proche de leur langue dialectale. »

[IN ENGLISH] The Maltese-Tunisian Linguistic Link. The Malta Independent,30 June 2013
Link to site

[IN ENGLISH] Kamal Chaouachi. Malta as seen from Tunis, a thousand years later… The Malta Independent on Sunday, 16 June 2013, p. 21.
Link to site

and a detailed 20 page one discussing related theories.

CONTACT: (for I may be away from this great site)

maltese is arabic that evolved...

okay.. well.. uh...
the rest of the maltese in here are going to hate me, because i have a tunisian friend who speaks to me in tunisian arabic all the time, and i can understand 90 percent of what hes saying and i dont speak tunisian at all, and the same goes for him. he speaks italian too, so he understands almost everything i say in maltese. it goes to show that maltese is arabic, but it evolved, borrowed heavily from english and sicilian, morphed and became unique in its own way.
accept it, maltese have an arab background, but dont confuse that with having a muslim background, where the stigma is very much present.


Think the word 'sisien' might be related to the Arabic word 'as -sa-sa' meaning he established. The related word mu-ass -sa -sa.
As a non Arab muslim with a very limited knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic it is really sad to see how mutilated it has become. So much energy is expended learning French for example but so few can speak Fusha.Indeed in time there will be a Tunisian, an Egyptian etc language.
Just my two cents.

Unusual, but still ...

Actually, it is not that mutilated.

Yes, the root is '-S-S أ س س and from it there is the word ASAS أساس for "foundation". In colloquial, the first Alef is omitted, and it becomes SAS ساس, and then pluralization in the form -an is applied, and you get sisien, same for Ghorab غراب (crow), Gherban غربان or Ghata غطا (cover/lid), Ghetian غطيان.

I agree that a lot of effort is spend elsewhere, but Fusha is in no danger of becoming extinct anytime soon.

The Maltese word 'HEMM'

The word HEMM in Maltese means 'there is/there are ...

يوجد ...هناك... في

I'm half Maltese and studied Arabic at Manchester University and have been living in the Arabian Gulf. As my fluency in Arabic (MSA and Colloquail) has increased, I can see even more the closeness of Arabic to Maltese. I learned Maltese as a child in Malta and was never educated in Maltese to any advanced level. When I read formal Maltese, I keep seeing more and more Arabic. I'm proud of Maltese being Semetic. It made learning Arabic much easier ... perhaps the same as a Portuguese speaker learning Italian. Many Maltese have a complex about having any connection with the Arab world. Many also try to assert that Maltese is Pheonician.... Being blindly Roman Catholic and wanting a European identity does not mean, that as a Maltese citizen, one should be ashamed that Maltese is essentially a form of Arabic. ... and interesting form indeed, but it's Arabic.

I wonder if there have ever been attempts to write Maltese using the Arabic script? I found 'Il-Kantilena' to be fascinating.

Thank you ...

Thank you for your honest opinion.

The denial of Arabic by some Maltese should make for an interesting sociological and psychological study if someone would care to research such a hot button issue.