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.




I believe hemm's etymology is

I believe hemm's etymology is arabic ثم / ثمة (thamma) meaning "there" or "there is"
As to why "th" became "h", I found interesting that us Tunisians have transformed this sound to an "f" sound and hence we say famm or famma (the a sound in tunisian is close to an e ['imala' phenomenon]) I'm pretty sure this only happens in Tunisia (ie not in Lybia nor Algeria).
On the other hand, the transformation of initial f to an aspired h is a well-known linguistic phenomenom (occurs especially in spanish).
So to me it seems like 'th' became 'f' in Tunisian/early Maltese. then was replaced with an initial h in maltese as the pronounciation progressed.

To answer Khalid on a (much) earlier comment on this same article. The fact that egyptians have a hard time understanding Tunisian/algerian/moroccan or even Lybian has nothing to do with the fact that we speak fast. In fact, word rate in tunisian isn't in any way higher that egyptian or Lebanese (improvised personal test :) ). It's the fact that our vocabulary isn't entirely arabic anymore. It contains elements of Berber (though scarce in Tunisian), french, spanish, turkish, italian. Moreover, in symplifying the arabic speech we chose to go in different directions. (compare Tunisian "qaddech" with egyptian "kam") And that makes the two "dialects" less mutually intelligible overtime.


Not that far ...

They are not that far if you remove some of the dialect.

Qaddech is still Arabic derived too, and Egyptian would understand it with a little metamorphosis.

Qadd = قد (a measure of quantity, and in Egyptian would be أد where the qaf is transformed to hamza)

Ech = إيش ("what", common in many Shami dialects, but also present in Egyptian, like إشمعنى and إيش جاب ...etc. It is also very commonly used as إيه

So, you will see it used in everday conversations as "'ad eh?" أد إيه

I was chatting with a Tunisian the other day using instant messaging, and we could understand each other very well using transliteration in Latin characters. The speed of the dialect was not an issue here, and hence I could understand everything, and he could understand it all too. Make that a voice conversation,and I will be lost because of the speed.

I know you can understand "qaddech" but..

My example wasn't to prove that you can't understand the word "qaddech" (It would be better if i chose algerian (moroccan?) ch7al (ech 7al) which means the same but to you it might not spontaneously refer to quantity). My example was to prove that even in many words of arabic origin, we would choose different ways of saying something. Anyway, it was just an example, I could've chosen better.

As for understanding a tunisian easily, I don't doubt it's possible. I see Tunisian sport analysts or commentators, for example, on aljazeera sport speaking Tunisian and being (perfectly ???) understood. But they won't speak like that in Tunisia in any way, I see them struggle to choose their words carefully so as to be understood, even if they heavily say words that are rarely used and refrain from using words of french or italian origins. For instance they would say "kthir" instead of "barcha" (even if this word is becoming our "signature"), they would say "jmil" instead of "mezyan", practically nobody in Tunisia says those words. At times they even substitute established eastern words to "problematic" Tunisian ones ("ma3lich" instead of "misêlech"). It's "simplified" Tunisian for the middle-eastern market.

Moreover, it's always easier to understand a language when it's written. Spanish people understand written portuguese almost perfectly, but struggle when it comes to spoken portuguese. Doesn't prevent them from being separate languages. Heck, I myself can understand written maltese almost perfectly, knowing a good deal of italian, but whenever I listen to a Maltese speak, their intonation makes it hard for me to sort out the words that I normally understand perfectly.

Everything in the Arabic "dialects" is different enough from standard Arabic, even partially. Vocabulary, grammar, verb conjugation etc. For the Majority of mashriqi, darija is considered an exotic dialect,why? Because it's different languages,that's why. The speed does not matter, but everything differs, at least a bit.

you speak well cousin ...

You speak very well ... and no offence Khalid but your argumentatitive insistence on a putative point also shows a divergence I have noticed between il masri u t-tunisi/malti. Maybe it is a matter of size and thus easier penetration of influence but there is a stronger europeanized cultural element in us on this side then on the eastern end side. One of these elements requests moderation in thought which helps in arriving to social compromises that are consistently needed for a country to move ahead and develop positively.

Interpretation of Caxaro's Cantilena - Some facts

The human brain interprets new information with its existing knowledge.
This applies clearly to language.
If the new language being heard/studied has similarities with the native language of the person hearing/studying, the brain unwittingly makes its own conclusions. These conclusions may be mistaken.

This has happened to the Arabic scholar and speaker in his interpretation of Canilena. It happened to me when in my youth I visted N. Africa believing the myth that if I speak in Maltese the inhabitants would understand me or that I could underatand their Arabic. I thank him for his interest in my language and would like to learn more of his.

As a native speaker of Malti I found Cantilena much easier to understand than any Arabic poetry. I did need some scholarly interprtation and conversion to the current orthography
(Malti tal-Għaqda).

The only conclusions that may be drawn is that at the time that Cantilena was written, Maltese (Malti) had already drifted away from the kind of Arabic known to this speaker.
By example: Dante's Toscano Italian was different from Latin and Chaucer's English was different from Anglo-Saxon-Norman. Probably this drift had started centuries before Cantilena. The Muslim settlers from the 9th to the 13th centuries were already forming a language of their own with diferences from Andalusi and Magħribi. This survived as Malti.

Malti survied because the various overlords from Normans, Anjevins, Aragonese,... Knights French and British never allowed the indigenous folk of Malta and Għawdex to assimilate with them.

I’ve just come upon a Maltese

I’ve just come upon a Maltese text narrated by a Maltese old woman in her sixties (1985). Without any knowledge of the Maltese language, I tried to translate the first paragraph to the Tunisian dialect (the closest to the Maltese language, I believe – BTW: I am a native speaker of Arabic, more precisely, Tunisian Arabic). Out of the paragraph’s 98 words, only 4 are non-Arabic Tunisian vocabulary: WOW. Waiting for your comments.

Marija Calleja titkellem fuq kif kienu jagħmlu l-ħobż meta kienet għadha żgħira. Jien niftakar illi f’dak iż-żmien in-nies kienu imorru l-forn jagħġnu l-ħobż huma. Mhux kien jiġi ta’ l-ħobż u jixtru l-ħobż minn għandu. Għaliex fi r-raħal, speċjalment il-bdiewa kien ikollhom it-tagħam minn tagħhom u jitħnuh u jgħarbluh imbagħad kienu jistgħu jagħmlu lħobż. Meta kelli xi tnax-il sena kultant kont nitħajjar immur nagħmel il-ħobż jien biex inkun bħal in-nisa l-oħra. Allura meta nħarsu lejn l-ixkaffa u naraw li l-ħobż riesaq għat-tmiem kont immur għand il-furnara li kienet hawn isfel u ngħidilha : "Meta nistgħu nagħġnu aħna ?"

Source: Martine Vanhove – - L’ORDRE DES MOTS EN MALTAIS:

ماريا كاليا تتكلم كيفاش كانو يعملو الخيز متى كانت صغيرة. انا نتفكر اللي فاك الزمان الناس كانو يمروا للفرن يعجنوا الخبز هوما. ماهوش كان يجي متاع الخبز و يشتروا الخبز من عندو. علاش في الرحل (القرية) خاصة (الريفيين) كان الكلهم الطعام من متاعهم و ؟؟؟؟؟ و يغربلوه وبعد كانو يستطيعوا يعملو الخبز. متى كان عندي اثناش السنة كنت نخيرانا نمر نعمل الخبز باش نكون كيف النساء الاخرى. وقت نخزروا للسقف و نراو اللي الخبز على التمام كنت نمر عند الخبازة (المرأة اللي تصنع الخبز في الكوشة) اللي كانت اسفل هون(هنا) و نعيدلها(نقوللها): :متى نستطيعو نعجنو احنا؟"

Thanks, with corrections ...

Thank you so much for such an informative comment. This is one of the best discourses I've had on this topic, rather than the defensive or racist posts by some Maltese.

Here are some corrections/comments. Though I don't speak Tunisian, my exposure to the southern Mediterranean dialects, (my native Alexandrian, to Matrouh, to Libya) benefited me in this exercise.

I put the parts that you missed in parenthesis.

Marija Calleja titkellem fuq kif kienu jagħmlu l-ħobż meta kienet għadha żgħira.

ماريا كاليا تتكلم فوق كيف كانوا يعملوا الخبز متى كانت عادها صغيرة

[Note عادها which means "still"]

Jien niftakar illi f’dak iż-żmien in-nies kienu imorru l-forn jagħġnu l-ħobż huma.

نفتكر اللي في ذاك الزمان

[Note في ذاك which means "during that time long ago"]

Mhux kien jiġi ta’ l-ħobż u jixtru l-ħobż minn għandu.

مهوش كان يجي تاع الخبز و يشتروا الخبز من عندوا

[Note تاع which is heavily used in Egyptian Arabic as بتاع]

Għaliex fi r-raħal, speċjalment il-bdiewa kien ikollhom it-tagħam minn tagħhom u jitħnuh u jgħarbluh imbagħad kienu jistgħu jagħmlu lħobż.

عاليش في الرحال سبيشيالمون البديوة كان يكلهم
الطعام من تاعهم و يطحنوه و يغربلوه امبعد كانوا يستعوا يعملوا الخبز

[Note the use of a Latin/Italian/French "specialment". Also, note طعام is classical Arabic for wheat, which was used in 6th century CE in Makkah, but fell out of use quickly after. Also, using البديوة which means البدو unsettled nomads, or desert dwellers, or more generally, like you said: peasants. Also, she describes milling the wheat into flour, then sieving the ground flour.]

Allura meta nħarsu lejn l-ixkaffa u naraw li l-ħobż riesaq għat-tmiem kont immur għand il-furnara li kienet hawn isfel u ngħidilha : "Meta nistgħu nagħġnu aħna ?"

[Note: الاشكافة from اسكافي meaning shoe cobbler]

Thanks a lot!

I find it very interesting

I find it very interesting that the word tagham is such a relic!
Apparently Maltese retained some words which are obsolete in the bona fide Arabic dialects, probably the best known example being that of the verb "to see", "ra" in Maltese.
About xkaffa (meaning "shelf") I would link it with Italian scaffale (same meaning).
It probably comes from Sicilian or another Southern Italian dialect rather than from the literary language. Hope this helps.

The verb "ra" is used a lot

The verb "ra" is used a lot in Tunisia as well, especially around Sfax. In the rest of Tunisia it's used mostly in the negative "ما راش" but "شاف" is used in the positive sense.

Sorry, I just posted a

Sorry, I just posted a comment suggesting that qada may stand for قعدة but I thought better and believe it's more likely to be قضاء. I hope this helps. Tmajt should be طميت.