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.




The author of a recent

The author of a recent research book on the common oral culture shared by Tunisians and Maltese has found that the first words of the first verse of the Cantilena are actually a typical Tunisian phrase having a strong religious etymology.

The poet would actually call out his neighbours to sort of stopping doing the things of the daily life (as set by Destiny in a classical religious vision: that of the “cada”). He wants them to pay attention to his own fate (the story he is going to tell them in the second verse)… So, this is why it makes more sene with "Sheddu l-qadâ'" (*)(stop the Wheel of History) rather than "shedw l-qadâ'" (song of Destiny).

(*) "Shedd" in Arabic means "to stretch" or, in Tunisian Arabic, "to hold" something (in ones' hands).

Chiasmus: Potentially a Key to Efforts to Translate Il-Cantilena

Posted on behalf of Stephen Kent Ehat, who contacted me by email.

Although this might portend a "self-fulfilling prophecy," Father Mark
Montebello, a Dominican priest living in Malta and author of several
philosophical and critical books, recently (on 7 April 2016) delivered a talk on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1966 discovery of the Cantilena.

His talk was titled "Between rectitude and incongruity: The chiastic structure of the Cantilena." The full text of Fr. Montebello's
translation is available through the Faraxa Publishing web site (here), the full text of his article about the possible chiastic structure of the poem is available at (here), and the Times of Malta recently (on 22 May 2016) published a short article by him summarizing what he stated in his talk (here).

All links here were active on 25 May 2016.

It is concerning his talk and his article about his talk to which I would
like to direct the attention of all those who here on the Baheyeldin Dynasty web site have made comments on Khalid Baheyeldin's 11 November 2008 posting, of course primarily of Khalid himself.

In his talk and article he posits that Il-Cantilena is chiastic in form. If
you do not yet know what a chiasmus is, read more about it here:

The bottom line of my comment here is simple: Chiasmus, if it indeed is the structure of Il-Cantilena (as Fr. Montebellow asserts), may well be a key to solving some of the difficulties in translation of the poem. Why? Because chiasmus posits that what is stated at the beginning of a text is repeated (either in ideas or in words or both) at the end of the text; what is stated second in the text is repeated at the second-to-last position (element) of the text; and so on towards the middle of the text where there is either one element or two corresponding elements. Generally, but not always, the central element(s) is or are some profound idea toward which everything in the text points (which is quite different from modern-day linear texts where ideas progress to a conclusion at the end); in a chiastic text, everything centers
on -- well -- the center.

So if the text is chiastic, translators might possibly find clues for
translation of, say, the first element of the text in clues they derive from
the last element of the text. Whether Fr. Montebello has successfully
identified what the elements are is the first question to address in any
analysis of the text (regarding whether it is or is not chiastic) and whether he has identified correspondences between various elements on opposing sides of the chiastic middle of the text is a second question to address in any such analysis.

So if any of you as people interested in the quality of Khalid's translation
efforts would like to comment on the translation with the principle of
chiasmus in mind (is it chiastic? if so does chiasmus help to resolve this or that translation problem? is any such effort a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it were, or is the chiasmus, and thus any improved translation, something that is essentially objectively forced by the text itself rather than the result of a subjective analysis of the text to make chiasmus and translated parallels appear where the text itself does not force it?).

I'd be interested in seeing some dialogue on this point. I do not know how many of the prior posters have signed up to receive notifications of new comments, but if anyone sees this present comment, kindly inform others if you have means to do so.

I think a robust discussion might be helpful to all involved, including Khalid and Fr. Montebello.