Culture
History, culture & exceptions: What do you know about the Maltese language?
Learn about the Maltese language and some basic Maltese words

Melanie Drury
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With English being an official language in Malta as well as Maltese, many foreigners do not feel the need or a desire to learn the tongue of the Maltese islands. Given that the Maltese language is spoken by less than half a million people worldwide, there are other languages that are perhaps more useful to learn, unless you are a foreigner living in Malta, in which case it makes sense for you to learn Maltese. And it certainly pleases the locals.

Semitic meets Latin

Maltese is a rather fascinating language. It is unique in that it is a language of Semitic origin written in the Latin script. Dots and dashes on certain letters distinguish different sounds (like g and ġ, z and ż or h and ħ) and there are ‘silent’ letters ( and h) too! For this reason, it is rather difficult for a foreigner to pronounce Maltese words unless they learn the alphabet and pronunciation of each letter.

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Loan words

Over the centuries, the Maltese language has adopted many words from English, Italian, Sicilian, Spanish and French. The peculiarity is that these words are given a Maltese spelling according to Maltese pronunciation. For example kowt is a coat, kejk is a cake and kompjuter is a computer. 

The mother tongue

Maltese is the mother tongue but, truth be told, some Maltese people cannot speak it fluently. There is a section of society that favours English over Maltese even within family dealings. The widespread use of English has established Malta as a popular destination for learning English and the increased presence of foreigners living in Malta has found English taking over in social situations. Many locals also speak Italian and other languages, such as French, German or Spanish. Conversely, some Maltese people are very attached to the Maltese language and refuse to speak foreign languages. Interestingly, some towns and villages have very pronounced dialects, especially on the island of Gozo.

The origins of the Maltese language

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Malti is thought to originate from the language spoken by the ancient Phoenicians who arrived in Malta in 750 BC. However, Maltese was only officialised, with defined grammatical rules, in the latter half of the 19th century, until which time it was largely only a spoken language. At the time, local languages included Latin, Italian and English, with Maltese considered the ‘kitchen language’ spoken only by peasants. Yet, its survival somehow distinguishes the Maltese as a distinct people and culture.

Learn Maltese (Malti)

Non-native speakers may find learning Maltese difficult due to some unusual guttural sounds, including the ‘q’ - an almost silent, but difficult to master, glottal stop. Anyone can learn the Maltese language in several courses directed at non-native speakers. To speak Maltese like a Maltese person, however, will take more practice, as the language is rarely direct in its expression, tending towards idioms and expressions that would be hilarious and senseless to literally translate. But if you’re on the island, you have time.

Where can I find a few basic words and phrases in Maltese?

You can begin with this Wiki phrasebook. It includes a pronunciation guide, which we admit is not quite perfect, but it’s not a bad start.

14th July 2019


Melanie Drury
Written by
Melanie Drury
Melanie was born and raised in Malta and has spent a large chunk of her life travelling solo around the world. Back on the island with a new outlook, she realised just how much wealth her little island home possesses.

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