The Malta Independent 20 May 2024, Monday
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The Maltese-Tunisian linguistic link

Malta Independent Sunday, 30 June 2013, 08:40 Last update: about 11 years ago

It was my pleasure to note the views of such a great authority as Prof. Joseph Brincat in his letter of 23 June on the question of the shift from Arabic to Maltese. In human affairs, the other’s viewpoint is always necessary so that the main objective of the paper titled “Malta, as seen from Tunisia, a thousand years later…” (16 June) was to draw the attention to the need of a long overdue direct collaboration between Tunisians and Maltese on the very issue of Maltese linguistics. Out of personal interest, I realised that, unfortunately, except for Syrian Shidyâq and Egyptian Sulaiman, no other substantial relevant research from the southern shore of the Mediterranean has ever emerged, particularly from Tunisia whose language, among all the others in the world, maintains the strongest and closest link to Maltese. Then and for more information, I also published elsewhere an article entitled “Malte, si proche et si lointaine de la Tunisie” (20 June) given that, as strange as it may sound to many, most Tunisians have never heard of the issues discussed in these columns.  The overall objective of both documents is to enhance mutual understanding –which, it is believed, should begin by clarifying issues relating to each other’s language given the unique historic overlap – while, at the same time, summarising the contents of a substantial scientific article on this issue to be published in a social science journal.

This said, I am sorry for having used the word “thesis” in reference to Prof. Brincat’ impressive interdisciplinary work. Regarding the discussed problem (the linguistic difference between the Tunisian dialect and Maltese language of the 9th/11th century as a possible measure of the Semitic/non-Semitic substrate of Maltese), I must say that I had in mind the published correspondence between Prof. Brincat and Prof. Godfrey Wettinger (SToM, 5 and 26 August 1990, in particular). What I did understand is that the question was to know the fate of the existing (Christian) population in Malta by the above-mentioned key-centuries. Also, if such a people had actually been there at the time of the final conquest, what could have been their language? According to some authors, it might have been Greek or Low Latin (Grech, 1961). However, as Prof. Brincat rightly emphasises, the rare Latin or Greek words in today’s Maltese do not form a substrate and neither do Punic and Berber.

Certainly Maltese is Sicilian Arabic. However, the latter was no ex nihilo creation. It directly derives from the Arabic dialect spoken by the conquerors from Ifriqya, i.e. Arabic Tunisian of that time (9th century). Therefore, stating that Maltese is Sicilian Arabic will apparently not be of concrete help to people trying to figure out why and how Maltese is so close to Arabic Tunisian. The same problem has emerged with the statement that “Maltese is a Semitic language”, as some authors have been saying for a long time in order to play down the strong Arabic infrastructure. Interestingly, and as if it had been a reaction to that trend, Cassar Pullicino systematically added “(Arabic)” to almost each occurrence of the word “Semitic” in a speech he delivered at UNESCO in 1978 (“The Mediterranean islands as places of synthesis between Arab culture and European cultures”, 1979).

One thousand years later, the Maltese-Tunisian linguistic connection is still obvious, particularly when one considers idiomatic phrases, sayings and proverbs, which, as hypothesised in our main research article, have not changed a lot throughout history because they relate to daily life. Indeed, how to describe the impression left on the mind of the man in the street of Tunis going past the door of a building with a board saying “L-Ambaxxata ta' Malta fit-Tunezija”? If the latter may sound quite alien to most European tourists, it is definitely familiar to a Tunisian speaker. Furthermore, if it were not because of some “puzzling” letters in the Maltese alphabet, Tunisians, although accustomed to Latin-transliterated scripts, could well be, in many instances, the quickest learners of Maltese in the world…

Certainly, the field of research is still wide open, particularly regarding other aspects of language such as the formation of Christian Maltese Arabic, for instance. Andalusi, Sicilian and Judaeo Arabic, although not exclusively, may certainly help in this respect. However, the point of utmost attention should be that neither Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Moroccan, Algerian nor any other dialect in the world is closer to Maltese as Tunisian. Be it the dialect of the coast (Susa/“Sousse” in French) or the Tunis City one, it does not matter, particularly in view of the small geography of Tunisia and the internal movement of its people. It took several centuries to realise such a scientific fact, which has unfortunately not reached yet the status of a consensus. Perhaps a “consensus conference” could be organised some day in Malta…

Prof. Brincat also mentioned the question of the burials behind the Roman Domus suggesting close contacts with Susa and in this respect, I must say that one of the pictures published by Prof. Wettinger in “Malta: Studies of its Heritage and History” (1986) is quite intriguing because its caption states: “A silver ring with inscription ‘Rabbi Alla Wâhid’ found in the Rabat cemetery.” Indeed, among Muslims, the uniqueness of God is usually expressed by the famous concise formula “Allahu Akbar” or others extracted from the Koran such as: “Ma min Ilahi Illa Ilahun wahidun” (There is no god but One who is unique), etc. However, this is understandable if the inscription was in Maltese although it would also show that not only Christian but also Muslim Arabic Maltese underwent some “changes” from an early date.

I mention elsewhere that 12th century Tunisian, because of the still “fresh” installation of the Arabic language on the Berber/Punic/Latin substrate of that part of Africa, not to mention the “radical changes” brought in by the repeated invasions by Arab nomad tribes (Vanhove 1998; Fischer & Jastraw, 1980/cited by Prevaes 1993), was still close to classical Arabic and perhaps to other Middle Eastern dialects. This could explain the Syrian and Egyptian remaining traits in Maltese if these were not directly introduced in the island by speakers of these languages themselves. Interestingly, a word still commonly shared by Maltese and (almost only) Tunisians is “qattus” (cat). Prof. Brincat had pointed out (1995) that it is of Latin origin and reached Maltese through Berber and Arabic thanks to Roman presence in North Africa.

Indeed, studying Tunisian through a direct collaboration would have spared a lot of energy to Maltese academics. Here is a last example. Over the last days, I was reading again that lovely five-century old poem “Cantilena”, viewed as the oldest written text in Maltese discovered by Wettinger and Fsadni (1968). Fuad Kabazi has made cogent comments on it in the Journal of Maltese Studies (1989). In particular, he corrected one word in the translation of the 12th verse. “Biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe” (“Change for it the place that harms it”, according to Wettinger and Fsadni’s first translation). “Yeutihe” should be written “yuetihe”, states Kabazi, and means “more appropriate”. This is exactly what we thought when reading it with a Tunisian eye. Indeed, the verb “iwâty” (to fit, to be appropriate) is, unlike others, distinctively used in the Tunisian dialect and still is nowadays. Others (Middle East) would rather use a synonym like “yunasib”. The Cantilena also contains another word typical of Arabic Tunisian: “inte”, which stands for the Arabic feminine personal pronoun “anti” (“you”, female). Tunisian Arabic is known for employing the feminine form for both sexes. On a lexical level again, we find “sisen” in verse 7 (“nizli hi li sisen”), which means “foundations”. It is the typically Tunisian plural form of =sês”. The “expected” classical plural is “usus”.

Finally, when considering the complex history of Malta and Gozo, one should always keep in mind that the period preceding the key centuries (9th-11th) was characterised by harsh wars and continuous fighting between Arabs and Byzantines for the control of the Central Mediterranean. Mercieca (2010) heralded this way his presentation of two relevant books published by Tunisian historians.


Kamal Chaouachi

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