The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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Are you a hamallu?

Jenny Pullicino Orlando Sunday, 29 March 2015, 10:37 Last update: about 10 years ago

I’ve had a think about the words ‘hamallu’ and ‘tal-pepe’ over the past week; I even googled them. For lack of an appropriate etymology of the words, I stand to be enlightened on this point. I clicked on the Urban Dictionary definition. I thought of that someone - I imagine in Malta - sat at his or her desk, dedicating a considerable amount of time typing up the recipe for the perfect ‘hamallu’ and ‘tal-pepe’ (and instructions on how to avoid them). 

Below is a little snippet of this wisdom:


‘A Hamallu (male) or Hamalla (female) is an obnoxious, uneducated Maltese person, generally from the South of Malta. These worthless specimen generally don't even finish secondary school because they believe they're too cool for school, but the truth is their IQ is too low to grasp anything that requires the use of the brain… Since Hamalli are of the working class, they can't afford to do anything remotely classy. Therefore, it's best to avoid cheap restaurants, bars and clubs. It's best to stick to the more poshy, expensive places, where you're guaranteed not to ever meet an obnoxious hamallu’


‘This is a term used amongst people from Malta to describe the people from the upper classes or those pretending to be from the upper class. Usually, they would be those living in the area of Sliema, St Julians, etc. They would be those that mix English words in Maltese phrases to make themselves seem that they come from the upper class. It's a term to describe the stuck-up people from Malta - those who put their noses in the air and only wear brand names.’

Right. Great.

I won't submit an ironic ‘LOLZ’ or ‘WTF?’ to this as, realistically, nothing eloquent can come of such garbage. Then came the genuine alarm that these words are not simply in common usage but are terms that are often rolled out in a broad-brush, deliberately damaging manner. Sure, they’re just words right? The way ‘maaa, you’re so gay’, ‘he’s such a retard, ay?’, ‘he’s a bit of a Jew, that one’ are also just a bunch of meaningless words.

Nope, I’m not having it. These are not casual witticisms or harmless declarations, they are indicative of the continued existence of unthinking discrimination in our lexicon. These words are irresponsible, unnecessary, divisive, distasteful, archaic and small-minded and they need to be weeded out of our language immediately.

Not just about being PC

Language and the categorisation that often comes with it, has an illimitable ability to divide communities and break individuals. Battles have been fought, countries have been subject to segregation, people have been discriminated against in the eyes of the law, all because of a bunch of words. Even our own history is riddled with pivotal political developments that turned on the matter of language.

Why do the words ‘hamallu’ and ‘tal-pepe’ irk me so much? Because they generate a social legacy that is counter-productive to the struggle for fluid social mobility. The terms have a history of hierarchy and classism that have conditioned entire segments of the Maltese population and consigned them to inflexible and unjust ways of conceiving of themselves and others. They are the result of a colonial hangover we never quite recovered from. Words like this keep people from moving forward, from investing in their education by reinforcing a damaging ‘what’s the point?’ mentality that undermines progress. It isolates and ghettoises people, and creates impenetrable obstacles to community-building.

Linguistic eugenics

Contrary to the belief of some, the language you speak does not change your worth as a person. It doesn’t corrupt your genetic make-up. Neither does your level of education for that matter. Just because I choose to speak English does not mean I am ‘tal-pepe’. Conversely, Maltese is not a ‘hamallu,’ uncultured, kitchen language, it should not be frowned upon; it is not for the irrelevant proletariat. Your command of the English language does not make you better or superior than anyone else, and you are not uniquely enlightened. And equally, just because your command of the Maltese language is stronger than your English does not give you the right to exercise an inferiority complex that is also just as marginalising. This works both ways.

It is a wonderful thing to exist in a bilingual country, but it doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to be functionally bilingual. It is not always going to be the case that your level of both languages is at par. So what? Dwelling on this doesn’t help us move forward; it stagnates social development and distracts people from the real issues. We understand each other, don’t we? Yep. Then move on and have an opinion about something meaningful.

Petty tribalism

Just one more thing…for the record, you are not a 'hamalla' (whatever that means) if you vote Labour nor are you an elitist, snob, 'tal-pepe' (whatever that means) if you vote Nationalist. Don’t be ridiculous. YOU CAN VOTE FOR WHATEVER PARTY YOU DAMN WELL PLEASE BECAUSE YOU ARE FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO LIVE IN A DEMOCRACY. If we don’t shake off this obsessive need to brand and categorise each other by the colour of our ballot sheet, then we are complicit in devaluing our political system. We cannot even pretend we live in a democracy if we genuinely believe that our free choice to vote for a specific party should socially delineate for life. It’s bad enough that rampant partisanship very often limits the country’s citizens from engaging in constructive, differentiated, political dialogue without fear of marginalisation from one ‘tribe’ or the other.

Sure, we have bigger fish to fry, but…

Maltese society is classist and it doesn’t have to be. Participating in the exacerbation of these divisions is such a banal waste of time. This is hardly a utopian, hippy ideal but something achievable. I am certainly not holier than thou on the matter. How many times have you commented on someone’s accent or judged a person by his or her choice of clothing? How can you possibly quantify a person’s (and their family’s) worth with such superficiality? We’ve all done it, and we should be bigger and better than that.








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