The Malta Independent 7 February 2023, Tuesday
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The book that came back from death

Noel Grima Monday, 24 July 2017, 13:03 Last update: about 7 years ago

This book has a fascinating background.

Its author, the well-known author of such novels as Il-Gagga, Samuraj, etc, as well as books about history such as about Napoleon in Malta and about the French Revolution, died on 4 May 2011.

As his wife Catherine explains, his family did not know of the existence of this work. It was only when they were looking at the hard disk of an Apple computer Frans used years before that they found this work, which they later established was written around 2004.


But while they were reading this work, the computer shut itself down and could not be restarted. They took it to an expert who managed to salvage what lies in this book. It is not possible to know whether there was more in the text.

It is also possible that Mr Sammut migrated this text from his primitive Apple to the PC he used later but then one day the hard disk of this PC died out and whatever the PC contained could not be retrieved.

So we are left with what was salvaged from the Apple.

It is not a finished work, nor was it ever reviewed by its author. The book cover says this is Volume I but there is no indication there will ever be a Volume II published - the one that tells the history of the Maltese language from 1850 to our time.

At one point the author says he will go into a point in more detail later on but then there is nothing of the sort.

The title of the book says it is the history of learning in Malta. A better interpretation would be the history of the popular education in Malta.

The book is lively and shows the vast range of Frans Sammut's sources (and of his personal library).

In the early chapters it is rather the history of the Maltese language itself. One can speak of the Maltese language starting from the Middle Ages and not before that. It was after the end of the Arab occupation of Malta and after the years under Frederick II (Stupor Mundi) that the basis of the Maltese language was born. Those were the years known as the Times of the Spanish (Aragon 1283-1410; Castille 1412 - 1530).

There was, on top of everything, the classical Arabic, but underneath, as NV Ushmanov says, there was the language as spoken by the people - the Asian branch of the Mesopotamia and the Siro-Palestinian dialects; the African branch that is the Egyptian and the Maghrebi Arabic, and lastly the European branch - the language as spoken in Andalusia, that spoken in Sicily and the Maltese language.

These were dialects of Arabic, a broken Arabic. In Spain this was the dialects spoken by Arabs, Christians and Jews. Today, we may say that Maltese is the only surviving branch because both the Andalusian dialect and the Arab-Sicilian dialect have died. Maltese is thus the only surviving Semitic dialect that remains in Europe.

After the end of the Arab occupation, Malta remained with the Arabic dialect it had absorbed from its overlords. But the other two branches - the Andalusian and the Sicilian ones - became absorbed in the new Christian era and any traces of Arabic in their language was wiped out.

Obviously, I'm summarizing. There is far more in the book. Today, around 20% of the words we use are Maltese-Arabic: the rest has been taken over by Romance languages. But the Maltese as spoken by medieval Maltese had a far higher quotient of Arabic. For instance, Sammut says, the Caxaro Cantilena can be understood perfectly by today's Tunisians.

Fascinatingly, he adds that certain religious terms such as Randan, ghasar, Ghid il-Kbir, tewba and even words in the Missierna are derived from Muslim terms and not from Maronite or Coptic origins.

He quotes from Professor Joseph M Brincat who in turn quotes Al-Himyari who says that after taking Malta in a bloody battle, the Arabs left a depopulated Malta, used only by passing ships for its excellent harbours. It was only later that the Arabs began to repopulate Malta with people of the Muslim faith.

When the Byzantines attacked Malta, the Arabs made a pact with their Christian slaves promising them freedom if they joined in the battle with them. The Byzantines were beaten back because the Maltese, like other Christians around the Mediterranean were sick of the Byzantine cruelty and their religious battles.

But when the Normans came, the influence of Christianity and of the Romance languages increased. This was promoted by the nobles of Mdina and especially by the schools set up by the many religious orders that started flocking to Malta as from 1370. Teaching was done in the Latin language but it was a broken down language that morphed into Italian or Sicilian as the case could be. This in turn was reinforced by the notaries who wrote in an acrolect, that is a language used only for official purposes, which they then translated to Maltese for the benefit of their Maltese clients.

There are many fascinating details that show Maltese deriving from Arabic but in a specific way. Such as why we Maltese speak of xemx when all Arabs speak of xems? And who of the many Arabs who came to Malta from places like Yemen taught the Maltese to speak of gzira when all Arabs speak of gezira?

Carussin de Perceval also says that the Maltese of the countryside use a hard q (as in qabel) because they were Christians while the town Maltese use a softer version of q because they were Muslims.

Sodda was a sofa placed next to the main door, they use bejt to mean a house while dar for them meant the innermost room.

It is clear that, cut off from the rest of the Arab world, the Maltese lost many Arabic words and substituted them with Romance words.

Sammut then speaks of Maltese under the Order of St John but he hurries on to speak of the infiltration of Enlightenment ideas in the last part of the 18th century and of his hero's (MA Vassalli) part in promoting education of the masses, his insistence that the Maltese should learn school subjects through their own language, rather than through a foreign language.

On the one hand there is a penniless Vassalli who somehow found the means to print his books and on the other hand there are the many circumstances of his life which led to his imprisonment and exile until he came back to Malta under the British rule and was befriended by the rich Englishman Hookam Frere and by Protestant missionaries in  Malta.

All this sets the scene for what was to come later - the language battle between Italian and English with the Maltese language, still without its own alphabet, struggling to survive in the political maelstrom.

It is indeed a pity if the second volume of this book is not found. For its author will undoubtedly have a lot to say about the last 150 years of Maltese history.


Frans Sammut

Grajjet it-Taghlim f'Malta

L-ewwel volum



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