With over 20,000 Italian words, the rich Maltese language was built on massive migrations


It’s not just espresso or insalata when the Maltese “put Italian”. Daily contact with Italian migrants during Malta’s extraordinary population growth under the Knights of St. John and British colonialists contributed to the adoption of over 20,000 Sicilian and Italian words – almost 41% of the vocabulary – by the Maltese.

So writes Giuseppe Brincat, who notes that while Italianisms in most other European languages ​​are associated with the world of culture, fashion, music, gastronomy and the arts, Maltese has absorbed Italian voices and Sicilian in matters related to everyday life: not only “mużika, pittura, katidràl, ambaxxatùr, pizza”, but also basic terms like “arja, spalla, rota, bosk and fjura”.

These words found their way into everyday language not only because Italian was the official language of the island’s elite for five entire centuries, but also because illiterate Maltese speakers were exposed to them in their daily lives.

And while Italian-speaking foreigners were a minority at all times, “their numbers have steadily increased to the point that Malta’s population has grown from 20,000 in 1530 to 240,000 in 1900. In this way, immigrants have enriched the Maltese language without eradicating or replacing it. . ”

This migration was concentrated in the port area where Maltese and foreigners constantly rubbed shoulders in small spaces such as construction sites or on ships. This led to the emergence of a Maltese variant which was strongly Italianized.

A key factor contributing to this process was that most of the migrants were single men who had to learn Maltese by marrying Maltese girls. Brincat says the presence of hundreds of artisans and migrant workers served as a language lab that introduced words associated with trades and everyday life into the spoken language.

But will history repeat itself amid the current influx of Italian-speaking migrants?

Unlikely, says Brincat, noting that even with the arrival of around 50,000 Italians over the past two decades – which should represent more opportunities for conversation than in the past – these new migrants “prefer to speak in English not only with tourists but also with Maltese, also giving the impression that Italian is not an important language.

Indeed, Italian remains a widely known language even more than when it was an official language, as in the 2011 census, 61% of Maltese citizens over the age of 10 understood Italian well, compared to only 13. % of Maltese in 1931.

But Brincat attributes this widespread popularity to the mainstay of Italian television of those who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the future of Italian speakers in Malta is becoming increasingly uncertain, as young people are less likely to watch Italian or TV at all.

Another factor discouraging the predisposition to learn Italian is the fact that young parents speak to their children in English. And while Italian remains the preferred choice of a foreign language at secondary level, fewer find it useful to learn Italian at a higher level.

Italian for illiterates

Very little is known about the efforts of illiterate people in the first half of the 20th century to speak Italian, which at the time was considered the “high language” spoken by the elites and ruling classes. In an article, Brinat presents some samples from the past and even the present, showing how this process played out.

An example cited by Brincat is that of Juann Mamo’s Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka, where illiterate Maltese migrants manage to communicate with Italians as they pass through Italy on their way to America. Indeed, its opening chapter is a village setting where two notaries make fun of the illiterate working classes in a conversation full of Italian sentences: “Inkomplu issa, nutàr. Fi kwantità ta’nies bħal dawn m’hemmx he five percent li jafu a lingua straniera Jewish an art li tgħodd għall-America. Ebda used, nessuno, minnhom ma jaf iħaddem magna ”(Let’s continue notary … Among these people, less than 5% know a foreign language or skill required in America. Not a single one of them can operate a machine. “)

Brincat also refers to texts from the 18th century which refer to the “corruption” of Italian. Mikiel Anton Vassalli himself referred to “the laughable slang used by many Maltese women made up of Sicilian words, some Italians and many Maltese which are Italianized along with other barbarisms”.

Other texts speak of rich Maltese encouraging their servants to learn Italian: “Bravu, Calcedòn, dejem chellimni bit-taliàn, biex titghàllem. (‘Bravo, Calcedonio, parlami semper in italiano, per imparare’). ” The percentage of Maltese who know Italian rose from 11% in 1842 to 13% in 1931, while that of English fell from 5% in 1842 to 23% in 1931, with anglicization taking over after the war, after attending primary school. compulsory, Italian only being considered at secondary level. Yet despite the limited reach of Italian among the elite, Italian words have further transformed the Maltese language through daily contact.

The Brincat article: “L’acquisizione imperfetta di una lingua adstrato: L’italiano degli analfabeti a Malta dal Settecento al Novecento” has been published in the journal ‘Politiche e prathe per l’educazione Linguistique, il multilinguismo e la comunicazione interculturale’ (Policies and Practices for Language Teaching, Multilingualism and Intercultural Communication), recently published in SAIL (Studi sull ‘apprendimento e l’Insegnamento Linguistics), University of Venice, Ca’ Foscari. This publication was edited by local academics Prof. Sandro Caruana, Dr Phyllisienne Vassallo Gauci, Dr Mario Pace and Dr Karl Chircop.

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