It turns out that about one-third of the words in the Maltese language, not to mention its grammar, are derived from the Arabic that was spoken by Muslim settlers of the Mediterranean islands in the mid-11th century.
When Malta, an archipelago between Sicily and the North African coast, joined the European Union in 2004, Maltese became an official language of the bloc, meaning that important documents and Brussels paperwork are now available in Maltese translations.
Pierre Clive Agius, Malta’s ambassador to the United States, said the language’s similarity to Arabic “personifies all that is Malta: a fusion of our neighborhood, an organic bridge between the north and the south of the Mediterranean.”
Over the centuries, other languages and dialects have been layered on top of Maltese’s Arabic core, to the point that Sicilian and Italian words account for about half the vocabulary today, and English, Malta’s other official language, around 10 percent.
Since 1934, Maltese has been written in a Latinate alphabet; before then, no standard existed, and people sometimes wrote in a mix of Latin and Arabic letters.
Some common phrases in Maltese use all Arabic-based words, like “il-foqra ssibuhum dejjem magħkom” (pronounced il-FO-ra ssibu-hom DEY-yem MAA-kom), which means “the poor will always be with you.”
Others employ a heavy mix of all the country’s linguistic influences. For example, consider the sentence “Aggornata: il-Gvern se jappella d-deciżjoni dwar żewg siggijiet ohra lill-Partit Nazzjionalista.” (It’s pronounced aj-jor-NA-ta: il-gvern se yap-PEL-la d-de-chiz-YO-ni dwar zewj sij-ji-YET OH-ra lill-par-TIT na-tsyo-na-LIS-ta, and it means “Updated: the government will appeal the decision on two more seats for the Nationalist Party.”) Seven out of the 12 words in that Maltese sentence are from Italian or Sicilian.
“For me,” said Michael D. Cooperson, a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, “the fascination of it is that every sentence seems to sum up the history of the Mediterranean.”