Phoenicians of Malta and their Language
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A genetic study of modern Maltese poves that half of them carry Phoenician genetic identifiers and their language seems to be very close to the Lebanese language.

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The National Geographhic Study & Origin of the Maltese

The National Geographic study, discussed elsewhere in this site, made some remakable discoveries regarding the ethnic origin of the Maltese people. Science and genetics came to prove what history could not make certain. Despite the claims that upon the Arab occupation of Malta it was vacated of ALL its inhabitants around the year AD 869, carrying 'one and all' into slavery and leaving no Punic or Latin survivors behind, genetics prove this to be untrue. The National Geographic study indicates that more than half of the Y chromosome lineages in today's Maltese population came in with the Phoenicians, and there is a very close genetic relationship between the Maltese and the Lebanese Phoenicians.

The Maltese Language -- L-ilsien Malti

Maltese is a Semitic tongue but a unique one among Semitic languagues. It is written in the Latin alphabet. Special characters are added to accommodate Semitic sounds that are not available in Latin characters. Further, the Maltese language of today contains many Romace language terms because of the influence of European presence in Malta over centuries.

The 29 letters of the Maltese Alphabet
Maltese has glottal sound for the letter "Q" which resembles neither the Arabic, nor the European sounds for its equivalent (which are more akin to our 'k' sound), but is rather like the sound produced by a 'silent cough'. The same is present in Syriac and Aramaic, the language of Christ. There continues to be a controversy whether modern Maltese language should be considered a direct descendant of the "Punic" tongue. Punic is the Latin name for Phoenician of the western Mediterranean.

Artifacts found in Malta, inscribed in both Carthaginian and Classic Greek, the Cippus indicated that the Punic language was spoken by inhabitants of the island. This made it possible for French scholar, Abbe Barthelemy, to decipher and reconstruct the Carthaginian (Phoenician) alphabet. Here is a translation of the said inscription:

To our Lord Melqart, Lord of Tyre   
Abdasar and his brother Aserkemor,
sons of Asirxehor, son of Abdasar,
made this vow      [a solemn promise/gift]
for hearing their prayer and blessing them.

The main problem with the Punic tongue is that nowadays it is a 'dead language' to which no one really knows the true pronunciation of the written text.   Reference has been made by Quintinus to passages from Plautus' play Poenulus, containing words in this ancient 'Carthaginian' form of speech, but it is merely an intelligent guess how well Punic pronunciation resembled modern Semitic languages.   Words from the Bible, such as Ephtha (open up!) and Cumi (wake up/arise!) were cited by Quintinus as if to corroborate the kinship between the spoken-Maltese he heard during his stay at Malta in 1536 and the Aramaic vernacular thought to have been its origin.

Many scholars of the Maltese language are of the opinion that modern Maltese originated from Arabic, rather than Punic, and goes back to circa 1050 AD.   Others do not entertain the hypothesis that the entire Punic origin has been wiped out of the language. This is so especially since both are Semitic tongues and it would be very likely to obscure one beneath the other; the older beneath the new, the 'dead' Punic beneath the 'surviving' Arabic.   The subsequent Romantic overlay that followed gave Maltese its unique Mediterranean character.

Maltese of today is analogous to the Lebanese language. The eastern Mediterranean language group is exactly what Maltese developed into. Aramaic (along side Greek) was the lingue franca of the whole eastern Mediterranean at the dawn of the Arab conquest. Further, the number of invading Arabs was relatively small as compared with the local populations of their dominions. The very nature of the number of invadors as opposed to the local populations resulted with an amalgam of spoken tongues that contained high percentages of local usages. For example, upon analyzing spoken Lebanese, many Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, in addition to Turkish and other languages come through as ones overlayed with Arabic. In fact, the Arabs and their cohorts of the 11th century did not speak any formal or classical Arabic but another amalgam of dialects mixed in with Arabic. It is very likely that most of the so-called Arabs of North Africa were a mix of Punic, Berber and Roman blood, much like their mother tongues. Based on these facts and the unreliable claim that all the Maltese were wiped off their islands, one can conclude that the Maltese language of today continues to have a strong influence of Punic Phoenician. Attributing the roots of Maltese words exclusively to Arabic is wrong especially since both Phoenician and Arabic have the same Semitic word roots and it is impossible to conclude that a Maltese word that sounds like a similar Arabic word necessarily comes from Arabic and not from Phoenician. Jumping to such conclusions is very common today specifically because Arabic is well known and Phoenician or Punic is virtually unknown by philologists and linquists.

The Maltese speak a language with ancient roots. The language goes back to the beginning of Maltese history, including Punic times. Malta had formed part of the Carthaginian empire and changed hands a number of times during the Punic Wars (264-146 BC) before becoming Roman "civitas foederata" in 218 BC. During Roman times the Maltese continued to speak Punic. However, it has to be said that Punic inscriptions in Malta stop in the 1st century AD.

In Acts, the inhabitants of Malta were called "barbaroi" meaning that they did not speak a civilized tongue—Latin or Greek but Punic. Evidently, implying that Malta was still pristinely Semetic in A.D. 60, despite some 280 years of Roman rule. The Phoenician colonies were left speaking Phoenician (Punic) even when Phoenicia had stopped using it. In fact, Phoenician Punic continued to be spoken in Carthage and the former Punic terroritories until the 5th century. Saint Augustine, doctor of the Church and Bishop of Hippo (near Carthage) testified to that in his writings and called the Punic language "our own tongue".

This fact alone, recorded both in Quintinus' Insulae Melitae descriptio (see Horatio C.R.Vella -- The Earliest Description of Malta; Lyons 1536 -- 1980) as well as the later account of Kircher's 1637 visit to Malta as given in Mundus subterraneus (see J. Zammit Ciantar -- A Benedictine's Notes on Seventeenth-Century MALTA -- 1998), may render it plausible to believe that at least some of the original Punic tongue may have survived.

History of Malta

The history of Malta goes back to the dawn of time and its original people enjoyed an advanced civilization while the rest of the world was in utter darkness. Malta has some of the world's most ancient historical buildings that pre-date the pyramids of Egypt and most other historical sites in the Mediterranean.

Over the ages, the Maltese have been subjected to various dominions. Every significant power dominating the Mediterranean basin vied for a foothold over Malta, so that they could keep an eye on such an arterial sea corridor, while ensuring safe haven for their own ships.

When the Phoenicians arrived to the Maltese islands, some believe that they may have found them largely uninhabited and used them as safe anchorage for their ships. It is a known fact that the Carthaginians -- who were themselves descendants of the Phoenicians -- later colonized Malta. It is not really clear what happened to the people of Malta (or who were they) who pre-dated the Phoenicians.

Thereafter, the mighty Carthaginians were challenged by the warring Romans for domination over Sicily and Malta. Classic literature suggesting that the small Maltese population of Punic times preferred Roman rule over the Carthaginian should be taken in the light of the known Roman bad-press against the Punic. Hence, the Roman chronicler Livius [Livy], whose words actually imply "a popular Maltese 'betrayal' of their Semitic rulers in favour of the Romans; an investment which paid off nicely" should be viewed with suspicion. The so-called Pax Romana that reigned over Melita at the height of the Roman Empire, with the Maltese populace being considered as socii rather than a conquered people continues to be considered in the same suspicious Roman propaganda machine.

Towards the end of the 7st century AD, the Arabs invaded the Berber wastelands of North Africa, advanced northwards into Spain and then overran Sicily and Malta. The Aghlabid Arab occupation is claimed to have vacated the Maltese Islands of ALL their inhabitants around the year AD 869, carrying 'one and all' into slavery. Consequently, it is claimed, neither Punic, nor Latin, survived. It might be prudent to reflect, however, that this account (from the hand of an Arabic chronicler) may have omitted the practical consideration that -- however small -- a section of the Maltese population in the past, though even up to the year 1835 (i.e. during British occupation), were habitually troglogytes (i.e. cave-dwellers). A number of archaeologists are of the persuasion that numerous natives of Malta survived the supposed vacation of the island by the Arabs because they hid in the caves of the islands and escaped being sold into slavery. Further, there is no evidence that any of those who were said to have been sold into slavery never returned.

Archaeological evidence points to Roman and, later, Greek-Byzantine presence during the next six centuries. Sicily, with which the inhabitants of Malta were certainly in contact, at this time was open to these same influences but most of the island was converted to the Muslim faith in the 8th century AD and subsequently adopted the Arabic language.

This phenomenon of independent development was further helped by the expulsion of Muslims from Malta about the mid-13th century. The close ties with Sicilian overlords enforced the inhabitants of Malta to absorb Italian words into Maltese language. Such a bilingual trend has always been present in the Maltese linguistic milieu.

The Norman Count Roger of Hauteville recaptured Sicily and Malta for the Christian Faith but he is said not to have expelled the Arabs, and thus their influence here remained strong until his heir, Roger II, had his own way. Now officially a part of Europe and divested of direct Arabic influence, the Maltese Islands would be affected by whatever political interactions occured between the Royal Families of the European continent.

Needless to say, foreign families settled in Malta, bringing with them their European family names and native parlance. And so, aside from Latin, the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and of the European scholar, Sicilian and, eventually, Tuscan Italian contributed to the re-Romanization of the Islands.

The ceding of the Maltese Islands by Charles V (in the year 1530) to the Order of the Knights of Saint John (made up of 8 Langues) further increased the cultural and linguistic influences on the Maltese population.

The Order was a cosmopolitan institution, comprised of French knights, of the Provence and Auvergne langues, the Spanish from Aragon, the Italians, the Portughese from the langue of Castille & Leon, German (Bavarian) knights and even a group of English knights, though this langue became unpopular following Henry VIII's quarrels with the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps not all the mentioned languages left their imprint on the extant Maltese vernacular, but a few certainly did.

Napoleon's victory over the Order brought French Rule to Malta in 1798. Practically throughout this brief occupation, the French garrison was confined to the shelter of our walled cities (following a Maltese insurrection), so little influence could be imparted. While Napoleon left a wealth in Codes of Law the opposite could be said about Maltese national treasures, carried off by General Buonaparte on L'Orient which eventually met her own doom at the bottom of the Mediterranean, treasures and all. Though French rule was brief and highly unpopular, a few French words are used in everyday Maltese.

The coming of Britain's Royal Navy to the aid of the besieging Maltese citizens brought about the surrender and ousting of Napoleon's army. At this point, it seemed natural to return the Islands to their formal rulers, the Knights of S.John, but as the people of Malta had had enough of the Order, the decision reached by the Treaty of Amiens (Article X) was most unwelcome. The Maltese people united against the return of their Islands to the despotic Order, and requested the status of Protectorate of the British Empire. And so, from the year 1800, when Sir Alexander Ball was made Britain's first Civil Commissioner (later Governor General) for Malta, till 1964 when, under Sir Anthony Mamo, Britain's last Governor (of Maltese nationality) Malta attained Independence, for a period of approximately 165 years the United Kingdom ruled over the Maltese Islands.


  1. Extensively adapted from an essay by Steve Farrugia and other authors.
  2. Cassola, Arnold.The Literature of Malta; An example of Unity in Diversity -- 2000, pp 2.
  3. M.Brincat, Joseph. Malta 870-1054, Al-Himyari's Account and its Linguistic Implications (Said, 1995).
  4. Cassar, Carmel. Witchcraft, Sorcery and the Inquisition -- A Study of Cultural Values in Early Modern Malta (Carmel Cassar -- Mireva Publ., 1996).
  5. Brockman, Eric. 'Last Bastion; Sketches of the Maltese Islands' 1961, pg.9:
  6. Vella, Horatio C. R. The Earliest Description of Malta; Lyons 1536 -- 1980
  7. Vella, Andrew P. Storja ta' Malta, 1993, Vol 1, pp 33.  

Resources in this site:

  1. Malta’s Role in Phoenician Trade

Web Resources:

  1. The Phoenician Language as Spoken Today in Malta and Lebanon

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