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North African Language, More Than Meets The Ear
by Sid Farojy <sid.faroj@gmx.com>

I am a pessimist whose only hope is to be proven wrong. When I meet a nice person I feel sheepish for not believing enough in humanity, a feeling that inhabit my heart since my late twenties and never pays rent.

I hope my landlord is not going to make me regret saying this, but there are wonderful people on this planet. One of them is a South African man I met in a Museum. People were racing through the exhibits but he was standing still, completely absorbed by a cuneiform tablet. He was deciphering it and taking notes. I stood close to him hoping to get a glimpse of what he was writing. “This is a marriage contact,” he whispered to me with an enthusiasm that reminded me of Saint David Attenborough, the matchless prophet of the animal documentary.

Around a coffee sometime later, he told me that Maltese was close to North African dialects. As an Algerian, this came to me as a complete surprise. The following day I made some research online about the matter but what I found where words and sentences that can be understood perfectly well by Middle Easterners. I saw nothing really special there. Time passed and I forgot completely about the matter.

Recently I moved to an apartment that was occupied by an Australian family. They went back home and left few things behind, among them a map of Malta and an unassuming English Maltese dictionary written by a certain Grazio Falzon. I poured myself a coffee, sat and started going through it. 

No one in his right mind would read a dictionary page after page and if by any chance you will find someone doing that, try to verify scientifically if he is a genuine Homo Sapiens by hitting him on the head with it. Well, call me crazy but that is what I did. I spent several hours with the sole company of a dictionary. I did not die of an overdose of vocabulary or sheer boredom. I dived into Falzon’s dictionary like a captivating novel. I could not close it and what is more, I let out a few giggles now and then.

I speak a few languages but I do not recall having had such a passionate encounter with any one of them. The South African man whose statement I ended up doubting, was absolutely right. Maltese and Maghrebi are related.

Finding out about that the way I wanted, was not easy. To see the unique connection between the two, I had to look for words that were not- seemingly or truly- of Arabic, Italian, English, French or Turkish origins. For a selection, this was a Taliban strict one. With patience the words started to appear. They were like rabbits in a forest, first shy then more and more daring. Finally the surrounded me and starting pocking fun at me. I closed the dictionary with a feeling of  satisfaction the kind of which I get only after a good trip. Next day, I completed my research by browsing  language sites in both English and French. To my amazement I found plenty of Maltese terms that I also used in my daily life.  

These common terms have survived thousands of years of troubled history marked by a large number of invasions, a domain where Malta holds probably the world record. Here are without further ado a few examples:

Gendus (ox in Maltese. A male bloke. Common family name)
Serduq (rooster)
Sensal (broker. Sansal is a family name. We call a crook samsar.)
Fartas (bald)
Zabbar (prune a fruit tree)
Felula (mole. We say fulala)
Dielja (vinyard)
Tieqa (window)
Bebbuxu (snail. We say bebbux.)
Għasluġ (means stem  in our dialect)
Hoss (clamor, noise).
Fellous (chick)
Fwar (steam)
Zfunnarija (carrot)
Qarnita (octopus)
Zwiemel (horses, mules. We say Zwiejel)
Msida (Msid is school. Madrassa in Arabic, close to Madresh in Hebrew)
Gwerra (war. We say Guerra. We use it also to say a storm as in snowstorm)

I checked with an Arabic dictionary, these words do not come from Arabic. They do not sound Berber either. This is unique Maltalgerian. Now if these words are not Arabic, not Berber, not French, not Turkish or Spanish what is left then?  One language, a great grand nanna called Punic, a Phoenician dialect. These words had been handed down to us from generation to generation throughout history in the most inconspicuous way, the mother tongue. They had been spoken by people who witnessed the rise, might, and collapse of Carthage.  

Phoenicians were the first nation to circumnavigate the Mediterranean sea. They had contacts with native North Africans and called them The Children Of The Land because they were always there. Such words that are unique to Maltese and Maghrebi show that Malta and North Africa had been in contact earlier than we think. There is definitely more to Maltese and Maghrebi than meets the ear.

I continued my research and found out that Punic remained spoken in Carthage long after its mother tongue disappeared from Phoenicia. More than 500 years after the destruction of Carthage, Saint Augustine, born in Annaba (Hippo) a coastal city north east of Algeria, wrote in a letter: “Ask our peasants what they speak: they will answer you in Punic and with a heavy accent: We are Chenani. Isn’t that an altered form of the word Chananaeci?

Saint Augustine was half Berber, half Roman [Punic -- editorial change by this site's author]. He wrote these words in Latin. Chananaeci is the Latin version of the word Canaanean.  Another source reveals that Saint Augustine always  advised his disciples to learn Punic before venturing into the interior of the country. 

When Maltenglish And Francarab Meet 

It seldom happens in a lifetime of a man to wake up one day, and find himself speaking a language, he seldom heard about. Encouraged by my miraculous “command” of Maltese, I tried to translate out of the blue a few words and sentences. The result was not at all what I had expected. I managed to translate difficult words and failed before easy ones.

I sailed through several sentences fairly easily because  we use the same cocktail in our sentences. We take a verb from a European language, blend it with Semitic/Arabic conjugation, shake and serve.

In our daily life in Algeria, we use a lot of French verbs. A Frenchman with a good ear who knows Arabic conjugation may get the drift of what people are saying. If for instance I want to say “I will phone you” or “I will make a copy for you.” I would simply say Ntiliphonilek and Ncopyhalek. So Pterodactyl looking Maltese verbs like Nintroducilek and Tipprovdiyni are pretty  birds to me. They landed softly on my head.

Maltese and Algerian share a growing number of verbs borrowed to European languages. Here are a few more samples: 

ritorna/ we say ritorni,
ipprepara/ we say ipprepari,
irrimborza/irremborzi, irranga/irrangi, abbuza/abbuzi, adotta/adopti...
Such verbs are not going to stop coming.  Our Algerian dialect is healthy and getting stronger by the day because it does not take itself too seriously and assimilates what is there. Its philosophy is the here and now. 

The French Connection:
I encountered some French words in Maltese. As I do not speak Italian it is not easy to come up with samples of French words as the two languages are practically twin sisters. But since I lost many years reading French books from the late 19 century to prepare myself for the 20 century, I will give it a try and let us see what we get:

Fildiferru (fil de fer)
Avvelenamnet (comes from avaler, to swallow)
Gargarizza (gargariser)
Sangisug (sangsue. Alqa in our dialect)
Passatemp (passe temps)
Tramuntana (tramontane. North wind)
Dilettant (dilettante)
Brikkun (brigand)
Bastun (baston. This is really old French. Modern word is bâton )
Baldakkin (baldaquain)
Buffu (bouffon)
Debuxxat (débauché(e)
Ruzinjol (rosignol)  
Pass pass (pas à pas)
Seftura (serviteur)
Pulmun (poumon)
Marmalja (marmaille. Funny word. The lot of large families)  
Pijunier (pigeonnier)
Valigetta (valisette. Could be from Italian)
Rikonoxxenti (reconnaissant)
Valur (valeur)
Serratura (serrure)
Infermier (same)  
Persjana (persienne)
Stallett (stillet)
Kapott (capote. used only for condom nowadays) 
Tornavit  (tournevis)
 Zaghzugh (Les Zazous craze in France in the sixties. Or did Zazou come from Zaghzugh?) 
I hesitate with Kwasi (quasi) because it is pure Latin.

Popular  Jokes

A teacher of Classic Arabic went inside a bus and saw some of his students there. To appear weighty even in such an inconspicuous setting the man asked for a ticket in classic Arabic. “Atini Tadhkira,” he said.  The driver did not understand and asked him to repeat what he said. The teacher said it louder and louder until one of his students came and explained what his teacher wanted. Upset, the driver said “Why didn’t you ask for it in Arabic like everybody else? “But this was Arabic for God’s sake!” exclaimed the teacher. “Stop trying to be smart with me. I have been doing this job for 23 years and all I know is that in Arabic it is Ticky. Now get the hell out of my face.”

The Saudi police asked a freshly arrived Algerian about what he saw in a deadly traffic accident. He said with his pure village dialect: “Krazatu tomobil ramassawah morsomorso.”  The policemen looked at him with wide open eyes. This was like Chinese to them.

What the poor chap had said was a French sentence “Une automobile l’a écrasé. Ils l’ont ramassé morceau par morceau.”  (A car hit him over. They gathered him piece by piece.)

Oh, I Remember …

I am a country mouse and remain so even if I live in a city. I was born in a tiny colonial village built by emigrants from Strasbourg who felt at home at the seeing storks around. The first time I set foot in the city, I was 12.  I went there with a relative to buy some clothes for my boarding school.  As we were walking through the Souk he told me not to embarrass him anymore with my rural vernacular. Why do you keep saying Sedrija instead of Fista (from French veste) like everybody else? He asked peevishly. Shocked at the idea of bringing shame on us I kept my mouth shut. Later we left the souk, him feeling light and me loaded with guilt and a waistcoat that I didn’t like at all.
Jesus, I need a shrink!  When I think about it I realize that I didn’t dare to say Sedrija since the early seventies and I had no clue about it!  When I found this taboo word in Falzon’s guide I felt the grip of an invisible hand easing away from my throat. I wanted to open the window and scream Sedrijjjjjaaaahh! But I didn’t have the guts. People would think that I probably tried to get high with a bottle of Tabasco.  

Zfunnarija is a remarkable word. In Arabic, carrots are called Jazar (J as in John). In Algerian dialect they are called Sannariya and the Spaniards call them Zanahoria. Here we come full circle in our Mare Nostrum.   

Early days in Algiers. My brother who had been living there several years already there asked me over the phone not to forget to buy among few other things, qargha. I didn’t understand what he meant and wanted some clarification but being too busy he just hanged up on me. The first thing he did after he came from work was to check the shopping. Fin hia el qargha ya ras el basla? He asked with surprise. (Where is the qargha you onion head?) I opened the fridge and showed him a bottle of Coke that I laboriously finished drinking with my sister. “You want to live in Algiers and you don’t even know what a qargha is?” he said shaking his head in utter disbelief.

What happened was a word confusion.  I hail from the Eastern part of the country where the word qargha means nothing but an empty glass bottle. In Algiers that empty thing became a full vegetable, go figure.

When I hear a funny word I never forget it and qarnit is one of those. It’s a word I learned after we moved To Algiers. It reminds me of Kermit the simpatico frog of the Muppet show. In Algiers, qarnit means octopus and also a shifty guy. So here is a qarnit swimming slyly in Kasbah slang. Attention men dak el macanicien, c’est un vrai qarnit! Xarrabli el karrossa la premiere fois. (Watch out with that garage repair guy, he is a real crook. He messed up with my car the first time).

We call it Al Barquq. It was somehow the familiarity with this word that made me fly all the way from New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico to spend my holidays there.  The city name is traced to Alfonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese admiral who founded the eastern part of the empire. Alfonso had spent ten years as a young soldier in North Africa. I bet he had plenty of Barquqas to eat. Kom hier mein lieber Berquqa.

Sadly the Hanuts dropped like flies before department stores, these dinosaurs of modern times.  The hanut wasn’t just a shop. The shopkeeper knew everybody.  You don’t have enough money?  Ma fih moshkel, you will pay another day. I relived the hanut experience in the 21 century at the other end of the planet. In Phnom Penh, a small shoe shop let me take six good pairs of shoes to try them at home without asking for a deposit.  I handed over a deposit nevertheless. They pushed it away saying that they trusted me.  I felt tears in my eyes. Too bad, hugging was not part of the culture.  

I wasn’t able to get the correct meaning but I could be right about its origin, the French word epicerie but that means Hanut. Now I don’t see the connection between a hanut and a pharmacy unless you are in a third world country swimming in rich poverty.  I love Cambodian pharmacies. They don’t bother with prescriptions.  You can buy pills by the unit, condoms by the kilo, sodas, stationery, tropical fruit, eggs, lottery tickets... 

Ta’ xejn:
Difficult to read since the Maltese orthography turned me into a semi analphabet person but I get the gist of it. We have something similar. We say Hat Chi.  If you sat loud enough you may get a Gesundheit  wish. 

How did this word monkey around our shores?  I have no idea. The word Xadi means a singer in Arabic and a monkey in our dialect. No wonder I sometimes do not the difference between the two. The word for monkey in Arabic is Qird.

It means broom in Maltese for those who don’t know. In according to my highly unreliable Intelligence sources, this word sailed around 1976 from Malta to Algiers. Once there, he dropped the “A” at the end and replaced it with an “I” to look like a bona fidae Couscous Boy.   Xkupi rose fast to stardom and everyone started to use it. Xkupi means rubbish, poppycock. Notice the close connection. The fruit does not fall far from the tree, even a rotten one. 

Motti, Aforimsi e Proverbii Maltesi:
If you want to gauge a culture read its proverbs, you will be surprised where some cultural giants are hiding. One can learn from a proverb more than a book, more than years of study, more than years playing the guinea pig with oneself. I will read Motti, Aforimsi e Proverbii Maltesi when I will have time. This free online book had been published in 1828 by John Hookham Frere. Now, here is someone whose name sums up what Malta is, a multicultural society.

I was quite surprised to find the word Zebugga. In Algeria we use the French transcription. So the word  Zebbug or Zebbuga  would be written Zeboudj/Zeboudja. If you Google these words you will be surprised how many people and places in Algeria are called Zebugga. This word means wild olive tree in Berber. I don’t say that the word Zebbuga originated necessarily from actual Algeria. Before the Arab conquest on the 8th century, Berber language was spoken over an area that stretched from Western Egypt (Siwa) to the Canary Islands, West of Morocco.  In old times some Berber women were called Zebbuga. The name had the connotation of fertility and longevity.  The word for olive in Arabic is Zeitun, the same as in Spanish.   

X'hin jiftah?
If Germany needed another name I suggest Geshlosen with all my love to this beautiful country. The closing hours are strict. Once I entered a shoe shop in Wiesbaden to buy an expensive pair a boots. The guy who was eating a Doner Kebab, said to me: We are closed!  I felt being in a communist shop. This would very unlikely happen in a third world country or a Chinese shop . If they don’t have the product they might ran to buy it from somewhere then sell it to you. That happened to me for instance  in a Lebanese shop in Cote d’Ivoire.

Kif inti?
The Maghreb has been divided in two. Not by the CIA but by those who say inti and those who say inta to a male. Eastern Algerians and Tunisians can easily be spotted. They are the Inti Nation. 

This family name sounds to so familiar to me.  Farrog in our dialect means a rooster.Farroga is a very common Berber name. The uncommon thing about it is that it is a female one. That is why we say we are not hen pecked men.

My father used to drink Saghtar when we lived up country in the sixties. The room would fill with its aroma every late afternoon. In Algiers they use it as a topping for pizza.  Not my cup of Saghtar if you ask me.

We say Nixtie.Have you remarked that letter Q, the ugly duckling of the Semitic alphabet is in fashion? Even Toyota is at it. Is it one of those bellow-the-equator marketing tricks? If letter Q enhances the image of a product due to some unfathomable Freudian effect then Terra Absurdum is indeed Infinitum.

Maltese Words That I Like Most:
Tpespisa, frattarija, caqlembuta, hruxija, zagarella, ritratti and kuccarina. There is music in them. Some of the most beautiful languages are Farsi and Italian. I don’t say French probably because I am too close to it, lip to lip close. 

Words That Left Me In Complete Intleftness:
Some Maltese words don’t sound Semitic or Italian at all to me. Skarpan and Skur sound like Swedish. Spizjerija looks Polish. Tond and peduna have a Spanish air into them. Malajr remainds me of Hungary. Velenu has a Melanesian soul mate.

Why Didn’t I Hear About Maltese Before?
People find about other countries by travelling, reading or watching television. During my youth in Algeria, satellite TV did not exist. Some resourceful people were able to watch European channels though. They added to their flimsy TV aerial a kitchen utensil used for steaming couscous. It apparently helped receive steaming images from the West, the Big Satan. Watching those channels in a traditionalist society is like going through the pages of a picturesque cookbook in jail, a silly form of torture.

In those years, we were living in complete isolation. We had more contact with the Mediterranean world in the 17 century than during the Socialist era. The exterior world dwindled practically to the M trinity, Marseilles, Mecca and Moscow.  Marseilles was our true Hanut, Mecca was for the Hajj and Moscow was for Kosher ideology and that, until the collapse of the Soviets and their onions.

Yesterday I had not satellite TV and today it is actually worse. I don’t even have a TV set. No I don’t live under a bridge. I live in a TV free environment, but I smoke cigars from time to time, the native kind. The news? There will news when a drastic change in human nature will happen.  I know I should not talk like this but I cannot help it.

Expertly Inexpert Translations
I looked at some Maltese words and wrote the first thing that came to my mind. Let see what my hasty translations brought. 

Nofs-u-nofs: Soul to soul.
Mur‘l hemm: Bitter is adversity
Inħobbok hafna: I love you handfull. This doesn’t make sense. I love you heartfully. 
Mgħaqud:  neurotic.
Ibqa' sejjer dritt: or I call Osama
Kemm ghandi ntik? How many antiquities do I have?
Kemm tqum?  How high will it stand?
Ghajnbaqra:  We use this funny bucolic fruit name too. One easily understands why.
Fejn it-tojlit? A highly strategic question to ask. If you go to Thailand ask for the Hong Nam. (Nam is water in Chinese.) In South Korea ask for the Pyong Su. 
Iqattar. That is what my noose is doing right now. So cold out there.
Xewqat sbieħ: some time tomorrow morning
Il-gurnata t-tajba: Interesting newspaper
Rand: A leafy plant mother used to swear by. RAND is an American Think Tank. I can join its team because I have great skills. I can swim in a tank while thinking. 
Intlift: We say Tleft. Next time I will be lost in some International airport I will upgrade into Intleft.
Bonswa: Voulez vous coucher avec un pyjama ce soir?
Ftet: bread crumbs, small debris
Haffna: a handful.
Berritta: We say Borrita. Tomato, tometo, same hat.
Najtklabb: I can’t believe that I failed twice to understand this word. It sent me to the dogs.
Bzonn: This word gave me a tough time until I saw it against the light of the French language. Now I know what it is hiding under the burkini, the French word besoin. 
Nifrahlek! So nice to hear something like this at times where the planet is crawling with envy.  Fil-ghaxija: As the sun sets the sin raises in the Kasbah.
Jiddispjacini: My grandfather is in space?
Flixkun wiski: Just un flacon? That not enough for some serious drinking.
Zomm: Comes usually with an exclamation point to tell someone to shut up.  
Nemusa: Now this tiny creature gives me the biggest metaphysical concern. Why did God create it?
Irhis: cheap. Also a cheap fellow, an abusive person
Qatt: With two T at the end could mean some lazy fat cat
Xejn: Ugly, improper
Kantuniera: This word has a pretty French cousin. 
Lukanda: Look under? Luanda? Hafana mashakel this word. Better have a siesta in my room.
X'jidhirlek? I faced this black belted Maltese with a stiff lip. What will it do to you?
Kiesah: a die hard, a tough cookie
Incempel: This Incempel thing beats the hell out of me. It doesn’t ring a bell. Hafna headache trying to understand it.
X’ hemm gdid?  What’s the latest catastrophe? 
Hanut tal-haxix: are you sure this business is legal? Haxix is a hush-hush sale, I believe. Tkexkix: I have tinnitus. Ghandi some tkexkix in my old Lada. Do you think it’s bad comrade Vasily Vasilyevich?
Tixtieq tiżfen? Would you like to sail?
Ghandek Kulur Iehor?The other color is looking without your sunglasses at this time of the night.

Sid Faroj is an autodidact, born in the wrong century.  

-- Sid Farojy <sid.faroj @ gmx.com>

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