The Maltese language is the only Semitic language recognised in the EU
Times Malta | Saadun Suayeh (سعدون السويح)
I use the term “culture” in this article in its widest anthropological sense, defining culture as “a complex whole of shared language, values, norms, traditions, customs, beliefs, and ways of thinking that unify a group of people”. The Maltese culture, therefore, like any other human culture, is a product of all these elements woven together over many centuries of history in.
Under this definition, Malta’s contemporary culture is distinctively a Mediterranean European culture, with deeply ingrained Christian (Catholic) values, but also becoming progressively liberal and religiously tolerant, accepting diversity and difference.
Having said this, however, there are other underlying components of the Maltese culture which should not be underestimated. One of the most important of these underlying components is the linguistic one.
One of the most formative periods of Maltese history is the Muslim (Arab) era which lasted for a good three centuries, starting with the Aghlabid conquest in 870 and continuing into the mid-13th century, well after the second Norman conquest led by Roger II in 1127.
In fact, King Roger himself was much influenced by the Arab culture in Sicily. Under his rule, Sicily was more tolerant towards Muslim and Jews than the rest of Europe engaging in the Crusades.
Regardless of whether we accept or reject the hypothesis that Malta became dominantly Muslim under the Arab rule and was re-Christianised under the Normans (the Wettinger hypothesis), the fact remains that the Muslim era left its indelible mark on the language.
There can hardly be any doubt that the Maltese language is a direct descendant from the Arabic brought by the Aghlabids in the ninth century AD. It evolved naturally into the Maltese we know today, with later, largely lexical, influences from Italian and English, and to a lesser extent, syntactic and morphological influences.
To the extent that language is a mirror of thought, the linguistic influences on culture cannot be overlooked. Language permeates our ways of thinking and affects our world view.
The fact that Maltese is a derivative of Arabic is reflected in all the basic categories of life comprising names of days, numbers, plants, animals, parts of the body, geographical terrain, fishing and sailing terminology, tools, kinship terms, colour terms, and several other domains.
In fact, the influence goes even beyond the basic categorisation of the world of objects into the realm of the abstract, expressing feelings, modes of thought and emotions.
Not only that, but it is really amazing that a considerable part of Maltese religious terms is clearly of an Arabic origin. Although I cannot claim to speak Maltese, I can still manage to understand a good part of the sermons in churches. The same goes for all forms of careful speech such as political discourse and news bulletins.
The richness of Maltese religious terminology of an Arabic origin requires careful study, as one would have thought that there would be more Latin or Italian terms in the language of the Church than Arabic.
Could this rich terminology have developed after the Norman conquest because the “converts” adapted their Arabic to Christian concepts? Or was there already a thriving Maltese Church using Arabic in the sermons influenced by Christian Arabs?
One could also explore if there is a similarity between Maltese religious terms and those used by Arab Christians in Egypt and Lebanon, for example. I simply raise these questions for scholars far more qualified than myself to research.
What is important, in my view, is to realise the importance of this link between Maltese and Arabic. During the years I spent teaching at the University of Malta, in the late 1990s, this topic was often raised with accomplished scholars such as Prof. Martin Zammit, who translated the Quran beautifully into Maltese, as well as some of the works of the late writer and poet Oliver Friggieri.
I also spoke at length about this bond between the two languages with the late Prof. Joseph Aquilina in an interview published in The Sunday Times of March 1996.
In some of my private talks with Aquilina, he intimidated to me that encouraging Arabic studies at the University of Malta was a matter of vital importance for the enrichment of Maltese studies.
He also expressed concern that some of the younger generation and the Anglophones were discouraging their children from speaking Maltese, which could be detrimental in the long run.
We should see more efforts in the field of mutual Arabic and Maltese studies, as well as extensive translation from Maltese into Arabic and vice versa.
The peculiarity of the Maltese language as the only Semitic language recognised in the EU should be turned into a big advantage. Given the cultural context of language mentioned above, Malta can play an important role as an agent and a vehicle for intercultural understanding and dialogue of civilisations. It can be the voice of the Arab world to Europe and Europe’s voice to the Arab world.
This would be mutually beneficial. In fact, historically speaking, Europe is indebted to the Arabs for its Renaissance, as it was the writings of enlightened Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (1126-1189) that paved the way to rationalism and scientific thinking as Europe pulled itself from the Middle Ages.
Malta can be, in my opinion, a hub for intercultural dialogue and interreligious dialogue, as contrary to Samuel Huntington thesis, a clash of civilisations may lead to the destruction of all.
As I once proposed informally, Malta can be given the status of Observer in the Arab League as more liaison is needed between the Arab League and EU organisations.
Let Malta build an everlasting bridge of love (mħabba) and peace (sliem) between South and North, as I believe it is destined to do so.
Saadun Suayeh is the former ambassador of Libya to Malta.
Times Malta | August 30, 2023