Maltese Google

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I'm in Malta for LREC 2010, and it's nice to see that Google comes up here in Maltese, the only Semitic language normally written in a Latin alphabet:

Bing and Yahoo don't (yet?) have a Maltese-language interface, as far as I can tell.


  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 1:55 am

    Wikipedia does, though.

  2. Ed Cormany said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    I'm sure for people who use it all the time it's perfectly natural, but that digraph Xx makes it look like it wasn't an easy transition to the Roman script.

  3. John Cowan said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 2:50 am

    In case you don't want to see non-English interfaces, is your friend no matter where you are.

  4. michael farris said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 3:07 am

    Ed, x in Maltese represents [S], not so terribly unusual (also found in Portuguese and Catalan). The diagraph is a geminate (not sure why it's geminated here, it isn't the definite article (which would be x-x, as in x-xemx, the sun).

    Also, I don't know if you talk about a 'transition' to Roman as Maltese has always been written in that script.

  5. maidhc said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 3:56 am

    If you install Firefox in any one of a large choice of languages, your Google page will come up in that language. I'm not sure if this is true for other browsers.

    The main problem is that Google often does special versions of their main page for special days, but if you don't look at the English page you miss it.

  6. maidhc said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 4:18 am

    I have no knowledge of Semitic languages at all, but looking at that sample–"stampi", "gruppi"–it looks like there is some influence from Italian. Am I on the right track? Because Italy is not that far away, even if the rulers of Malta were more often French or Spanish over the centuries.

    Also "bil-lingwa"–surely it must mean something like "bilingual". Wikipedia says that 20% of Maltese comes from English, is that anywhere close to right? Malta was a British Dominion from 1814-1964.

  7. Adam said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 4:28 am


    AIUI, Maltese is syntactically a Semitic language but has a large proportion of Italian vocabulary. (English is a Germanic language with a large proportion of French vocabulary.)

    I'd like to learn more about the language, but even in Malta (I'm at LREC too) I haven't seen any books about it (except for Maltese-Something-Else dictionaries) yet.

  8. michael farris said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 4:35 am

    bil-lingwa is 'in the language'

    bi + l = lingwa

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 4:54 am

    maidhc, there's an agreed standard (the Accept-Language header) for how browsers should tell web servers which languages are understood by their operators, and a mechanism (Content negotiation) for providing the most appropriate material (often the same content but translated). However this requires two things:

    • The browser must in fact have some way for an operator to tell it which languages they understand, either implicitly (they use the browser in this language) or explicitly (they pick it from a list)
    • The operator must actually tell the browser, rather than accepting that everything just seems to be in English (English is not specified as the default but well, you do the math)

    Two things get in the way, one of course is laziness / inconvenience. Many users never tell the browser which languages they understand, and certainly don't go into detail (you can express a preference for UK over US English for example)

    The other sadly is greed. It is common for the US English only variant of a popular operating system to be available illegally for free, and legally on the grey market very cheaply, while a localised version may cost extra and then insult you by not working so well with other software. In past versions the supplied web browser would note that you'd bought the US English version and make it difficult or impossible to specify that in fact you were fluent in German, Greek and Thai but not English. So, when consumers quite reasonably try to save money, they find themselves with a World Wide Web that doesn't speak their language.

    Which leads to, the other way to give people their preferred language is to guess based on origin. If you connect to Google from Greece, they can guess you might be fluent in Greek. This latter mechanism has the disadvantage that it means tourists, already struggling to manage with only a handful of phrases, may open a web browser on their laptop or phone hoping for information they can understand, and find that magically the World Wide Web is as unintelligible as the street signs.

  10. Philip Newton said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 5:04 am

    maidhc: Yes, there has been quite a bit of influence from Italian (especially Sicilian). I'm not sure it's quite comparable to the Norman-French influence on a Germanic language you might be familiar with, but it's probably similar at least.

    Recently, of course, there has also been influence from English — not only because of its status as the "international language" (as many languages, European or not, took in loanwords from English) but also because of Malta's past political connections with England.

  11. Philip Newton said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    Ed Cormany, Michael Farris: the citation form is "ixxurtjat" (lucky, fortunate); the initial "i" got elided since the previous word ended with a vowel.

    (I'm not sure whether that's licit here; I think such elision is only supposed to happen if the initial i- was added for euphony before an otherwise "unpronounceable" consonant cluster, e.g. "iskola" for "school", rather than being part of the root itself. Still, I'm told that such things happen anyway; an example of such usage in a textbook I read was "huwa mpurtanti" for "they are important", where the initial i- of "impurtanti" also got elided, contrary to the rules.)

  12. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 5:17 am

    X = voiceless postalveolar fricative /ʃ/ (as in ship)

    My first name in Maltese is written Xmun and pronounced like Hebrew Shimon minus the first vowel and with a slight change to the second.

    In old Spanish the X had the same value: Xerez = modern Jerez; cf. English sherry.

    Xavier became Javier.

    Quixote represented something much like French Quichotte. Now of course spelt Quijote.

    I listen to the news in Maltese from time to time, understanding very little but it's easy to see how English and Italian have contributed heavily to its modern vocabulary. But of course the grammar remains stubbornly Semitic.

  13. Anonymous said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 5:21 am

    "My client doesn't read or speak any language, much less English,"


    Then how does he communicate

  14. Joaquim said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    @ michael farris: In Catalan "ix" = voiceless postalveolar fricative /ʃ/ (as in fish, which by the way is called "peix"), so indeed similar to Maltese, according to Simon Cauchy's version. Initial "x" too (Xavier). But "taxi"=/taksi/ and "ex"=/ɛks/.
    Don't know about Portuguese.

  15. peter said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    maidhc (May 18, 2010 @ 4:18 am):

    Malta was certainly a British colony, but I don't believe it was a British Dominion.

  16. Paolo said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 6:44 am

    You can have a look at Maltese IT terminology in the Microsoft Language Portal. Most of it looks heavily influenced by English, e.g. mouse and laptop computer are maws and kompjuter leptop but there are also quite a few loanwords from Italian, e.g. keyboard is tastiera (same spelling) and box is kaxxa (cf Italian cassa, not used in sw context but a standard word for "box").

  17. Leonardo Boiko said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    In Portuguese an “x” can be [s] (or [ks], or [z], or [ʃ]). But we don’t really use germinates – digraphy “ss” is just a side-effect of the fact that “s” defaults to [z] between vowels (“asa” → ['azɐ]); so, when you’re between vowels and want an actual [s] sound, you use “ss” (“assa” → ['asɐ]) . Something similar happens to the letter “r”.

    Consequently, there’s no “xx” in Portuguese.

    I wonder if that digraph appears in languages other than Maltese?

  18. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    Peter: Malta was a dominion from 1964 to 1974.

    Regarding the Italian influence: for quite a long time in the Middle Ages, Malta belonged to the Kingdom of Sicily. During part of this period the rulers of this kingdom were Spanish, but there would also have been an Italian influence. Later the island passed to the Knights of St John, who were international, but used French as their primary language of communication; but I would guess that by then the language had largely taken shape.

  19. pep said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    From Wikipedia: "as with Old Sicilian, /ʃ/ (English 'sh') is written 'x' and this produces spellings such as: ambaxxata /ambaʃːaːta/ ('embassy'), xena /ʃeːna/ ('scene' cf. Italian ambasciata, scena)."

    The entry also provides us with some boxes of maltese sicilian italian english comparative vocabulary

    (Complementing what Simon and Joaquim said: initial fricatives in catalan usually become affricates in the spoken language -xavier becomes *txavier-)

  20. bulbul said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    I think such elision is only supposed to happen if the initial i- was added for euphony
    It's a bit more complicated, because sometimes it's difficult to say whether the initial i- was added or whether it belongs. The orthographic rules of Maltese make a distinction here between borrowings from European languages (importanti, immedjat, inġust, illeċitu) and native words plus all verbs. For the latter category, they specify that if a verb (or a passive participle or verbal noun derived therefrom) begins with the vowel i- followed by a geminated consonant (ixxandar, ipparkjar, immarka) and the previous word ends with a vowel, the i- is dropped.

  21. Dan T. said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    @Nick Lamb: Language selection on the Web is one of those wheels that have been reinvented many times, despite there being a perfectly reasonable standard for it in the first place. Sites use all sorts of cumbersome contraptions of cookies, Javascript, IP-based detection and redirection, and links and menus users need to select from, instead of actually using the language selection parameter sent by the browser in the first place.

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    pep: initial fricatives in [C]atalan usually become affricates in the spoken language

    That's true of /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ (but not /s/!) unless they are preceded by a vowel. It can also happen in the interior when following a consonant: ganxo → gantxo, menjar → mentjar.

    By the way, you can add Asturian, Basque and Galician to the list of written languages with X representing /ʃ/.

  23. peter said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    Andrew (not the same one) said (May 18, 2010 @ 8:31 am)

    "Peter: Malta was a dominion from 1964 to 1974."

    Au contraire, Andrew, there were no new British Dominions created after the accession of Elizabeth II as Queen in 1952. Malta was an independent self-governing nation with the British monarch as head of state between 1964-1974, but this fact in itself did not make the country a British Dominion, which was a specific legal status under British law.

  24. Adam Ussishkin said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    Maltese vocabulary is roughly split 50-50 between Semitic and Indo-European vocabulary, and while the nuts and bolts of the grammar reflect standard Semitic features, the intense borrowing from other languages has resulted in a concatenative system of affixes for recently borrowed verbs (see Mifsud, 1995 and Twist, 2006). As for the writing system, the earliest record of written Maltese dates from around the late 15th century in literary text known as "Cantilena".
    PS: I'm here for LREC (and to run some psycholinguistic experiments) as well.

  25. Ben said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    Everyone keeps saying "Semitic," but this seems unnecessarily delicate; the underlying Semitic base is Arabic. This is not to say that Maltese is not a language in its own right, or that it is merely Arabic with borrowings from other languages, written in Roman letters.

    But why should this surprise me? I know this same overly light treading from Yiddish; people are reluctant to point out that the Germanic base is unmistakably High German, albeit a different set of dialects than those that formed the basis of Standard High German, and an older form of High German that has developed on its own, (mostly) independently of other forms of High German for centuries. I'd add that no one would say that Yiddish is merely bad German and not really its own language, but of course many do say this. Still, it saddens me slightly to see the Arabicness of Maltese cast as "Semitic," just as it saddens me to see the High Germanness of Yiddish cast as simply "Germanic," as if it may as well be Swedish or Frisian. Or Gothic.

    [(myl) There's certainly an issue of linguistic identity here. But in fact, it goes beyond the fact that Maltese is a form of Arabic — there's the question of which form of Arabic it really is.

    Yesterday I was discussing this here in Valletta with two friends, one Moroccan and the other Tunisian. The Tunisian, who had never visited Malta before, said that he was able to understand conversational Maltese without any problem, and that the Maltese were able to understand his Tunisian Arabic equally well. When he spoke with them, their response was "How do you know Maltese?"

    The first couple of times this happened, he responded "Oh, I'm just speaking Tunisian Arabic". But he found that this seemed to cause considerable uneasiness. So he started saying "Well, my mother was Maltese", and this was accepted without any problems, as it also explained the relatively small differences in pronunciation and usage in terms of imperfect memory of a childhood language.

    The Moroccan confirmed that to his ear, Maltese sounded like Tunisian. And he noted that the overlay of Italian words in Maltese reminded him of the Berber he learned in the area of Morocco near Spain, where about a third of the everyday vocabulary is borrowed from Spanish.

    My Tunisian friend also mentioned that in some areas of Tunisia, there have traditionally been many Maltese families, suggesting that in addition to the obvious influence of trade routes, there has been continued contact through people moving back and forth.

    As it happens, there was a Dutch linguist nearby, who volunteered that there is a similar sensitivity among the Dutch with respect to the fact that Dutch is basically just a dialect of Low German.]

  26. Army1987 said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    "Random article" in the Maltese Wikipedia is "Paġna kwalunkwe" which is obviously a borrowing of Italian Pagina qualunque "any page", "whatever page". I would have never believed that a word such as qualunque could be borrowed.

  27. pep said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    haha army, that´s exactly what I thought when I first read some time ago the expression kwalunkwe haga, which is exactly Qualunque cosa (haga meaning "thing"). So the expression is borrowed and one of its two words is too. (I guess haga is arabic but I don´t konw for sure).

    It´s funny the way languages develop in some small islands. Something should be written someday about the Catalan varieties spoken in the Balearic Islands, for example.

  28. Nanani said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    IP-based guessing is the most tremendously annoying "feature" I have to contend with. Working in translation, I often want to get a specific language version of a page, NOT the one the other says thinks I should want.

    It's almost as bad as Google over-helping by "correcting" a French-language query into a similarly spelled English one.

  29. BW said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

    Even the browser language setting doesn't really help. Firefox automatically ranks the languages that you enter. If you are fluent in more than one language, it's quite likely that you prefer the original version of a webpage (if you know that language). But because Firefox creates a ranking, you sometimes see a page in the first language in the list even if you'd prefer the second or third.

  30. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 3:53 am

    @Adam: "I'd like to learn more about the language, but even in Malta (I'm at LREC too) I haven't seen any books about it (except for Maltese-Something-Else dictionaries) yet."

    The book I have on my shelves is Joseph Aquilina's Teach Yourself Maltese (Hodder and Stoughton, 1965, 7th impression 1987) but I'm sure there are better and more recent books available now.

  31. Stephanie said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    the 'i' at the beginning of xxurtjat is dropped because there is a final 'i' in inhossni. and the 'i' at the beginning of ixxurtjat would be there to ease the transition between the two words

  32. Leonardo Boiko said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    @BW: The HTTP standard actually provides for you to rank languages equally. You can even assign numeric values and quantify how much you prefer one language over another (say, you could put English and Spanish at 1.0 and Italian and French at 0.7). A smart webserver (or web framework) could easily be made to prefer the original language in case of ties.

    Unfortunately no one does that (client-side or server-side), because people completely ignore the HTTP standard for some reason.

  33. Army1987 said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    Ditto as BW. I don't set a list of languages in Firefox for that very reason.

  34. Adam said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    @Simon Cauchi

    I have quite a few old and new Teach Yourself $language books and other like them (I have a bulky habit of collecting them, and bilingual dictionaries). Curiously, lists Teach Yourself Maltese (1994, same author) at £54 for a used copy! I'll check out a few more bookshops this week, and pick up a Maltese-English dictionary at least.

  35. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 4:28 pm


    I see Aquilina's book gets very unfavourable customer reviews on Amazon. Recommended in preference are a German book, Maltesisch, by Kauderwelch (with cassette), and Merhba 2 — Maltese Language Conversation Course. (I have not yet seen either book.)

  36. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    There is also Merhba Bik : Welcome to a course in Maltese for foreigners (Paperback) by Antoinette Camilleri, described as a "communication oriented course supplemented with CD", but it is listed in Amazon as "temporarily out of stock".

  37. Jonathan said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 1:51 am

    Ben, the original use of Semitic was "the only Semitic language …". In that context, the absence of reference to Arabic could hardly be called 'delicate'. Presumablly most of the comments simply followed that start, although cases like the comparison of Semitic v Indo-European vocab preceeding your comment would seem to be similarly unremarkable.

  38. bulbul said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 5:03 am


    drop me a line, maybe I can help you.

  39. carmel attard said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    If anybody is interested in learning Maltese, I suggest the following site.

  40. Dylan said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    maidhc said,
    May 18, 2010 @ 4:18 am

    I have no knowledge of Semitic languages at all, but looking at that sample–"stampi", "gruppi"–it looks like there is some influence from Italian. Am I on the right track? Because Italy is not that far away, even if the rulers of Malta were more often French or Spanish over the centuries.

    Also "bil-lingwa"–surely it must mean something like "bilingual". Wikipedia says that 20% of Maltese comes from English, is that anywhere close to right? Malta was a British Dominion from 1814-1964.

    Maltese is a combination of Italian, English and Arabic.
    Maltese languag started with Arabic since they ruled Malta for a long time but then we went under the control of Eglad and almost became part of it(fortunately for us we become a republic and so on…) Maltese is a bit ahrd to learn is you don't start at a young age… "bil-lingwa" doesn't mean bilingual… it means "in the language"…example : " in english"

    And "x" is pronounced as "sh" in the english language like in "Shakira"

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