Europe’s only Arabic language

Travel Guide to Muslim Europe with travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain

Kayf int?” enquired the middle-aged Maltese woman as she greeted her friend.

There, did you hear it that time?” I ask in a hushed tone.

My 7-year-old daughter looks up at me, her little eyes squinting behind a rather fetching pair of pink ‘Hello Kitty’ sunglasses.

There is a puzzled look on her face – she isn’t convinced.

Ok”, I say spotting a fruit and veg stall.

Ask that shopkeeper for three apples? … But ask for it using Arabic numbers?”

What?” Amani is even more confused now.

Trust me,” I say grabbing her tiny little hand and wandering over to the man sitting beside a series of large wicker baskets.

The elderly man is wearing a grey flat cap to shade him from the sun and when he greets us, it is with a fantastically toothless grin. I watch as my little anthropologist, dressed in a sunny, lime-coloured dress, points to the pile of green apples in one of the baskets and shyly says, “thalatha, please”.

There is a pause and the old man blinks. Is it the bright sunlight, or astonishment?

He then repeats the number in his native language, holding up three fingers to confirm.


Amani nods.

Aiwa” she whispers.

The man smiles warmly, recognising the familiar phrase – almost phonetically identical to the local ‘iva’ for ‘yes’.

He hands my delighted daughter three of the shiniest apples he has and I pay him.

He understood!, exclaims Amani in an excited half-whisper as we head back to mum and her sister Anaiya.

How did he know Arabic?”

We are near Triq Villegaignon in the beautiful town of Mdina in central Malta. ‘Triq’ is the prefix used for almost every Maltese street name – it comes from the Arabic ‘tariq’ to mean ‘way’ and of course ‘Mdina’ is the Arabic word for ‘city’. Around the corner is Triq Mesquita leading up to Misra Mesquita, where once upon a time there must have stood a mosque.

Malta is home to one of Europe’s most fascinating remnants of Muslim heritage. However, unlike previous examples in the Travel Guide to Muslim Europe, this isn’t heritage you visit or see – unless you count street signs. Malta’s Muslim heritage is something you hear – on the tongue of its people. The tiny, Catholic Island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has two official languages, and one of them, Maltese, is the only ‘Arabic’ language of the European Union, and the only one in the world written in the Latin Script. This is why maps of Malta reveal names that will be highly familiar to Arab speakers like ‘Rabat’ and ‘Sliem’ and the coastal ‘Bahar ic-Caghaq’.

Maltese comes from an ancient European Arabic known as Siculo-Arabic, or Sicilian-Arabic. Now extinct, Siculo-Arabic was a type of Arabic that developed on the Italian island of Sicily after it was conquered by the Fatimids in the ninth century. It continued to be used when the Normans arrived in 1090 and ousted the Muslim rulers. In fact, the Normans adopted the language and became history’s first ‘Norman-Arabs’. As well as learning to read, write and speak Arabic, the Norman-Arab rulers even commissioned works in the language. The most famous example of this is the ‘Book of Roger’, by the famous Muslim Geographer Al-Idrisi, commissioned by the ‘Norman-Arab’ king of Sicily, Roger II around 1138.

Although Siculo-Arabic died out in Sicily, the language made its way over to Malta during Sicily’s Muslim and Norman-Arab period, via settlers. Modern genetic studies appear to confirm this showing Malta’s population have a shared ancestry with Sicilians and southern Italians.

Today, almost 40% of the words in the Maltese language has Quranic Arabic roots – like the phrase at the start, which uses ‘kayf’ from the Arabic for ‘how’ and ‘int’ from the Arabic for ‘you’. The rest of the language is made up of Italian, French and to a lesser extent, English. Studies have shown that a Maltese person can understand around a third of what someone from their nearest Arab country, Tunisia, might say to them in their native tongue, which is also descended from Siculo-Arabic. However, whilst Tunisian developed as an Arabic language in the conventional sense, Maltese has been subject to 800-years of gradual Latinisation, and therefore shaped by Romance languages such as Italian and Sicilian. This has made Maltese a unique Semitic language quite different from the standard and classical Arabic languages found around the world today, and the only one written in the Latin script. In spite of this, Maltese remains a ‘living’ legacy of Sicily’s ‘golden Arab’ period and Europe’s only Arabic language.

Where in the world: Malta is a small island nation made up of three islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino, between Italy and North Africa. The capital city of is Valletta towards the northeast of the main Island of Malta.

In and out: The best way to visit Malta is by flying into Malta International Airport, just southwest of Valletta, or by ferry from Italy.

Top tips: One of the most fascinating Islamic artefacts in Malta is the Majmuna Stone, kept in the Gozo Museum of Archaeology.

Majmuna stone

It is the tombstone of a young girl called Majmuna who died in 1174 and has a Kufic epitaph on it. The Majmuna Stone is one of the only physical relics found from the ancient Muslim presence in Malta.


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