Malta and Lebanon

Malta and Lebanon - The same Phoenician's influence on the language

All the article here is written by Raymond Dib on his site titled “Preface”. The article says a lot about the Lebanese heritage, not only about Malta connection, but all the ancient settlements where the Phoenicians created peacefully all around the Midetterean coasts. The importance of this article, I think, is that Raymond Dib was the wittness of this Malta connection, not bearing the cold academic facts only.
Years ago, working in a New York City publishing firm, one day I was riding the elevator to the 11th floor, I heard a bunch of Lebanese looking guys speaking an almost familiar language. It sounded like the language spoken in Lebanon, but I could not quite follow it.
The curiosity was killing me, so before we reached our destined floor, I inquired from these gentlemen what language they were speaking. I was astonished to hear “Why, Phoenician!”. They explained to me they were from Malta, and they spoke Phoenician.
I explained to them that I was from Lebanon, and we also had a Phoenician background, and thus the similarity between the two languages. They had no idea where Lebanon was (and who did at that time?).
Over the years, I kept on revisiting the subject. I even had Maltese neighbors who I almost conversed with in their native language. By that time I had learned Italian / Sicilian (which Maltese is mixed with), so that helped my Maltese conversational skills with them.
In the summer of 2002, I finally made it to Malta. A short one-week vacation to start discovering the Phoenician roots of that country, and I discovered amazing things:
1) The Maltese are Phoenicians who came from Lebanon some 3,000 years BC. Some Phoenicians also arrived Malta from Carthage years later, during or after the Punic Wars with the Romans. These were warriors as opposed to the original Phoenicians who were just peaceful traders. The Maltese have little or no idea (or interest) in their roots. In fact very little of their history is recorded, or preserved before the Knights of Malta. This should come as no surprise since very little of Phoenicians’ history in Lebanon is recorded. Most of what the world knows about Phoenician history was recorded by the enemies of the Phoenicians (the Greek, etc.). It seems Phoenicians were too busy trading and making money and did not have the time to record their own history. Not even with the alphabet they invented. It seems they invented the alphabet strictly for business transactions, and no one though of recording their own history.
The Maltese think their language is a mix of “Arabic” and Italian. I tried very hard to expalin to the ones I met, that it is not really Arabic; rather it is Phoenician having similar roots to Arabic.
2) They still speak the Phoenician language of the “old, old” days. It is very hard to understand by some Phoenician like me, whose language has been mixed with classical Arabic. Theirs was mixed (10%) with the Sicilian dialect.
3) I bought a Maltese language dictionary, and learned how to read their written language, and I was amazed how close it is to the Lebanese/Syrian/Palestinian dialect (as opposed to classical Arabic). I was then able to read their local newspapers and understand 90% of the articles.
4) Their spoken language sounds more like the language of the Lebanese mountains and remote Lebanese-Syrian villages, where they have not learned to sophisticate their speech with classical Arabic pronunciations. I had hard time understanding the Maltese speech, but was at ease with the written words. For example “Jelleb ta’l Carrob” means “Debs el-Kharnoub”. I loved the “Jelleb” part, but it seemed they had no clue about our use of the word “Jelleb”. It was very hot, and at every place I went to for refreshment, I kept asking if they had “Jelleb” over ice. I must have sounded like an alien since they do not know the Lebanese way of drinking Jelleb.
5) They have folkloric tales that resemble ours (ranging from the one about the man who cut off the head of the cat to scare his wife into submission, to all types of tales about the apparition of the Virgin Mary, and other miracles). These Phoenicians are really superstitious!
6) They have some grammar similar to our spoken dialect grammar, for example the word ta’ (or in the Tripoli language “tabaa”, like in taba3i and taba3ak, bala ma3na). So the Syrup “of” Carrob, is Jelleb “ta’l” Carrob (or taba3-el-kharnoub). They even have some interesting grammatical abbreviations for the word Ta’. So if the word starts with an “X” (or Shein “sh” in our dialect) like xweika (Shewika), they would say tax’ xweika. Most interesting about ta’ is that they pronounce it like the Sunni Moslems do in Beirut (taa’i and taa’k). So Moslems, whether they admit it or not, do speak Phoenicians more than the Maronites do :-), also the Egyptians use the same word, so this may be a Coptic borrowing from the Phoenicians. Phoenicians and Ecoptos had plenty of interactions in history; actually they were invaded by the Phoenecian Hyksos.
7) They mostly do not pronounce their “q” ‘s. So they would write “Triq” (road) and pronounce it ” tri’ “. I met one Lebanese restaurant Owner in Sleima, who is married to a Maltese. He said to me that in a town or two in Malta, they do pronounce their “q” like in our Druze mountain, Akkar, and Syria. I found this startling. . So there I go again, the Druze in lebanon speak “Phoenician” too (although it is said they came from Egypt, but again, the Copts did borrow some Phoenician, did they not?).
8) They have some expressions that are used only in Lebanon/Syria, such as “Faqa minil dihk” (burst out in laughter). I am not sure a Saudi Arabian would say “Faqa’a min al Ddouhk”. Only a Phoenician would.
9) Their food is a bit different from ours; I guess a geographic difference, although some of their most popular dishes are “Khibiz bil zeit, or bi Rib el Banadoura). Of special interest was their “Shurbet el Armleh” (Widow’s Soup).
10) They look like us, and we look like them (as though we really were distant cousins). I was mistaken many times for a Malti. Riding their famed primitive Bus transportation system, I was approached one day by a controller asking me for my rider receipt “a’atinit, a’atini ! control”, without hesitating to speak to me in Malti. Their bus drivers smoke cigarettes while driving. They reminded me a lot of the old Tripoli-Beirut Bus lines of yesteryear.
11) They have villages named similar to Lebanese villages, such as Mtajleb (“Mtayleb”), and Mnejdra (“Mneitra”), as well as many others.
12) They have some very familiar family names such as “Abu Hagar” (Abou Hajar), Micallef, Mintoff, and, beleive it or not “Saliba”. I was amazed to learn that my cousin “John Saliba” practiced law in Malta. Any way, out of 375,000 people living in Malta, I did some calculations on their white pages phone book, and found that the entire country’s population is divided into only 895 family names (and that include some English Colonial, as well as old emigrant Sicilian, and possibly some remnant Knights family names). Their phone book is very interesting; each family name takes up many pages. I guess these were a “few” Phoenician clans who migrated centuries, or millennia ago, and just kept on inter-breeding.
13) The most startling finding so far was their “one” word. They pronounce it as “Wehed” as we do in Tripoli, not “wahad” as in the sophisticated Arabic of Beirut). So in Tripoli we are right. They are wrong in Beirut. We speak a more genuine Phoenician. After all, Tri-Polis was the United Nations of the old Phoenician city-states (Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon). Beirut was nothing until the Romans built their law school there. Then, of course Beirut became “Sit el-Dini”.
14) Their language is undertaking changes. Some words like “mext” (Mesht, or hair comb) are being discarded for newer (may be Italian) word.
15) They did, and still do, terrace their hilly lands to protect their planted crops. Like we did in the Lebanese mountains, and Mashta el-Helou in Syria. Terracing helps reduce landslides caused by rain, which can result in damaging crops. More interesting is the walls they build around their crop land parcels. They are still done like the old Phoenician ruins we see. Stones are amassed in a primitive architecture way (well I guess, we Phoenicians do not score high in the artistic department).
16) I also read in a Maltese archeology book that, in their pre-historic society (i.e. before the Phoenicians arrived there) that they wetted and pressed the soil floors of their temples to hard them like rocks. I remember we used to press the soiled roof of the old house using a “Mahdleh” to harden the roof for the snowy winters. They did it for the floors; we did it for the roofs (and possibly floors before my time).

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