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21 mars 2023

Malta & Tunisia: The Cantilena (1470) and `Blooming May` (1672) in Arabic (Original Research)

Malta & Tunisia: The Cantilena (1470) and `Blooming May` (1672) in Arabic (Original Research)

Posted: 2013/10/13
From: Mathaba
Image (Saviomalti): The Cantilena (ca. 1470) with its famous repeated monotone verse « Huakit hi mirammiti«  verse (« It fell, the edifice I had been building…« )

The most ancient texts in Maltese at last translated into (Tunisian) Arabic with a useful annex about the relations between Malta and the neighbouring Libyan Jamahiriya. 

By Kamal Chaouachi[[email protected]]

Copyright noticeThis article and its elements (paragraphs, sentences, images) may be republished elsewhere under the condition that it is properly cited (title, author, date, link to the article). Action will be taken for any breech of these terms.

Think of an unthinkable one thousand year-old Maltese-Tunisian linguistic connection…

The «Repubblika ta’ Malta» has become a full Member State of the European Union in 2004. For a long time and for many and often complex reasons, sometimes unsaid, unthought-of or even unthinkable, a fair number of its citizens, including researchers, havea_Maltamapdenied that the very morpho-syntactic structure and vocabulary of their own national language were essentially Arabic. Interestingly, from the other side of the Mediterranean, the very large majority of Tunisians have not been aware that their own speak, within the vast family of Arabic dialects, is actually the closest and more akin one to Maltese. It was only beyond the second half of the 20th century, i.e. about one millennium after the Arab conquest of the island, that sounder scientific studies have been able to take the heat out of the debate, eventually allowing the record to be put somewhat straight. Today, one may agree (or not) that Maltese can be described as an Italianised peripheral (Tunisian) Arabic dialect having followed a peculiar historical route. In a first article dated 20 June 2013, the author wished to lift the smokescreen so that Arab speaking populations, and Tunisians in particular, may appreciate the beauty of the language spoken, for more than 1000 years, in the island of Malta, located just a few hundred kilometres away from their coast and so closely related to their own dialect. Such an initiative is now best exemplified by the first full translation ever of the Cantilena and Blooming May -the two oldest Maltese texts (actually poems)- into (Tunisian) Arabic, together with original English and French versions, except for that of the Cantilena in English which is based on one done by famous Maltese scholars.

The first document goes back to the 15th century and is known as the Cantilena. It remains the most ancient known text in the Maltese language. The second one comes a bit later (17th century) and its title can be rendered by « Blooming May ». In both case, the suggested translation is basically a literal one, even if, for several reasons related to the complexity of the available materials, this has not always been possible. In this regard, some figures of language, were sometimes left « sticking » to the original Maltese language and may even be deemed linguistically flawed or erroneous. For instance, the feminine word « heart » (“calb”) (actually masculine in Arabic); « deep well » literally rendered by « deepened well » (“bir imgamic”) ; or the use of the word « waqa’a » (verb “to fall”, which appears in several instances in relation to the poet’s house) instead of its more Tunisian equivalent « taha » or « inhara ». Also noteworthy is the fact that the Cantilena, much more than ‘Blooming May’, very likely contains spelling mistakes (keeping in mind that there was no “official” orthography by the time it was written…). In the same vein, a word like « halex » also means « because», which may sound surprising for Arabic readers, particularly Tunisians. The English translation of the Cantilena, and only the latter, is based on the classical one by Wettinger & Fsadni although, given the Tunisian Arabic approach, it had to be modified.

Thanks to these striking examples taken from the very history and civilisation of Malta, Arabic speaking peoples (and Tunisians and Libyans in particular, whose dialects are very close to each other’s – local actual variations apart) are free to appreciate by themselves the beauty of these poems. Then, they may personally decide whether or not the Maltese language derives to a great extent from Arabic (and its Tunisian form in particular) since the related one thousand year old academic debate –and in spite of the last five decades supposed to have raised full « awareness  » (about the Arabic-Maltese connection)- is not really closed… For instance, in the author’s first article, it was stressed that for a long period, many scientists (particularly historians and linguists) used to describe Maltese as a “Semitic” language, letting naïve people think that Maltese was more similar to a language like Phoenician or Hebrew than Arabic [*]… Even today, the epithet “Semitic” is sometimes used in some research to cover varieties of Arabic supposedly having had some influence –together with Romance languages- on the formation of Maltese. Amazingly, the very name “Arabic”, certainly more adequate, seems to still pose problems… If one were to follow the same logics, then the language spoken in 22 Arab countries should also be referred to as “Semitic” and not “Arabic”, shouldn’t it?…  Such a trend apparently related to political correctness was early noted by researchers like Cassar Pullicino (1979) and Mathias Prevaes (1993). In various instances, the latter referred to the frequent “arabophobia” (sic) of some Maltese scholars. It appears that by the 21st century, the so obvious direct linguistic Maltese-Tunisian seems an unbearable, unthought-of or even unthinkable truth… In any case, by opening the two historic texts to a broad critical public made up of Maltese and non-Maltese, Arabs and non-Arabs, the author also hopes that alternative translations or personal interpretations will see the light.

About the Cantilena

This poem, written around year 1470 by Pietro Caxaro, was discovered by Godfrey Wettinger and Michael Fsadni about four decades ago.


The Maltese Cantilena (ca. 1470) and its verse-by-verse translation into Arabic (by the author). The English translation although based on the classical one by Wettinger & Fsadni, contains innovative elements by the author in order to conform with the new (Tunisian) Arabic reading approach. Please note that the phrase made up of the first three words (“Xideu il cada”) has a strong religious etymology. The poet calls out his neighbours to stop doing the things of daily life (as set by Destiny in a classical religious vision: that of the “cada”) in order to pay attention to his own fate… Note: CLICK on the image for full size.

It is interesting from several standpoints. First, it is the oldest text in Maltese (Brincat 2008). On a linguistic level, Cremona ( 1994) cogently noted that such a poem showed that by the 15th century, Maltese had already got the same linguistic structures (phonological and grammatical) as the Arabic dialects of the Mediterranean. Just like thePater Noster (with the term “Missierna” (Father))[*], the Cantilena contains only one word of non-Arab origin and, once again, Sicilian (« vintura ») which appears in verse n° 17 (« Min ibidill il miken ibidil il vintura »). Such a phrase is also a perfect syntactic and semantic calque of the Sicilian proverb « Cui muta loco muta vintura » (Change the place and your destiny will also change)(Cassola 1994). The esoteric tone of the Cantilena is reminiscent of Sufism. Its sounds are typically Tunisian. For a long time, some its elements remained misunderstood

“mirammati" (“the construction site of my house” in Tunisian Arabic). A word not well understood for a very long time although it is still in use in today’s Tunisia as the photograph shows (heaps of cement and sand for the building mortar vs. loose clay for the Cantilena poet’s house...).

“mirammati » (“the construction site of my house” in Tunisian Arabic). A word not well understood for a very long time although it is still in use in today’s Tunisia as the photograph shows (heaps of cement and sand for the building mortar vs. loose clay for the Cantilena poet’s house…).

because of misinterpretation of words typical of that Arabic dialect, revealing by the same token the consequences of the surprising lack of scientific collaboration between the two shores of the Mediterranean on the issue of the Maltese language. For instance, words like “mirammati » (the construction site of my house; still in use in today’s Tunisia…); « hayran » (yearn for, especially in relation to love); « yeutihe » (« it fits », « it is appropriate »; verse n° 16); « sisen » (bases; house foundations), have long been misunderstood and sometimes mistranslated by specialists of the Maltese language. A critical reading as that of Kabazi (1989) is quite instructive in this respect. If, as they appear in the transcript of the Cantilena, the words of embryonic Maltese may be indecipherable by an average Arabic reader, they will immediately become intelligible once the context has been clarified. In fact, such terms are very often deeply rooted in the typically Tunisian lexicon as the case of « sisen  » (in fact the plural form of “eses”: « a foundation ») shows whereby much written about related academic discussions have taken place in the past…

About the « Blooming May» poem

This is a poem of the sonnet type whose title is « Mejju gie’ bl’uard, u zahar ». It was authored by Grancesco Bonamico around year 1672 in honour of Nicolau Cotoner, Grand Master of the Order of Malta.

The 'Blooming May' Maltese poem (ca. 1672) in Arabic and English

The ‘Blooming May’ Maltese poem (ca. 1672) translated into Arabic and English (by the author). Note: CLICK on the image for full size.

Given its pastoral nature associated with descriptions of the nature and weather on the island, it is not surprising that its vocabulary still remains Arabic to a great extent. From a merely linguistic viewpoint, Cowan (1975) noted that such a poem does establish the final inflexion of the « a » (long or not) into « a ». There would be an evolution by comparison with the previous literary production whereby one could find an ending « e », as the Cantilena shows in particular. Verse n° 12 (“Kecu tepki el giuh phl lsira”), as the last one in the Cantilena, remains uncertain as far its meaning is concerned. Based on the comparative linguistic analysis and taking into account the phonological evolution of Maltese through history, a Maltese correspondent (David) already suggested to the author that it could be read as (approximately): “She (the island, i.e. Malta) would have wept for hunger as (a)/(the) (war) captive(s)”.

Bibliographical notes and references:

[*] Kamal Chaouachi. Malte, si proche et si lointaine de la Tunisie[Malta, so close to Tunisia but also so far from it]. Kapitalis, 20 June 2013.

Please note that a Maltese pronunciation simplified aid can be found at the end of the author’s first article.

The author –who has published in the past academic papers on the material culture of the Mediterranean- has prepared a background paper on the issue of the Maltese language and its chiefly Tunisian genealogy. It is entitled: « Malta as seen from Tunis a thousand years later. An anthropo-linguistic contribution to the long debate on the very nature of the Maltese language”. Among other assumptions, he defends that of the existence, in the Malta of the 9th/11th centuries, of speakers of various Arabic dialects. This would explain, beyond the main Tunisian background, the presence of some Near-Eastern and Middle Eastern features in Maltese. Quite early, a dialectical adjustment process would have taken place. The publication of this important document has been delayed because of obstacles related to the sensitivity of the issue. Arab speakers in general (and Tunisians and Libyans in particular) will certainly understand the underlying reasons.

Contact: [email protected]

Short notes have also been published in a Maltese journal:

-Letter:  The Maltese-Tunisian Linguistic Link. The Malta Independent, 30 June 2013

-Article: Malta as seen from Tunis, a thousand years later… The Malta Independent on Sunday, 16 June 2013, p. 21.

Brincat, Joseph, 2008, “Malta”, In: Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, Ed. Kees Versteegh. Leiden: Brill, pp. 141-145.

Brincat, Giuseppe, 1986, “Critica testuale della Cantilena di Pietro Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies, 16, p. 1-21.

Cassola, A, 1994, “Two Notes: Brighella and Thezan; The « Cantilena », Maltese and Sicilian Proverbs”, Journal of Maltese Studies. 25-26, p. 58-66.

Cowan, W., 1975, Caxaro’s Cantilena : A Checkpoint for Change in Maltese. Journal of Maltese Studies, 10, p. 4-10.

Cremona, J, 1994, “The Survival of Arabic in Malta: the Sicilian Centuries”, In: Source: The changing voices of Europe etc. : Papers in Honour of Professor Glanville Price. – Cardiff : University of Wales Press, p.281-294.

Kabazi, Fuad, 1989-1990, “Ulteriori considerazioni linguistiche sulla Cantilena di Pietro Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies. 19-20, p. 42-45.

Prevaes, Mathias Hubertus, 1993, The emergence of standard Maltese: the Arabic factor. The Netherlands, 121 pp.

Pullicino, Cassar, 1979, “The Mediterranean islands as places of synthesis between Arab culture and European cultures”, Univ. of Malta, Journal of Maltese Studies 13, p. 17-42.

Wettinger, Godfried, 1978, « Looking back on ‘The Cantilena of Peter Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies, 12, p. 88-105.

Wettinger, Godfried & Fsadni, Michael, 1968, “Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena; a poem in medieval Maltese”, Malta.

Full version of the Cantilena (ca. 1470) and 'Blooming May' poems (ca. 1672) in Arabic.

Full version of the Cantilena (ca. 1470) and ‘Blooming May’ poems (ca. 1672) in Arabic. Note: CLICK on the image for full size.

ANNEX about Malta and the neighbouring Libyan Jamahiriya

Over the last decades, the great Arab neighbour of Malta has been the Libyan Jamahiriya. Even when considering mere linguistic issues, it is difficult to gloss over the relations between each other’s. Let us see how.

On the 3rd of December 1977, Godfried Wettinger, one of the two Maltese researchers who stumbled upon the Cantilena, delivered an important public lecture about it at the Libyan Arab Cultural Institute in Valetta. Interestingly, and as far as the author has been informed, it was during the same year that Libya officially became the Great Libyan Jamahiriya [1-2]. Also noteworthy is that such a centre has so far remained the only substantial Arab cultural representation in the island. One may assume that the world renowned Guide of the Libyan Revolution had early understood the issue at stake: i.e. the kinship of Maltese with Arabic, particularly Tunisian Arabic (since the Libyan variety is also very close to the latter). Such an initiative is undoubtedly reminiscent of Mikiel Anton Vassali, the linguist of the 18th century regarded as the father of the Maltese language, who urged his fellow countrymen to learn Arabic in order to better understand their own language [3]… Interestingly, two centuries later, Maltese institutions introduced Arabic as an optional language in (higher) education [4]. One may surmise that the latter measure was a result of both a cultural and commercial new encounter between the Great Libyan Jamahiriya and Malta.

In any case, it appears that many researchers from Malta and abroad have largely benefited from the unique resources provided by such a scientific and cultural institute even if not all of them have acknowledged this… Reinhold Kontzi, who has carried on thorough comparative investigations between Maltese and Arabic, has even paid a particular attention to the Green Book written by Colonel Al-Qaddafi and translated into Maltese [5-7]. Finally, Malta has played an important role – as a passage for many travellers from Europe- during the decade that saw the sanctions imposed on the Jamahiriya on grounds of the so-called “Lockerbie” case even if it is now quite clear that, as in many other affairs, Libya was framed as US political experts like William Blum, Edward Herman, Linda Heard or even ex-CIA employee Susan Lindauer, showed [8-11]. The latter, in particular, has noted how one of the mains reasons for the NATO illegal war against the Jamahiriya in 2011 was that the Guide of the Libyan Revolution had demanded the return of the 2.7 billion dollars he paid to the Lockerbie victims in order to get some “Western” states “out of his people’s hair” and the embargo eventually lifted. If it were not enough, the 800 page Lockerbie Report has exonerated Libya [12]. Finally, and as far as Malta is directly concerned, a book by Joe Mifsud should also be cited here [13].


[1] Wettinger, Godfried, 1978, « Looking back on ‘The Cantilena of Peter Caxaro”, Journal of Maltese Studies, 12, p. 88-105.

[2] Libya – Declaration on the Establishment of the Authority of the People. ICL Document Status (2 March 1977).

[3] Saydon, Pietru Pawl, 1953, “Bibliographical aids to the study of Maltese”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12 (2), Apr., p. 124-133.

[4] Prevaes, Mathias Hubertus, 1993, The emergence of standard Maltese: the Arabic factor. The Netherlands, 121 pp.

[5] Kontzi, Reinhold, 1981, « L’elemento maltese nel maltese », Journal of Maltese Studies 14, p. 32-47.

[6] The Green Book & The Third Universal Theory. 31 May 2012.

[7] Al-Qadhafi, Muammar, Il-ktieb l-aħdar. It-tieni parti. Is-soluzzjoni tal-problema ekonomika « Is-soċjaliżmu ». Malta: Istitut Kulturali Libjan, 1978.

[8] William_Blum. The Bombing of PanAm Flight 103 : Case Not Closed. March 2001.

[9] Edward Herman. The New York Times on the Libya-Pan Am 103 Case: A Study in Propaganda Service.22 Sept 2007

[10] Linda J. Heard. Lockerbie Bombing: Libya was Framed. Global Research, February 24, 2011

[11] Susan Lindauer. Lockerbie Diary: Gadhaffi, Fall Guy for CIA Drug Running. 9 March 2011

[12] The 800 Page Lockerbie Report that Exonerates Libya. By Alexandra Valiente, 26 March 2012

[13] Joe Mifsud (BOOK): Lockerbie: Qabel il-Verdett [Lockerbie: Before the Verdict]. In-depth report series ISBN: 999332-612-0-3
Reminder: a simplified aid for pronouncing Maltese can be found right at the end of the author’s  first article (20 June2013).

The Maltese Cantilena (ca. 1470) translated into Arabic and French (by the author).

The Maltese Cantilena (ca. 1470) translated into Arabic and French (by the author). Note: CLICK on the image for full size.

The 'Blooming May' Maltese poem (ca. 1672) in Arabic and French


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