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A Maltese Bridge Between Cultures

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder visits Malta on Tuesday. The tiny Mediterranean island state with its own language joins the EU in May -- some hope it will serve as a bridge between Europe and the Arab world.


Europe, here we come!

On a recent morning in a small bar in Malta, parking attendant Luciano sipped on his cappuccino while chatting to the owner.

At his place of work, a nearby hotel, Luciano speaks English. But when he's hanging out with his countrymen, he prefers to converse in Maltese. It's the language of his ancestors, the language of his everyday life, the language he dreams in. "I feel so proud when I speak Maltese," he said. "Not even the Americans have their own language. They speak English."

A vanishing language?

Galerie EU Erweiterung Malta - Valletta

Street scene in Malta

Today, about 392,000 people live in Malta, and about 1.5 million emigrants worldwide still speak Maltese. For them, the language has become a symbol of cultural identification. But while Maltese brings together those living in New York or Cologne, it's losing its appeal in the home land.

With Malta joining the EU in May, many argue that English is the only language people need to be able to speak. Middle class parents now use the colonial language with their children at home and send them to expensive English-speaking private schools and British universities. More and more, Maltese is become just another foreign language taught in school.

But some, such as Oliver Friggieri, a Maltese poet and literature professor, say Maltese is irreplaceable as a mother language. Friggieri himself also teaches in English, but he's convinced that his countrymen won't give up Maltese completely: The language is changing more than any other in Europe, according to him. "It will probably end up as a completely new language that's half Maltese and half English," Friggieri said.

A linguistic curiosity

While even linguists don't know exactly when Maltese originally emerged, the language probably has its roots in Phoenician, one of the language spoken around the Mediterranean in ancient times. Mirroring Malta's eventful history, Maltese is quite similar to Arabic and written in the Latin alphabet.

Galerie EU Erweiterung Malta Fischerboote in Marsaxlokk

Fishing boats in the town of Marsaxlokk

The oldest inscriptions found on the group of three islands are Phoenician and date back more than two and a half millennia. In 870, the Arabs conquered Malta, influencing Maltese pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary in the coming centuries. When the Catholic Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem took over in 1530, Italian became the predominant language.

Almost 300 years later, in 1814, Malta changed hands again and the islands became a British colony with English as the official language. While the Maltese upper class continued to use Italian, Maltese eventually took over. The colonial masters supported this development and introduced the Latin alphabet on the island.

Orthography rules were established in 1924 and a decade later, Maltese becomes the colony's second official language and remained that after independence in 1964. Italian lost its importance, but is still spoken on the islands to this day: Italian television -- needless to say without subtitles -- remains popular among Maltese.

Bringing cultures together

Treasuring the Maltese roots is not only the linguists' responsibility, the professor said -- Politicians, teachers and journalists also have to do their part. According to Friggieri, Maltese, which uses the word "Alla" for God, could open up completely new possibilities for a dialogue between cultures.

Not everyone on the island is willing to accept this, though: Suffering great losses, the arch-Catholic islands, where abortion is still illegal, defied the Turkish Sultan in the 16th century, "saving Europe from an Islamic invasion," as historians put it at the time. But Friggieri still believes his mother language could help bridge the divide between Europe and the Arab world. "Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet," he said. "This combination is something unique that Malta has to offer."

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