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Review of  Shifts and Patterns in Maltese

Reviewer: Shiloh Drake
Book Title: Shifts and Patterns in Maltese
Book Author: Gilbert Puech Benjamin Saade
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): Maltese
Issue Number: 29.536

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume appears as Volume 19 in De Gruyter-Mouton’s Studia Typologica series. It is thematically divided into three sections: Phonology, Morphology & Syntax, and Contact, Bilingualism, & Technology. Each section contains several chapters, which are papers that had first been presented at the 4th International Conference on Maltese Linguistics. The editors point out that while Maltese linguistics may be considered something of a niche interest, the publication of this volume, the expansion of the conference locations, and the geographical diversity of the contributing authors points to a growing international interest in the topic, and thus the increasing importance of Maltese in the field of linguistics (vii).

In the first chapter, “From Maltese phonology to morphogenesis: A tribute to David Cohen”, author Martine Vanhove details the contributions of the late David Cohen to the study of Maltese phonology and related synchronic and diachronic changes. The ability to track changes in phonology through history in Maltese has been able to show which elements of the language are borrowed (e.g., from Sicilian Italian), and which elements of the language are originating in the Arabic substratum. This theme is carried throughout the research presented in this book.

Chapter 2, “Minimalist representation of Maltese sounds”, begins the Phonology section. Author Gilbert Puech proposes a model of Maltese phonology based on minimalist frameworks, such as Distributed Morphology, minimalist phonology, and several others. His model, Lateral Prosodic Phonology, attempts to account for several aspects of Maltese morphophonology, both for contemporary Maltese as well as for phonological changes from 18th and 19th century Maltese, such as the loss of guttural consonants. This model uses three tiers to account for stress assignment, stem vowel alternations, voicing agreement, and so forth.

In Chapter 3, “Phonological changes in Maltese: Evidence from onomastics”, Andrei A. Avram illustrates Maltese sound change using primarily place names and surnames recorded between the 14th and 18th centuries. Due to the transparency of the Maltese orthography, analysis of written materials and spelling variation throughout the centuries can be used to easily infer sound change. The onomastic evidence that Avram uses shows that Maltese phonology has changed in substantial ways based on orthography alone, such as incorporating final devoicing and a small amount of vowel harmony, voice assimilation, and the loss of the voiceless uvular stop /q/, the voiced velar fricative /ɣ/, and the voiced pharyngeal fricative /ʕ/.

Chapter 4, “Lengthening as a discourse strategy in Maltese: Phonetic and phonological characteristics” by Alexandra Vella, Flavia Chetcuti, and Sarah Agius, concludes the Phonology section. The authors discuss the form and function of vowel lengthening, or “hesitation lengthening” (91) in Maltese using a corpus of spontaneous speech. In the corpus analysis they find that vowel lengthening does not seem to be restricted to any particular lexical category, but does tend to happen more frequently with function words than with content words. As for the phonetic analysis, they find that the frequency characteristic of the lengthening is a mid-level F0 prosodic contour. The authors posit that the function of lengthening is to increase time for lexical retrieval and to repair false starts, and sometimes the two functions overlap. They also suggest that this hesitation lengthening is different from either pre-boundary lengthening or filled pauses based on the criteria used to analyze the hesitation lengthening, but is more similar to filled pauses than to pre-boundary lengthening.

Chapter 5, “How inflectional morphology meets subcategorization frame distinctions in Maltese”, begins the Morphology & Syntax section. Author Maris Camilleri seeks to highlight the relationship between verbal inflectional morphology in Maltese and verb valency. This chapter could be seen as a morphosyntactic companion to Puech’s chapter, particularly given stem vowel alternations, which both authors spend time accounting for. Camilleri argues that Maltese morphology consists of more than just affixes, but also predictable stem-vowel alternations. These alternations can be predicted based on the imperfective and perfective paradigms selected by each verb. This analysis is taken further with Semitic-origin verbs, which fall into inflectional classes, or binyanim. Certain binyanim lead to a diphthong, and those binyanim are associated with reflexive, anticausative, passive, and reciprocal semantics, thus Camilleri’s conclusion that stem-vowel alternations are at least in part conditioned by verb valency. Camilleri also uses diachronic data to bolster her argument, as some loanwords have been problematic for previous accounts. Using her framework, she is able to account for the verbs that previously did not fit with other researchers’ theories.

Hans-Jörg Döhla uses diachronic language contact data and theories to account for the emergence of differential object marking (DOM) in Maltese in Chapter 6, “The origin of differential object marking in Maltese”. Döhla proposes that DOM emerged thanks to Maltese’s contact with Old Sicilian. The varieties of Arabic that allow DOM have had substantial contact with languages like Spanish (Andalusi Arabic, 162) and Aramaic (Levantine and Iraqi Arabic, 165), both of which employ DOM. In contrast, Classical Arabic does not allow for DOM, as subjects and objects are obligatorily case marked, and North African dialects of Arabic also do not employ DOM. Based on this, Döhla suggests that Siculo Arabic, Maltese’s predecessor, was a variety of Arabic that could have come into contact with Old Sicilian and thus developed DOM from that contact, and then passed on that grammatical trait to Maltese. However, Siculo Arabic is not well documented, so an alternate source for DOM in Maltese that is also plausible is Old Sicilian. Further, parts of Malta were later settled by people from the Abruzzi region in Italy, and Maltese may have further assimilated DOM from that dialect of Italian. Thus, Döhla concludes that DOM is not an Arabic feature at all, nor did it originate in the Arabic substratum of Maltese, but originated in the Romance substratum of Maltese.

David Wilmsen also compares dialects of Arabic to Maltese in his research on a polar question clitic in Maltese in Chapter 7, “Polar interrogative -š in Maltese: Developments and antecedents”. Š (orthographically x) appears following the third person masculine singular pronoun hu in polar questions, and the construction hux is typically glossed as “is it”. This is only one of three ways to ask a polar question in Maltese, and the others are common in other dialects of Arabic as well as in Maltese. This construction may also be used to form indirect questions with jekk ‘whether’. The pronoun/-š clitic construction is similar phonologically and morphologically to polar question constructions in Moroccan and Tunisian Arabic; the indefinite determiner ši can also be heard in Levantine and Moroccan Arabic, and finally š may be appended to verbs in Maltese to form an interrogative, which was also licit in Andalusi Arabic. The negation circumfix ma…š is found in Maltese, and is also attested in a variety of North African dialects, southern Arabian dialects, and some dialects in the Levant. To form a more complete picture of how š is used, Wilmsen carried out two corpus analyses, one in Maltese and one in Tunisian Arabic. He found that there the clitic is much more common in Maltese usage than in Tunisian Arabic, and using this data as well as diachronic evidence, he suggests that the robustness of the clitic in Maltese is part of a system that has since been lost in many Arabic dialects. However, it was retained in Maltese due to the lack of contact with Arabic for such an extended period of time. This evidence also strengthens the claim that other scholars have made about Maltese being descended from Tunisian Arabic as opposed to some other variety.

In Chapter 8, “On short and long forms of personal pronouns in Maltese”, authors Thomas Stolz and Benjamin Saade discuss the differences in use of the short and long forms of Maltese pronouns. For each of the singular personal pronouns, Maltese has both a long (disyllabic) form and a short (monosyllabic) form, and these seem to be able to be used interchangeably: there is no grammatical or semantic difference between the two forms (e.g., no case-marking differences, no further information is conveyed by the long form, both forms contain the same number of morphemes, etc.), and the only real difference seems to be the difference in length, determined either by number of segments or syllables. The other curiosity is that the plural pronouns do not have short forms, only the disyllabic long forms. The first set of analyses in the chapter focuses on the plural pronouns and why they do not have a short form. Stolz and Saade conclude that there is not a possible truncation scenario that could lead to phonologically or phonotactically sound plural pronouns without losing the distinction between plural and singular. When the analysis is applied to the singular forms, the long forms can be suitably truncated by a phonological rule deleting the final vowel, segment, or syllable nucleus. With this rule in hand, the authors proceed to seek out reasons behind the variation between long and short pronominal forms. They arrive at the conclusion that adherence to sandhi processes may explain the alternation, since the short forms are not weak pronouns. To assess the validity of this hypothesis, they conduct two corpus analyses, one using a small collection of contemporary Maltese literature, and the other using the large and well documented MLRS (Maltese Language Resource Server) corpus (Borg et al., 2011). In the analysis of the literary corpus, they find that the sandhi process hypothesis holds: except for a few syntactic constructions, the use of the short or long pronoun is consistent within phonological requirements. Generally, the preference for the long or short form is not idiosyncratic, but the second corpus study suggests that the hypothesized sandhi processes held up by the first corpus study may not be quite as absolute. The second corpus study revealed differences based on person (1sg pronouns were typically short forms, while 3sg pronouns were usually long forms except in literary texts) and text types (2sg pronouns were typically the long form in parliamentary debates, but were typically the short form in press texts). Thus, the authors conclude that while their phonological variables provide a good starting point, construction-specific preferences, idiosyncratic usage, and variation across both person and text type are also necessary to determine when to use the long and short forms of personal pronouns.

Chapter 9, “Connecting /t/ in Maltese numerals”, concludes the Morphology and Syntax section. Authors Christopher Lucas and Michael Spagnol investigate the variation in the use of /t/ in the numerals 2-10 preceding a plural noun, where numerals may appear as either their bare form or with an appended /t/. Previous accounts have suggested that the connecting /t/ is associated with monosyllabic plural nouns beginning with a consonant cluster, but the /t/ may appear in contexts other than the monosyllabic noun beginning with a consonant cluster, and it may also be missing when it is otherwise expected to occur. Lucas and Spagnol tested which conditions would trigger /t/-insertion by eliciting responses from experiment participants. The results showed that the strongest trigger for /t/-insertion was with monosyllabic plural nouns beginning with a consonant cluster, but disyllabic nouns beginning with a consonant cluster would also trigger /t/-insertion roughly half the time. CV-initial nouns virtually never triggered /t/-insertion, while V-initial nouns would only trigger /t/-insertion when they were disyllabic or polysyllabic. Sound plurals almost never triggered /t/-insertion, while broken plurals triggered /t/-insertion more frequently. While these results shed more light on the phenomena, Lucas and Spagnol agree that a larger and more thorough study is necessary to draw more convincing conclusions.

Chapter 10, “Languages in contact”, begins the Contact, Bilingualism & Technology section. Author George Farrugia discusses how contact with Sicilian, Italian, and English has affected the Maltese gender assignment system. As Maltese is a descendant from varieties of Arabic, it has inherited and retained a two-gender noun classification system. Words that have been borrowed from Sicilian and Italian, two languages that also have grammatical gender, mostly fit Maltese’s gender system and introduce very few novel noun endings. However, when words are borrowed from English, which does not mark gender on nouns, it is potentially problematic for the system. To find out which noun-final segments tended to correspond with which grammatical gender, Farrugia analyzed a corpus of nouns in Maltese. While nouns borrowed from English ending in vowels mostly adhered to the trends that have been established for the Romance and Arabic strata, the nouns ending in consonants did not. Fewer nouns borrowed from English ending in a consonant are classified as masculine than words originating in a Romance language or in Arabic, and more are feminine. To explain this, Farrugia suggests that gender assignment for English borrowings is done by analogy or to match the gender of the category hypernym rather than solely conditioned by the final segment of the noun.

Bernard Comrie and Michael Spagnol continue the discussion of loanwords in Cbnhapter 11, “Maltese loanword typology”. On the whole, Maltese is made up of an Arabic base, and contains lexical items that have been borrowed from Sicilian, Italian, and English; the question that the project is attempting to answer is what proportion of vocabulary comes from each source. According to an etymological analysis, Maltese is classified as a “high borrower”, where approximately 35% of its lexicon is borrowed from other languages. Further analyses show that of the loanwords, 30.3% are of Romance origin—in many cases whether a word originates in Italian or Sicilian is unclear (324)—4.8% are from English, and 8.9% are from another source. These analyses also support the typological tendency for content words to be borrowed more frequently than function words.

In Chapter 12, “Language profiling: The weaving of Maltese and English in Maltese children’s conversations”, author Marie Azzopardi-Alexander analyzes conversations of Maltese-speaking children between the ages of 1;10 and 5;6 (years;months) for the amount of Maltese and English code switching and content, and proposes five groupings along a Maltese-to-English continuum. This type of profiling is developed in the aims of informing clinical practice and language assessments as well as grouping children based on language proficiency in schools (333). The groupings range from “Maltese with restricted English”, where parents tend to use Maltese conscientiously as the home language and do not code switch often in the house, to “English with Maltese woven in”, where the home language may still be Maltese, but children are much more frequently addressed in English even by adults outside the home. The extent of the children’s code switching in Group 1 is restricted to mainly kinship terms, numerals, colors, and animals, even though their exposure to English media or English varieties outside the home is not limited. Group 2 is Maltese with some English woven in, characterized by more variety in English usage than in Group 1, but with utterances still primarily in Maltese. Group 3 further expands the use of English, to the point where phonological processes like the assimilation of articles and nouns in coronal sounds are disrupted, or Maltese nouns take
English morphological plurals, neither of which occurs in Group 2. Group 4 is characterized by having entire English phrases contained in a Maltese utterance, where the previous groups would only use one nominal. These children are more confident in their English usage than the previous groups as well, but are still comfortable using Maltese. Group 5 is characterized by a great deal of both Maltese and English, notably enough that it is not always clear whether English or Maltese is the matrix language. Azzopardi-Alexander suggests that knowing the type of diversity that exists in Maltese children can inform educational policy as well as allow clinicians to more accurately address language development problems in children.

Chapter 13, “Digitizing the grammar and vocabulary of Maltese”, concludes the volume. Author John J. Camilleri details his efforts to provide two computational resources for Maltese, a grammar and a lexical database. These are valuable resources as Maltese is lacking in this type of computational resource, particularly when compared to other languages even only those spoken within the European Union. Camilleri’s grammar is both a generative grammar and a parser; his lexicon Ġabra aims to be a collection of the existing lexical resources for Maltese as well as a platform to which other resources may be added as they became available. The resource grammar is one of the largest efforts to represent Maltese’s grammatical rules in a computational setting, although it does not completely cover the language as a whole. Ġabra contains 15,861 lexemes and 4.5 million inflectional forms (381), and it also is not exhaustive, but it is flexible in terms of how it is able to be built on to become a full-fledged Maltese lexicon.


This volume not only has clear impacts on the field of Maltese linguistics, but also is a valuable resource to linguists working on other languages. Due to its wide range of topical matter and the variety of methodologies used, it is a resource that can be used not only to inform a literature review in various subfields, but also to inform experimental design. The authors frequently point out where further research is necessary to form a stronger conclusion, and conversely, where findings have been confirmed frequently.

While the book is loosely divided into subfields, the chapters are otherwise not related to each other and there is not any attempt to create links between them other than the broad thematic structure. It may have been useful to explicitly point out connections between the projects for a more cohesive work, but a careful reader will be able to do that task themselves.

While the title is not terribly explanatory, the volume does incorporate a substantial amount of diachronic data, and multiple chapters attempt to elucidate how Maltese has evolved, whether from the last two centuries, or since the first written record of Maltese. The title makes it seem as if this book only fits into a small subset of linguistics, but its coverage is broad.

This volume does an excellent job of representing some of the most recent research on Maltese linguistics, and research that should be of interest to other linguists in a variety of subfields. The research presented may be incorporated into a variety of theories and compared to many other languages. The chapters together also provide a robust overview of much of the previous research in Maltese for readers who are interested in more.
Shiloh Drake is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona. Her research interests include psycholinguistic methods of researching morphological productivity, root-and-pattern morphology, the structure of the lexicon, bilingualism, and the neural underpinnings of lexical storage, word meaning, and morphology.

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