Maltese and the Mixed Language Debate

Kamala Russell

University of Chicago


The term Mixed Language has been applied to a small number of languages across the world. The category Mixed Language is not successfully defined as distinct from other languages in contact situations both structurally or in terms of social situation of genesis. Qualities like bilingualism in the population, genetic uncharacterizability, compartmentalization of structures in different domains (usually content-grammar), and intermediate social identity have been employed as criteria for taxonomical definition. Typologically, Mixed Language scholarship has looked to distinguish borrowing due to contact from compartmentalization through theories of he mechanisms of Mixed Language genesis (Bakker, 2003; Bakker, 1997; McConvell and Meakins, 2005; Thomason and Kaufman, 1988). I argue that data from Maltese problematizes these definitions by exhibiting partial compartmentalization through contact under different social conditions than the majority of canonically Mixed Languages.

Maltese is a language that has undergone extreme contact (historically between Italian and Dialectal Arabic, and more recently with English), yet has been repeatedly excluded from the category Mixed Language, mostly on the basis of loan word percentage (Stolz, 2003; Bakker, 2003). I focus on the aspects of Italian-Arabic contact crystallized in Maltese and show that Maltese displays structural similarities to other languages called Mixed, and meets some of the taxonomical criteria associated with languages called Mixed.

1)      Fl-epoka             Griega,    l-Ewropa            kien       terminu   ġeografiku indefenit

in-DEF-epoch    Greek      DEF-Europe   COPULA       term        geographic unknown

‘In the Greek epoch, Europe was an unknown geographic term.’ (Malti Wikipedija)

This example, where the Italian-origin elements are bolded, could arguably display compartmentalization between Italian lexical items and Semitic morphological affixes. Maltese shows some content-grammar compartmentalization, but not in a way that is spread throughout its paradigm.

Maltese displays multiple strata of Romance verb borrowing. The first stratum shows a split between Romance content and Semitic grammar, where Italian verbs are incorporated into Semitic morphological patterns. Verbs borrowed later have different syntactic distributions and often are made into participles and verbal nouns with Romance derivational morphemes.

Noun phrase morphology is even less characterizable, containing both components that retain Italian morphology and components that are re-analyzed along Semitic lines. Maltese also shows phonological incorporations from Romance limited to Romance stems, but has expanded their entire vowel paradigm along Italian lines.  Importantly, these structural characteristics are not split between domains or spread entirely throughout the language, and there are other taxonomical criteria that Maltese does not meet. Through its incomplete compartmentalization, Maltese shows that the structural characteristics, and social situations that define Mixed Languages in the literature are not necessarily linked. If this category is to remain valid, it must be redefined.

Bakker, Peter. 1997. A language of our own: The genesis of Michif, the mixed Cree-French language of the Canadian Metis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bakker, Peter. 2003. Mixed languages as autonomous systems. In Matras and Bakker (eds.), pp. 107-150.

Malti Wikipedija. Nov. 2, 2011. “Ewropa.”

McConvell, Patrick, and Felicity Meakins. 2005. Gurindji Kriol: A Mixed Language Emerges from Code-Switching. Australian Journal of Linguistics 25: 1.9-30.

Mifsud, Manwel. 1995. Loan Verbs in Maltese: A Descriptive and Comparative Study. London: Brill.

Stolz, Thomas. 2003. Chamorro and Malti as mixed languages. In Matras and Bakker (eds.), pp. 271-315.

Thomason, Sarah G., and Terrence Kaufman. 1988. Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press