Local dialects are still a living language

Scholars of the 1970s had predicted that Maltese and Gozitan dialects would die out by the following generation but nearly half a century later they are thriving, according to a University project.

In the past those who did not speak standard Maltese were referred to as speaking bl-ikreh (in an ugly manner) but today dialects are held in high esteem

The project, rolled out last year, includes a one-stop-shop website with all the research carried out on Maltese and Gozitan dialects, including sound clips collected by Professor Ġużè Aquilina and University of Leeds scholar Benedikt Isserlin in the 1960s.

The website,, archives dissertations, theses, books and papers to serve as a base for more research on the regional variations of Maltese.

In the past, those who did not speak standard Maltese were referred to as speaking bl-ikreh (in an ugly manner) or even bil-pastaż (rudely), but today dialects are seen as part of our heritage.

They started attracting scholarly attention in the late 18th century when Ġan Franġisk Agius De Soldanis distinguished between the language used in the villages and in the city, and suggested differences between eastern and western dialects.

Mikiel Anton Vassalli also identified five dialect regions: the cities, Gozo, the upper villages, the lower villages and the central villages.

In the 1960s Prof. Aquilina and Prof. Isserlin carried out a survey on dialects in 61 localities. Sound clips will be uploaded on the website.

On the site, which is a “work in progress”, people will be able to click on a locality and hear a short piece of audio in dialect. When clicking on Żebbuġ, for example, they will hear a man talking about the saltpans.

Researchers are also urging anyone who has audio of someone speaking in dialect to e-mail [email protected].

Carried out by five people, this Institute of Linguistics project, called Collecting and Archiving Research Data on the Dialects of Malta and Gozo, was financed by the University of Malta’s Research Fund.

William Incorvaja, who carried out undergraduate and postgraduate studies on the Marsaxlokk dialect, found the number of monolingual people that speak in dialect only are on the decline but bilingual people still speak in dialect.

The 27-year-old, who speaks in dialect himself, said some people are not aware that they switch from dialect to standard Maltese in different situations.

Project coordinator Alexandra Vella believes dialect is still alive, “but we still do not know the where and the when”.

She added that, according to recent studies, dialect in Gozo was used in formal settings, even by teachers, while students who spoke in standard Maltese could be pushed to the side or bullied until they learnt the dialect.


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