The following remarks explain the phonetic system of the Maltese language as well as the IPA transcription systems used in the wiktionary.
The Maltese alphabet consists of 30 letters. See the individual entries for information on the sounds these letters represent:
Apart from vowel length, which is not always predictable, and minor anomalies in individual words, Maltese pronunciation can be reliably deduced from the spelling. However, the reverse is not necessarily true as the spelling is partly based on etymology and analogy. There are many homophones.
- The sound /ʒ/ is common as an assimilative variant of /ʃ/, but is very rare as an actual phoneme, occurring only in a handful of borrowings from English. The affricate /d͡z/ is also quite infrequent (except in the verbal suffix -izza); it is almost always intervocalic and geminated.
- The sound /ɣ/ does not exist in the standard language. It is restricted to a few rural dialects in parts of Gozo. Even in these areas it is now used only by the elderly generation and hence moribund (see għ).
- All consonants (except /ɣ/) can be geminated. Geminated semivowels, however, are phonemic only after unstressed vowels. After stressed short vowels, semivowels are automatically geminated.
- Semivowels are also not phonemic in hiatus in such sequences as /ɪ(ː)j/, /iːj/, /u(ː)w/. We nevertheless indicate them, because they are usually realised, they are reflected in the spelling (as j, w, għ, h), and it serves to show that a glottal stop can never be heard in these positions.
Though our IPA transcriptions are phonemic in the sense that we disregard pure allophony, we transcribe consonants in neutralised positions according to their actual realisations, not the underlying phonemes (particularly as the latter can generally be seen in the spelling). The following neutralisations occur in Maltese:
- Word-final devoicing, which is obligatory even before vowel-initial words.
- Clusters of obstruents undergo regressive assimilation, i.e. the last obstruent in a cluster determines the voicing or devoicing of the preceding obstruents. The glottal/pharyngeal phonemes /ʔ/ and /ħ/ are an exception to this inasmuch as they devoice preceding obstruents but cannot be voiced themselves. (The archaic phoneme /ɣ/ devoices to /ħ/, however.)
- Word-final geminates are simplified, except in the case of sonorants /m/, /n/, /l/, /r/ (see variation below). Before vowel-initial words final gemination may resurface, but this is generally restricted to geminates following short vowels (and hence predictable without having to consider final geminates phonemic).
- Word-internal geminates are also usually simplified before obstruents.
- When the stops /d/, /t/ are followed by the fricatives /z/, /s/, /ʃ/, this usually creates geminated affricates /dd͡z/, /tt͡s/, /tt͡ʃ/. Expectably, these affricates are simplified again in those positions where geminates do not otherwise occur. In addition, however, simple affricates are also used in word-initial position (though this is rare, e.g. dsatax).
- /n/ is merged into /m/ before /b/ and /p/.
- After pauses, vowel-initial words may be pronounced with a glottal stop, such that /ʔ/ loses its phonemicity in the same position; but in context the distinction is always maintained.
In addition to standard Maltese, we also provide transcriptions in an archaic phonetic system containing pharyngealised vowels. This pronunciation was still reasonably common around the middle of the 20th century but is now equally moribund as the use of /ɣ/ above. It does, however, help to understand the spelling system as well as variants in the contemporary standard.
- The diphthong /ɔj/ is rare and occurs only in loanwords.
- There were three pharyngealised monophthongs and four pharyngealised diphthongs. As against that, /ɔw/ was restricted to a few English borrowings.
- We use /əˤ/ and /ɣə/ for simplicity in our archaic transcriptions to indicate a vowel that could be pronounced /a/, /ɛ/, or /ɔ/, depending on dialect/idiolect. (In the standard transcriptions, however, we give the common variants in full and hence avoid the sign /ə/.)
- Long vowels are shortened in unstressed syllables. Pharyngealised vowels originally remained long in most positions, but now that pharyngealisation has been lost, they are also usually shortened (see variation below). Unstressed /iː/ is reduced to /ɪ/, while /ɪː/ is normally reduced to /ɪ/ in open syllables but /ɛ/ in closed syllables.
- Stressed /iː/ is merged into /ɪː/ before /ħ/ and /ʔ/ as well as before the vowelised letters għ and h (see these).
In older Maltese, stress was non-phonemic and predictable in the following way:
- It fell on the ultimate syllable if this syllable was super-heavy, i.e. a long vowel followed by a consonant or any vowel followed by two consonants (including an underlying geminate).
- It fell on the penultimate syllable otherwise.
However, this system is no longer valid:
- Stressed word-final vowels occur in newer Romance borrowings and in verbs spelt with final -aha.
- Antepenultimate stress occurs in newer Romance and English borrowings.
- Pharyngealised vowels did not attract the stress when they stemmed from għ followed by a short vowel.
Stress is therefore phonemic and always indicated it in our transcriptions (except in monosyllabes).
As can be expected in such a small territory, dialectal differences in Maltese have always been limited. The modern language is even more unified.
- The sequences għi and għu may be pronounced /ɛj/, /ɔw/ or alternatively /aj/, /aw/. Relatedly, għe in a final unstressed syllable may be pronounced /ɛ/ or /a/. Speakers who use /a/ in any of these instances need not necessarily do so in all of them. Particularly the use of /aw/ instead of /ɔw/ is more widespread.
- The sequence egħi has a number of possible realisations: /ɛˈjiː/, /ɛˈjɛj/, /ɛˈaj/, or /ɛː/. Similarly, the sequence ehi may be pronounced /ɛˈjiː/, /ɛj/, /ɛː/.
- Vowelised għ and h often lengthen adjacent vowels, but there are certain environments in which such lengthening is optional.
- All vowels are now usually short in unstressed syllables. A minority of speakers, however, still realise long vowels in initial unstressed syllables that were originally pharyngealised, such that għamilt is pronounced [aːˈmɪlt] rather than [aˈmɪlt]. These speakers may be said to have retained phonemic pharyngealisation, though the vowel is not actually pharyngealised anymore.
- There is free variation between long and short vowels in the following cases:
- a) għ + diphthong + consonant: dgħajsa, jgħawġu /ˈdaːj.sa/, /ˈjaːw.d͡ʒu/ — or /ˈdaj.sa/, /ˈjaw.d͡ʒu/;
- c) 1st and 2nd persons perfect of verbs R2=għ: lgħabt, qgħadtu /laːpt/, /ˈʔaːt.tu/ — or /lapt/, /ˈʔat.tu/;
- b) monosyllabic nouns with final consonant cluster: għonq, għatx /ɔːnʔ/, /aːt͡ʃ/ — or /ɔnʔ/, /at͡ʃ/.
- Before vocalic endings the length resurfaces, so għonqu is usually /ˈɔːn.ʔu/ for all speakers.
- Vowels are normally long, but may be short in a minority of speakers in these cases:
- a) għ + diphthong in the syllable break: dgħajjes, jgħawweġ /ˈdaː.jɛs/, /ˈjaː.wɛt͡ʃ/ — or rarely /ˈdaj.jɛs/, /ˈjaw.wɛt͡ʃ/;
- The geminated semivowel is reduced after the long vowel. In enunciation one may hear [ˈdaːj.jɛs] etc., however. Note that h does not lengthen the vowel in the same position, thus bhejjem /ˈbɛj.jɛm/.
- b) diphthong + għ/h in the syllable break: idejhom, ġawhar /ɪˈdɛː.jɔm/, /ˈd͡ʒaː.war/ — or rarely /ɪˈdɛj.jɔm/, /ˈd͡ʒaw.war/.
- When the guttural comes before the semivowel as in ragħwa /ˈraː.wa/, the vowel is invariably long.
- Word-final geminated sonorants /m/, /n/, /l/, /r/ following short vowels may be simplified or retained or may cause compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Hence demm may be pronounced [dɛm], [dɛmː], or [dɛːm].
- Word-final /a/ is often elided when the next word starts with a stressed vowel. In this case, a preceding voiced obstruent is not devoiced; thus ħaġa oħra will be pronounced [ˌħaːˈd͡ʒɔħ.ra].
Entirely allophonous features include the following:
- /n/ becomes [ŋ] before /k/ and /ɡ/.
- The phoneme /ħ/ has three allophones. The most general and frequent of them is pharyngeal [ħ]. Glottal [h] is a common alternative, though it is very rare in gemination. Uvular [χ] is the least frequent, but is also common, especially in gemination and word-finally. If a given speaker uses only one allophone, this will generally be [ħ]; but most speakers use two or all three in ways that are not always predictable. Even the same word might be uttered with different sounds when repeated.
- In a few areas the phoneme /ʔ/ may still be realised as a uvular [q] like the underlying Arabic ق. Like the other highly conservative features above, this pronunciation is now widely restricted to the elderly generation.
- Some speakers, chiefly in Gozo, realise long /iː/ and /uː/ as closed diphthongs [ɘj], [ɘw] (or the like).
Maltese allows quite complex consonant clusters. However, there are two sorts of clusters which cannot be pronounced word-initially, namely (1.) geminates and (2.) sonorants /l/, /m/, /n/, /r/, /j/, /w/ followed by another consonant.
If a word does begin with such a cluster and the preceding word ends in a consonant, an auxiliary vowel /ɪ/ must be prefixed such that the impossible onset is distributed to two syllables: Huwa żżewweġ (“he married”), but: ir-raġel iżżewweġ (“the man married”). Huma mdejqin (“they are sad”), but: in-nies imdejqin (“the people are sad”).
Since the definite article is either a sonorant /l/ or a gemination, it behaves in the same way.
Semivowels /j/ and /w/ turn into true vowels /ɪ/ and /u/ rather than using a prefix: Huwa jħaffer (“he digs”), but: kien iħaffer (“he used to dig”).
I-prefixing with għ and hEdit
A special case are words with an initial sonorant followed by għ/h as well as words with initial għ-, h- when used with the definite article. This is because għ/h regularly triggered the i-prefix when they were still consonants; but since they have been vowelised, the prefix is no longer actually necessary. With some exceptions, it is correct in these cases to follow the etymological principle and use the prefix, or to follow the phonetic principle and omit it. A certain degree of regularisation has taken place in practice, however.
The prefix is either predominant or obligatory in
- nouns and lexicalised participles in mgħ-: l-imgħax (“the interest”), l-imgħoddi (“the past”);
- lexicalised possessive constructions: Ħadd il-Għid (“Easter Sunday”);
- the perfect tense of VII-stem verbs: dan ingħad (“this was said”).
The prefix is optional in the article when it precedes nouns in għ-, h-: fuq il-għolja (“on the hill”) alongside fuq l-għolja. Omission is overall predominant, but the frequency of the i-form varies from word to word.
The prefix is now dated and fairly rare in verb forms other than the VII-stem perfect, such as non-lexicalised participles (kien [i]mhedded), the first person of the imperfect (kont [i]ngħid), the first and second persons of the perfect (illum [i]lgħabna).
The prefix is unused in nouns that start with a sonorant other than /m/. Thus only in-nhar (“the day”), il-lgħab (“the drool”), not *l-inhar, *l-ilgħab.
There are two additional kinds of i-prefixing, which are not triggered by strictly phonological mechanisms:
- Certain broken plurals use the prefix after numerals from 2 to 10: żewġt ixjuħ (“two old men”).
- Nouns starting in s-, x-, ż- + consonant may use the prefix after the article: l-iskola (“the school”) for rarer is-skola. This is influenced by the Italian “impure s” rule and is accordingly much commoner with Romance borrowings than with inherited words.
In Romance words with initial im-, in- etc. the vowel is always retained in the standard language proper: Huwa importanti (“it is important”). However, with several well integrated loanwords the spoken language tends to treat this so-called “etymological i” by anology with the prefix and thus to lose it after vowels: Huwa mportanti. We list these forms as informal variants.
- Maltese phonology at Wikipedia for more information on the sounds of Maltese.