Appendix:Maltese pronunciation

The following remarks explain the phonetic system of the Maltese language as well as the IPA transcription systems used in the wiktionary.

AlphabetEdit

The Maltese alphabet consists of 30 letters. See the individual entries for information on the sounds these letters represent:

The letters c and y are only used in names and not yet integrated loanwords (chiefly from English).

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.

ConsonantsEdit

InventoryEdit

Labial Alveolar Palatal /
Post-
alveolar
Velar Glottal /
Pharyn-
geal
Nasal m n
Voiceless stop p t k ʔ
Voiced stop b d ɡ
Voiceless affricate t͡s t͡ʃ
Voiced affricate d͡z d͡ʒ
Voiceless fricative f s ʃ ħ
Voiced fricative v z (ʒ) (ɣ)
Approximant l j w
Trill r
  • The sound /ʒ/ is common as an assimilative variant of /ʃ/, but is very rare as an actual phoneme (occurring only in a few borrowings from English).
  • The sound /ɣ/ does not exist in the standard language. It is restricted to a few rural dialects, chiefly in parts of Gozo. Even in these areas it is now used only by the elderly generation and hence moribund (see ).
  • All consonants (except /ɣ/) can be geminated. Geminated semivowels, however, are phonemic at most 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.

NeutralisationEdit

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/.
  • Word-initial /ʔ/ loses its phonemicity vis-à-vis a vocalic onset after pauses, but does remain strictly phonemic in fluent speech.

VowelsEdit

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.

Modern inventoryEdit

Unrounded
short
Unrounded
long
Rounded
short
Rounded
long
Open a
Mid ɛ ɛː ɔ ɔː
Near-close ɪ ɪː
Close u
Unrounded +
unrounded
Rounded +
unrounded
Unrounded +
rounded
Rounded +
rounded
Open aj aw
Mid ɛj (ɔj) ɛw ɔw
  • The diphthong /ɔj/ is restricted to a fairly small number of loanwords.

Archaic inventoryEdit

Unrounded
short
Unrounded
long
Unrounded
pharyngeal
Rounded
short
Rounded
long
Rounded
pharyngeal
Open a aˤː
Mid ɛ ɛː ɛˤː ɔ (ɔː) ɔˤː
Near-close ɪ ɪː
Close u
Unrounded +
unrounded
Rounded +
unrounded
Pharyngealised
+ unrounded
Unrounded +
rounded
Rounded +
rounded
Pharnygealised
+ rounded
Open aj aˤːj aw aˤːw
Mid ɛj (ɔj) əˤj ɛw (ɔw) əˤw
  • There were three pharyngealised monophthongs and four pharyngealised diphthongs. As against that, /ɔː/ and /ɔw/ were still restricted to loanwords (modern /ɔː/, /ɔw/ in inherited words going back to archaic /ɔˤː/, /əˤw/).
  • 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/.)

NeutralisationEdit

  • 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 and h (see these).

StressEdit

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 followed by a short vowel.

Stress is therefore phonemic and always indicated it in our transcriptions (except in monosyllabes). Regarding word-final geminates this means that the rule is reversed: If a stressed short vowel is followed by only one spoken consonant, this consonant will be geminated before endings.

VariationEdit

As can be expected in such a small territory, dialectal differences in Maltese have always been limited. The modern language is even more unified.

PhonemicEdit

Phonemically relevant variation occurs chiefly with respect to the vowelisation of and h:

  • 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/. Relatedly, the sequence ehi may be pronounced /ɛˈjiː/ or /ɛj/.
  • The sequences għaj and għaw may be realised with a lengthened or a short diphthong. The short pronunciation is more usual, except when the semivowel is geminated before another vowel. In this latter case it is predominantly the gemination which is reduced. Thus /ˈdaj.sa/ rather than /ˈdaːj.sa/ for dgħajsa, but /ˈdaː.jɛs/ rather than /ˈdaj.jɛs/ for the plural dgħajjes. A similar variation occurs with diphthongs followed by the suffixes -ha and -hom.
  • Some contemporary speakers also shorten the vowel in monosyllabic nouns of the form VCC (e.g. għonq). Verbs R1= are not affected by this. However, in verbs R2= the vowel may be shortened in the 1st and 2nd-person past-tense forms (by analogy with the so-called hollow roots). Hence lgħabt is pronounced /laːpt/ or /lapt/.
  • A minority of speakers, contrarily, 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 underlying pharyngealisation in this syllable type, though the vowel is not actually pharyngealised anymore.
  • 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 [ˈħaːˈd͡ʒɔħ.ra].

AllophonicEdit

Entirely allophonous features include the following:

  • /n/ becomes [ŋ] before /k/ and /ɡ/.
  • The phoneme /ħ/ has three realisations. The most frequent of them is pharyngeal [ħ], which is usual in all positions. Glottal [h] is quite common syllable-initially but very rare in gemination, while uvular [χ] has the inverse distribution, being commonest in gemination and rarest in the syllable onset. Individual speakers may use one, two, or all three of these allophones in ways that are not always predictable.
  • 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).

See alsoEdit