Can North Africans Understand Maltese?

This 35-minute video is a real treat:

What is the degree of mutual intelligibility between the North African dialects of Arabic, from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and the Maltese language […] In this video, we’ll take a look at how well Libyans, Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans can understand Maltese with Sean (Maltese speaker) reading a couple of short paragraphs and proverbs to Lameese, Donia, Yasser, and Jihane, who represent Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, respectively.

It’s hosted by Bahador Alast, who apparently has a whole series of such videos (e.g., Yemenite vs Samaritan vs Modern Hebrew). I know enough basic Arabic vocabulary that I was able to follow what was going on, and I expect it to be of considerable interest to drasvi (if he hasn’t seen it already).

Also, Jongseong Park sent me his new video (19:00) about the Tham Lanna script of northern Thailand:

The terminology is quite complicated as the writing system that developed in the Lanna kingdom spread to surrounding areas and was adopted by many Tai groups such as Tai Lü and Khün. Unicode groups them all together as Tai Tham, and I used this name throughout the video, though I did use Tham Lanna in the title. It is most commonly called the Lanna script from what I’ve seen.

I went to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand last month and turned my trip into a bit of a treasure hunt to find as many examples of this script as I could. I didn’t do any prior research so I didn’t know how common it would be, and was pleasantly surprised to see lots of examples throughout the city. I was vaguely hoping to find examples of palm leaf manuscripts produced by Buddhist monks because that was what I associated with this script, but hadn’t expected to see it on signs.



  1. Once I tried playing a speech in Maltese to a cousin who had lived in Italy for a while.

    He listened for a while, laughed, and said “That’s how Algerians in Italy talk!”

    (Exaggeration, obviously…)

  2. Thanks for sharing the Tham Lanna video!

    A former colleague of mine is from Algeria and also is fluent in Italian having worked previously in Italy. She claimed to have no problem understanding Maltese if I recall correctly.

  3. Just in case anyone didn’t notice, Maltese / Arabic mutual intelligibility is also being discussed right now over at Language Log, including a citation to bulbul’s study from a few years ago.

  4. Interesting synchronicity, what with me up to my neck in Maltese data in preparation for the next AIDA.
    I have seen many videos like this which typically contradict my findings (thanks to MMcM for the plug) and anecdotal evidence, such as that of Jongseong’s colleague. For me, it just goes to show that the non-verbal aspects of communication do a lot of the heavy lifting.

  5. Bahador Alast’s channel is definitely full of really interesting videos that compare languages that share similarities through common descent, borrowings, or both.

    But it’s also worth reminding ourselves that the examples are chosen to emphasize these resemblances. One of their videos purport to show similarities between Korean and Tamil, using cherry-picked examples of coincidentally similar-sounding vocabulary to insinuate a relationship between the two languages that no serious linguist today would argue in favour of.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Even if not cherrypicked, this is a different sort of test than you would have if the various Maghrebi-dialect speakers were listening to a recording of a conversation between two Maltese-speakers who were not deliberately trying to avoid being understood by outsiders but who were also not doing any of the comprehension-promoting things (slower tempo, clearer enunciation and less elision …) that you tend to do when you are self-consciously aware that you’re speaking to/for an outsider audience.

  7. Yeah, he was obviously stacking the deck and I didn’t take it as a serious/scientific exploration of the intelligibility issue, but I still enjoyed the heck out of it.

  8. ktschwarz says

    the non-verbal aspects of communication do a lot of the heavy lifting: Stan Carey has some stories of “conversations” without mutually intelligible language, relying on gesture and “a shared context, goal, or object of attention”.

  9. @LH, yes, it is, thanks!
    One confounding factor is of course presence of foreign vocabulary in Maltese.
    Which comparison is more informative and fair:
    – a Maghrebi Arabic speaker vs. core Maltese (that is a recording with mostly Semitic words)
    – a Maghrebi Arabic speaker who has grown up with Rai Uno and speaks fluent English vs. Maltese
    – a Maghrebi Arabic speaker who does not know Romance vs. Maltese?

    Not to meantion that each has a well-trained ear for dialects and langauges because of her experience with the literary language and other dialects (meanwhile people vary a lot in their performance with other dialects – I don’t know if this is due to interpersonal differences or to differences in exposure).

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I have a Maltese colleague who works in a department with several North African students (when we talked about it these were mainly Libyan, but that was before present chaos in Libya). She said she could tell what the students were talking about (sometimes derogatory comments about her) but she couldn’t follow their conversations in any detail. I imagine the same applies in the reverse direction. (Having said that, it doesn’t work all the time: Portuguese speakers can make a lot of sense of Spanish, but Spanish speakers can’t make much sense of European Portuguese. I gather it’s similar with Danish and Swedish).

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Agolle Kusaal speakers find it easier to understand the Toende dialect than vice versa (despite Toende speakers being fewer, and their dialect not being felt to be particularly prestigious by Agolle speakers.)

    It may be to do with the fact that the Toende dialect is more conservative phonologically (on balance), which would parallel the Portuguese/Spanish asymmetry (and Danish/Swedish too, if Danes find it easier to understand Swedish than vice versa.)

    If this carried over into Maltese vs Tunisian Arabic, you might expect Maltese to understand Tunisians better than the reverse, I imagine. Mind you, I don’t know how far Tunisian Arabic has gone its own idiosyncratic way: maybe even farther than Maltese in some respects.

  12. One thing I didn’t really have time to get into in the video about Tham Lanna was to what extent Northern Thai (Lanna) was mutually intelligible with Central Thai.

    As I said in the video, I’ve seen the relationship compared to that between Portuguese and Spanish. But the exclusive use of Central Thai in education means that educated Northern Thai speakers will have no problem understanding Central Thai, and Northern Thai itself seems to be becoming more influenced by Central Thai.

    I don’t speak either language so I can’t tell, though in Chiang Mai I did often hear women use Northern Thai chao as the polite particle instead of Central Thai kha among themselves (though not when greeting foreigners). So if they weren’t speaking full-fledged Northern Thai, there was at the very least some code mixing going on.

    Comparing the Tham Lanna and Thai scripts also allowed me to see some of the systematic correspondences between the sounds of Northern Thai and Central Thai, including how the original voiced stops and affricates became voiceless unaspirated in the former but voiceless aspirated in the latter. These also affected their respective tone systems. But I didn’t have time to get into all this in the video.

  13. John Cowan says

    Bahador Alast from 2022.

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