1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames

A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames

The cognominal pool of a population (considering typology, number, distribution, frequency, etc.) informs on the cultural characteristics of that group, on its internal structure, on its degree of isolation or aperture, on the relations with other populations, on migratory exchanges, on the reconstruction of its history and its evolution.

Maltese onomastics, family names included, is polystratum and polyglot, as surnames have reached the island over many centuries in complicated historical and linguistic conditions, and as Malta has always been a place for coexistence of various ethnoses and their respective languages. Linguists distinguish the following three major anthroponymic strata on the modern map of Maltese surnames: Semitic (Arab and Hebrew), Romance (Italian, Sicilian, Spanish, French), and English (as well as Scottish, Irish, and Welsh).

Some of the oldest Maltese surnames are Arabic. The local vernacular itself developed from a medieval variety of dialectal Arabic during the Saracen occupation (870–1091). After the Norman invasion, the indigenous Muslim population, although subjected to Christian rule, still maintained its strong cultural and linguistic influence. The expulsion of the Muslims in the 13th century, and that of the Jews in the 15th century, however, brought about the final rupturing of the powerful cultural ties which had bound Malta to the North African Arabo-Berber world. Since then, the dominant cultural driving force in Malta has come from Sicily, Italy, and other European, mainly Mediterranean, countries. The Norman Conquest precipitated the feudal system in Malta, and subsequently the flow of family names. The Normans (House of Hautville, 1091–1194) and, subsequently, the Swabians (House of Hohenstaufen, 1194–1266) introduced a spate of continental names, as these new lords, together with their relatives and entourages, created their own local communities and started mingling with the indigenous Semitic stock.

Romance surnames must have been progressively added by the Angevins (House of Anjou, 1266–83), the Aragonese (1283–1410), and the Castilians (1410–1530) (15). Early in Angevin times, government officials were repeatedly instructed to keep personal records in the form of names and surnames. By way of example, in 1271, the magister and castellan of Malta was directed to document the names and surnames of those responsible for the transportation of falcons to the royal court from the island, as well as of the serfs performing duties towards the royal estates. However, the oldest surviving record shedding light on local medieval nomenclature is a 1277 official and authenticated copy of the list of 38 names and surnames of persons pertaining the wealthy elite (e.g. Leo Caleya [Calleja] and Nicolaus Grecus [Grech]) (16).

Other short inventories of names and surnames survive in a 1299 Gozitan manuscript, which includes the surname Attard, and a 1324 notarial document, which includes the surnames Cuschieri and Sciriha (17). These sources, together with other random 14th century manuscript literature, admittedly provide some worthy information on toponyms, nicknames, and family names, but the data is necessarily cumbersome and fragmentary. By far, the first sizeable and systematic lists of Maltese surnames date back to the Late Middle Ages; the most essential being undoubtedly the Militia Roll of 1419/20 and the Angara Roster of the 1480s. The former contains 1,870 names, of which 57 belonged to the Jewish community of Malta, while the latter contains 1,466 Christian names and 52 Jewish ones. Some names like Cagege, Capo, Ponzo, Rifacano, Sardo, and Vaccaro, have since become extinct (18).

However, it is immediately obvious that, by then, the majority of typical Maltese surnames were already well established – not only such obviously Semitic ones like Abdilla, Agius, Asciak, Bajada, Bugeja, Buhagiar, Borg, Busuttil, Buttigieg, Caruana, Cassar, Chetcuti, Ebejer, Farrugia, Fenech, Micallef, Mifsud, Saliba, Zerafa, and Zammit, but many others which are clearly of European extraction (mainly Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, and Greek) like Azzopardi, Baldacchino, Portelli, Brincat, Bonnici, Cachia, Cardona, Cilia, Dalli, Darmanin, Debono, Formosa, Gatt, Galea, Grima, Aquilina, Mallia, Pace, Falzon, and Vella. Strangely enough, other common local surnames such as Abela, Cini, Apap, Mamo, Mercieca, Sultana, Tanti, and Thuema do not occur at all in either list (19). It is therefore assumed that these family names were imported at a later stage, probably during the period of the Knights.

Another snap observation is that men bearing a non-Semitic surname, by this time, already amply outnumber the ones with a Semitic name. This does not necessarily imply that these men were of European stock. Notaries, civil clerks, and clerics, so deeply immersed in continental culture, often Latinized, or better Sicilianized Semitic surnames according to their whims, either phonetically or morphologically. This goes to explain why ‘Maltese’ surnames (even those of Semitic stock) do not comply with modern orthographic rules. Surnames such as Ebejer, Agius, and Cassar, for centuries long, have been standardized and legally entrenched at the expense of Għebejjer, Għaġuż, and Kassar, even though the latter forms seem to enjoy the correct spellings (20).

It is clear that there was a sustained effort during the Late Middle Ages to move away from the more obvious Arabic and Muslim names. Some surnames, such as Harabi, Razul, Xara, Hakem, Maxta, and Buras vanished almost completely by the time the Knights appropriated the Maltese Islands. Others, so to speak, survived in disguised forms. For instance, family names like Caruana (< Karwan), Farrugia (< Farruġ), and Saliba (< Salib) acquired the final -a to comply with Romance morphological patterns. It has been suggested that Mamo could be a contracted (and contorted) form of the first name Mohammad, while Pullicino could be an approximate translation of Chetcuti, meaning ‘chicken’; similarly Magro and Pace could be respectively Italian calques of Deyf (albeit by mistake) and Salem (21).

The small medieval Jewish community of Malta was expelled from the islands in 1492, but a minority of Jews avoided the common fate by converting to Catholicism and thereafter merged with the rest of the population. It is important to recall that while the Jews of Malta, like those of Sicily, naturally practiced Judaism, they actually spoke Arabic. In this manner, the naming patterns of this community must surely have left, albeit marginally, some impact on local onomastics. Some local Semitic names might have originated from Jewish sources.

After being expelled from Rhodes in 1522 by the Ottoman Turks, the Knights Hospitallers moved to Malta and settled Birgu in 1530. A good number of Rhodians, by some accounts five to six hundred, followed them to the island, where they stayed and intermarried (22). This might explain the existence of old Greek surnames in Malta like Piscopo, Anastasi, Callus, and possibly the considerable number of Grechs, meaning ‘Greeks’. Many of these Rhodians did not have surnames as such. Most of them adopted provenance epithets which eventually evolved into fully-fledged surnames of the toponymic type: Cipriott(o), Zante, Del Rodo, Calamatta, Sciotto, De Candia, Santorino. Non-toponymic Hellenic surnames include Perdicomati, Paleologo, Fardella, Roncali. Other Greeks bore the Italian surname of their Venetian, Genoese or Amalfitan ancestors (De Bono, Speranza, Maldonatao, Grandanig(o)), while a few family names were of Albanian origin (occurring also among the southern Italian and Sicilian diaspora); these include Depiro (< D’Epiro), Crispo, Caliva. Practically all of these surnames belonged to the Three Cities and to a lesser extent Valletta, in 1687 (23). Though the Maltese of Greek descent may have come directly from their homeland, one must bear in mind that the Hellenes had for long been present in Sicily and southern Italy, especially the Magna Graecia, whence we have had many immigrants who settled in Malta for good. For instance, when Valletta was being built, the Knights secured large importations of labourers from Sicily and Calabria to help in the works (24).

An even more substantial, if less frequently suspected element, is that of the Moslem slaves living in the islands in the Late Medieval and Magisterial periods. The conversion and intermarriages of these unfortunates was a common enough occurrence, especially during the rule of the Order when Malta was one of the biggest keepers of slaves in the Christian Mediterranean. Joseph Cassar Pullicino relates how at that time as many as 60 to 70 slaves of the Order alone might seek baptism in any one year, and there are also abundant records of household slaves of Maltese families turning Christian. The converts, representing a wide range of ethnic backgrounds (Djerban, Turkish, Albanian, Slavic, Arab, Persian, Berber, black African) assumed the surnames of their masters, or of their sponsors in baptism, and are no doubt responsible for the racial ‘throw-backs’ encountered occasionally among the population, encountered in the endogamous villages (25).

However the prolonged stay of the Knights of John (1530–1798) precipitated, in a more pronounced manner, an influx of Neo-Latin and continental surnames. The Order employed many foreigners in all its businesses; a lot of artisans, skilled labourers, servicemen, professional mariners, as well as legal, financial, administrative, clerical, and medical personnel, settled in Malta and subsequently intermarried with the locals. This ‘alien’ flood can be amply proved by the following two samples. Between 1587 and 1635, 859 marriages were registered at Cospicua. Of these 301 (a staggering 35%) were contracted with foreign grooms who hailed mainly from France, Italy, Sicily, Spain, Candia, and Flanders. In the years 1627–1650, out of a total of 1,131 marriages registered at the Parish of Porto Salvo, Valletta, 365 (just over 32%) were contracted with foreigners, most of whom appear to have been sailors, merchants, and petty traders (26).

An examination of the distinctive surnames of Valletta and especially the Three Cities makes it clear that their first bearers were, like other maritime peoples, individuals connected with the sea-trade and hailing from the main Mediterranean ports with which Malta had commercial dealings between the 16th and the 19th centuries, namely Syracuse, Catania, Messina, Naples, Leghorn, Trieste, Genoa, Marseilles, and Barcelona. Often foreign mercenaries serving in the army of the Order chose to settle and marry in the islands. In the Cotonera relations between the locals and foreign residents were always close, and the consequences were not simply linguistic (27).

These foreigners were not just sailors and merchants who came to sell their wares and then departed. Many sought the companions of their lives among the Maltese girls. There are numerous attested cases of foreign parents whose children were born in Malta. But there were also young Sicilians, Neapolitans, Venetians, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, or Greeks. During the Magisterial era prostitution and illegitimacy were perennial problems in the Three Cities, and after the building of Valletta it was common for philandering knights to seek their pleasures in the poorer towns across the Grand Harbour. The frequent cases of Knights of the Order standing overt the font of Senglean and Vittoriosan children, a practice which the local clergy seemed particularly anxious to promote makes one suspect that at least in certain cases the godchildren in question were the illegitimate issue of members of the Order. Such a state of affairs could hardly fail to alter the ethnic and psychological make up of the city folk.

Many recent additions from Sicily and Italy, mainly confined to the capital city, date from the time of the Italian Risorgimento (1830–70) and later from 1903 to 1906 when the breakwater in the Grand Harbour was being constructed by workmen imported from Italy and Spain, some of whom married local women and settled in Albert Town, in the limits of Marsa and Paola (28).

Up till the early 20th century, social intercourse between the British and the Maltese was minimal, but the two great wars brought the two peoples in closer contact, and since we have had a considerable number of mixed marriages. This explains the present proliferation of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish surnames; to-day the Kitchers, the Rutters, the Howards, and the Becks have conspicuously encroached local anthroponomy. According to Census 2005, the ten commonest surnames in Malta originating from the British Isles are Jones, Mackay/Mckay, Smith, Martin, Turner, Brown, James, Roberts, Taylor, and Bray (29).

Otherwise one meets surnames from other sources, mainly German (e.g. Schranz, Brockdorff, Conrad, Schmidt, Wirth, Wismayer), Indian (e.g. Mohnani, Balani, Tarachand, Kiomall, Bharwani), Slavonic (e.g. Antoncich, Bogdanovich, Elich, Domancich, Nikolic), Chinese (e.g. Li, Wang, Zhang), Jewish (e.g. Cohen, Ohayon, Tayar), and recent Muslim additions from Turkey and North Africa (e.g. Abbas, Khan, Kasap, Tahir, Alakkad, Ahmad, Aslan, Mohamed).

A treacle of Bulgarian and black African surnames have recently also infiltrated the island through the engagement by local clubs of foreign footballers, some of whom have settled permanently and even married local girls. The local cognominal pool is bound to increase further due to the eventual naturalization of several irregular immigrants who have been arriving on our shores, fleeing misery or political trouble in their homelands.

Notes:
  1. Some Spanish surnames (e.g. Gusman, Cardona, Inguanez, etc.) must have surely drifted into the island before the coming of the Hospitallers.
  2. G. Wettinger, ‘The Origin of the “Maltese” Surnames,’ in Melita Historica, Vol. XII, No. 4 (1999), pp. 333–35.
  3. Wettinger (1999), pp. 336–37.
  4. G. Wettinger, ‘The Distribution of Surnames in Malta in 1419 and the 1480s,’ in Journal of Maltese Studies, No. 5 (1968), p. 25.
  5. Wettinger (1968), p. 26.
  6. Admittedly bureaucratic rigidity has not prevented the survival of doublets such as Sciberras/Xiberras and Scerri/Xerri. In such cases, both forms are perfectly legitimate.
  7. Wettinger (1968), p. 27.
  8. Cf. S. Fiorini, ‘The Rhodiot Community of Birgu, a Maltese City: 1530–c.1550,’ in Library of Maltese History, Vol. 1 (1994), pp. 183–241.
  9. G. Hull, The Malta Language Question: A Case Study in Cultural Imperialism, Malta: Said International, 1993, p. 330.
  10. J. Aquilina, ‘Race and Language in Malta’, Papers in Maltese Linguistics, Malta: The University of Malta, 1988, p. 179.
  11. Hull, p. 331.
  12. C. Cassar, Society, Culture and Identity in Early Modern Malta, Malta: Mireva, 2000, pp. 138–40.
  13. Hull, p. 331.
  14. Aquilina (1988), p. 179.
  15. Other surnames which occur in significant numbers include: Williams, Lewis, White, Edwards, and Carter.

  1. Introduction
  2. Some rambling thoughts
  3. A stratigraphy of Maltese surnames
  4. Hull’s theory of a Girgenti colony
  5. Early census taking and surname rankings
  6. Census 2005 and the commonest surnames in Malta
  7. The pantheon of Maltese surnames
  8. Surname frequencies by location
  9. A snapshot of Gozo
  10. The ‘Australian’ parallel sample
  11. Cognates and doublets
  12. Multiple surnames
  13. Extinct surnames
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