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

Introduction

Malta (ancient Melita) is the name of the main island of a Mediterranean archipelago which, including Gozo, Comino, and a number of uninhabited isles, has a total surface area of roughly 316 km2. It lies some 93km (58 miles) away from Capo Passero, the southernmost tip of Sicily, and about 289 km (180 miles) S. E. by E. of Cape Bon, the nearest point in Tunisia. A former British colony, Malta obtained its independence in 1964 and became a Republic in 1974. It is now a democratic sovereign state within the British Commonwealth and the European Union. Its national language is Maltese, while English is a second official language. In 2005, life expectancy stood at 77.7 for males and 81.4 for females (1). The crude rates for births, deaths, and marriages stood at 9.56, 7.76, and 5.88 (2). The number of immigrant arrivals in recent years was 339 (in 1999), 450 (in 2000), and 472 (in 2001). Figures for emigrant departures (excluding unrecorded migration) read 67 (for 1999) and 67 (for 2000) (3). According to the 2005 Census, the population stands at 404,962 (4).

The same source claims that the number of foreign nationals living in Malta has reached 12,112. This means that only 392,850 (194,907 males and 197,943 females) or 97% of the said population are actually Maltese. More than a third are British (4,713). However, according to the British Institute for Public Policy, at present there are some 9,000 Britons living in Malta, while 3,597 are pensioners who have chosen Malta as their place of retirement (5).

Malta was inhabited in ancient times by a Mediterranean race, whose megalithic monuments, dating from the fourth and third millennia BC, are still preserved to this day (6). The Phoenicians introduced an oriental Semitic culture as from the second half of the eighth century BC while their natural successors, the Carthaginians, swept the islands into a predominantly western Mediterranean political realm from the fifth century BC onwards. This Punic legacy, which is evidently shared by Sicily and southern Italy, came to an abrupt end in 218 BC when during the Second Punic War the islands were annexed within the Roman Empire. The Romans incorporated the Maltese islands in their first overseas province, that of Sicily (7).

Christianity gradually infiltrated Malta in the first century AD, but it steadily grew in importance when Rome itself embraced the religion. In the period spanning from the second half of the fifth century and the first half of the sixth century, Malta might have been occupied by barbarian hordes, Vandals from North Africa and Ostrogoths from Italy. Malta is thought to have been absorbed by the Byzantine Empire in AD 535 when Sicily and its neighboring islands were conquered by Justinian’s general Belisarius (8). The island was subsequently ruled by the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Knights of St John, the French, and the British. The historical relevance of all these periods of submission are treated in some detail in subsequent chapters. They are, after all, the sources of Malta’s contemporary repertoire of surnames, which obviously can only be explained in the light of past conquests and spheres of influence.

Despite its almost inconsiderable size, Malta’s colorful and checkered history has guaranteed a steady flow of foreign family names. Its surnominal pool is truly staggering, perhaps also vindicated by its being markedly overpopulated. A total of 12,310 surnames were in fact recorded in the 2005 Census. 9,507 persons (2.3% of the population) carried double-barreled surnames, while for 8,965 persons (2.2% of the population), for some reason or another, no surname was ascribed.

Originally, surnames inferred some attribute or peculiarity of their bearers, but today they have lost their semantic purpose and can be best described as labels merely indicating family membership. Thereby it is very easy to overlook their ethnic character, when in real fact our heritage has been gridlocked with our surname. This very intimate tag is our only traceable historical link to the unique performance of our most cherished and vital possession, our body particular, no matter which way we perceive it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson aptly puts it: ‘We are the sum total of our ancestors’.

Foreigners, who seek an explanation about the Maltese race, may be intrigued to learn that this country has had prime ministers with an English family name, like Joseph Howard and Gerald Strickland, while others had Italian ones, like Paul Boffa, Enrico Mizzi, Alfred Sant, and Laurence Gonzi. There were also some with names of Arabic origin like Francesco Buhagiar, Ugo Mifsud, and Dom Mintoff, while three others had a mixture of two sources, George Borg Olivier, Edward Fenech Adami, and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici. They were all Maltese and it never crossed their mind to qualify this further (9).

The Maltese language, as indicated elsewhere, is of Semitic extraction with a Romance superstructure. In the second half of the 20th century, subject to the all-conquering influence of English, the local tongue has been embracing new words of mainly Anglo-Saxon origin. To conform to the evolutionary pattern of the native tongue, Maltese surnames can easily be divided into three broad divisions, which are (a) surnames belonging to the Semitic stock, (b) surnames belonging to the Romance stock which in turn, are subdivided into two categories, namely (i) those which originated in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, and (ii) those which emerged since the dawn of modern times, and (c) the spate of British, Irish, German, Slavonic and other European family names which accumulated through relatively recent ethnic intermarriages.

The number of local Semitic surnames is only around fifty, but ironically each one of them is borne by a significant aggregate of families in Malta and Gozo, whereas many of the more modern Romance and European surnames, though far more numerous, are borne each by a smaller number of families, in some cases by just a handful (10). Speaking of frequency, the top twelve Semitic surnames in Malta are Borg, Farrugia, Zammit, Micallef, Cassar, Mifsud, Caruana, Agius, Fenech, Bugeja, Gauci, and Sammut; while the top twelve non-Semitic surnames are Camilleri, Vella, Galea, Grech (for Greco or Grechi), Attard (for Attardo/i), Spiteri, Azzopardi, Muscat (for Moscato/i), Schembri, Abela, Pace, and Gatt (for Gatto/i) (11).

Notes:
  1. Demographic Review 2007, Malta: National Statistics Office [NSO], 2008, p. 48.
  2. Demographic Review 2007, pp. 20, 30, 49. Crude rates are calculated according to occurrencies per 1,000 in total mid-year population.
  3. European Union Encyclopedia and Dictionary 2005 [EUED], London: Europa Publications, 2004, p. 510.
  4. The estimated population of Malta at the end of 2007 stood at 410,290. Cf. Demographic Review 2007, p. vi.
  5. This statistical discrepancy can only infer that many Britons have only sojourned on a part time basis. In October 2006, Dr Tonio Borg, then Minister of Internal Affairs, acknowledged that 18,646 foreigners held a local identity card. 9,937 of these came from EU states. If one compares these numbers with the findings of the London Institute, it transpires that almost half of the foreign inhabitants in Malta hail from Great Britain; these amount to 90.6% of all EU residents. Cf. Il-Mument, 17/12/2006.
  6. Cf. D. H. Trump, Malta: Prehistory and Temples, Midsea Books, Malta, 2002.
  7. Cf. A. Bonanno, Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman, Midsea Books, Malta, 2005.
  8. Cf. A. Bonanno, ‘Malta during Phoenician, Roman, and Byzantine Times: Outside Influence and Original Traits’, in K. Gambin (ed.), Malta - Roots of a Nation: The Development of Malta from an Island People to an Island Nation, Malta: Heritage Malta, 2004, pp. 45--54.
  9. E.V. Saliba, ‘The Roots of Independence’, The Sunday Times [of Malta], 22/4/07.
  10. J. Aquilina, ‘A Comparative Study in Lexical Material Relating to Nicknames and Surnames’, Maltese Linguistic Surveys, Malta: The University of Malta, 1976, p. 191.
  11. Camilleri admittedly provides a sort of conundrum; although deriving from Italian cammelliere, the term itself summons Siculo-Arabic nisba al-qamillari (‘camel driver’).

  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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