A bipartisan Buttigieg effect? The people of this gorgeous island country say yes

Jen Rose Smith, CNNUpdated 2nd March 2020
(CNN) — Although American presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race this week, his hard-to-pronounce name has given US voters a lesson in phonetics.
While most US presidential candidates' pins and shirts bear names or slogans, Buttigieg's fans wore swag explaining the famously tricky pronunciation of his name. (Their shirts, pins and hats read "Boot Edge Edge" and "Buddha Judge.")
Why was it so hard for Americans to sound out his name? One reason might be its origins. The name Buttigieg comes from Maltese, a language unlike any other on earth.
"All languages draw from other languages," says Joseph Brincat, an expert in the history of the Maltese language and the author of "Maltese and Other Languages: A Linguistic History of Malta."
"Maltese draws not just from different languages but from three language families."
The first of these language groups, Semitic, also includes Hebrew and Arabic. The other two, Romance and Germanic, are part of the large Indo-European language family. (French and Italian are both Romance languages; English, Dutch and Icelandic are all Germanic languages with a common ancestor.)
And while Maltese is considered a dialect of Arabic, Arabic speakers in nearby Tunisia and Libya can understand only 40% of spoken Maltese.
The written version, moreover, would be nearly impossible to parse. Dozens of Semitic languages are spoken across the Middle East and Africa, and they're written in scripts that range from the Hebrew alphabet to the rounded Ge'ez script used in Ethiopia. Alone among Semitic languages, Maltese is written in the Latin script employed by English and many other European languages.
How did this unique dialect of Arabic land on a Mediterranean island? During the Muslim conquest of the Mediterranean world starting in the 7th century AD, the language spread along with eastern technologies, ideas and foods.
Arabs arriving from Sicily invaded Malta in 870, deposing then-Byzantine rulers and seizing power for the next 200 years. While it's unknown exactly when Arabic took root in the islands, linguists believe modern-day Maltese is descended from a dialect of Arabic spoken in the Middle Ages.

The Midpoint of the Mediterranean

Paradise Bay is perched at the northern tip of the island of Malta.
Paradise Bay is perched at the northern tip of the island of Malta.
Courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
Surrounded by powdery beaches and rock formations, the country of Malta is an archipelago just south of Sicily, with three main islands that make up just 122 square miles.
Closer to the African cities of Tunis and Tripoli than it is to Rome, Malta is often called the midpoint of the Mediterranean, and for the seafaring powers that once grappled for power here that strategic location made the islands a sought-after prize.
A who's-who of conquerors in Malta would range from the ancient Romans to Napoleon, the Byzantines to the British. That history transformed the island's Mediterranean Arabic into something uniquely Maltese, a language imprinted by centuries of outside influence.
Now, says Brincat, more than half the vocabulary comes from Sicilian or Italian, with just a third reflecting the original Arabic. Malta was also part of the British Empire for more than 150 years, and some 8% of modern Maltese is drawn from English.
With such diverse influences, Maltese can be a mouthful. From a pronunciation perspective, however, the name Buttigieg is pretty basic.
(As an example of a more challenging word, the Professor proposed Ħan Gћargћur, a hilltop village whose name Brincat pronounced with a deft, throaty trill that sounds something like: ha ra raow.)

A convergence of cultures

St. John's Co-Cathedral is a Baroque masterpiece.
St. John's Co-Cathedral is a Baroque masterpiece.
Courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
It's not just the language. The same power struggles that shaped Maltese are written in stone throughout the islands.
Visitors can explore that history in the capital city of Valletta, a World Heritage Site that UNESCO describes as "one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world."
Among the city's highlights is St. John's Co-Cathedral, a masterpiece of Baroque artwork and architecture. (A co-cathedral shares a bishop's seat with another church; in Malta, the main seat of the archdiocese is St. Paul's Cathedral in Mdina.)
Even the floor is exquisite. The co-cathedral's sanctuary is paved in brilliant-colored marble marking nearly 400 tombstones of Knights of Saint John, a religious order that founded Valletta and became militarized during the First Crusade to Jerusalem.
Ottoman forces faced off against the Knights of St. John across the Grand Harbour during the Great Siege of Malta.
Ottoman forces faced off against the Knights of St. John across the Grand Harbour during the Great Siege of Malta.
Courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
Just across the water from Valletta is Fort St. Angelo, which become a strategic stronghold for the Knights of Saint John when Ottoman troops laid siege to the island in 1565 for more than three months.
It was a particularly bloody episode in the running contest for power and faith in the Mediterranean, and it riveted Europe. "If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta," said England's Queen Elizabeth I, "it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom."
In one grisly confrontation, the Ottoman army floated the headless bodies of Christian knights into Valletta's Grand Harbour in an attempt to demoralize enemy forces. Local Christians, in turn, decapitated Ottoman prisoners and loaded their heads into the cannons of Fort St. Angelo.
Today, a public holiday called Victory Day commemorates September 8th, 1565, when Ottoman invaders drew back, forever ending Malta's role in the struggle between Muslim and Christian forces.

Malta's ancient mysteries

Gozo's Ggantija Temples are older than the pyramids of Egypt.
Gozo's Ggantija Temples are older than the pyramids of Egypt.
Courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
That culture war is hundreds of years in the past, but compared to Malta's most ancient sites, the conflict between the Christian and Muslim worlds in this majority-Catholic country seems like recent history.
Built across the islands of Malta and Gozo are seven megalithic temples that are some of the oldest free-standing stone buildings on earth.
The temples, which together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are a mysterious window into the Bronze Age.
Step into the hilltop site of Ħaġar Qim, a temple built between 3200 and 3600 BC, and you'll enter a world aligned to the heavens. A chamber here is carved to admit a warm beam of sunshine on the summer solstice.
In the megalithic temples, bas-reliefs show images of the natural world, including plants, animals and trees. Within the temples, archeologists have found statues depicting corpulent women (PDF), and some have speculated that the islands were a site of fertility- and goddess-worship.
Much about the ancient people who built these temples remain a mystery.
Linguists don't know what language was spoken here when megalithic temples were constructed across Malta in the 3rd and 4th millennia BC. Thousands of years after islanders erected sanctuaries honoring natural cycles, even their simplest words are lost to history.

The Buttigieg effect?

Battery Street is one of many narrow streets in the capital city of Valletta.
Battery Street is one of many narrow streets in the capital city of Valletta.
Courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
Today, the ancient Maltese can speak only through their stones. Modern Maltese people, however, have the "Times of Malta," the country's most widely circulated paper.
The newspaper covered the Buttigieg primary campaign long before the former mayor of South Bend collected delegates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Language is front and center. One story described Buttigieg's own uphill efforts to explain the pronunciation of his name, which can be roughly translated to "lord of the poultry."
And recent coverage points to the benefits for Maltese-Americans of the ongoing conversations about their ancestral language. "Malta has been living under the radar for so long," Maltese-American Joe Gauci told "Times of Malta" journalist Vanessa Conneely. "People are discovering our diamond in the Mediterranean Sea."
Some Maltese-Americans understood the candidate's struggles all too well. "Growing up with the name Buttigieg was interesting," Michigan resident Lisa Buttigieg-LiGreci explained to Conneely. "No one ever heard of it or could pronounce it."
Conneely pointed to "The Buttigieg Effect" as a chance for Americans to finally learn the basics of Maltese. But even among the relatively small demographic of Maltese-Americans named "Buttigieg," however, consensus is still hard to reach during the campaign. Lisa Buttigieg-LiGreci, for one, didn't approve of Mayor Pete's pronunciation of his own name.
"I think it sounds more like Boot-a-jeej," she told Conneely, "and I plan to tell candidate Pete when I meet him."