Linguist and semiologist Ferdinand de Saussure had birthed, for the purpose of the study of signs, the concept of signifier/signified. The signifier is the object transmitting the signified, that is, the meanings and connotations of the sign. These can only materialise through the receiver in human form, who comes up with a multitude of interpretations of that sign.

Any object, any smell, or any sensation can be considered to be a signifier, so long as the human brain and indeed the heart is forming, processing and experiencing the signified. Architecture and symbols of heritage are excellent examples of signifiers which create signified activity aplenty. Such symbols can mean so many different things to so many individuals, and their existence as signifiers is an interesting one, as the signified they cause is very much dependent on the geographical origin of the receiver. For example, the Big Ben as a signifier produces a very different signified from a first-time tourist to the signified created by a London city worker who passes by it on a daily basis.

The principle holds exactly the same for Maltese symbols and characteristics. Indeed, the signifiers’ effects, that is, the traditional symbols, tend to wear off due to their eternal presence in the Maltese receiver’s surroundings. A Maltese native is never really surprised by ringing church bells. We’re used to the magnitude of ground-shaking petards. Our eyes are attune to the vibrant colours of the luzzu. Yet, a tourist on holiday in Malta would find the above quirks to be absolutely intriguing, and would therefore form a more heightened signified in his mind.


Photo credits : Rachel Farrugia 


Our landscape is peppered with indigenous emblems, which collectively contribute towards the ‘Malteseness’ of it all. They emanate a plethora of signifieds. Take the Maltese wooden balcony for example. One glance upwards at the jewel coloured boxes, and they ooze antiquity and tradition. Their rustic wooden panels speak historic volumes. Oddly enough, very much like our language, the wooden balcony isn’t originally Maltese; it has North African roots, planted by Turkish slaves who helped construct such balconies in the mid-eighteenth century. Yet, we’ve made it ours through the passage of time. When walking through the sloping streets of Valletta, they float above you, watching you as you go by. There’s always someone peeping through his/her box. The boxes are Valletta’s many watchful eyes.


Photo credits : Rachel Farrugia 


Another strong signifier is the Mdina door knocker, signifying so many characteristics of Maltese heritage, particular to the Silent City. The door knockers are big, bold and brassy. It doesn’t get more Maltese than that, really. The figures chosen for ornamentation also signify the fishing and sea-faring trade which is intrinsically stitched into our history. They are also somehow reminiscent of the markings on our old currency, particularly the dolphin fish on the 10c coin.


Photo credits : Rachel Farrugia 


Speaking of our briny connections, the luzzu fishing boat is another emblem which cannot go unmentioned. The permanent choice of the three colours and the eye of Osiris is a signifier of the superstitious ways of both sailors and older Maltese generations. Somehow, the combination of red, blue, yellow and green link very closely to the choice of colours opted for the wooden balconies. It perhaps signifies the Mediterranean vibrancy of our land.


Photo credits : Rachel Farrugia 

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