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21 August 2014

The seven lost sounds of the Maltese language

 - Sunday, 02 December 2012, 12:00 , by Noel Grima

Quite a large audience, well beyond the capacity of the Palazzo Santa Sofia hall, attended a very informative and entertaining talk yesterday about the seven sounds that have been lost from the Maltese language.

The event was the first of Palazzo Falson’s Christmas Calendar and the speaker was Olvin Vella, lecturer and researcher in Maltese.

The subject matter, which must have attracted all those people, is a riveting one and merits greater exposure.

Mr Vella, like other researchers on the subject, went back to late mediaeval times when the Maltese language began to emerge from its obscure beginnings. Maltese, as many know, emerged from the Arab dialect that some say was spoken in Sicily, and the closer links with Sicily and Italy brought in a heavy influx of the Romance language that made Maltese what it is today.

Up till then, Maltese remained mainly a spoken language. It was only when it started to be transcribed that problems emerged over how to transcribe sounds that no comparable consonants could express.

This was also made more complicated when those who attempted to transcribe spoken Maltese were foreigners, like Hieronymus Megiser who likened some Maltese sounds to his native German.

Then came many Maltese writers such as G.F. Abela, Agius de Soldanis and M.A. Vassalli, but even then they were hampered by the fact that certain sounds could not be expressed by the existing typefaces. After some time, Maltese got the c, a z and a g with a dot on top and an h with a hyphen through its stem, but many years ago there were also experiments with a d and a t with a point on top to express a different sound, now lost.

Mr Vella argued that today’s Maltese has lost seven sounds and only two have survived in writing – the gh and the h.

But the others have survived, he said, in how people speak and especially people who still speak as Maltese used to be spoken all those years ago.

Helping him in his presentation was Lisa Frendo from Gharb in Gozo who has already appeared on Bondiplus to speak in her native dialect. But after appearing on the programme, she said yesterday, people from her village asked her why she had gone on television to speak in dialect. This is one way, Mr Vella insisted, in which we lose such sounds – because people are afraid they will be laughed at if they speak in dialect and so they auto-censure themselves.

One of the sounds that is still very controversial in Maltese is the gh. People like Ms Frendo still retain the heavy guttural sound, especially when it is at the beginning of a word. This is the reason why, for instance, a man from Gozo (Ghawdex) is called Ghawdxi and this has become the surname Gauci. Mr Vella also explained how Gharghur got its hard G sound – it is not, as many believe, because the British mispronounced the word but because, as can be found in notarial documents, its original name was Casal Grigori – the village of Gregory.

Gharb itself was called Garbo when writing was in Italian, because writers could not get over the gh sound except through making it harsher as G.

Use of the gh also brings to mind the different ways in which different Maltese pronounce the vowel following it. People from Cottonera invariably pronounce –ghu as U, while people from the rest of Malta pronounce it as AW.

An even more fascinating difference exists between the k and the q. People in Cottonera tend to use q for k almost everywhere, while people from Xewkija in Gozo and from certain parts of Victoria do the opposite. This is yet further evidence that there is a sound that has gone missing.

The missing sounds of Maltese were picked up by various writers, such as Agius de Soldanis who, being Gozitan, recorded the sounds as he heard them in Gozo. Even so, he was ridiculed by Padre Pelagio for having a speech impairment when he was actually hearing the sounds correctly and transcribing them as he heard them.

As for the h sound, the fact that surnames such as Hagius and Habela surface in notarial documents indicates that the h sound must have somehow been heard for it to be transcribed at the beginning of a word.

Apart from notarial documents, other rich sources of spoken Maltese come from testimonies – mainly at the Inquisitor’s Court – even if the sounds are often transcribed into Italian. However, because the charges were frequently for alleged swearing, it is sometimes from quite colourful swearing that we get to know how Maltese sounded 200 or 300 years ago.

But the most intriguing source – and one that had the audience roaring with laughter – came from no less than a learned priest, a writer of theological books that were published in Rome, a lecturer on theology in Rome, Dun Felic Demarco, who somehow copied and expanded a quite scurrilous poem for Carnival in which a man describes his girlfriend in a quite graphic, explicit and politically incorrect way, naming genitalia in earthy, graphic words that are not normally used in society.

And this ‘poem’ came to us because it was transcribed and published by yet another priest, Ignazio Saverio Mifsud.

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