The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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Interview: An International society for Maltese linguistics

Malta Independent Monday, 9 April 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Why would it ever cross anyone’s mind to establish an international society for Maltese linguistics? Would it be worth the time and energy involved to do such a thing? Maltese is now an official language of the EU, but less than half a million people speak it. Well, it happens to be a German linguist called Thomas Stolz, who believes that setting up such a society is actually worthwhile. He was recently in Malta to speak about his venture, on which he is working together with a number of Maltese and foreign linguists and academics. Francesca Vella reports.

As he gave a brief welcome in Maltese to his audience at the university, Professor Thomas Stolz – who began studying the language about 10 years ago, saying he started off by reading Barnuza Hamra, Trevor Zahra’s translation of Little Red Riding Hood – was determined to try and “sell” his product.

Just imagine – a German trying to sell the idea of promoting the Maltese language, to Maltese speakers – the very thought makes the whole concept even more intriguing.

Immediately making himself clear that he believes the “time is ripe” for the setting up of such a society, “which dedicates itself to the study and promotion of Maltese linguistics on a global scale”, Prof. Stolz acknowledges that there may be many counter arguments in this regard.

He said that many people might think that Maltese is too small a language, spoken by too few people and in too small a country, and that the international community of “addicts” of Maltese is too small.

With such a backdrop then, these people would conclude that the language does not deserve or need a society of its own, and Malta is too small to afford the necessary manpower and funds for such a society, said Prof. Stolz.

However, he immediately goes into the reasons why Maltese should be given its due importance and why, in this sense, an international society could benefit the language and its speakers.

“For linguists in general, every language – no matter how small the speech community, its economical power and/or its cultural achievements – is a highly valuable treasure which deserves to be studied thoroughly in order to help us understand the most distinctive property of humans,” said Prof. Stolz.

He explains that it would make sense to put linguistic research of individual languages on a solid basis by creating and institutionalising an international network of researchers, whose activities can be coordinated under the auspices of a society devoted to the linguistics of a particular language, in this case Maltese.

Still, one can continue to ask why? – and Prof. Stolz, with his strong background in linguistics, says that to come to grips with the intricate nature of human language, it is not enough to glimpse occasionally at selected fragments of the grammar of just a few major languages and then generalise over the entire population of languages.

It makes ethical sense for linguists to see that as many languages as possible are adequately and exhaustively described, he insists, adding that there are thousands of languages that lack any institutional support; Maltese deserves a society of its own just like any other language.

It was immediately evident that the audience – mostly made up of academics – could appreciate Prof. Stolz’s efforts and the whole idea of setting up a society, which he referred to as l-Ghaqda (which would be a separate entity from the Ghaqda tal-Malti, of the University of Malta).

Possibly, the strength of the German professor’s argument lies in the very fact that it was centred around the main counter-arguments from those who may not agree with the establishment of a society for Maltese linguistics.

He says that, given the validity of linguists’ arguments in favour of the setting up of such an entity, “we still have to face the many potential counter-arguments in order to show that an international society of Maltese linguistics is necessary and feasible”.

Maltese is already included in societies of Oriental Studies

Modern Maltese is the product of centuries of intensive contact of a former purely Semitic language with its Romance neighbours.

English influence is currently strong and may be responsible for ongoing changes in Maltese phonology, grammar and lexicon, says Prof. Stolz, and Maltese has become an interesting subject for scholars who might not have any training in Oriental Studies.

Specialists of Romance languages, students of English varieties worldwide, linguists interested in language phenomena and many others, want to make Maltese the focus of their research without having to look at the language from the viewpoint of Oriental Studies.

With a view to facilitating the cooperation of these many groups of interested scholars, Maltese should be taken care of in a distinct society which is institutionally dissociated from Oriental Studies (without denying Orientalists the right to investigate Maltese either within their own academic circles or as members of the society-to-be).

Maltese topics are too few to render a separate society necessary and Maltese has already been described exhaustively

These counter-arguments are based on the general misconception among linguistic laymen, and possibly some academics, that the existence of a grammar and a dictionary is tantamount to an exhaustive description of a given language, said Prof. Stolz.

However, not even the evergreens of grammar writing and linguistic studies such as English and other major languages, may be considered to be known to man in all the necessary detail, he argues.

Malta is too small a country to afford the necessary manpower and funds for an international society

The German professor declares that his venture is clearly a way of opening doors for the Maltese language, and this will involve a number of projects for research purposes and for others to study the language more closely. Follow-up studies and new fields of research will be inevitable, but these will require funding.

Would this be too much for Malta, being such a small country that may not necessarily afford embarking on such a project, due to limited financial and human resources? asks Prof. Stolz.

“The study of Maltese is an international affair with a sizeable group of scholars working within institutions outside the Maltese islands. One of the aims of the

society will be to encourage people internationally to invest their time in researching the Maltese language.

“In this way, the burden of having to organise and carry out the many interesting projects can be lifted from the shoulders of our colleagues at the University of Malta and distributed among a larger group of interested scholars.”

The society itself can act independently from the socio-politico-economical situation of Malta and raise funds on a global scale from various sources, said Prof. Stolz, adding that the society will finance itself partly from the regular fees and partly from incoming funds. Depending on the success of fundraising, the society will be able to support projects on Maltese.

The society will organise a network to facilitate communication among students of Maltese, provide assistance for the organisation of projects, provide information about higher education courses devoted to Maltese, organise meetings and conferences and provide a publication forum, including a journal.

At the same time, the

society will be able to represent the interests of Maltese linguistics politically and work for the creation of academic positions dedicated to Maltese at universities outside Malta.

Malta already has Il-Kunsill ta’ l-Ilsien Malti

Prof. Stolz explains that there would be a clear division of labour between il-Kunsill and l-Ghaqda.

While Il-Kunsill has national tasks connected to questions of creating a normative grammar and further the use of Maltese in all functional domains in Malta, L-Ghaqda’s aim would be to provide a forum for academic research on Maltese, especially in locally-based and foreign institutions.

In addition, il-Kunsill backs the activities concerning the official status and role of Maltese on a European level (and beyond).

Il-Kunsill and l-Ghaqda can work together whenever this is necessary for the

benefit of one of the two organisations. Politically, it is advisable to have more than one organisation to

further the cause of Maltese, said Prof. Stolz.

A member of il-Kunsill should be on the board of l-Ghaqda and also one of the editors of the planned biennial journal of Maltese linguistics.

The existence of il-Kunsill does not preclude the co-existence of l-Ghaqda, nor does the latter claim to fulfil the specific function that il-Kunsill considers to be its prerogative.

The international community of “addicts” of Maltese is too small to require a society

Prof. Stolz said he has received very good feedback since he first made his venture public. He said about 50 people have already handed in applications to join the society as active members when it is up and running.

“Depending on the success of the inauguration of the society in October, I am confident that more people will become interested in Maltese, participate in

follow-up meetings and join l-Ghaqda,” he said, adding that not a single of the potential counter-arguments against the establishment of the society may be upheld.

* * *

‘L-Ghaqda Internazzjonali tal-Lingwistika Maltija’

It is actually going to happen – and very few people know about it. Lovers of the Maltese language will be proud to see its advancement and to see that it will be given more prominence on the world stage.

Many who attended Prof. Stolz’s talk at the university expressed their gratitude towards him, a foreigner, for working on a project in favour of the Maltese language. Others promised him their full support and said they would like to work closely with him.

Among the various projects planned as part of the society’s work are biennial conferences, the launch of the Reinhold-Kontzi prize for the best PhD

thesis, proposals for projects such as a handbook of Maltese and support for il-Kunsill and other relevant projects like the translation of Harry Potter into Maltese, which is currently underway.

* * *

Professor Thomas Stolz – German academic with a passion for Maltese

Prof. Stolz, from the University of Bremen in Germany, has been teaching Maltese for some years and has carried out research in Malta with his students since 1997.

He will make one of his greatest dreams come true in October, when he will be launching L-Ghaqda Internazzjonali tal-Lingwistika Maltija, which will be based in Bremen, with the aim of fostering Maltese studies and bringing together scholars of Maltese from all over Europe and the world.

The launch will take place during a conference in Bremen between 18 and 21 October this year. Topics of discussion include Maltese in the EU, Maltese geo-linguistically, phonology, lexicon and text, morphology, psycholinguistics and syntax.

Several Maltese and foreign academics, including Prof. Stolz, will be among the main speakers and participants during the conference, to which many are looking forward as a new opportunity for the study and development of the Maltese language in general.

Those interested in obtaining further information may send an email to [email protected]

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