The Malta Independent 27 September 2023, Wednesday
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Our language crisis - looking after the way we speak and the way we write

Tuesday, 21 July 2015, 10:00 Last update: about 9 years ago
Will code-switching overshadow the language in future? Although the average person only uses about 7,000 words, mostly belonging to the core vocabulary, in code-switching any word from any language is possible. Note that Joseph Aquilina’s Maltese-English Dictionary has 41,016 entries, its Concise edition has 22,649, Tullio De Mauro’s Grande Dizionario Italiano dell’Uso has 251,209 and the Oxford English Dictionary has no less than 616,500.
Will code-switching overshadow the language in future? Although the average person only uses about 7,000 words, mostly belonging to the core vocabulary, in code-switching any word from any language is possible. Note that Joseph Aquilina’s Maltese-English Dictionary has 41,016 entries, its Concise edition has 22,649, Tullio De Mauro’s Grande Dizionario Italiano dell’Uso has 251,209 and the Oxford English Dictionary has no less than 616,500.

By Professor Joseph M. Brincat

What crisis? Our language has never had it so good. Standardised in a long process from Ignazio Saverio Mifsud and Franġisk Wzzino in the 1750s to Dun Karm, Ninu Cremona and their contemporaries in the early 20th century, enjoying official status since 1934, entrenched in the Independence and Republic constitutions as the national language, and recognised as one of the official languages of the EU, it is the envy of most of the much larger regional languages of Europe. Local publishing is very healthy, thanks to KKM, PIN and SKS, together with many other initiatives, and so is broadcasting with radio and TV channels; even ATMs and Google give us the option to choose Maltese or English. All this, of course, comes at a price.

Considering that in 1963 only 671 students sat for GCE 'O' Level in Maltese (661 for English, 600 for Italian), one marvels at the leap in figures for 2010: Maltese 5236, English 5692 and Italian 2221 candidates. In 1973 only two students sat for Maltese 'A' Level, whereas 465 did so in 2010 and 626 sat for the IM. So, what has gone wrong?


Who is to blame?

Targeting individual persons or a klikka, and blaming the Kunsill tal-Malti ("a handful of all-knowing dirigisme-bloated latter day linguists"), and moaning that our language "has become the laughing stock of world languages" (do we care how Hungarian is written? Who bothers how we write?), will not solve the issue. Probably every writer, and many a reader, will have his/her own opinion about certain details (myself included), but the truth is that the language is under heavy pressure from everyday professional users of Maltese, especially journalists, teachers and translators, who cannot be expected to write in a literary style. Poets and novelists used to write beautiful, puristic texts because they only treated a limited range of topics, such as love and sadness, the beauty of nature, devotion, patriotism, and so on, whose terms belong to the inner core of the language. Now that Maltese has progressed from diglossia: being almost exclusively spoken, except for a literary medium for the few who could read and write (only 11per cent of the population in 1901, 20 per cent in 1931), based on urban speech, as opposed to the rustic spoken varieties of the illiterate majority, with first Italian then English as the written language, to bilingualism (where topics formerly written about in English are treated in Maltese too, and compulsory schooling since 1946 introduced both as languages of instruction) we need to strike a balance between conservation and innovation. And the speed with which this has happened in a few decades does not help at all.

Shop signs often play freely with languages and spellings: The Little Booteek is in Gozo; Bonjourno crosses French with Italian in Hampton Hill, UK; CuppaCino is a bar in Clapham Junction, UK; Palms Bar Panineria e Drinkeria” is in Terrasini, near Palermo; the Happy Xopper is in Malta; Le Crêp’ Show is in Nancy, France, kettepare (Che ti pare?)


The way we speak has moved away from the standard variety. Forget the old cliché of tal-pepé or the Sliema district. A visit to a playground anywhere will make you realize how young mothers are addressing their young ("l-ilsien li tagħtek ommok"?); lessons at school have been recorded and show that English terminology is embedded in Maltese syntax, where the Maltese element consists mainly of function words (l-istructure tal-leaf; irridkom tiddivajdjaw). And if one wants to see the extent of code-switching one has only to listen carefully to the semi-formal situation of TV programmes: teleshopping, especially cookery (irridjusja, iffrottja 'to froth') or fashion (Da' fuq il-pink; erġa' agħfas il-brush tal-pink), talk-shows, interviews with experts of various sectors, and even presenters (affarijiet tad-dekor għad-dar, TVM). You will only realise this if you actually have the patience to transcribe a couple of minutes of such speech.         



Careless spelling is a reflection of the general trend towards slack discipline (driving, queuing, and so on). In writing, especially, it follows the phenomenal rise in the use of electronic gadgets: look at the comments written to bloggers and any SMS appearing on banners of live TV programmes. The problem of erratic spelling is felt not only in schools but also at University. Students are not ashamed of misspelt words any more, and we battle against this trend not only in Italian and Maltese, but in English too.

Writing English words the Maltese way was actually resorted to by Joseph Aquilina himself. In his Maltese-English Dictionary he entered issajnja, nagit, woxer, but he also admitted that "there is still some reluctance, and in some cases strong objection, to the phonetic rendering of English loan-words" (p. xvi). The trend was popularized in newspapers like Il-Ħajja and L-Orizzont. The objections mentioned by Aquilina have not abated although 30 years have passed. Many people shudder at words like fjuwil, bajsikil, rawndebawt, mowbajl, kexx, bejbi, rabix. The reason is that nowadays almost everybody reads in both languages and it is not easy to juggle between two spellings of the same word. Italian words have been more readily accepted in Maltese clothing because first of all Italian spelling itself is largely phonetic, and the Maltese rendering became even more clearly phonetic. Moreover they are all modified, conforming to Sicilianate and Semitic patterns. Another important factor is that nowadays very few read in Italian and fewer still write it, with the result that comparisons are not made.



Unfortunately, this article has taken on the tone of a jeremiad, but all is not lost. It is a long battle but there are solutions. Let's take more care when we write, by following the standard norms as far as possible, avoiding the real danger of unnecessary relexification (impruvja, jixxerjaw). Let's follow the example of the great European languages by keeping the original spelling when words are irreplaceable and unmodified: English adopted bourgeois in 1604, boutique in 1767, queue in 1918, sine qua non in 1602, spaghetti in 1845, and festschrift in 1898, and never felt the need to transform them into English spelling. The OED shows that there are 23,303 words of French origin, and De Mauro's GRADIT (2000) records 6,905 English words, of which 4,303 are unmodified. These dictionaries distinguish between words that are modified and unmodified, writing the latter in their original spelling because they are known to be foreign by the average speakers.

This is the criterion that can be adopted by Maltese writers and lexicographers to distinguish between code-switching (which should not be written) and adopted terms, which are usually adapted to Maltese rules of pronunciation and grammar (like kitla, vann, briksa, simenta). And care must be taken to avoid the trap of "false friends", where the only criterion is sound resemblance (deputy clashing with deputat 'Member of Parliament', in deputat mexxej for viċi kap; attempt rendered as attentat which is a criminal act). It all depends on respect, which needs time and thought, and good taste, which were not spared by the enlightened persons who standardized Maltese, without whose efforts it would never have become a "language" in the old sense, and an official language of the State and the EU.

In a linguistically turbulent situation, where journalists experiment and improvise more or less freely, and ordinary citizens opt for quick and easy solutions, the Kunsill has worked responsibly, responding to queries by teachers, journalists and translators (innaqqsu l-inċertezzi), and giving more visibility to the language in public spaces. Of course there is still much to be done, and some decisions may be reconsidered. Personally, I do not agree with place names beginning with Il- or Ħal in alphabetical lists. Although in context we say and write "Sejjer il-Mellieħa; ġej minn Ħaż-Żebbuġ" the lemmas are Mellieħa, and Żebbuġ. In fact I say "Jien Balzani", not Ħal-Balzani. Looking up the timetable of Masses in the diary of Dar tal-Provvidenza is awkward and time-wasting.

Another problem concerns diphthongs: realtà is accepted, influenza is not. Shall we write j and w, when they are not etymological, but just glides? This is confusing especially in the suffix -ija, as when industrija is written like poeżija. Cremona's principle that Maltese can't write two vowels near each other referred to Semitic words needing the mute h or (biha, tiegħu), not Romance terms. On the whole, black or white, all or nothing solutions must be avoided, and each case should be considered on its own, according to scientific principles guided by common sense and good taste (discretio) to tread the shaded area between the standard language and code-switching.


Professor Brincat has published the linguistic history of Malta in Maltese (PIN 2000), Italian (Le Mani 2004) and English (Maltese and other Languages, Midsea Books 2011)


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