The Malta Independent 29 February 2024, Thursday
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Maltese language at a crossroads

Sunday, 10 July 2016, 09:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Our Maltese language or dialect is at a crossroads.

Since the Middle Ages and the early 20th century, it has come down to us as a mixed language: Semitic (medieval Arabic, probably with a substratum of Phoenician and Punic), and Romance (Sicilian, Italian and Latin).

In recent years, this concoction has been admixed with English, more markedly since Vatican Council II with the loss of Latin in our church ritual and, in my view, disastrously so.

Now we have three mixtures in our language concoction: Semitic, whence our basic vocabulary and grammar, Romance, whence countless loan words, especially in legal Maltese and for traditional tools, and Germanic with English, whence much of our technical modern language.

Arabic and Sicilian-Italian normally mix tolerably well. Arabic, Sicilian-Italian and English do not mix well; they jar on one's ears, since they belong to different groups of Indo-European and Semitic languages.

And, incidentally, Arabic is as Semitic as Hebrew. And no other people have revived its language from oblivion as the Jews have done with their Modern Hebrew.

I was fortunate to have had two excellent teachers of Maltese at St Aloysius' College and the Royal University of Malta: viz. the much loved poet Rev. Dun Frans Camilleri of Hamrun, the respected Professor Guze' Aquilina of Munxar (Gozo) and Balzan (Malta), and Guze' Chetcuti of Floriana.

Their Maltese was excellent. And their teaching and love of, and justified pride in our language were excellent as well.

Through them, I got to know our Maltese language better, to speak it and write it rather well and with care, although I can still learn even more.

More importantly, our mother and father tongue at home was Maltese, with no pretensions or artificiality, as in many modern homes.

People and peoples only discard and push aside their native language because of aggressive foreign colonialism.

Sicilians learn Italian at school, but they speak Sicilian at home. Hence they are comfortably bilingual, i.e. speaking two languages.

In Wales, in most of Scotland, and Ireland, it is no longer fashionable to speak the native languages: Welsh, Scots and Irish Gaelic. Refined and aggressive English policy has pushed these native languages into a corner.

In Cornwall, Cornish disappeared at the end of the 19th century.

And coercion did not work well in Ireland, although Irish civil servants are obliged to speak and write Irish. Irish people took to it less willingly, and the policy had to be reversed. But at parties in Ireland, it has become fashionable once again to speak Irish.

A people without its own native language are a people without an identity.

Let them know and speak and understand two languages, but above all let them use their own.

In Brittany, France, most Bretons have lost their language to the more powerful French.

They are the poorer for this, and more easily colonised and influenced by Paris.

Another excellent teacher of Maltese was, and remains, Rev Professor Pietru Pawl Saydon of Zurrieq, who singlehandedly translated the whole Bible from the original languages, Hebrew, Romaic and Greek, into Maltese. His Bible is a classic of richness and correctness.

Dr Herbert Ganado in four volumes wrote how he saw Malta change in his Rajt Malta Tinbidel through the medium of our Maltese language as used in Valletta and Floriana.

It appears that today it is hard to come by good teachers of our language, who love and are proud of it naturally, without any chauvinistic exaggerations in vocabulary.

Having shed Latin in church ritual, we have also lost its discipline, its rules of grammar, and its music.

We have descended into an age where anything and everything goes, through aggressive advertising in our media of radio and television, or where the use of our Maltese language often occurs with melodrama and vulgarity, rendering it ridiculous and laughable to discerning observers.

We have lost the simplicity of our language for the sophistication and artificiality mostly of English, our auto-colonial language.

The people who are mainly responsible for this development are, in my view, mainly women, but also men. As a people, we continually take the easy way out, and delve into English vocabulary as though this is the only language that exists on our earth.

Maltese emigrants whom we normally acknowledge and contact are in English speaking countries: Britain, the USA, British Canada, Australia and New Zealand, even remotely India.

Our emigrants in Italy and France (the latter some 50,000) are conveniently forgotten in aggressive British imperial policy. Perfidious Albion! Hence our modern use of a disastrously mixed language.

Nowadays everybody says 'nikkomparaw' from English 'we compare', rather than my Valletta of the 1950s' 'nipparagunaw' from Italian 'paragoniamo'; 'battery' instead of 'batterija' ghat-'torch' jew ghall-karozza'. The list is endless.

None of our modern politicians have spoken unadmixtured Maltese in the last 10 years. It has become fashionable, or acceptable, in our modern psychology, to mix our Maltese sentences with English words. Often unnecessarily. Where has our discipline of thought gone?

We are a laughing stock to ourselves. Dun Karm, i.e. Mgr Carmelo Psaila, our national poet, would turn in his grave at our modern usage, which is careless beyond belief.

Being colonised for hundreds of years has taught us to feel inferior, and to prefer anything foreign to our own language. This is a great flaw in our psychology, which needs to be corrected, without any exaggeration on anybody's part.

The French have their Academie Francaise and the concept of 'le mot juste', the right word. They do borrow modern English words, such as 'le weekend', and 'le foot' for football. But within limits. In Malta we seem to lack any limits. We are careless and incorrect beyond belief.

A series of serious and long debates by the Akkademja tal-Malti and other Maltese language related bodies is urgently called for, if our academic and examination standards are to improve at all within the next 20 years.

Our more virile language is traditional Semitic and Romance Maltese. Our soft effeminate language is Maltese mixed with too much English, in my humble opinion.

Either we recover lost ground before it's too late - and it's already late enough! Or we lose our Maltese language, as the Irish have lost their Irish, through aggressive, and often brutal British colonisation.

We are partly fortunate in that Maltese is still taught in our schools though only partly spoken in state schools, private schools preferring spoken English.

The damage that private and church schools have done to our Maltese language through modern auto-colonisation is incalculable.

This nasty and pernicious colonial trend needs to be arrested, through strong government policies. No coercion here, just a sound and healthy nationalism, without any exaggeration, which would be counter-productive.

If English influence is aggressive, Maltese influence needs to be just as aggressive in our home country, and in our homes.

Personally, I am sick of hearing young village children answer the question "Kemm ghandek snin?" (How old are you?) with "Five", rather than "Hames snin". And women glibly saying "Ili two weeks ma narak", rather than "Ili gimaghtejn ma narak".

The situation with our numbers and dates is nothing less than disastrous and abominable. Our use of Maltese has become cheap, except in remote villages and in the countryside, and in Gozo.

Foreigners would laugh and scoff at us for our warped language and psychology.

We have been thoroughly colonised. But being politically independent, we can reverse this trend.

Let us copy and emulate simple village people whose language is still purer Maltese. Let us start looking down on exaggeratedly mixed use of Maltese.

It is about time, isn't it?

We need to draw a line somewhere, with or without computers and mobile phones.

Jien naf nitkellem u nikteb bil-Malti tajjeb.


Bernard Vassallo



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