The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

Paying homage to two Maltese scholars

Monday, 14 August 2017, 16:08 Last update: about 6 years ago

Guze Aquilina (1911-1997) and Guze Cassar-Pullicino (1921-2005)

Micheline Galley


Ġuże Aquilina was born in Munxar, a village on the small island of Gozo. After brilliant studies at the Seminary of Gozo, he went to the main island, Malta, to study law. We were then in the years 1930: a linguistic controversy was deeply agitating the political and cultural life in Malta, opposing the people in favour of the English language which was the language of the colonial power, to those traditionally tied to Rome by religion and culture, who supported Italian. However, a few Maltese people became aware of the threat weighing upon their linguistic heritage. It may happen, indeed, that a language dies out... Therefore, they decided to fight against the prejudice to which the Maltese language was submitted. Ġuże Aquilina took prompt action: as soon as 1935, he wrote a novel entitled Taħt Tliet Saltniet (Under Three Kingdoms); in his mind, such decision was intended to stimulate literary creation in the Maltese language.


Aquilina's challenge was great. The aim, as he himself stated, was of "raising Maltese to acceptance in the world of international studies". The challenge was taken up: he left for the School of Oriental and Asiatic Studies (S.O.A.S.) in London in order to undertake linguistic studies and be trained to analyse later his own language scientifically. His research eventually took the shape of a Ph.D. entitled: The structure of Maltese. Simultaneously, the chair of Maltese and Semitic languages was created at the University of Malta and awarded to him, in spite of the still predominant tendency of his colleagues to favour Italian.

From the day he returned to his homeland, Malta, in 1939 until his retirement in 1978, he provided and developed his teaching at the University, inculcating in his young audience a taste for knowing their language better and making, little by little, a positive use of it. Throughout his life, his numerous scientific publications, his various writings and interventions relayed by the media did not cease to operate for the benefit of the language and culture of Malta. He died during the summer of 1997 when he was finishing his last capital work: his English-Maltese Dictionary.


I had the privilege of meeting Professor Aquilina on my first visit to the Maltese islands, at the end of 1968. At the time I had attended Professor David Cohen's seminar on Maltese and was entrusted with a mission of research by the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Studies). Later from 1972 onwards, I worked in collaboration with Professor Aquilina who was president of the International Association of Studies of Mediterranean Civilizations while I was secretary general.

By 1968 almost 30 years had passed since he had taken up his post at the Maltese University and four years since Malta had acquired a status of independence within the Commonwealth, but the concept of independence itself - as our friend explained to me - was not yet perceived by the Maltese because of the inferiority complex inherited from a long past spent in a state of subjection. He used to say to me, apparently in jest, yet his words reflected reality: "Go to the seaside in Gozo, to Ramla Bay, and you will see children playing on the sand side by side but not understanding one another!" It was true that, according to the social level of the families and their socio-cultural environment, the children were trained to speak exclusively either Italian or English, apart from the peasants' children who expressed themselves only in Maltese. I have seen, from year to year, things change totally: nowadays, the language of communication is mainly Maltese in every family. At the same time the sense of belonging to the Maltese culture has grown, giving birth to a feeling of pride shared by all. Today Maltese is also one of the official languages of the European Parliament.


The homage paid to Ġuże Aquilina by his country was significant. The ceremony resembled a state funeral and emphasis was laid upon the "trust" that he contributed to restore in the Maltese people. His lifelong Defence and Illustration of the Maltese Language, so to speak, was greeted among scholarly circles abroad. His French colleague, Professor David Cohen, wrote that, "Ġuże Aquilina played a central role in the cultural history of his country".


The disrepute, which had affected the Maltese language, reflected automatically upon the whole of the orally-transmitted literature. Therefore, no wonder that the first specialists to show a real interest in folk narratives at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century were foreigners: Luigi Bonnelli, Hans Stumme, Bertha Ilg, whom the Maltese Manwel Magri joined later (1851-1907). One has to wait until the years 1940 in order to see, in parallel with Aquilina's works on Maltese, his brother-in-law, Ġuże Cassar-Pullicino (1921-2005) undertake the systematic collection of oral texts belonging to the various traditional genres (tales; poetry in the form of individual quatrains, verbal duels and ballads; riddles; lullabies and nursery rhyme; prayers and exorcisms, etc.), as well as ethnographic data in general (on beliefs, customs, techniques, religious practice).

Somehow like his brother-in-law, Ġuże Cassar-Pullicino obeyed a strong sense of his own identity as a reaction to external circumstances. During the terrible year of the Second World War (1942), he had taken refuge in the island of Gozo. There, he realized that the vulnerable state of Malta had the effect of rendering their own culture more precious to the hearts of the Maltese. Such process of awareness took place, according to his words, "side by side with the raising of the Maltese language to a position of dignity".

As far as the liveliest and most representative tradition of Maltese folklore is concerned, that is, l-għana, song, Ġuże Cassar-Pullicino has contributed to its promotion by means of programmes on the radio and various initiatives. He succeeded, if not to uproot completely the contemptuous attitude which cultured people usually had towards the genre għana and its supporters, at least to do full justice to the għannejja, the poets by acknowledging their genuine talent for poetical improvisation.

The total amount of corpuses gathered and studies we owe to Ġuże Cassar-Pullicino is considerable. The whole work was led all through his life with an acute sense of scientific rigour and intellectual honesty. As Aquilina said, "he has been to Malta what a famous Sicilian folklorist, Pitrè, has been to his country". Personally, I keep warm memories of the time of our fruitful friendly collaboration.


Micheline Galley co-authored with Ġuże Cassar-Pullicino 'Femmes de Malte dans les chants traditionnels', (Paris, CNRS 1981, 151 pages; out of print); 'Oral Poetry in the Maltese Islands. Imagery Relating to Love' (in International Folklore Review, London 1990); 'Man and the Sea in Maltese Folk-Poetry' (in Acta Etnografica Hungarica 39 (3-4) 1994) and 'Maltese Għana. Some Remarks on the Process of Invention' (in Journal of Mediterranean Studies, vol. 6, no. 1 1996). They both also contributed to a special issue: Bulletin n. 14 of L.O.A.B., C.N.R.S. 1983 entitled L-Imnarja, Fête des Lumières à Malte, pp. 3-98 (J. Cassar-Pullicino) et pp. 307-374 (M. Galley).


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