The Malta Independent 25 May 2020, Monday

Patrick Formosa’s Gozo!

Tuesday, 24 March 2020, 09:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

Roderick Bovingdon

Further to my recent critique (TMI, 26 February) of Patrick Formosa's historical compilation of his native village of Għarb, I errantly and by sheer lapsus mentis, in my eagerness to render a holistic appreciation of the author's magnificent contribution to learning, failed to include a worthy commentary about a unique characteristic of Formosa's opus magnum!

Formosa's A History of Għarb constitutes an invaluable contribution from a historical viewpoint but even more strikingly to the diachronic study of Maltese!


This many faceted account of the immensely interesting nature of the dialectal discourses, bequeaths the reader with an everlasting yet bygone language form of the inhabitants of Għarb village. These have been recorded on a USB device encompassing no less than some 32 recorded interviews with a number of Għarb residents. Even though the aim of the recordings is to highlight various aspects of Għarb's rich cultural heritage not specifically related to the linguistic characteristics of the Għarb dialect, in this instance, through the foresight of our celebrated author, we are rewarded with exotic aspects of the peculiar language form that have fascinated past scholars of Maltese.

These exceptional language traits, confined to a minute corner of Gozo, constitute a priceless throwback in time, they being clear evidence of their former currency. But more to the point, their relatively recent exposure by Formosa (1971-1973) directs the linguist away from conjecture such as is the case with our nationally treasured Cantilena in a more apt and desirable pronunciation, diction and accentuation due to the complete absence of sound recordings of 15th century Maltese speakers. 

More specifically I am referring to the two former phonemes, now lost to Maltese in its distant linguistic past, of the and the rgħajn both of which, are reminiscent of the Classical Arabic representations of and .

Nowadays even within the various Arabic speaking countries, it is a rare occurrence to hear the original pronunciations of these bygone but still significant radicals that cannot and must not in any future language planning, judiciously be ignored. Also, in addition to these individual Semitic radicals, the keen listener-scholar to Formosa's interviews will detect subtle spoken realisations of other radicals such as the silent h (akka - velar, plosive, non emphatic, aspirated) and the harsh h ( - velar/pharingeal/glottal, fricative, aspirated/voiced, non emphatic) for which Maltese has no phonemic realisation. Consequently such radicals are often expressed and represented by their closest approximants c, q, k, ch and others. 

Similar language structures, not least English itself, occur in several languages that have retained a solid substratal foundation, harking back to the earliest days of their origins.

The retention of these mostly Semitic phonemes in Maltese is vital in all aspects of the linguistic make-up of our national tongue. Furthermore, in the particular case of Maltese, it makes far more sense when referring to linguistic aspects of its early origins as Semitic rather than Arabic, in the light of increasing evidential research of its pre-Arabic substructure.  

The following fleeting examples refer: semantics (magħmul - completed; maħmul - tolerated), syntax (medhi fl-istudju - preoccupied with study; heda bil-kura medika - he was passified through medical care), morphology (għaġeb - miracle; stagħġib - surprise), etymology (mostly of academic interest rather than the spoken/written utterances - viz. kelb tal-kaċċa - hunting dog; qalb muġugħa - a sorrowful heart), philology (the two highlighted Maltese radicals and rgħajn, as well as others such as the silent h (akka) etc. constitute far more than a mere historical lexemic value; they form the backbone of the structure of Maltese, thus - heda fl-aħħar it-temp - finally the weather abated; deha moħħu bil-ħmerijiet - he busied his mind with frivolities), lexicology (as these and related radicals occur frequently and mostly with zero phonemic Æ value, their graphic representation in Maltese has frequently been realised by imprecise graphemes; a characteristic extant occurring in several Indo-European languages), phonology (beyond the realms of standard Maltese including deviations of regional, dialectal and social rank, several variations occur), orthography (agħfas il-brejk - step on the brake pedal; għafas il-brejk - he stepped on the brake pedal).

These characteristics which feature throughout Formosa's live interviews, include other aspects of our language which are far more subtle than is manifestly apparent at a fleeting glance. Such features include intonation, cultural identification with the written script, speaker's voice pitch, rhythm and speed, etc. Manifestly these aspects of Maltese, as fascinating and enlightening as they clearly present, could very well entail a scholar's lifetime research; certainly not conducive to the brevity of a feature article in a populist newspaper! 

Of course within the confines of the above, the reader cannot expect a thorough and comprehensive treatise of these language vicissitudes with their complex intricacies. Here is a mere accidental highlighting of their functionality within the structure of a language (Maltese) that has survived through the ramifications of its historical social turmoil, only to emerge as a modern tongue that has retained its power of expression comparable to the major languages of today's world.

May those who hold the keys of Maltese linguistic influence and the power and responsibility to intellectually, psychologically and culturally introduce adaptations, with a minimalist approach, remain ever cognisant and vigilant of and respectful towards the Maltese nation's mores and sensitivities, without fear or favour!

Within these few lines and between them, lies a profound appeal to the immediate and not always so manifest complexities upon which the survival of our national Maltese tongue survives and thrives. The alternative would be a tragic demise with its myriad consequences.

Such is the subtle depth and plea in Formosa's A History of Għarb!  

A Survey of Contemporary Dialectal Maltese, Vol 1 published conjointly by Malta and Leeds Universities in 1981 is a preliminary partial result of extensive field surveys undertaken throughout the then predominantly rural island of Gozo between 1964 - 1969. Unfortunately  the objectivity of  the subjects' responses, according to this official Report, was to a degree compromised through the prior knowledge of the linguistic survey's intentions by the interviewees. Hence the reported dialectal results sadly lack a degree of authenticity.

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