The Malta Independent 15 August 2020, Saturday

Linguistic lustre

Charles Flores Sunday, 26 July 2020, 10:48 Last update: about 21 days ago

If there is one subject I have always regretted not having studied, despite digesting plenty of books about it, is linguistics. It is such a fascinating discipline, especially to us Maltese boasting of a language that first grew out of semitic roots before it flourished over the centuries with the intake from a bouquet of visiting tongues. Certainly worth the most interesting of studies in harmony with the historical aspect of our nation’s development.

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What prompted me into all this summer-mode fare for the reader was a recent story in the UK media about how, according to new research, Northerners’ accents there are becoming more similar and increasingly generic and, with the exception of people from Liverpool and Newcastle, the accents of well-educated city dwellers are merging. Experts, who analysed speech patterns of people from major cities across Northern England, found that algorithms struggled to distinguish between the accents of people in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.

You see, for our minuscule size, we too have regional/local accents. Many foreign experts are rightly astonished by this. Take those of us from the Cottonera area. I remember the first few times I went to my then fiancée’s home in Birkirkara I soon became the butt of routine family jokes for the way I pronounced numbers and words like tiegħi (mine) and miegħi (with me) plus so many others. The standard crescendo occurred at the moment I declared I had to leave to catch the bus to Valletta, when I was asked in unison: which bus? The way I said “tal-għaxra u għaxra (ten past ten) had them all rolling on the floor. Almost every evening. God, they must have thought I was naive.

All that variance is now slowly vanishing all over Malta and Gozo. I unintentionally stopped using the Cottonera accent over the many years we spent raising a family in Birkirkara, except for when I visited mum at Kalkara where it all came rushing back. Gozitans will tell you a lot about this innate switching ability. Standard Maltese, if it exists at all, is creeping on all of us, though there is always the nice, little, One TV reporter who bravely does not try to mask it in her assignments. Whether a major television station, private or not, should allow that or not has always been up for discussion within the profession and the winners seem to have always been those for, perhaps understandably, standard-language presentation.

Our linguists and other academics rightly insist we should continue to protect and cherish the linguistic variants in the Maltese language, even if there haven’t been more than one or two authors who sought to portray them in published form. But then, languages are changing fast and furious all over the world. The Anglo-Saxon stranglehold over the world via the Internet, diplomacy, gaming, financing, sports and other global manoeuvrings is leading humanity towards one language, not necessarily English as we know it, nor American English as we seem to be gulping it at this moment in time of our lives.

The future for languages, though, is not as easy as it looks. For example, it is being claimed that humanity, forever gazing toward the stars and dreaming of colonizing other worlds, may have a problem if it does eventually manage to settle on other planets – there is every possibility we might not be able to understand each other. For to reach the stars, humanity will likely require generational ships, that is, a conglomeration of generations of future humans, plants and animals, to help cope with the incredibly long voyages of the future. This is not just science fiction. Genuine consideration is being given to such scientific studies and propositions.

Besides the biological and physical mutations that are bound to occur during the voyages, language itself would also mutate as a result of the extreme time frame involved, which means interstellar travel and the colonisation of other worlds would most probably render humans even less intelligible to each other than they have always been. Given what we read and hear on politics here, let alone our centre-of-the-universe mentality, that would be a godsend, I guess.

 

No biting more bullets

There is general agreement on these Islands that not only have the public health authorities superbly handled the pandemic, but also the tourism authorities and stake-holders have made a success of the re-opening of the Maltese market. Not without hiccups, but not without very good results in these first few weeks.

A lot of people have rightly expressed concern over the lack of adherence to guidelines and rules during the festa marches that have been allowed to take place in the villages and towns where people were only too happy to join in the revelry. One just hopes it does not lead to the rest of us having to bite more bullets, people having fun and spoiling it for the rest.

In other places around the Mediterranean, the behaviour of tourists has triggered fears of a second wave of Coronavirus. In Spain, for example, crowds of holidaymakers were filmed partying in the street as if the pandemic was merely a nightmare to forget. Videos posted on social media in Majorca, Ibiza and elsewhere in Spain showed large groups of people chatting and drinking while they stood close together and hugged each other without wearing face masks.

Tourists come here to enjoy themselves and they obviously should not be made to feel they’ve come to a convent, but it would be good to know that the tourism people and the police are keeping a watchful eye on what goes on in places like Paceville, St Julians, Bugibba, Gozo and other popular places, not just among the tourists but the locals as well.

The other day I was walking up a Sliema road and past a long stream of young English-language students, all of them seemingly happy to have escaped the realm of their homes and certainly alert to one another’s wholesome attractions. Not a single one of them was wearing a face mask, as they walked briskly past. Not mandatory, I know, but this was a large group of newly-arrived girls and boys from distant lands and their minders would have done well to advise them to take the simple precaution.

 

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