The Malta Independent 30 September 2023, Saturday
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An archaeology of the Maltese language

Noel Grima Sunday, 30 April 2023, 09:03 Last update: about 6 months ago

Maltese and other languages. Author: Joseph M Brincat. Publisher: Midsea Books / 2011. Pages: 495

If there exists five absolutely essential books about Malta, this must be one of them.

It is often stated that our language is our DNA. We need to continually remind ourselves of this, especially in our time when Maltese is under attack like never before.

There used to be a time when a relatively small section of the Maltese spoke in English not just at work but also at home. Now, unfortunately, this has become general especially where children are involved.

The fact that our schools have become multicultural have made children learn to speak in English among themselves. Children do speak in Maltese at home but in English at school and with their schoolmates.

Then of course the quality of Maltese in their exchanges at home is rudimentary. So too the pidgin Maltese in their use of SMS and social media. It's everyone writing Maltese as they see fit. Needless to say, the "gh" goes out the window, and so much more besides.

There used to be a requirement of a pass in Maltese for acceptance in some university courses but this was removed.

In the media itself, the newspapers in Maltese have a dated air about them and the English language ones have, or had, an air of freshness. And most communication including from government offices is done in English.

This book, and those that followed it, is an archaeological excursion into the beginnings and structure of the Maltese language.

I leave out the very beginnings of the language and also whatever came after the end of the Knights period.

The denigrators of Maltese, and there have been many, both Italian and English, especially in the 19th century and later, have all claimed that Maltese is a dialect of Arabic. This is still ongoing especially among those who come to Malta for the first time and find we call God Alla.

This book shows that the names of primary objects do derive from Arabic but there is much more to the Maltese language. Ours is a living language but if we were to restrict it to just those words coming from Arabic, as those who used to insist on Malti safi used to propose, it would be a poorer language.

Unfortunately we have gone to the other extreme and our television is many times guilty of using words derived from Italian when there are words in Maltese that could well fit. As in so many areas, there is simply no control and any person is allowed to get away with murder.

Until 1530 Malta was closely linked with Sicily, though having a certain autonomy. There is one unsuspected link - Maltese shows strong similarities with the Sicilian variety of Arabic. This suggests that the colony of Arabs who settled in Malta in 1048-49 to repopulate it must have set off from Sicily.

Thus the similarity of so many place-names in Sicily to places in Malta - Bagheria, Favara, Girgenti, Marsala, Racalmuto, Salemi become Bahrija, Fawwara, Girgenti, Marsa, Rahal and Sliema.

Sicilian Arabic today is extinct but one way in which it can be reconstructed is precisely the Maltese language.

There is also a comparison that can be made between Maltese and the almost extinct dialect of Pantelleria, Panteco. Between the most Aerobicized of the Romance dialects and the most heavily Latinised of the Arabic dialects.

There are a number of Arabic words that express Christian concepts in Maltese - as stated already Alla, qaddis, Mulej, nisrani, qassis, quddiesa, maghmudija, qrar, tqarbin, Milied, Randan, Ghid. These terms suggest that Christianity in Malta was indeed practised during the Norman period if not before. Had Christianity been reintroduced during the Norman period after a long break, it would have been adopted with a wholly Romance terminology. Had religious practice survived from Byzantine times, the liturgical language would have been Greek. The Romance terminology for the more developed forms of the Christian cult - sagrament, virtu, adorazzjoni, spellizza, stola, artal, gandlier, tabernaklu came later.

In Sicily the use of the Arabic language was linked to the survival of Islam and diminished progressively when the population, hitherto Muslim in the majority, converted wholly to Christianity. In Malta total Christianisation was achieved more or less at the same time, but Latinisation proceeded very slowly and was never totally accomplished.

On the spoken level Christianity did not require the knowledge of Latin among the faithful and thus locally-born Christians continued to speak the Arabic dialect. However, as trade increased and maritime traffic developed, the people in Malta became increasingly exposed to Latin in the official texts and to Romance languages and dialects on the spoken level. The presence of soldiers and sailors, merchants and craftsmen, who mainly settled in the harbour area, brought in cultural interchange.

As time went by the Sicilian element became grafted onto the Maltese variety of Arabic by the natural process of cumulative contact, that is, by a small but steadily increasing number of words that accompanied the introduction of new objects, techniques and ideas. A sort of drip irrigation. This process is very different to the one by which Arabic was introduced into Malta, which was so sudden and overpowering that it left no traces of the language spoken before the Arab conquest.

The author shows with examples how the introduction of a new tradition of building introduced new words and then likewise how Sicilian words on marine and maritime terminology entered the Maltese language.

Then the Tuscan language (later Italian) entered Sicily and swept everything before it. So in Malta we now have a new incoming stream, many times alongside the old Sicilian word. In fact, there are cases where it is only through Maltese that one can reconstruct the old word in the Sicilian dialect.

The author gives us a detailed explanation of the oldest extant literary composition in Maltese, a rather unorthodox poem discovered in 1968 which had been copied by Notary Brandano de Caxario, the Cantilena, composed by an elder relative, Pietro de Caxaro between 1438 and 1485.


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