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Spelling English words when writing in Maltese

The steady flow of letters sent by readers to the editors of local newspapers about the Maltese language reflects a healthy interest in the mother tongue, but it also reveals that the way of writing English words is seriously worrying many citizens, now that Maltese is being increasingly used in domains where English was formerly exclusive (such as official correspondence and leaflets of all sorts).

The Sunday Times of October 22 carried three items expressing concern: a letter by M. Pace Bonello, a paragraph by Pamela Hansen and a coda by Tanja Cilia, and Ms M. Camilleri Pace followed on October 29. Most letters are symptomatic of the trend that considers mainly the aesthetic aspect. Many people say that words like "fjuwil, bajsikil, rawndebawt, mowbajl, kexx, bejbi, rabix," simply look horrible. However, there are serious pragmatic and technical aspects that one should reflect on.

In his Maltese-English Dictionary Joseph Aquilina opted for the transcription of English words according to the Maltese alphabet, but he admitted that "there is still some reluctance, and in some cases strong objection, to the phonetic rendering of English loan-words". He rightly attributed it to the fact that "English spelling is largely a matter of eye-reading", but he did not delve deeper into the question (p. xvi). Mifsud and Borg in their Maltese version of the Threshold Level series (1997) helpfully gave both spellings in their glossary.

The non-phonetic nature of English spelling is due to the fact that English is perhaps the language which has adopted most words from other languages, especially from French and Latin, and in many cases it kept the original spelling (e.g. French "nation") and changed its pronunciation. As an example of the resulting contrasts between spelling and pronunciation, Melvyn Bragg points out that there are seven ways of writing one vowel, long e: free, these, leaf, field, seize, key, machine (The Adventure of English, 2003, p. 220).

Thankfully, the problem does not affect all English words adopted into Maltese. An important distinction is that between words of Latin or Germanic origin. Maltese regularly adapts the former to Italian and Sicilian patterns, and so "evaluation" becomes evalwazzjoni, "alleged" becomes allegat and "involved" becomes involut. This is the easiest and less traumatic way to adopt and integrate Anglo-Latin terms, and it actually solves more than half the problem. As to the other half, fewer difficulties are caused by consonants, and in some cases the vowels too coincide (stop, printer).

The technical side of the question reveals that most of the problems concern English vowels. There are 11 cardinal vowels in RP English, which is the usual model for learners, and they are complicated by glides or diphthongs (Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, 1997, p. 156). In Standard Maltese we only have five clear vowels (perhaps six, with ie), which is why it is so difficult to fit the English system into our own.

The long, open ae of "chair, man, fairy, nappy, snack, cash" is not equivalent to the Maltese e, as spelt in words like cermen, feri, nepi, snekk, kexx and so on. The same goes for many other vowels, but I refrain from producing more examples here not to make this piece too technical and tiresome. I cannot avoid, however, mentioning the danger of creating one spelling for two pronunciations: feri transcribes both "ferry" and "fairy", bagi is used for both "buggy" and the plural of baga, parti stands for "party" and the Maltese parti "a part". Consequences are more serious here, because it is no longer a question of deviant pronunciation but one of ambiguous meanings. Scores of similar examples come to mind.

The accent

Another grave matter concerns the accent. Words like cermen, televixin, bagit, bulit do not prompt the desired pronunciation, simply because they violate the more subtle rules of Maltese spelling. A word like cermen creates two difficulties. First of all because open ae is not a standard Maltese vowel and cannot be represented by e which is mid close (J. Cremona, 1990). Moreover it falls into the pattern CéCCeC (where C stands for any consonant) and recalls forms like cercer, fekren, berfel, gerger, keskes, bengel, kebbeb, with the result that it would be read as cérmen and the reader might therefore expect a verb.

The same goes for "budget": when written bagit it falls into the pattern of tapit, qarnit, hadid, marid, sadid, etc; and bulit (for "bullet") where the accent falls on the last syllable, like pulit. The regularity of these patterns makes the accent unnecessary in spelling. To avoid misreading, it would be wiser to opt for the original English spelling and safeguard the Maltese system from ambiguity. This is especially useful in the case of international words, like budget, taxi, bus, container and so on, where the original spelling is usually adopted for supra-national conformity.

Some people believe that writing English words the Maltese way makes them "more Maltese"; sometimes one suspects that this process is somehow considered as "patriotic" or "logical". It is not necessarily so. Most languages opt for the original spelling of foreign words when they are not adapted because in this way they indicate that these are simply "parked" in the dictionary to give them time to be adapted or dropped, as often happens to words denoting ephemeral notions or objects. These often fall out of fashion after a few years.

And then one must allow for differences in the use of languages among different countries. In Spanish and Russian foreign words are written the local way, and there may be reasons like changes in pronunciation, but the most important factor is that the large majority of Spanish and Russian speakers do not know English at all. The case of Malta is different because here all children learn English from the first years in primary school, if not before. This means that most people are fully aware that they are using an English word.

Code-switching

One of the consequences of bilingualism on a national level is widespread code-switching. In Malta's case, the Constitution itself states that we have two official languages, and in practice both languages are used by the large majority of the population (in varying degrees of active or passive use). More importantly, both languages are media of instruction at school and very often mothers use both languages when speaking to their pre-school children. Consequently, code-switching is rife but very few people admit it. It is a pity that important works like Antoinette Camilleri's on what goes on in the schools (1995) and Lydia Sciriha and Mario Vassallo's monitoring of language use in Malta (2001, 2006) apparently do not get the attention they deserve among teachers and parents.

A clear distinction between code-switching and the adoption of English words in Maltese is not easy (if at all possible) but something can be done if the right people bother to make an effort. We must first of all admit that a lot of code-switching is going on here. This could provide us with a criterion for distinguishing adopted words from code-switching, bearing in mind that the former would be indispensable whereas the others are practically unlimited (there are over 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary and each one can be used in code-switching, but there are only 2,511 English words in Aquilina's MED).

In this light some "offensive" or "disturbing" spellings can be avoided. For instance, adding the French g or j sound (as in "gent" or "jardin") to our alphabet and burdening the letter x with it will be seen as unnecessary and harmful to the system, because intervocalic x is never pronounced like that, although it may be heard occasionally in clusters as in xbin, under the influence of the voiced consonant (alternating with gbin).

Writing televixin and divixin also violates the correspondence of the English suffix -ision to Maltese -izjoni, as evidenced by the full word "vision" = vizjoni and other examples. Using "television" and "division" in their unadapted form should be considered code-switching, and the same goes for kommixin.

The ending in these words is analogous to the pattern where the ending -in is always accented: bahrin, tajbin, mahmugin, karrozzin, so that the spelling kommixin should prompt kommixìn. According to the rules of Maltese spelling televixin would therefore be pronounced "tele-vi-sheen". Such devices may be acceptable in titles of programmes which vie for the audience's attention, but they should not become models for normal usage.

Treat with care

A language is a very complex and delicate structure and must be treated with extreme care. It is not always possible to take clear-cut decisions in the name of reason (some rules can actually be illogical) and a degree of flexibility is necessary, especially during times of change like the one we are going through now. Let us give the language time to settle, without expecting to solve all the problems in a short time.

Above all, let's give the standard variety the respect it deserves and safeguard it, for the sake of its coherence. Although everyone can speak as one deems fit, we should keep in mind that writing is a special form of the language, and should be governed by "discretio", which is what helped Cicero refine Latin prose, Dante raise the "volgare" of Florence to a literary language and our writers of the 19th century to standardise Maltese and pave the way for its rise to official status. Obviously this does not mean freezing the language as it was a hundred years ago, because enrichment through adoption is indispensable, but linguistic free-wheeling, particularly if it brings rapid substitution of the core vocabulary, is harmful and may even lead to language shift.

Professor Brincat wrote a linguistic history of Malta in Maltese (PIN 2000, reprinted 2005) and in Italian (Le Mani 2004). The English edition should appear next year.

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