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Worms and caterpillars

It is a pity that Fr Peter Serracino Inglott seemingly read only the official publication in the Government Gazette of the decisions by the National Council for the Maltese Language on orthographic variants and missed the information, published by the council, explaining the steps that led to certain decisions (The Sunday Times, August 10).

Fr Serracino Inglott would have learnt that, far from being an exercise in dictatorial imposition, this was a participative initiative from the start, beginning with the gathering of a corpus of orthographic variants to which various individuals (such as professional translators) contributed.

This corpus was published on the council's website and the public was asked for its feedback.

In December 2006 the council invited journalists, translators, teachers and authors to give their opinion on these variants; 33 people submitted papers which were published in a volume which was distributed freely.

A seminar was held in January 2007, attended by 180 people. Many different solutions were proposed and considered but there was broad consensus about the desirability of eliminating orthographic variants, especially in view of the requirements of the new media. In July 2007, the council set up a committee of 11 experts who met 30 times (voluntarily).

In opening his 'can of worms', Fr Serracino Inglott unfortunately let loose one or two worms which prove to be fallacious. In this exercise, the council by no means tried to "regulate the use of words" or to "regulate language severely".

Instead, in response to popular demand, it has intervened, as is its duty, to streamline the orthography, by choosing, in as principled a way as possible, between two or more spelling alternatives.

In this endeavour it has been neither more nor less 'prescriptive' than the scholars who founded the orthographic system of Maltese, and sought for it official recognition by the State (accorded in 1934).

After this initial phase, we had "scholarly consciences" (mainly Saydon, Aquilina and E. Serracino Inglott) who pushed their own solutions.

This led to innumerable variants which had become especially troublesome and unmanageable to so many people who write Maltese in their daily life, often working with computers.

It is instructive to read what Erin Serracino Inglott had to say, writing in Il-Malti (June-December, 1977).

He quotes Aquilina, who speaks out against the creation of personal orthographies, thereby confusing people who cannot distinguish between the personal authority of a scholar and the authority of an academic and official nature accepted by writers.

Erin Serracino Inglott then goes on to say that, having repeatedly and unsuccessfully pleaded for over 20 years for certain orthographic decisions to be taken by the body which was then responsible for such matters, namely the Akkademja tal-Malti, at the age of 72 he could not wait any longer to publish his life's work (his monumental dictionary).

So much for "scholarly consciences", even of "the stature of an Aquilina" and of "responsible publishers... passionately disagreeing with the council". Incidentally, Fr Serracino Inglott quotes one of the council's decisions, skont 'according to' (the variant skond now being disallowed): in his Maltese-English dictionary (pages 1331-2) Aquilina himself comes down unequivocally in favour of skont!

It is sad to see a can of caterpillars, which will eventually metamorphose into butterflies mistaken for worms.

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