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Castagna’s idiosyncratic Maltese of 150 years ago

How far has Maltese changed in 150 years? No present-day reader will find insurmountable difficulties following Pietru Pawl Castagna’s Malta bil Gzejer tahha u li ghadda min ghaliha. Of course, the orthography looks archaic, there was then no accepted or imposed official alphabet, and everyone felt free to pick, choose or improvise when it came to writing Maltese.

Castagna uses the simplest spelling, in part based on Italian phonetics, but adding a crossed ħ to represent the non-silent h which is virtually absent in Italian.

He has major consistency problems with c, ch, k and q, which do not seem to disturb him unduly. It is kaua for qawwa, cotba for kotba, quiet for kwiet, chidba for kitba and kim for qim.

Vocabulary-wise, very few words used by Castagna would today sound wholly unintelligible – perhaps mazzarelli for drumsticks, sperant ta 14 il sena for aspirant, giannetti for donkeys, but a century earlier small racing horses (a road in Valletta, a part of Old Theatre Street, was known as strada delli ginetti, possibly because horse races were held there). Others present more of a challenge, like comboll bastimenti, it-trapassioni ta Pintu (church bells rung on the point of death), wasluh malamira f Sant Anton, ragel strolcu – now could that adjective, repeatedly employed by Castagna in a pejorative context, be a distortion of astrologu, in the sense of false, unreliable or lunatic?

Words which seem to have lost all currency would still be understandable, like in-nies armusi (armati), haun storba bl’ icreh, uera ruhu storbat (iddisturbat, agitated), skiavun for skjav, prexxa for breach.

But what about La Valette haddel il Maltin bhala hafna hrief? That would be likely to stump you today. Quite a number of Castagna’s unfamiliar words do not yet feature in Ġużè Aquilina’s monumental dictionary.

Some of Castagna’s plurals may today sound weird: ligijiet giodod (new laws), tlett imiel (mili, miles), boghod zewg foroc (gallows), zewg buchiet (hulls). Feminine words too sometimes appear outlandish: giuvni, giuvana or giuvna.

The use of archaic Italianate words and phrases abounds, like in lebsin galanti (eleganti), ikollhom jirrendu (surrender, instead of icedu), pajjiz iccostumat tajjeb (well behaved, or of sound moral values).

For Castagna, the Grand Master who delivered a speech ghamel parlata, to control, to repress the people is biex jistringi il poplu and a decree for a general illumination is ordna luminazzioni, a ship that replenishes its water supply ghamel l’acquata, and two exchanging correspondence are in the act of jiccarteggiau.

And as seal of his highest approval (occasionally sarcastic), Castagna interjects bonu! bonu!, his Maltese for bene or buono, or Urre! Urre! probably his adaptation of hurrah, hooray. On other Italian words he dons a Maltese garb, using some tender coercion – corantina, cirimonia, gentlom italian, jarrollau in-nies, ittorna bix-xuieni tieghu.

Fit-truppa scoppia il giarab means that trouble or maladies broke out among the soldiers. Haun iccessa ’l biza signals the end of fear. Aktar kien jallegra denotes anyone whose joy is on the increase. Id-doga, a pronunciation still current, stands for gown, toga. Other unusual pronunciations: cinus for cnus, ztut for xtut, hess for hoss, giranet for granet, imbedghet for bdiet. And did ponnijiet change sound? Castagna has milkuh bil bonnijet.

The author rarely uses iggieled or ghamel battalja, which for him is battulia anyway. His favourite term is cumbatt, like uara cumbatt ta erba sighat, il cavalleria itlestiet ghal cumbatt, cumbatt mill’akkal. He abbreviates good Italian words: beda jiddubia for jiddubita. Strangely for a person well versed in Italian, he repeatedly has the verb ittracca for attakka, like in ittracca l’ armata, ittracca it-torri, is-suldati ittrakkaw il castell. Today ittrakka means to tie, to berth.

Some of Castagna’s idiosyncratic Maltese is not really archaic, but typical Cottonera idiom, possibly still in use today. Anything standing upright is arbulat, like palk arbulat or arbulau sellun.

For about, approximately, he uses ghal, as in ghal tnax il’elf ruh, and near, close, is not hdejn but hada.

Other unusual words or phrases might also be attributable to Bormliż, but I could not identify any more.

Disused phrasing found in Castagna recalls the fire and brimstone sermons and panegyrics of my younger days. Immela for mela – telku immela ghal Barbaria; halef bir-ras min tieghu, allurmeta wasal, giustappuntu; or the adjective before the noun: il kbir castel Sant’ Angilu, eulenin nies pajisna, waslet it-tieni Generali Elezioni, f O’Ferral ahna tlifna profond finanzier.

And the verb before the subject: iddispra Dragut, intela Dragut bil killa, ferahlu wisq il Papa. No traces, though, of other staple old church Maltese, like edika il-qaddisa, edawka l-bahrin or edan it-tirann which blighted my first churchgoing.

One word very current today that Castagna never seems to use is spicca, in the sense of finish, end, disappear, complete, terminate. Repeatedly he resorts to spieda instead: il pesta spediet, it-temporal spieda, dauar ghal Ponta fejn kienet tispiedi, u spieda x-xoghol, ’l Universita spediet ghal kollox – from Sicilian spidiri.

Occasionally, though not often, he writes iccessa for to end: iccessa ’l ferh. I am not aware why or when the use of spieda faltered in Malta. Were it not for Castagna, one would have thought that spicca, spiccat, spiccaw have been around forever – long enough anyway to contribute a short-lived Maltese word to the English vocabulary: ‘to spitcher’ – to finish off.

Castagna consistently gives his own personal twist to place-names, sometimes resorting to Italian, others typically Maltese, like the transposition of consonants in his designation of Algiers – l’Argiel, and its inhabitants, l’Argelini. Others are Barzlona, Paliermu, Auista (Augusta), Stambul, Serkusa, Belgio, Moscovia, Capupassru.

Place-names in Malta also enjoy some distortion: il Forti Tinjer, Gebel Kim, il Chistlanija, Sant Angilu, Santa Baldisca.

I was curious to discover how Castagna tackled Italian words of Greek origin ending in ‘a’ like problema, skema, sistema, dilemma, panorama, teorema, tema, which in Italian are masculine. Respectable Maltese speakers and writers up to a relatively short while ago treated these Italian words as masculine, notwithstanding their ‘a’ ending: il-problema hu, l-iskema spiċċa, id-dilemma sar akut, it-tema ġie eżawrit, is-sistema ħadem, jitfaċċa fuq panorama sabiħ.

Nowadays you are looked upon with commiseration if you do not say or write il-problema hi, id-dilemma kienet, is-sistema irnexxiet. The British have (or used to have) a stringent, if empirical, test insofar as the correctness of language is concerned: the Queen’s English – how their gracious monarch would notionally pronounce, say or write it.

In Malta we ditched Queen and monarchy, and substituted the old ‘royalty’ test by a riotously democratic one instead: how the most ignorant of the most illiterate of Maltese would pronounce, say or write it – that test now consecrates the canonically correct form.

Stick to the old rules of well-educated classical Maltese authors, and you know what? You are anti-social, a patronising snob.

Castagna left me in suspense: I could only find one single usage of an Italian word of Greek origin ending in ‘a’ in the whole volume: din is sistema – the rot had already started setting in. But then Castagna also uses masculine Italian words like ordine (a command) in the feminine – l’ordni kienet tant rigorusa.

Today the Maltese lexicon has been massively infiltrated not only by English words, but also by English usages and constructs.

Those less finicky or less respectful tend to adopt English turns of phrase, sometimes all too literally (Onorevoli, sibthom saqajk? iħokku l-ispallejn; ħarġet bil-kuluri itiru; titħabatx, ħudha faċli. Probably Iħossni bħal kikkra kafè takes the biscuit – hopefully not tieħu l-gallettina, though I’d think twice before swearing).

Is there any evidence that this could already have been so in the mid-19th century? Castagna almost never resorts to English words, with only minimal exceptions: il gakk inglis (the Union Jack), but maybe one can detect English constructs in awkward-sounding phrases like waqa marid, ix-xwieni chienu fuk is-safar, il hueijeg chienu geijin fl’ icrah, meta chixef din ’l ahbar (when he came to know), La Cassiere waqa fl’odiu ta colhatt, ir-Russia irmiet ghaina fuk Malta.

Other phrases, Castagna lifted almost literally from Italian: ibbaxxa rasu; hekk kif torna il Gran Mastru ghal Birgu; jaghmlu in-nar fuk id dghaisa mahruba; ma kienx ta dan is-sentiment; la dritta u la sinistra beda jati; min ghair ebda disturbiu. And the Grand Master ha hsieb biss chif ilesti mil ahjar ghal putent Musulman.

For someone conspiring with the French, Castagna has kien dejem conserva mal Francisi, and a man with out-of-control emotional urges izzeweg bil glandestin. Of the flight of King Ferdinand from Naples, our historian says, Ferdinando skansa fi Skallia.

Yet others have a thoroughly Maltese ring to them, even if some seem to have lost currency today. D’Omedes xejn ma chellu x’jaghmel ma Bottigella – meaning there was no comparison between one and the other. Huma u gejin kabadhom it-temp (they ran into foul weather), ma kellux armu jaghmel; il Gran Mastru sabieh sabieh dendlu mal foroc – this needs no gloss.

Another Grand Master ftit geniu chellu mal Maltin (had no sympathy or understanding). Waqa il giuh; and Grand Master Clermont died because waqa fis sodod, tabbab min hawn, tabbab min hin, all proved vain. Ma compliex chelmtu – he broke his promise; venvillu dakka ta harta; tala liebet liebet kuddiem Soliman and a (to me) strange li ma ragiax lura chien ihallas il laham qabel collhatt. Others sound distinctly awkward: irnexxeu ghall’aghar.

Castagna employs collective nouns weirdly and often resorts to implausible concordances bet­ween plural and singular: l’insara collha ghajtet; Il Maltin chienet thobbu wisk lil De Redin; it-Tork (the Turkish army) fetah l’attrakk; ghaddeu il Francis for il-Franciżi għaddew.

To get a better feel of the special flavour of Castagna’s inestimable prose, I will transcribe just one typical paragraph: il Cavalieri chienu sferrau ghal kollox; ebda cont, ebda misthija ma chien baka fihom; u chienet kibret tant ix-xelleragini tahhom illi x’uhut inchitbu masuni, u ohrajn, qabel ma imorru jitkarbnu, chienu jehdu ic-cucculata u ‘l caffe.

Pietru Pawl Castagna died on April 13, 1907.

(Concluded)

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