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Maltese: its first thousand years

Joseph Brincat: Maltese and other languages: A linguistic history of Malta, Midsea Books, 2011, 536 pp. €38.

For many years to come, Joseph Brincat’s Maltese and other languages: A linguistic history of Malta will remain the book to read for anybody wanting a serious and exhaustive introduction to the study of the Maltese language. It will also be as the publication scholars will consult in trying to understand the interesting historical development of our unique language.

The author touches on the problem of writing English words in Maltese, a topic which raises many hackles and which may hopefully be solved more elegantly than the recent spelling reforms
- Louis Scerri

Maltese draws on three language families: the Semitic, the Romance, and the Germanic, a miscellany that becomes even more remarkable when the miniscule size of the islands is taken into consideration.

This is the third version of Brincat’s study which first appeared in Maltese (two editions in 2000 and 2005) and was then re-written in Italian and published by the prestigious Centro Internazionale sul Plurilinguismo of the University of Udine.

These versions were received with considerable critical acclaim, but an English version remained a great desideratum since this version could reach the widest international audiences.

The present English version updates the Italian text and takes into account all important available sources and gives more attention to the contacts of Maltese with both Sicilian and Italian, as well as the centennial use of Italian in Malta.

Like all other living languages, Maltese has developed as a result of external forces that have come to bear on it during the last thousand years. These external changes reflect the chequered history of the islands them-selves as well as their social and demographic progress.

The end result is a fascinating language that has attracted numerous foreign scholars who tried to understand its origins, with the most significant early scholar being Hieronymus Megiser (1553–1618), who even included nine Maltese words in his Thesaurus Polyglottus (1603).

Brincat focuses on the lexicon which, as he says, “is the most tangible aspect of the language” and reflects the island’s social, political, and cultural vicissitudes.

The position and size of the islands both played crucial parts in the development of the language, which could survive far larger languages that it came into contact with and ‘borrow’ various elements from them and went on to gain official status as a national language and even acceptance as an EU language.

The Maltese language reflects the geographical realities of the archipelago which necessarily meant constant (and changing) contacts with other languages, especially those used by its various rulers.

Of course, these are reflected in social, political and cultural events which also explain how a language spoken by a handful of people could stand its almost-miraculous own and avoid being swamped by ‘greater’ langua-ges that influenced it in no small manner.

It is these contacts that have made Maltese what it is today and Brincat’s exciting and highly readable account explains it all with hundreds of examples and clear explanations.

Although Brincat dedicates the first chapter to the situation ‘before Maltese’ which goes back into the mists of prehistory and the classical period and discusses possible influences on the language spoken the islanders over that period, it is the Arab period that marks a watershed as far as Maltese is concerned.

Brincat is closely connected with the ‘discovery’ of the Himyari account of Islamic Malta which he had first published in 1990, not without an accompanying controversy.

The Arabic text basically describes a repopulation in 1048/49 after a period when the island had been left in devastation, which explains the non-existence of any earlier linguistic substratum.

It was from Sicily that a dialect of the Maghreb type of Arabic made its way over to provide the first layer, but which was soon influenced (as in the greater island) by contacts with the local dialect of Romance origin. Further contacts (and distance) meant that eventually by the time of the Order’s arrival in 1530 Maltese can be said to have developed its essential characteristics of a separate language.

By the early 16th century Italian, or its Tuscan dialect, had developed into a distinct language, as Brincat clearly explains, which the knights were to employ as their major medium of communication as well as being utilised by all those who aspired to join the ruling class.

A separate chapter is dedicated to the various studies that started being carried on Maltese by foreign and local scholars such as Hieronymus Megiser, G.F. Abela, Johannes Maius, and Agius de Soldanis.

British rule brought with it a new language that was to have very important social and political effects, in addition to leaving the obvious linguistic imprint.

Brincat discusses extensively the cultural shifts typified by a Maltese-Italian bilingualism to a Maltese-English one, with ample linguistic and literary references in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The final chapter looks at the present situation where Maltese and English have became the languages of communication for almost everybody, although it must be said that the level of linguistic competence of the latter is not as high as we are often led to think it is.

The 2005 census revealed that 12 per cent of the people do not know English, while only two per cent own to no knowledge of Maltese, these mostly being foreign settlers.

The chapter contains many interesting statistical analyses carried out by the author and by other local scholars, especially about code-switching.

Of great interest is the section about ‘Maltese English’ with its peculiar intonations, grammatical structures, and some odd vocabulary usage, evidence of a strong interference on the part of Maltese.

Yet another section deals with the subsystem of Anglicised Maltese, which Brincat defines as the use in writing and speaking of words, not found in Aquilina’s dictionary, which may serve the purpose of communication but is not an elegant concoction in itself, and may betray a certain mental laziness on the part of the user.

The author also touches on the problem of writing English words in Maltese, a topic which raises many hackles and which may hopefully be solved more elegantly and with fewer arguments than the recent spelling reforms.

Certainly, Brincat should be asked to contribute his well-reasoned arguments in the scholarly debate.

Well, what about the future? Although Maltese may often appear to be inundated by the tsunami of English as a world language and its use in the internet, the language has shown enough resilience in the past to make one hope for its future survival.

It would certainly be a pity and counterproductive if English were to be seen merely as an ‘enemy’ intent on destroying Maltese, and many more efforts have to be made to preserve the correct and proper use of both languages.

This review may have given the impression that this is just an academic book written for scholars. Nothing could be further from the truth as it is a most enthralling read even for the interested general reader.

All sections have been numbered; those with two digits (1.1, 1.2, etc.) being accessible to the general reader, and those with three or four digits (1.3.1, 1.3.1.1, etc) for a more specialised readership.

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