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Tackling the Maltese language crisis

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The setting up of an academically authoritative (not authoritarian) body such as the National Council for the Maltese Language to watch over our language is partly the result of the destructive tensions that used to prevail in the Akkademja tal-Malti, the group whose raison d’être was specifically to regulate Maltese orthography.

In an article in this newspaper in 1994 I had suggested the creation of a body like the council but nowhere did I hint at the amalgamation of linguistic forces to deftly usurp the academy’s responsibilities and its cherished standing.

The idea behind my thinking then, as it remains to this day, was for the professional personnel in the University of Malta’s relevant faculties and departments to join up with the academy and all other established Maltese language groups in a concerted singular effort towards the guidance, preservation and development of Maltese.

Considering all that has been and is still currently being written in the media, what is sorely and ultimately needed is the repealing of the Act setting up the council, which has empowered it with legislative authority. In view of the council’s arrogant attitude and actions this body’s continued existence has consequently become untenable.

If left to continue to exist under the present circumstances, it will never work, and matters will continue to fester. Out of such a mess one can only anticipate more confusion and additional harm being inflicted upon the Maltese nation’s principal point of identity.

During my four years of study under Manuel Mifsud, Albert Borg and Ray Fabri – at the University’s Department of Maltese – I was never impressed by their professional knowledge of Maltese.

Joseph Aquilina privately told me on more than one occasion about his concern for the fantasies in Borg’s endless theorising with the question of aspect in Maltese (Ilsienna) and with his suggested removal of the għ and the h.

Mifsud, in his radio programme Seħer il-Malti, leaves many unanswered questions as well as incomplete and even incorrect replies to his audience.

Fabri seems to live in a permanent dream world of useless theorising about ‘word order’ and ‘generative grammar’.

Such is the disparate group of academics in whose care the draconian council’s powers were entrusted. Of course, I must not omit Olvin Vella for attaining a first class for his thesis Il-Pjanifikazzjoni tal-Malti. It is a must-read for all believers in language planning. What an abhorrence we have created in the council.

From a more positive angle, in order to properly appreciate the intrinsic richness of our ancient tongue upon which we can truly build – instead of concoct – a genuine in-house vocabulary, devoid of non-essential borrowings, we must firstly prioritise the place of Maltese in our collective psyche.

Irrespective of our traditional language source borrowings from Italian and English, superimposed onto the Semitic Arabic stratum, we must shed the overriding cloak of our long colonialist past and acknowledge that we are dealing with Maltese, first and foremost.

In view of the National Council for the Maltese Language’s arrogant attitude and actions, this body’s continued existence has consequently become untenable

In building our vocabulary, our idiomatic parlance, our phraseological and syntactic structures, we must first and foremost look within our own richly inbuilt language devices.

The Romance and English content moulded into the solid Semitic foundations has, under the able guidance of the founding fathers (principally Aquilina supported by Peter Paul Saydon and Joseph Cremona, without the perennial necessity of reverting to Mikiel Anton Vassalli et al) cleverly and lucidly blended into its Semitic structure where it belongs.

Supreme above everyone else, Aquilina marched forward and with a sensitive ear, with the calm mien of the true scholar, single-handedly highlighted and reinforced the solid foundations of Maltese with foresight and profound depth. As a direct result of Aquilina’s lifetime dedication to his sole passion, the Maltese language today does not require any fiddling by newly-born stars who so desire to outshine the brilliance of the Aquilina supernova. All that is needed is goodwill and a thorough knowledge – complete familiarisation with the entire structure of the language – on the part of all those at the helm.

Manifestly, our so-dubbed ‘language problems’ are not linguistic at all. They are of a dreaded social (classist), political (local and from abroad), religious (the Arabic substrate representing denominational conflict), historic (a centuries-old chronology of language tension) and one might even argue, racist (the uncouth and uncultured hordes from the south and the east) nature. Centuries-old prejudices that lurk in the background are subtly rekindled by the ignorance of sinister forces within, hell-bent on a final and complete eradication of the Maltese language altogether.

Maltese is a language in its own right. This means that like any other living language on earth, while enriching itself when borrowing sensibly from other language sources, it has an inbuilt structure of devices to enable its independent development within its established Semitic foundations. Distorting and disfiguring its natural Semitic beauty seems to be the preferred mischievous choice in certain quarters of Maltese society that have a horrendous irritant lingering in the corridors of their primordial minds.

It is blatantly apparent to me that there are conscious ongoing efforts in Maltese society to distance the structurally Semitic foundations upon which our native language is built. By de-Semiticising our tongue through the intentional replacement of our rich and beautiful idiom with an identifiable alien twang, this somehow brandishes us with a distorted idea of language sophistry. Eventually it seems these wicked forces are aiming at the complete Romanticisation (Europeanisation?) of Maltese by this artificial and sinister methodology.

Decades of indifference by successive Maltese governments in not rectifying the widespread misgivings relating to the teaching of Maltese have taken their toll over the years. The repercussions include anti-Maltese sentiments openly expressed and practised in several Church-led and private schools, and incompetent teachers of the language owing to initial poor classroom delivery. The council cannot cast the blame for poor use of Maltese upon all segments of the media and ignore the root cause.

For the sake of Maltese – the supreme mark of our national identity – let us wipe the slate clean. Let us rally behind Education Minister Evarist Bartolo who has brazenly taken it upon himself to ‘fix’ this disgraceful and unholy mess; once and for all.

Roderick Bovingdon is active in the promotion of Maltese culture, language and literature in Australia.

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