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Maltese makeover

Albert Borg: "Our only motivator is the love for our language." Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

Albert Borg: "Our only motivator is the love for our language." Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

The National Council of Maltese has published a document aimed at modernising and standardising written Maltese. This was part of a larger project to revise the language as a whole. Christian Peregin spoke to Albert Borg, chairman of the committee responsible, to discuss the origins of Maltese, the proposed changes and the problems of funding.

The reason Maltese exists today is because when Frederick II exiled all Muslims from his land in 1249 many of those living in Malta converted to Christianity to continue living here as Arab Christians, Prof. Borg explains.

Archives dating back to the Middle Ages contain records of men baptised with the name Mohammed and Prof. Borg points out that the surname Mamo actually means Muslim and the surname Abdilla is a Muslim name meaning "slave of God".

"We have been going through a process of trying to deny what we are. This is why we're so racist against the Arabs... because we are so close," he argues.

This, according to Prof. Borg, is one of the reasons why, in the 1960s, the experiment to develop Maltese words failed. The experiment included creating words like miksaħ for fridge, mirmet for ashtray and mitjar for airport. But these did not infiltrate the language because of the unpopular harsh-sounding Arabic connotations, he says.

According to Prof. Borg, people generally prefer to use English words in such instances but the controversy arises when it comes to reflecting the spoken language in written form.

In the coming months the National Council of Maltese will be tackling the problem of whether to spell English loanwords in their original English form or with Maltese sounds.

Prof. Borg argues that, since the Maltese language has borrowed so much from other languages, there should not be a problem with adopting words of English origin that have become part of spoken Maltese and standardising them even in the written form.

It saddens him, however, that there is no creative process being carried out in Maltese. He explains that the word "shuttle" was lifted from an old English word referring to a part of a loom. In Maltese there is a word with the exact same meaning, mekkuk, which could have been used just as well to refer to a space shuttle.

The council was entrusted with modernising Maltese so that it can be used in all contexts.

Prof. Borg explains that Maltese is usually used with traditional aspects of life, including religion, history and culture. However, when it comes to prestigious aspects of life such as finance, science and technology, English is usually the preferred code.

Bilingualism, in its truest sense, means that a person can use two languages equally well in all areas of life.

"But in Malta we have complementary bilingualism, which means that we use English for some things and Maltese for others. This does not have the same benefits intellectually and it can result in a mixed Maltese-English that is generally looked upon negatively," he remarks.

In schools, students learned maths completely in English with the result that many have stopped using numbers in Maltese.

But Prof. Borg says that even a language as prestigious as English needed some prodding in the past, when it was considered unsuitable for philosophy, so there is still hope that Maltese can eventually be used comfortably in all areas of life.

The document that the council published last month dealt with orthographic (written) variants in Maltese. This was promulgated through the Government Gazette and, following a three-year period of grace, will become official in 2011.

The second document will deal with English loanwords; a controversial topic that has already received a lot of attention. In fact, over 300 people participated in the public consultation seminar held in April.

The third section will address phonetic variants, which includes problems of pronunciation that go beyond issues of dialect and accents.

In the first document, a panel of experts had to choose which variants to make standard and which to eliminate. One of the most controversial changes was the standardisation of the word skont, to mean both "discount" and "according to". The latter used to be spelt with a "d" at the end but this letter never featured when the word was conjugated, so it was replaced by a "t".

"When choosing between variants you are not choosing between right and wrong because both are right," Prof. Borg explains. However, standardisation has many benefits. For example, when using the electronic media, an online search would have to include all the variants otherwise it would not be accurate. The changes will also make life easier for journalists, proofreaders and translators.

The council tries to achieve maximum consensus in its workings, he says, and it worked for long hours on a voluntary basis.

"When it comes to the national language, as opposed to what happens in other areas of society, the politicians are not very forthcoming with the money," Prof. Borg notes.

He explains that the committee of 11 experts met regularly for 100 hours but, unlike other projects such as the euro changeover, there was no budget allocated by the government for such work.

"It's not even expected that you should get paid for this kind of work," he says in exasperation, while explaining that in other countries there were massive teams of full-timers employed to keep a language up to date.

The first document took some 18 months to complete and there is no deadline set for the other two documents.

The lack of funding is not only demoralising but it also slowed down the process, Prof. Borg complains.

"Our only motivator is the love for our language," he concludes.

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