The politics of spelling

The point I sought to make in my article 'Opening a Can of Words' (not worms) was setting out the following dilemma:

If the "decisions" taken by the National Council for the Maltese language have the force of law, then there is a grave deficiency: no penalties are envisaged for their breach, nor any means for their enforcement.

If the "decisions" are kind advice or solemn guidelines, then their formulation as if they were law in the strict sense of the word also constitutes a grave deficiency: the presentation is misleading and the style mistaken.

The dilemma has arisen because of chiefly two factors: First, the law setting up the council attributes to it not only the task of establishing a language policy but also that of ensuring that it is implemented "in every sphere of Maltese life", for the enhancement of "the identity of the Maltese people". Secondly, the council itself has shown admirable writing skills in the formulation of its "decisions": the sound of flexing strongman muscles is almost audible as one reads.

It did not arise in the 1930s.Then, a non-government organisation humbly calling itself l-Għaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti proposed a system of spelling. The government adopted it for use by public officers and for teaching in schools. Those writers of Maltese who disagreed with the system, such as the Nationalist Party, went on using a quite different system of spelling for years afterwards. Wisely, the silly extravaganza was allowed to peter out and died a natural death, with no need of intervention by any linguistic policemen.

Likewise, Erin Serracino Inglott appealed to the Akkademja (as the Għaqda had now chosen to call itself, rather unwisely in my opinion) to pronounce itself on spelling issues, not to an official organ of the State to legislate about the matter.

I am concerned about all this because the general issues about spelling are not matters that can be settled on technically linguistic grounds. They are essentially political options. Very crudely, the central option to be made is whether to follow in principle etymology or phonetics (or some mix). In this choice, clearly the determining factor is what weight to give to history and consequently to tradition as a value in the manifestation of national identity through language.

Those who like myself or my late uncle, Erin Serracino Inglott, give very great value to historical awareness in all its forms, including the traces of diachronicity in language, tend consistently to favour etymology. We do not do this in any absolute way, since practical considerations such as simplicity need also to be taken into account, as the council certainly does.

The council seems to have decided, broadly speaking, to respect etymology in the Semitic part of the vocabulary (fidelity to trilitterism, including the 'għ') but to follow the phonetic route for the remaining part. This decision implies a political judgment, namely that a greater importance is due to the historical heritage subsisting from our Semitic past than that due to the rest. With non-Semitic words, we are being ordered to wipe out the traces of origins from visibility (with a few exceptions for one reason or another).

Evidently, it was not and is not my intention to discuss the merits of this choice or of any other here. I only wanted to protest against choices of this kind being made with the force of law, that method has a tang of totalitarianism.

It may well be that advancing age has blunted my logical acumen, and my good friends have accused me very cheerfully of having spawned "fallacies". Even though I do not take, like Nabokov, an equal delight in lepidoptery as I do in play with words, I enjoyed their futuristic fantasy about butterflies.

But I still fail to see how such facts as wide participation in the process of their reaching decisions or Aquilina's giving skont as a variant for skond are relevant to the dilemma that arose in my mind possibly because of my preoccupation with the philosophy of law over many years.

I feared, groundlessly it now seems, that the dilemma might also have caused some slight twitch of conscience in colleagues with responsibility for language policy. I repeat that I was not very distressed by most of the decisions of the council, as I was by the imperious, more than imperative mood that was adopted. However, the scorn of history betrayed by the readiness to overturn well established usage made me very apprehensive about the next wave of decisions to be taken by the council about borrowings from English.

My last year of teaching at the University was soured, among other things, by students writing futbol and lekcer in philosophy essays supposedly written in English.


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