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The rise of Maltenglish

When I started to write a book on how my grandfather, Antonio Mus­cat Fenech, who for 16 years was the editor of the Maltese language newspaper Il-Ħabbar Malti (1879-1895), strove to establish a common orthography for the written language I could not imagine that I would now be writing this lament at the loss by the Maltese language of its DNA.

... the language is fast losing its identity
- John A. Mizzi

My grandfather was a dedicated journalist who also wrote a number of popular novels in Maltese at a time when few people could read, let alone write the language, and the educated elite corresponded in Italian. He was successful as editor, for so many years as no other at the time, when publications survived for a very short time, most only for months.

He thought Maltese was a unique language able to stand on its own two feet. However, he found difficulties with articles and correspondence he received as the words were spelled according to the personal opinions of each writer and these he had to rewrite in the style of his newspaper.

Those writing books or in other publications also spelled words according to their own accord, resulting in confusion. So for years he carried on a campaign to get together the established writers in order to formulate a common alphabet and a grammatical orthography.

His newspaper opened its columns to all those who had views on the subject, some expressing sensible conclusions, others very wild views. Eventually, 24 writers met in April 1894 and elected a committee of five with Napuljun Tagliaferro, a noted philologist, as president and my grandfather as secretary.

My grandfather was a man of many parts and, having been appointed soon after Consul General for the Austro-Hungarian Empire (for which services he was knighted by Emperor Franz Josef), he had to withdraw from the committee, which had already drawn up an alphabet of 29 letters based on the Italian but incorporating the letters ċ, ġ, ż, ħ and għ.

There was opposition from Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi at the introduction of the letter w as he claimed this was exclusve to English, alien to Maltese and if adopted would initiate a decline of the Maltese language.

The notes of the various committee meetings were lost after Mr Muscat Fenech handed them over but Ġanni Vassallo, who had taken over as secretary, soldiered on and, as a prominet member of the Xirka tal-Malti, he published his Muftieħ tal-Kitba Maltija (first part in 1902). This established some common ground so that, in November 1920, the Għaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti again appointed a comission to study the problem further. In 1925, it published Tagħrif Fuq il-Kitba Maltija followed by Ninu Cremona’s Tagħlim Fuq il-Kitba Maltija as a grammar, which was introduced in the schools.

The language eventually evolved and expanded on its own merits without any undue interference from a government-appointed council.

At the time the committee of five was meeting in 1894 there was much political agitation with one section determined to keep Italian as the primary language taught in schools. It also opposed English as it was thought this would, in due course, supplement Italian at a time when very few knew English, particularly the highly influential clergy, who held the view that if people learnt English they would soon convert to Protestantism.

The Archbishop, Mgr Pietro Pace, looking ahead, put his foot down and made sure his priests learned English, for which he was reviled to the extent that Pope Leo XIII intervened in his support.

Fortunato Mizzi, the leader of one of the newly formed political parties, the Anti-Reformisti, forerunner of the Nationalist Party, described Maltese as a language fit for the kitchen, a statement for which he later apologised.

The Maltese language continued to develop as a matter of course. Then, in April 2004, Act V Chapter 470 was published in the Government Gazette setting up a Kunsill Nazzjonali ta’ l-Ilsien Malti comprising nine persons to review, after open discussions, the developing trend of the language that was “the principal element in the identity of the Maltese people”. There was wide-ranging discussion with many individuals giving their opinions. Some of these were pie in the sky, too academic and unrealistic. But there was also accord although, when the conclusions of the council were published, backed by the authorities, principally by the Ministry of Education, rules were imposed in a manner that many have since severely criticised. This notwithstanding the fact that it was made clear in Act V of 2004 that the provisions of article 3 (principles and duties) shall not be enforceable in any court of law.

The National Council of the Maltese Language has since failed to safeguard the integrity of the Maltese language as was its remit.

The decision to spell English words à la Maltaise made no distinction between the spoken word and the written language and opened a Pandora’s box in the misleading use of English words in a section of the media, especially among the sports writers. So now we have gowl, grawnd, gowlkiper, tim, plejer, yott, etc. (To say nothing of the football commentaries that could well be an offshoot of Italian television but that’s another issue.)

In everyday life one may speak in any way one fancies, as some do in Maltenglish “għax, you know, insibuha difficult to say the correct kelma bil-Malti”. But written Maltese is a different matter altogether and has to be literate. Yet, now we have such oddities as bejbi for tarbija, kuker for forn, xow for spettaklu, not to mention mowbajl for mobile, friġġ for fridge, plejstejxin for Playstation, punċer for puncture, tajers for tyres, bajsikil for bicycle, baġit for budget... You can compile your own list. The plum for me is dabiljusi for WC.

With the introductin of Maltenglish in the schools one can imagine very young children being completely confused if, given a dictation in Maltese, they are made to write “It-tedi ber ma jużax mowbajl” while in a similar dictation in English later they are asked to write “The teddy bear does not use a mobile”.

My mind boggles as, surely, that of the children will, with the exception that mine will see the distinction but they will not. The result for them will be botched Maltese and alien English, which does not augur well for their future knowledge of the two distinctive languages.

Then, take words like bajro, spelled as pronounced à la Anglaise, when the original should be pronounced biro (beero) as it is the surname of its inventor who was Hungarian (biro also means judge).

On this reasoning, I would not be surprised if some newspaper writes about the famous scientist Għajnstajn. This is as if the authorities in a northern European country where the people are of a blond complexion adopted Africans so long as these entered the country suitably whitewashed despite their DNA!

Only misguided zealots would ever support a takeover of English and pass it off as Maltese by the simple expedient of spelling the word as it would sound if Maltese.

English words (as are French, German, etc) that have enriched other languages are still spelt in the original as one can so readily observe if one reads the Italian papers or more easily watches television. A quick look will confirm this: online, privacy, manager, all inclusive, hamburger, studio sprint, football, energy, undercover, special, decoder, mercenary, weekend, Italia’s Got Talent, all noted in one single evening on Italian stations.

The Maltese language has always had a solution of its own how to remedy the problem. It adopts in a natural way English words into Maltese when one writes ikkraxja, skorja, iddrajvja, iskejtja, issejvja etc. The roots should be written crash, score, drive, skate, saved etc. and in italics. Even with Italian, words are now being written in this language when there are original Maltese words.

One does not have to be a prophet to realise that in this way Maltese has been losing face after being infected with the germ of oddly mispelt English injected into its genes, mainly in the media, in a free-for-all.

The government has much to answer for as when in its press releases one reads, for example, tal-lejber (for Labour) when it should be laburisti.

The whole matter is gradually getting out of hand and the language is fast losing its identity.

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