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The worldliness of Maltese

Like many bookish men who took up fencing, I used to toy with the idea of picking a bar fight. Fencing does wonders for reflexes and economy of movement. In full training mode, one finds oneself effortlessly picking dropped things before they hit the floor. Surely, avoiding a swinging bottle and landing a blow is just a matter of translation?

It’s literally out of this world to try and apply one standard of excellence for the range of experience in which Maltese is rooted
- Ranier Fsadni

Alas, the bar fight remained elusive. I was unable to tell anyone to get lost without looking apologetic. When I practised saying, “żommuni, żommuni!” (hold me back [before I smash his face]) in front of the mirror, the mirror burst out laughing. An expensive education had taught me how to make polysyllabic words trip off my tongue but disabled the four-letter-word function.

Until I learned Arabic. Or rather, until I learned the language spoken in the western Libyan interior, from men beside whom I was a pale and unreal figure, like a white marble statue with unpainted eyes, so emphatical were they in appearance and expression, their wrists the size of my ankles, their arms like my thighs, their dark eyes capable of burning a hole in my forehead – and that was just when they were urging me to have some more of the lamb they had slaughtered.

As a result, Arabic remains the only language in which I can growl, hiss and crackle menacingly without sounding ridiculous. I have far less Arabic than I do Maltese or English but what I learned was an entire world of intonation, posture, gesture and eye contact, which have stood me in good stead when facing down and lashing out at a would-be pickpocket in Tripoli or a group of cheats in Sousse.

To learn a language – really to learn it – is to learn one’s way around a world. One doesn’t just speak a language; one becomes it. Grammar, beyond our control, remains important for mastery. But speaking (and writing) remains a thoroughly physical act, based on gauging all that’s relative in a situation. Language mastery requires standards of both objective excellence and situational relativism.

And, as a new Maltese language question appears to be breaking out, provoked by the new orthography, it’s important to remember the worldliness of Maltese – the world, or rather worlds, it is imbued by – if our discussion is to remain grounded.

No, that doesn’t mean endorsing pseudo-wise remarks about how especially adapted Maltese is for swearing. People who say that clearly have little knowledge of other languages and often seem incapable of swearing – really swearing, as opposed to pulling off a parody – in Maltese themselves.

What I mean, rather, is illustrated profoundly by Joseph M. Brincat’s book, Maltese and Other Languages (Midsea). A thick book, subtitled A Linguistic History of Malta, summarising reams of linguistic studies, it might seem rather more ivory-towered than worldly. In fact, the book returns Maltese to its world – its real world, as against the mythical, disabling images that have been thought up for it over the ages.

Prof. Brincat holds no grudges or guilt about the way he was brought up, linguistically. He does not try to fit his world to suit his mind; he broadens his mind (and ours) to understand the world. His father listened to Italian radio; his grandmother spoke French and some Maltese; his wife often speaks in English; they speak to their children in both English and Maltese; their grandchildren are divided into those who speak Hampton English and those who speak Maltese English.

This is a multi-lingual world that he takes for granted. Not only as shaping him but also as shaping the identity Maltese in its various registers. It’s literally out of this world to try and apply one standard of excellence for the range of experience in which Maltese is rooted. What you need to do is identify which sphere of life one is exploring – official or unofficial, formal or colloquial, spoken or written, etc. – and then examine what would constitute an excellent standard appropriate to that area.

Prof. Brincat’s pragmatism is both principled and relativist. His comments on the new orthography sound so sane because he shows how both can be combined. It’s a joy to read him show how a lot of “phonetic” spelling (like “baġit”) is not phonetic at all (“baġit” should sound “bajeet”); but it’s also a joy to see him enthuse about the linguistic innovations (often designed to jolt) of a poet like Mario Azzopardi.

His knowledge of the language’s history tells him that both conservation of standards and their renegotiation are essential. The processes by which a language develops into another language or into a pidgin dialect of another are – for a great part of the way – identical. So innovation needs to be both encouraged and kept under a trained eye.

Maltese did not become another Arabic dialect that evolved into an Italian variant because the process was arrested by the standardisation of the written language and its spread to new areas of communication: a set of circumstances inseparable from the onset of print communication and the politics of the British empire. There is nothing, however, to stop the process of pidginisation from resuming.

Prof. Brincat shows how Maltese has always thrived in a cosmopolitan context and suffered at the hands of well-meaning language-lovers who wanted to “purify” it but ended up dismembering it. It’s a worldly history and, for that very reason, about us as much as about Maltese.

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