How Maltese is a ‘cah pahk’?

Lunchtime on Saturdays usually finds me tuned in to RTK’s Seħer il-Malti (The magic of Maltese). Manwel Mifsud and Thomas Pace do tremendous credit to the name and quite effortlessly bring out the nuances of the language in its warm-blooded incarnation.

Malti pulit is also ‘standard’ Maltese
- Mark Anthony Falzon

It seems I’m not alone to see the charm of it. There’s one Fredu who phones in without fail with anecdotes and reported speech from the more rural parts of Gozo. Then there’s a chap who calls himself in-Naxxori and who proceeds to entertain listeners with the heavy dialect of his native village.

My question is, What if in-Naxxori were is-Slimiż? How would listeners react to tal-pepe’ Maltese? My hunch is that Prof. Mifsud and Mr Pace would have a water cannon-grade riot on their hands. I can imagine the protests to the Broadcasting Authority, the curses of wronged identities, the calls to stick the traitor’s tongue on a pike.

The rub’s as follows. The variants known as dijaletti (dialects) are seen as quaint, earthy, authentic, honest, and blokey; that known as tal-pepe’ as insufferable, artificial, possibly even a tad flappy-handed.

I’m intrigued to know why this is so. Isn’t tal-pepe’ simply another form of spoken Maltese (or, on a good day, English)? Does it not lend variety to the language, much in the same way as Naxxori or Żabbarej do?

But first, what exactly is tal-pepe’ Maltese? The term is apparently a corruption of tal-papa, itself derived from figli di papa, and as such lends itself to two senses historically. First, that some are inclined to call their fathers ‘papa’ rather than ‘missier’ (‘daddy’, pronounced ‘dadi’, is something of a low-ranking substitute). Second, that such people are likely to be socially well-placed by virtue of their birth estate.

In terms of vocabulary and morphology, tal-pepé Maltese is hard exactly to pin down. The most thoughtful attempt I know of is Joseph M. Brincat’s tour de force Maltese and other languages. Scholarship apart, I have in mind gems like softened ‘r’s and ‘it’s cold today ay?’, the latter sung to the tonality of ‘il-bard illum hux?’. Readers will get my drift.

The Sunday Times readership notwithstanding, the risk is that a good many will ask for the sick bag. That’s because this is a subject people feel passionately about. A couple of years ago Daphne Caruana Galizia posted a mild-mannered piece about the relative merits of ricotta and irkotta on her blog; what followed was possibly the greatest flare-up since the Interdett.

It’s also because tal-pepe’ brings to mind qżież and ksuħat (snobbery and airs), which is in fact the first part of the answer to my question. One of the reasons why it’s thought problematic is because it rings false and put-on. I asked a builder friend of mine about this and it turned out he had just the right story.

He told me how he was once doing some renovation work in Sliema when he somewhat-voyeuristically chanced upon a domestic row (builders often have intriguing sightlines into people’s homes). It was vicious, and it was also in ‘Malti pur’ (‘pure’ Maltese, here meaning heavily-accented but also vulgar). At one point the couple left the houseand waved each another off outside thefront door. Only this time they spoke tal-pepe’.

That’s one reason why the irkotta champions so abhor tal-pepé. They see it as a mongrelised concoction that’s put on specifically to set the speaker apart. As my friend put it, the idea is ‘arani u la tmissnix’ (‘stay aloof from the riff-raff’). I might add he did funny things with his face as he said this.

Still, one could say the same of standard Maltese. It is after all known as ‘Malti pulit’ (‘respectable Maltese’), as opposed to the ‘Malti imgħawweġ’ of more humble settings. A snob by any other name, surely?

There are however at least two important differences. First, tal-pepe’ makes the fatal mistake (to its detractors) of mixing – and intentionally at that – Maltese and the foreign language par excellence, English. It also does so in such a way as to emphasise that the two are separate. When one speaks tal-pepe’ one wants to sound like one is speaking at least some English.

Malti pulit does nothing of the sort. We say that the various imported words and phrases it includes are ‘borrowed’. Only since there’s no intention of returning them, ‘appropriated’ would be a better word. Ask any speaker of Malti pulit why they say ‘rwol’ rather than ‘sehem’ and they will tell you – rightly of course – that ‘rwol’ is as Maltese as ‘sehem’ now. Unlike tal-pepe’ therefore, Malti pulit feels like a proper and well-defined language.

Which brings me closer to the million-dollar word. I said earlier that Malti pulit can be as put-on as tal-pepe’ and much for the same reasons. And yet it doesn’t feel like ksuħat.

The answer lives in the territory of nationalism and the politics of language. Point is, Malti pulit is also ‘standard’ Maltese. That means it was historically transformed from one of many variants into the language of the people, caste no bar as an Indian might say.

This was done partly by standardising its grammar but also in more nuanced ways. Manwel Mifsud and Thomas Pace speak Malti pulit on their programme. Politicians who make the occasional slip tend to raise eyebrows. And so on.

The N-word is particularly useful here. I can use it to answer my original question as to why some variants (Fredu and in-Naxxori’s dijaletti) are more equal than others (is-Slimiż’s tal-pepe’).

Nationalism (particularly the European kind) loves a good romp in the hay. Nationalists – us, that is – are wont to see origins in a distant rural past. The 19th and early 20th centuries were masters of the art. Peasant and/or rural communities were systematically mined for their costumes, customs, and tunes. There’s one picture I love of Béla Bartók walking off into the Hungarian countryside with a recorder strapped to his back.

It’s easy to see how the local variants, the dijaletti, fit in. They’ve been taken on board the nationalist story as the original and the best. I’ve heard people say that ‘real’ Maltese is spoken only by the xjuħ (old folk) of Għarb. ‘Għarb’ here doesn’t refer to the actual place, rather to a fantasy of rural authenticity.

Just like is-Slimiż in fact, who is not really from Sliema. Nor does he speak tal-pepe’at all times, or with everyone. But then nationalism is neither a tidy project nor a finished one.

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