MalDia 06 (09-12-15)  

The biblical Old Testament recounts that when mankind became too cocky and too big for its boots by trying to build a massive vertical tower to reach God’s stellar domain, Jahwe let loose among them a babble of tongues that confused them no end and spread disarray. I have never had any doubt that one of those tongues was Maltese, a language that even today spreads confusion among the Maltese themselves!

 

The Maltese language, written and spoken has reached a substantial impasse. A language that does not evolve will die a natural death. Maltese has evolved over centuries and centuries of adaption and incorporation.

 

In preparation for the CHOGM Summit in late November, ‘The Economist’ ran a whole article on the Maltese language on 24th November and wrote thus:

 

Pietru Caxaro's poem - Cantilena.

Pietru Caxaro’s poem – Cantilena.

“IT MAY seem surprising that a dialect of Arabic is an official language of the European Union. But travel 90km south of Sicily and the odd-sounding language of the EU’s smallest state, Malta, is exactly that. With some 450,000 native speakers, Maltese was granted official status in 2004 after the country joined the EU. Malta also belongs to the Commonwealth, which is holding a conference in its capital at the weekend; some 30 heads of government are due to arrive in Valletta, where even amid the babble in English they are likely to hear a smattering of Maltese.

“It is the sole survivor of the Arabic dialects spoken in Spain and Sicily in the Middle Ages and the only Semitic language written in the Latin script. When spoken, Maltese sounds like Arabic with a sprinkling of English phrases. When written it looks like Italian with a blend of some peculiar symbols. So where does modern Maltese come from?

“Much like its society, Malta’s language is the result of centuries of cultural mingling. From as early as the ninth century until 1964, when the country became independent, a series of conquerors left their mark on all aspects of Maltese life, from architecture and the arts to the island’s colourful cuisine.

The late Professor Godfrey Wettinger.

The late Professor Godfrey Wettinger.

“The main linguistic transformation came in around 1050 when the ruling Arabs absorbed the existing community and, through force of numbers, replaced the local tongue with their own. The Sicilians and the Knights of Malta followed. Sicilian, Latin and Italian, which was later declared the country’s official language, enjoyed high status for centuries—but Arabic persisted. In 1800 Malta became a British colony and English, which joined the existing Babel of languages, gradually prevailed over its linguistic rivals.”

This is mostly accurate but requires some further enhancement. Why did the Maltese language survive with so much foreign intrusion? The answer is that the class system aided the development of Maltese. As early as the ninth century, Malta had its own nobility, a few titled families that had moved south from Sicily. A few scholars (mostly clerics) were proficient in Latin and thus quickly absorbed Italian, Spanish and French. Entrepreneurs perforce had to learn these languages.

 

As to the rest of the rank and file – they were left to their own messy language. There was of course no social mix of any kind (except for clerics lording it over their flocks); the nobility and the rich maintained servants.

 

 Fr Mikiel Fsadni.

Fr Mikiel Fsadni.

Foreign powers did not deal with the Maltese except to keep them strictly in check. Their only communication was with the noble and the rich as the rest were in the “untouchable” class and did not matter.

 

This persisted down through the centuries to the period when the Knights left, the French ruled for a brief two-year period and then the British moved in. By that time, the nobility, the rich and the commercial sector had resorted to Italian as their language, refraining to use Maltese, so much that right to the start of the 20th century, Maltese was regarded as being “the language for the servants”.

 

However, by that time scholars and academics began to realise the uniqueness of the Maltese language and highly resented its second-class classification. The British too were highly irritated by the continued persistence of the use of Italian which was the official legal language and the language of the Courts.

 

The Maltese nobility listed in the 18th century.

The Maltese nobility listed in the 18th century.

There were absurd situations in which a Maltese was taken to Court over some misdemeanour or other and could not understand a word of what was being said because it was all in Italian and he had to rely on translations by his lawyer.

 

The Maltese Academy was established in the late 1920s and the British finally acted, declaring Maltese and English to be the official languages of Malta and Gozo and the use of Italian began to subside as Maltese and English were introduced into schools and Maltese became the official Court language.

 

By then, Maltese had become Arabic based with an incorporation of English, Italian and French phrases, further infused by English BBC radio programmes and then with the introduction of television in the mid-1950s a further spurt of Italian because of the transmission of Italian television stations.

 

Maltese clerics helped keep the Maltese language alive by communicating with the poor.

Maltese clerics helped keep the Maltese language alive by communicating with the poor.

However, that was NOT that. Maltese faced a new struggle – how to deal with words like radio, television. telephone and many others of which no actual identical translations could be made. With the progress of technology this has become further aggravated with words like computer, mouse, internet, e-mail and a plethora of evolving technology.

 

Nowadays, that is the crisis the Maltese language is undergoing – how to deal with these words, written and spoken. For example, the word ‘chairman’ is being written ‘cerman’, the word ‘goal’ is written ‘gowl’, the word ‘telephone’ as ‘telefon’ and scores and scores of other words.

 

Academics are having a field day and the Government is smarting as to which route to adapt. Some maintain the new and perverted spelling should be used; some maintain they should be retained in their original state and not perverted. There is an added complication in the use of Maltese in e-mails and sms texting – just as there is in English itself!

 MalDia 07 (09-12-15)

Nevertheless, the complexity also remains over various different village dialects and the different interpretation as to the meaning of words that differ in various districts in islands that are a few hundred metres by a few hundred metres square! Accurate Gozitan itself although coming from the same base, can be entirely different in interpretation!

 

Of great interest has been the discovery of the oldest piece of literature written in Maltese. This is Pietru (Peter) Caxaru’s poem ‘Il-Kantilena’ (in Maltese today this is often interpreted as a never-ending diatribe!) and has been proposed to UNESCO to be included in the world’s heritage list.

 

The poem was discovered by the late Maltese academic Professor Godfrey Wettinger and the priest Father Mikiel (Michael) Fsadni in 1966. Even this is subject to debate because many maintain it was actually Fsadni who discovered the poem, showed it to Wettinger and then agreed to Wettinger’s suggestion they discovered it together.

 

Caxaro wrote the poem in 1450 and the original document is now held in the National Notarial Archives.

 MalDia 08 (09-12-15)

This is an approximate English translation:

 

Witness my predicament, my friends (neighbours), as I shall relate it to you:

Never has there been, neither in the past, nor in your lifetime,

A [similar] heart, ungoverned, without lord or king (sultan),

That threw me down a well, with broken stairs

Where, yearning to drown, I descend the steps of my downfall,

I climb back up and down again, always faced with high seas.

It (she) fell, my edifice, [that] which I had been building for so long,

It was not the builders’ fault, but (of) the soft clay (that lay beneath);

Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay

It (she) fell, my building!

It (she) fell, my building, its foundations collapsed;

It was not the builders’ fault, but the rock gave way,

Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay

It (she) fell, my edifice, (that) which I had been building for so long,

And so, my edifice subsided, and I shall have to build it up again,

Change the site that caused its downfall

Who changes his place, changes his fate!

For each (piece of land) has its own shape (features);

There is white land and there is black land, and red

But above all, you must stay clear of it.

MalDia 09 (09-12-15)The poem reflects a certain amount of disability for mankind to overcome the fates over which he has no control and in his futility all he built in the past comes crashing down and he has to start building again but that rebuilding and the change may herald new traumas and therefore, beware.

It is a typical reflection very much evident in the southern Mediterranean region harking back to ancient Greek and Roman times where man is just a plaything for the Gods and in reality has no control over the fates that shape his life.

And the Maltese language? It stands at the Gates of Babylon and in Maltese ‘babalonja’ (the j is pronounced as y) is a word used to denote total and uncontrollable confusion.

 

ALBERT FENECH

 MalDia 10 (09-12-15) Italian was the official and legal language.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Albert Fenech

Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management but still retained his roots by actively pursuing freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel.