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mark_camilleri
Mark Camilleri

No discussions please. We’re academics

When the majority of the Maltese people are craving answers on crucial and major questions on the Maltese language, some academics keep showing reluctance to engage with the public and provide potential solutions

mark_camilleri
Mark Camilleri
15 December 2015, 7:40am
In free and modern societies, it is not only considered the right of academics to disagree or agree strongly on several issues, but even their duty in fulfilling their roles as agents of change. In dictatorial states, academia is considered purely as a technical practice in which tangible or intangible results count more than the quality of the research and ideas.

Partly thanks to the Bologna process, but also due to new “austerity measures”, European universities are developing more into technical institutes rather than as free centres of research and thought; yet somehow, and it has to be said, strangely enough, the only real “austerity” impinging on sectors of local academia is that brand of purely indigenous austerity which has come to typify the University of Malta over the years.  

The badly-written and rather ambiguous statements issued recently by some academics from the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta tell surely of one thing: that they are completely against the setting up of a consultative committee to discuss the possibility of change to the language law. This position seems rather odd: when the majority of the Maltese people are craving answers on crucial and major questions on the Maltese language, some academics keep showing reluctance to engage with the public and provide potential solutions. At a time when academics are badly needed, they beat a retreat.  

The Minister of Education, Evarist Bartolo has opened up new channels for debate, discussion and even the possibility of reform to address major issues in the Maltese language. Following a very well-attended national public forum on the Maltese language, called by the minister himself, the minister has now called for the setting up of a consultative committee to discuss the language law itself.

The National Council for the Maltese Language has also been called to be part of this committee. Following the barrage of contrasting views written in local newspapers and expressed during the forum itself, I cannot but presume that no consensus on the status quo and on how the language is developing in terms of the decisions taken by the Council itself, has yet been reached. 

Therefore, I fail to understand why the opportunity to discuss change and progress should be neglected and opposed dogmatically. Major issues with the Maltese language when it comes to orthography and foreign words have long been dragging, and yet solutions are still lacking. Academics should now seize the moment and start giving concrete and serious answers rather than engaging themselves in their little insular political battles.

In a period of such intensive debate, academics could seize the opportunity to make a big name for themselves. Maybe a new Guzè Aquilina will give us acceptable answers to the current questions we are facing today; and yet somehow, if such answers do exist, academics are not willing to discuss them in public. During the recent language forum, I expected to hear from members of the Council for the Maltese Language and university academics from the Maltese department, presentations on the current issues and questions being discussed, such as for example, the adoption of foreign vocabulary by the native language or the formation of new words.

No such presentations were made and instead, the executive director of the National Council for the Maltese Language, Thomas Pace, treated attendees with a presentation on work made to ensure that road signs and other public signage were turned into Maltese. It was Kafkaesque if not surreal. In this way, attendees were given the impression that for the last 10 years, the Council was in fact devoting all its energy to proof-reading public entities.

Surely, a National Council for the Maltese Language can do better in political and institutional terms. National strategies and concrete legislation should be drawn up to tackle language issues on a national level.

This is not rocket science and it’s not very expensive either. It’s a job academics can do, but it seems that the chance has been lost, maybe partly due to a defective law and partly to academics wasting time on their petty and insular battles. More importantly, such a council should draw up clear strategies and provide various solutions for crucial language linguistic and orthographic issues.

Something which I proposed during the forum was that potential linguistic changes should be published in peer-reviewed journals prior to being imposed as a general rule. Academics should lead and give form to this national linguistic debate rather than ceding arms and blaming the government for the problem. 

Writers, editors and translators who are all tradesmen of the word, should also be increasingly consulted on the possible solutions. The National Council for the Maltese Language can be given a great boost with some restructuring in its institutional composition. There is nothing wrong with change, and my impression is that very few people are against this.

One of the signatories of the statements was the Academy of the Maltese language, but the academy didn’t even consult its members prior to issuing its statement – I know because I am a member myself. Other members of the academy have shown their satisfaction with the issuing of such a statement without their prior consultation. I suspect the same happened with the other signatories, leaving the number of people who really believe in the statements made to be very little indeed. 

mark_camilleri
Mark Camilleri is a historian and chairman of the National Book Council.
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