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Mark Camilleri

Diversity inside Language Council increases oversight

The reforms to the Language Council will ensure that the Council does not fall again under the influence of a single and monolithic academic group

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Mark Camilleri
7 December 2016, 7:47am
Academics have warned that the proposed changes will weaken the academic input of the Maltese Language Council
Academics have warned that the proposed changes will weaken the academic input of the Maltese Language Council
The rules of grammar and orthography of the Maltese language are dictated by the National Council for the Maltese Language, whose composition is determined by the Department of Maltese Language of the University of Malta and the Maltese Academy, the outfit which previously served the role of a national language council.

The new law reforming the Council for the Maltese Language still allows the Academy and the Department of Maltese to nominate its representatives but in addition, thanks to the new law, the Language Council will finally have a representative from the publishing industry and a representative from the National Book Council to represent authors and book writers.

As of now, from the 11 people sitting in the Language Council only five members out of 11 hold a PhD in the Maltese language. One of the bones of contention on the Council reform is on the issue of peer-reviewing and academic scrutiny but, ironically enough, it is members of the Language Council itself who have persistently resisted to have their work peer-reviewed by other academics of contrasting views. The lack of peer-reviewing in the Council’s work was blatantly evident when earlier this year the Council released a list of country names and proposed introducing into Maltese the word “Netherlandi┼╝”. This issue is made even more problematic by the fact that until now the Language Council was monolithic in terms of its ideas and views.

So, no wonder that for many academics and authors the Language Council seemed to be taking decisions without even bothering to acknowledge their positions, let alone allow itself to be scrutinised by other academics in an independent peer-review process. When in 2008 the Council came out with a new list of prescriptive laws suggesting for example changing “skond” into “skont”, a great outcry followed. Many authors and academics seriously disagreed with the 2008 decisions, but there was unfortunately no means of redress. The current reform will help increase oversight by diversifying the member base of the Council.

Just recently during this year, the Language Council called a public meeting to announce its new directives regarding loan words and new diction borrowed from the English language. This time round, the Council changed its approach – instead of issuing a prescriptive directive, it declared a permissive position to the issues at hand and this was welcomed by many writers and academics present at the meeting.

Having a permissive position towards the development of a language defeats the purpose of having a Language Council in the first place, but this is the inevitable road our language seems to be taking. Ironically, it is the Language Council itself which came to the inevitable conclusion that when confronted with new controversial orthographic problems, writers and editors should have the possibility to choose their preferred option, and eventually the option most frequently used will prevail over the others naturally.

The reforms to the Language Council will ensure that the Council does not fall again under the influence of a single and monolithic academic group and furthermore, it will ensure that authors and publishers also have a say in the decision-making process. However, there is also the strategic direction of the language itself which should be taken in consideration. The Language Council could do with some help in its management and strategy.

Unfortunately, academics are often not the best managers and this shows in the failure of the Language Council to come up with a comprehensive administrative strategy to ensure and safeguard the use and the correct use of Maltese language in public institutions. For example, there has until now never been a comprehensive legal and administrative strategy drawn up by the Language Council to introduce wide-ranging reforms in the civil service and public bureaucracy when in fact such a strategy should have been one of the first things the Council had to attend to.  

The Language Council thinks it’s doing a great job by single-handedly translating one by one the road signs into Maltese, however such a piecemeal approach smacks of managerial incompetence and a lack of strategic thinking. Legal, executive and administrative work must take place to address these matters.

The new reform will not actually solve all the problems of the Language Council, but it is surely a good step forward. We cannot have a Language Council which thinks monolithically and which restricts all diverging schools of thought. Furthermore, the Language Council should seek proper advice on strategy and management and should be open-minded enough to listen to those who might have different views. I am confident that through the new reforms we are going in the right direction and with a more diverse Language Council we will reap better results.

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