This language debate must calm down

Dr Sarah Grech • The Maltese language question might be a sensitive one, but this is also an exciting opportunity to see the language evolve and grow

23 December 2016, 7:09am
Malta needs the flexibility until society determines the most acceptable versions of spelling, but because literacy is more universal now, we also need to demonstrate some control over what we write
Malta needs the flexibility until society determines the most acceptable versions of spelling, but because literacy is more universal now, we also need to demonstrate some control over what we write
By Dr Sarah Grech is a member of the Centre for English Language Proficiency, University of Malta

The heated debate surrounding the Maltese language and how it should be represented in writing is becoming something of a worry. It’s a worry because the debate shouldn’t really be so heated any more. We may have reached a point where a calm consideration of the various options before us might be more profitable.

Actually, there was calm consideration for a while, as il-Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti beavered away, trying to understand the leaps and bounds that this lively language was making, and networking with entities like the local councils, or Transport Malta to try and get written Maltese visible. 

Recently though, the Kunsill came under attack over its proposals for how to represent – if at all – the written form of some of the newer words, particularly those borrowed from English. [See some of the proposals here http://www.kunsilltalmalti.gov.mt/news-details?nwid=144&ctid=17&ctref=ortografija]

Now, this attack and the resulting upheaval at the Kunsill has unfortunately derailed what was already a tricky, sensitive process for the Maltese language. We now need to get back on track fast, because until then, the general public, including teachers and their students, and even publishers who have worked so hard to make the Maltese language more visible, are all in limbo. Books can’t be published, and lessons can’t be learnt in this language we’re all trying so hard to protect, while we’re all vying for the moral high ground, and throwing our weight around, stalling important decisions.

As any self-respecting psychologist might tell you, decisions are best taken in an atmosphere of calm, not high emotion. In this case where decisions directly concern the public and the national interest, a healthy sense of perspective would help. 

To start with, we should remember that some of the most heated discussion concerns how to represent new words coming into Maltese in writing. In speech, we already comfortably use a lot of these words that are causing problems for the written form, and it’s in speech that a language tends to be most alive.

It might encourage us to know that most languages have had to grapple with how to accommodate and write new words at some point or another, particularly if the original language is not really related to the host language. Take two very important words in English: coffee and sugar. Both come from Arabic, and don’t look anything like their early Arabic form as you can imagine. Or take “beauty”, again in English. The Oxford English Dictionary lists well over 30 different spellings for the word – including an improbable “booty” – as it developed from its early introduction via French and Anglo-Norman somewhere around the fourteenth century. 

As I understand it, the Kunsill is suggesting a similar degree of flexibility, together with an additional ingredient: consistency. English in the fourteenth century could afford to be flexible without worrying about consistency because written text wasn’t widespread in mainstream society. Malta needs the flexibility until society determines the most acceptable versions of spelling, but because literacy is more universal now, we also need to demonstrate some control over what we write.

The Maltese language question might be a sensitive one, but this is also an exciting opportunity to see the language evolve and grow. It’s more a question about what the public will settle for as more or less acceptable, and less a question of what’s right or what’s wrong. It’s an opportunity not to be passed over in favour of turf wars or posturing, and we should be beyond that now. In Malta we form a lively, rich, and energetic society, and I’d like to hope that the Maltese language is mighty enough to accommodate and integrate all the words our society needs, in whatever form will allow it to evolve most healthily.

Dr Sarah Grech is a member of the Centre for English Language Proficiency, University of Malta