It would take more than just a ‘new pronoun’ for Maltese to become gender-neutral

Everything, from tables, to chairs, to trees, to clouds, to body-parts, is effectively ‘genderless’ in the English language. In Maltese? Not so much

Right: given that I am about to tread upon two (particularly volatile) local minefields – i.e., ‘gender-politics’; and ‘matters relating to the Maltese language’ – I feel a couple of small disclaimers may be in order.

1) This is going to be one of those ‘agree-in-principle, disagree-in-practice’ arguments: because personally, I have nothing against the idea of updating the Maltese language, to reflect certain social realities that are otherwise not catered for in its everyday usage.

I also recognize that these realities include people who may not identify with the only two genders that our binary linguistic system has to offer: either because (in admittedly very rare instances) they might not actually meet all the physical prerequisites, to be identified as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ to begin with…

… or else – far more frequently - because while their physical biology might correspond to all the usual anatomical indicators of binary gender… everything else about them, quite frankly, might not.

2) I won’t expand any further on Point 1, other than to add that both the above categories plainly exist here in Malta, as everywhere else; it obviously follows that most (if not all) of them would also be native Maltese speakers, in their own right… and as far as I can see, that makes our national language just as much ‘their own property’, as everybody else’s.

And this has a dual significance, by the way. On one level, it implies that the Maltese language has an ‘obligation’ (for want of a better word) to acknowledge the gender of non-binary people, in the same way as it automatically acknowledges ‘his’ and ‘hers’; but it also means that non-binary Maltese speakers have just as much as right as everybody else, to simply ‘butcher the language in any way they deem fit’.

Which brings me to the third and final disclaimer: it’s not as though we haven’t ‘butchered the Maltese language’ before, you know. (And I’m not just talking about the sheer gobbledygook that now passes for ‘Maltese’ in most online comments, either...)

In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that contemporary spoken (and especially written) Maltese, is no longer even the same language I myself was taught at school, roughly 40 years ago. (And OK, granted: part of me still uses that as an excuse to justify to my own, atrocious Maltese spelling … nonetheless, it’s perfectly true.  There are entire grammatical conventions that I was brought up to recognize as ‘correct’, which would now cause me to fail my Maltese Matsec…).

Either way, however: at the risk of a pan-galactic oversimplification, the primary function of any living language is to ‘facilitate communication between its individual speakers’. So if our language clearly fails to provide its speakers with the tools to actually do that, in practice… and if, what’s more, its entire grammatical structure makes it not just ‘difficult for non-binarity to even describe themselves’…  but also, ‘impossible to ever escape the strait-jacket of gender-binarity, in any other conceivable way’ (thus posing other potential problems: for instance, in the writing – and especially, translating – of fiction…)

.. then, well, yes: perhaps the time has indeed come, to give the old grammar-books an umpteenth shake-up (especially considering that – unlike most of those previous ‘reforms’ - the resulting changes might actually serve a useful, practical purpose, for a change.)

Speaking of pragmatism, however: this is where we officially cross the threshold between ‘agree-in-principle’, and ‘disagree-in-practice’.

Let’s start with how the discussion itself is currently unfolding in Malta. Early last month, Parliamentary Secretary for Equality Rebecca Buttigieg told Lovin Malta that: “Activists have brought up the issue of considering creating new pronouns in Maltese for non-binary people…”

Among those activists was (presumably, anyway) Amanda Cossai: a trans teacher who had earlier made a public call “for the creation of an entirely new word in the Maltese language to refer to non-binary people. ‘In English, we use the polite pronoun ‘they/them’, but Maltese is a more gendered language which makes it harder’, she said…”

And sure enough, the same approach was repeated by Opposition leader Bernard Grech, who – in answer to the (very specific) question, “Do you agree with the creation of a new pronoun, in Maltese, for non-binary people?” – said: “We will need to see what [the pronoun] could be, but if we can communicate better and respect people’s sexuality, then why not?”

Why not, indeed…

Well, one possible answer is actually provided by Bernard Grech himself, right there in that same sentence. As he rightly notes, the purpose of this entire exercise is supposed to be to help people ‘communication better... IN MALTESE.’ And as Amanda Cossai also (very correctly) observed, a couple of weeks ago: “Maltese is a more gendered language, which makes it harder [than English].”

For accuracy’s sake, however, it must also be pointed out that:

a) our own (originally-Semitic) language is actually much, much, MUCH more ‘gendered’, than the present-day derivative of Anglo-Saxon with which we are so unwisely comparing it;

b) This has more to do with the fact that contemporary English has (unlike any other language that I am familiar with) been shorn of virtually ALL its former ‘gender-based’ grammatical devices, in the few thousand years that separate it from its Germanic roots.

As such, English is already as close to being officially ‘100% gender-neutral’, as it is possible for a language to even be. And this, of course, explains why a ‘national discussion’ that is supposed to be about ‘addressing Malta’s linguistic gender-deficit’, has inexplicably turned into a separate discussion about merely ‘inventing a new pronoun’ (of all unearthly things).

Because THAT, in a nutshell, is how simple it would be, to solve the corresponding problem in English: a language that is now so utterly devoid of any form of ‘gender-binarity’, that the only surviving relics consists of pronouns… and ONLY pronouns….

… and even then, only those pronouns which actually refer to the ‘biological sex’ (as opposed to ‘gender-identity’) of the subjects they describe: ‘he/she’; ‘him/her’…. all applied to humans (or animals) which correspond to the same old male/female polarity: man/woman; boy/girl; bull/cow; buck/doe, etc. etc.

Unlike Maltese, however: everything else – and I really do mean EVERYTHING: from tables, to chairs, to trees, to clouds, to body-parts, to battery-operated chainsaws… you name it – is effectively ‘genderless’, in the English language.

And what this means, in practice, is that a newly-invented ‘pronoun for non-binary people’ – or even the continued adoption of ‘they/them’ (which seems to already be working quite well, as far as I can see) – would quite literally be all that’s actually needed, to put a lid on the entire issue, once and for all…


In Maltese? Not so much (and I could say exactly the same about other Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew; and even other Germanic languages, such as… erm… German). For starters, because – and this is perhaps where the difference between the two languages is most starling - Maltese does not conform to the same ‘Subject-Verb-Object’ paradigm, that dictates the structure of every single sentence in the English language (including the one you’re reading right now).

In fact, most of the (perfectly correct) Maltese sentences you might hear, on any given day, will often consist only of verbs: with neither subject nor object attached (and therefore, no need for any ‘pronouns’ at all).

Examples: “Xbajt!’ “Dejjaqtni!’ ‘Tlaqna!’ ‘Wasaltu!’ [But very rarely will you hear: ‘JIENA xbajt!’; ‘INTI dejjaqtni!’; ‘AĦNA tlaqna!’; ‘INTOM wasaltu’; etc., etc.] And that’s before we even get to those pronouns which specifically exist to denote gender: ‘Hu/Huwa’, ‘Hi/Hija’.

Sticking to the same examples, above: in feminine form, they would become ‘Telqet’; ‘Waslet!’, etc… and in most cases (depending on the specific context, naturally), it would be perfectly redundant to further clarify that the person we are referring to is, in fact, ‘female’, through the use the pronoun ‘hi/hija’.

Because in Maltese, it is NOT actually the pronoun that provides that sort of information in the first place. It’s the VERB – and in particular, the choice between two different modes of conjugation, for ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ respectively – that does the job for you. So even on those rare occasions when we DO end up actually using Maltese pronouns … it will only ever be to ‘emphasise’ the subject’s gender; and never to establish it.

In practical terms, then: the ‘creation of a new pronoun’ would be entirely useless, in the context of the Maltese language. Partly because, quite simply, most people will never even bother using it anyway (probably, not even when talking about themselves)… but partly also because it would do nothing whatsoever to address the most glaring ‘Iljunfant’ in the ‘kamra’…

And that’s the fact that we would have to change, not just the ‘pronouns’ (indeed, those will almost certainly end up being just a minor footnote), but the entire grammatical structure of the entire language, ‘minn fuq s’isfel’…

Among many other things, we would need to invent an entirely new, gender-neutral conjugation mode, to actually go with any ‘new pronoun’ we also create; not to mention the fact that every single adjective that is ever used, in connection to the same gender-neutral subject, would also have to be re-invented to match.

None of which, I hasten to add, is ‘beyond our capabilities’; it’s all perfectly ‘doable’, at the end of the day…


… well, let’s just say that it would take a lot more than simply ‘regurgitating imported arguments, that only really apply to English anyway’, to actually achieve it in practice.