The ties that bind us

People can adapt to cultures in other ways. And the importance given to language in our survey also points us in the direction of a possible long-term solution.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

It will probably come as no surprise that, of all our national traits and characteristics, it is our language that most people identify as synonymous with the national identity.

Our survey today indicates that this is in fact the opinion of a staggering 68.2% of the Maltese population: which also means that the cultural importance of the Maltese language is among the very, very few considerations that enjoys widespread support across the full spectrum of Maltese life: regardless of political allegiance, social denomination or any other factor.

The same survey also sheds light on the rapid pace at which Maltese society is clearly changing. Religion, hitherto always considered a notable pillar of Malta's entire cultural formation, would appear to have taken a back seat, at least among the younger generation - although no doubt the broader category of 'culture' will also in part have been heavily influenced by religion.

This is but one of several indications that that the fabric of Malta's society has changed considerably in recent years, and is still undergoing a constant process of metamorphosis. Consequently, it is understandable that the members of such a fast-changing society would look towards a shared cultural experience to provide anchorage and stability for their own identity.

And what better unifying factor than a language which is undeniably a direct product of our collective memories and experiences as a nation?

In a sense, this recognition alone marks a small triumph for a language that has (when all is said and done) been subjected to its fair share of prejudice and discrimination over the years. Older readers may well remember a time when speaking Maltese was banned in certain schools - and students were punished for disobeying this rule. Elsewhere there have been snide remarks to the effect that Maltese was all along a 'kitchen dialect' that was never intended to acquire the status of an official language in the first place.

Given the sheer percentage of people who now identify this same 'kitchen dialect' as a badge of identity, it is clear that the much-maligned national language has been vindicated.

But this observation also gives rise to two possible points for further debate.

The first concerns the importance of safeguarding the integrity of this same language against erosion at the hands of often laughably contrived 'loanwords': some of which have been given a stamp of officialdom through recognition by academe.

In practice, it makes little difference that coined words - often the cause of much mirth - are given a stamp of approval by such entities as the 'Akkademja', because it will always be the man in the street - and not the professor behind his desk - who establishes the acceptability or otherwise of current language usage.

Nonetheless academics do have a responsibility to frame such developments within a context that respects the historical backdrop against which the language has evolved.

Besides, there is another reason to wish to protect the linguistic integrity of a language which enjoys such a unique status as torchbearer of the national identity. As also indicated by the survey, Malta is experiencing changes on a wide variety of different fronts. The logistical challenges posed by irregular immigration - which extend to include the emergence of a decidedly aggressive form of nationalism/xenophobia - also have a direct bearing on the eternal question of 'what does it mean to be Maltese?'

For all the aura of intolerance associated with the topic, it would appear from our survey that a relative majority of the Maltese public would have no problem at all with the naturalisation of immigrants... with the important proviso that these would have gone through a full education process, focusing in part on the issue of Maltese national identity.

This is significant for a number of reasons. Contrary to widespread perception, it seems the animosity revolving around the immigration issue has less to do with overt racism based on skin colour, than with a fear - justified or otherwise - that the influx may threaten the long-term survival of Malta's vulnerable cultural identity.

And this is in itself a hopeful thought; for where racism based on ethnicity is irrational and quite frankly inexcusable, there is nothing irrational or reprehensible about a legitimate concern with loss of national identity.

More importantly, such concerns (unlike racism) can actually be assuaged: people will never change skin colour, but they can adapt to cultures in other ways. And the importance given to language in our survey also points us in the direction of a possible long-term solution.

All in all, there is a compelling case to be made for the prioritisation of the Maltese language as a key to successful integration of different cultures. Not only will this benefit the immigrants, by enabling them to achieve a degree of social acceptance currently denied to them; but it will also ultimately benefit the language itself, as any increase in the pool of speakers can only serve to boost its own long-term survival prospects.

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