Cold ‘xawer’ for the language

Reactions to Prof. Henry Frendo's letter to MaltaToday from Prof. Albert Borg, chairman of the Institute of Linguistics at the University of Malta, Joseph Borg of the Akkademja tal-Malti, and Karl Scicluna of the Ghaqda Qarrejja tal-Provi tal-Malti

Historian Henry Frendo
Historian Henry Frendo

Pity the Minister of Education when an individual “broadly representative of proven, well-established and recognised scholarship and credentials in related disciplines – sociolinguistic, literary, historical and philosophical”, such as the transparently anonymous author of a public consultation document recently published by the ministry, manages to write two and a half pages with over 40 spelling mistakes, thus necessitating the document’s withdrawal and re-presentation after the necessary corrections were made. 

Pity the same minister when both our anonymous author and Henry Frendo (MaltaToday, July 12) insist on distinguishing skont “discount” and skond “according to” while referring to Prof. Aquilina’s lifework  as “a priceless six-volume dictionary”, when the same dictionary treats the two as normal homonyms, as it should, and uses the same spelling for both (Aquilina 1990, page 1331)!

READ Henry Frendo, Maltese language: What future?

Pity the same minister, intent on promoting equal opportunities for all in education, when both our anonymous author and Henry Frendo persuade him to publish a document which would require children, even those with disadvantaged backgrounds, to know Italian (and to a certain extent, Sicilian, cf. for instance the controversy over the correct spelling of ‘induna/nduna’ “to realise”) to be able to write Maltese correctly, as implied by the fixation on “etymology”.

Perhaps it is because both authors are “established scholars” in a related discipline rather than in the core discipline of linguistics that they promote “etymology and semantics” as a criterion for orthography, without realising that etymology is the scholar’s preserve, while a writing system should be a democratic tool accessible to the largest number of individuals possible. 

Should Frendo’s concern about “the preservation of Maltese as a recognised literary genre” (who challenges that I wonder; could it be the notorious National Council for Maltese?) be allowed to convince us that “equating the spoken with the written” should result in the “descent (of Maltese) into a pidgin”? Hopefully both writers are not urging the minister to make us talk in literary Maltese, or to advocate a situation where, as someone put it, one can say “nurse” but write “infermiera”! 

Indeed this has certainly not stopped Frendo himself in his book Storja ta’ Malta (2004) from writing ‘assemblea għall-għalliema’ (p231: why not ‘ġemgħa’?), ‘imantnu l-lingwa Taljana’ (p233: ‘iżommu’?), ‘lingwa frustiera’ (p234: ‘ilsien barrani’?), ‘teachers’ (p234: ‘għalliema’?) and ‘l-insenjanti’ for “teachers” (p240).

It seems our two authors have also convinced the minister that the National Council for Maltese is advocating the (“phonetic”) writing of words like ‘sordfixx’ (for ‘swordfish’) and ‘xawer’ (for ‘shower’) when the council has not yet published its document on the writing of English loanwords in Maltese.

Believe it or not, the council is revising the 1984 rules which had sanctioned the writing of English loanwords “phonetically”. Indeed, the council has not yet published its recommendations about the spelling of English loanwords because it has felt the need to have a wide consultation process and a diligent assessment of the issues at stake. Incidentally, the committee discussing the matter was about to make its recommendations to the council and the minister.

Frendo concludes his piece with a quotation from Wittgenstein, who also said, “Whereof you do not know, thereof you should not speak”.

Albert Borg is Professor of Maltese Linguistics (Department of Maltese, Faculty of Arts) and was (founding) chairman of the Institute of Linguistics at the University of Malta

Fearing language change

The Akkademja tal-Malti disagrees with Henry Frendo’s arguments published last Sunday. When the Council for the Maltese Language was set up in 2005, the orthography became its responsibility. The current council is made up of 11 members, and five of them are highly qualified linguists. This guarantees that decisions are made after the issues involved are carefully evaluated.

Frendo’s reaction is a demonstration of the fear many people experience in the face of language change. Many are afraid Maltese will die out. The members of the Council for Maltese are doing their utmost to counter such tendencies and allay irrational fears.

The Council for Maltese needs to make every effort to publicise each initiative it has taken, including nursery rhymes for Maltese primary schools (available online), the publication of the football register in Maltese (Ballun Pinġut, 2012, 90pp., 930 technical words) in association with the Għaqda Ġurnalisti Sports, bilingual wayfinding signage at the Oncology Centre (next to Mater Dei) and the establishment of hugely successful proofreading courses co-organised with the Department of Maltese at the University.

If the council’s work is advertised adequately, public support for the council will not be very different from that displayed by the Akkademja tal-Malti towards the same council.

Joseph P. Borg,
Akkademja tal-Malti

Unacceptable dictation

I refer to the contribution by Prof. Henry Frendo (Sunday, 12 July). The work carried out by the National Council for the Maltese Language has been of enormous benefit to the sector. Besides the vast amount of other work, it strengthened spelling standardisation and is revising the spelling of English loanwords in Maltese. This exercise is taking into account all opinions, contrary to what was stated by Prof. Frendo.

This exercise is being carried out by people highly qualified in Maltese and is taking considerable time as it will impact teaching and writing. It is being done following a well-attended public seminar and numerous consultative meetings with various sectors. It is not acceptable that a person who is a historian, rather than a linguist, should dictate how Maltese can be written.

In Maltese circles, technical discussion regarding the spelling expanded when the council, together with the University of Malta’s Department of Maltese, commenced holding a course for proof readers in Maltese. At present, the 10th course is under way and, in addition to the 56 persons attending the Tal-Qroqq and Xewkija campuses, the number of certified proof readers in Maltese now is 309. Every year, the course is eagerly sought by teachers, students, broadcasters, civil servants, employees in the private sector and others. This means that knowledge of good Maltese orthography is spreading as never before. 

Apart from the technical skills of proof reading, the course also teaches the history and roots of Maltese and imparts a love of our native tongue which will last a lifetime and be passed on.

Our association was born out of this course and we will participate fully in the public consultation launched by the minister.

Karl Scicluna
Ghaqda Qarrejja tal-Provi tal-Malti