Why are we killing off our own language? | Trevor Zahra

Award-winning author TREVOR ZAHRA has already sounded a warning about the slow deterioration in the standards of spoken Maltese, especially among children. But he also warns that some of those children have now grown up, and may have carried those linguistic deficiencies into television and literature

Trevor Zahra (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Trevor Zahra (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

In a recent interview on Xtra, you argued that the Maltese language is currently facing a crisis. Given that a recent Eurobarometer estimated that Maltese is in fact spoken by over 90% of the population, I assume you were referring to a deterioration in quality, rather than an existential threat. Is that correct? And if so, can you give a few examples?

More than a ‘crisis’ – which is, perhaps, a clumsy word - I would say that there are certain problems facing the language today. And no, it is not a question of how many people speak Maltese; but rather, how well they speak it, and how broad their Maltese vocabulary is.

One issue I already mentioned was that many of our children – and I stress children, because obviously that is where any discussion about language has to begin – are not being brought up speaking Maltese.

As a parenthesis, I would say that one does not learn Maltese at school. School only teaches you the grammatical aspects of the language. But the way it is spoken – and languages are there, primarily to be spoken – is ideally picked up from home, and from the people around you. And this, I think, is where the problem starts.

Today, many children are being exposed far more to English – because of social media, because of all the aps on Smartphones, tablets, etc. – than to Maltese. And unfortunately, some parents only talk to their children in English, too.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, in itself: except that it is happening at the expense of Maltese, instead of in conjunction with it. All linguists agree that the ideal situation would be one parent speaking to their children in English, and the other in Maltese.  That way, children would be brought up speaking both languages fluently.

What is happening in practice, however, is that many children end up speaking only English well; but then, they learn only as much Maltese as they need to get by.  This results in a major lack of vocabulary, which goes on to be reflected in their adult lives.

As for examples, all you need to do is tune in to certain services on the national station – not to mention other local stations, which are actually far worse: but let’s talk only about PBS for now, because I expect higher standards from the national broadcaster.  Listening to the TVM news, you will often hear even the most basic, elementary mistakes: suggesting that those people – despite being State broadcasters -- do not have the Maltese language at their fingertips, like they are supposed to…

It is certainly true that languages are picked up mostly from home, rather than school; but it is from school that we learn our basic grammar. And yet, Maltese grammatical rules tend to change from time to time. Much of what I was taught, back in the 1970s, is now obsolete: how, then, can we expect children to ever learn the language properly, when it keeps changing all the time?

That’s a very valid point; and if the problem were limited only to written Maltese, it would be a different story. But the problem is really with spoken Maltese, not written. To be honest, the standards of written Maltese worry me a lot less: even because, God be willing, we will very soon have a Maltese language spell-checker – which we are calling ‘cekkjatur’. Once it is in place, the issue with written Maltese will for the most part resolve itself…

In reality, however, the actual changes that have been made, over the years, were mostly cosmetic in nature. The fundamentals of the language are still the same. To give you an example: it makes me laugh sometimes when I receive a message – and this happens quite a lot, by the way – from people asking me for the correct spelling of a Maltese word; because, they tell me, ‘it has changed’.

I laugh, because the last time the spelling of that word would have officially changed, was actually in 1934! So it’s not that ‘the word has changed’… it’s just that they themselves don’t really know the grammatical rules of the language.

I do, however, worry about the standards of spoken Maltese. When I listen to the PBS news – and I place so much emphasis on the national broadcaster, because that is where, all over the world, you would expect the very best levels of spoken language – what I hear is very often a linguistic mess. For instance: nouns which everyone knows are masculine, accompanied by verb conjugations, or adjectives, that are feminine…

These are the sort of mistakes that my grandmother - who had very little in the way of formal education – never made herself. Today, however, we are getting even the most basic aspects of Maltese grammar wrong. And it’s because our children are not hearing proper spoken Maltese, as they grow up. They are hearing a mixed-up language. And as a result, Maltese is being weakened…

Another threat that is often cited, when talking about the Maltese language, is the assimilation of foreign words. It is now estimated that almost 70% of the vocabulary in daily usage consists of loan words from (historically) Italian, and (increasingly) English. Do you agree that this is also weakening the Maltese language?

Let me put it this way: it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, when we assimilate words for which there is a real need.  If we are talking about words from the sphere of digital information, for instance: it is inevitable that we will end up borrowing from other languages, because we simply don’t have the required vocabulary in our own.

The problems arises, however, when we start introducing loan-words without any real need. This is something I keep saying every year – and we’re coming to the Christmas season now – but… look at how many people insist on using the [English] word ‘Christmas’, when we have a perfectly valid word – ‘Milied’ – that means the same thing, and which is still alive.

These are the things that annoy me: because it is a case of ‘killing’ something that is still alive. I have no problem when a language gives birth to something new… it only becomes a problem when we unnecessarily kill off what we already have.

I’m not saying, however, that we should dig up ancient, fossilized words that have been dead for centuries – because that is also how culture works: people discard words when they have no further use for them, and adopt new ones instead.

One example, that just sprang to mind now, would be any word related to the craft of wagon-making [karrettuni]. Once the era of the horse-drawn wagon came to an end, it is only natural that all the vocabulary associated with that trade would also vanish. And if certain words are long dead and buried… I see no sense in resuscitating them from the grave.

But when words are still alive, there is no reason under the sun why we should kill them. It only makes our language poorer, but we should really be doing our utmost to enrich it.

There are, however, very vocal disagreements about how we should assimilate foreign loan-words, even when these are necessary. For instance, neologisms such as ‘skajskrejper’, for ‘skyscraper’. Would you also consider this as form of threat, facing the Maltese language today?

I understand why it would be viewed as a problem; but first of all, this problem only concerns nouns… not verbs. Because when a verb is conjugated in the Maltese form – for example, ‘ikkraxxja’ for ‘he crashed’ – it has to be written out phonetically, because that’s how Maltese grammar works. There is no other option, really; so there is no real problem, concerning verbs.

Nouns, however, are different: even because they tend to look aesthetically ugly, when written in the same way. And they look ugly, also because we are far too accustomed with the original English spelling. So when we see words like ‘heater’, or ‘air-conditioner’, written out phonetically… they are difficult for us to accept, simply because they look ‘wrong’.

However, there are now rules for how to transcribe English loan-words into Maltese: even if the final decision remains in the hands of the individual author. My own favourite - or at least, the one that makes the most sense to me – is that, if the plural of an English noun remains written in English… then it should be left in English. The plural of ‘heater’, in Maltese, remains ‘heaters’; it doesn’t change to ‘heater-ijiet’. So it should be spelt the same as in English.

But if the Maltese people decided, over the years, to give certain words a Maltese plural-form – like, for example, ‘kowt’ [coat], which becomes ‘kowtijiet’ [coats]…  then it makes more sense to continue writing it that way, too. All the more so, if those words have already been in use for a very long time.

There are, however, a few exceptions. The word ‘futbol’, for instance, has been written that way, in Maltese newspapers, since at least 1916. The first-ever mention was, I believe, in an issue of ‘L-orizzont’. So even if we never changed its plural to ‘futbol-ijiet’, or anything similar… we are so used to that spelling, that it makes absolutely no sense to change it now.

Despite your emphasis on spoken Maltese, you are better known as one of Malta’s most accomplished and prolific authors. Bearing in mind that literature also echoes contemporary linguistic realities – both Chaucer and Dante, for instance, wrote in the vernacular of their time - do you see any indication that these linguistic ‘problems’ are also being reflected in Maltese literature today?

Up to a point, yes I do. You mentioned Chaucer, for instance. Today, anyone trying to read Chaucer will find it impossible to decipher, without the aid of annotations. This is because, as you say, literature is nothing but a reflection of the way people thought, and spoke, at the time. As times change, so does language; and so do public attitudes; and all of that ends up reflected in contemporary writing.

Maltese literature also has historical examples of this. If you read certain old manuscripts, written in archaic Maltese syntax, you might find them tedious by today’s standards.  Because it’s not just the grammar, or the contents, that have changed: it’s also the format and structure of how they were written. Let’s just say that the old, archaic style is no longer fashionable, nowadays. Times have changed.

Today, on the other hand, many more books are coming out in Maltese than ever before. For such a small island, we have an enormous number of books published each year. Now: where there is quantity, there will also be the graph that inevitably comes with it. A few will be good – very good – but a lot will be average… and a small amount will be trash.

I’m not saying anything ‘new’, here, by the way: this is the just natural, normal way of things. And to be honest, it is good that there is now so much quantity; because it also implies that, among the vast output of published books, there will be a few that stand out; and that – unlike any of the trash – may withstand the test of time.

In what specific ways, though, do you see these linguistic changes affecting the output of Maltese authors?

To come back to that graph I mentioned: today, we have some authors who are writing excellent material; and also, some authors who are writing rubbish. And in both cases, I’m not just talking about the choice of subject matter; but also, about how they are written.

For instance: in certain books today, you will also find words that are vulgar, explicit, crude or obscene – and I’m not being judgmental about this: I actually have no objection to it at all: it is, after all, also a reflection of how our society has developed.    

But again, it is also a question of whether such words are needed, or not. If, for instance, an author feels that certain coarse language is necessary, to bring out the personality of a particular character; I see nothing wrong in putting vulgar words into that character’s mouth. After all, everybody speaks using a slightly different vocabulary, according to their own cultural or social baggage. So you certainly can’t have a situation where all characters speak the same way…

But if, on the other hand, it is done only as a gimmick: to show off how ‘cool’ the author is, or how well they know how to blaspheme…  that is nothing but a betrayal of the author’s craft. Because the way I see it: the work of a writer is in reality that of a ‘stylist for words’. Even when the intention is to create a genuine, realistic tone… the writer will still resort to a ‘beautician’s tool-kit’ – the language of metaphor, and imagery – to somehow make those words more artistic, evocative and effective.

Ultimately, however, you still have to have a good grasp of that language to begin with… and that only takes us back to the original problem.