‘We can’t have Maltese spelling rules changing every few years – this is madness’

To loan or not to loan – that appears to be the question when it comes to a newly-reignited debate on the Maltese language, as various entities continue to wage genteel warfare over how foreign words are to be ‘processed’ into written Maltese. Speaking to some of the key players in the (battle)field, TEODOR RELJIC navigates through the political noise in an attempt to get to the specifics of the situation

Quo vadis, Maltese language? That linguistically-mixed phrase may be as good a predictive question as any, as various entities have been at loggerheads over the past few months about the degree to which foreign loanwords should be inserted and/or mangled when it comes to written Maltese. 

Sparked off by the Council for Maltese’s controversial suggestion that ‘Olandiz’ should be written as ‘Netherlandiz’, an intellectual tit-for-tat bled into local media – exacerbated by the fact that the Minister for Education called for a ‘consultative committee’ on the matter, apparently behind the backs of the Council.

True to its scholarly nature, the ‘debate’ was perhaps contrary in pace to a social-media rat-a-tat, and continued to take its course over sporadic months and not fevered weeks. That said, Prof Ray Fabri, president of the Council for Maltese who last December described the consultation process that took place between the government and the Council on the issue as a “lame duck”, now tells MaltaToday that “there have been some positive developments in the relation between the Ministry [of Education] and the Council”. 

But while we wait for details of these developments to emerge – Fabri prefixed his announcement with a “without going into any details for now” disclaimer – it may be worth looking into what some of the main sticking points of this protracted ‘debate’ have been.

On the one hand, the noise the issue generated was simply a result of stung pride, arising from what amounts to something of a territorial dispute: the education ministry suggests a consultative committee to mediate between the Council and the public; the Council reacts by suggesting that this was an underhanded attempt at curtailing its power through political manipulation. 

On the other, it also stems from a need to regularise Maltese spelling in a way that is sensitive to the vernacular – both social and linguistic – and that doesn’t elicit contemptuous guffaws… as ‘Netherlandiz’ certainly did. 

In fact, according to director of Merlin Publishing Chris Gruppetta,“the issue of the Maltese language is, and will remain, a battleground for reasons largely unrelated to the language itself but linked to other interests and prejudices, and is often used as a proxy war to wage wider battles”.

Following up a vitriolic contribution to MaltaToday last December, Fabri struck a more diplomatic tone this time around – suggesting that some developments on this front truly are in the offing. Emphasising that his bone of contention on the matter stemmed from the abrupt nature of the Education Ministry’s announcement to set up a consultative committee – “I was surprised (and shocked) to find out about it from the media” – Fabri added that he would have preferred it if “the Minister discussed the problem with the Council first or, at the very least, informed the Council that he intended to launch a discussion about it”.

Fabri went on to say that the Council has been studying this issue for quite some time, and has had a number of seminars and discussions, both with the general public and with specific interest groups (e.g. publishers, teachers, authors).

“The Council has set up a committee with a wide representational base to study and discuss the matter in great detail, and plans to issue, explain and discuss its recommendations on the matter in the near future,” Fabri added.

Maltese lecturer and author Adrian Grima believes the Council to be a crucial part in this equation, claiming that because the people on the Council are experts in their field, and because their role obliges them to do so, “their decisions are always taken in consultation with the public in general and with those sectors that are directly involved. The law that set up the Council is a great law and this is why it was unanimously approved by Parliament,” Grima said.

Adrian Grima
Adrian Grima

However, the executive chairman of the National Book Council, Mark Camilleri – a vocal critic of the Council for Maltese on this debate – suggested that the Council needs to undergo “some very serious reforms” – among them submitting any linguistic decisions to be peer-reviewed before they are implemented.

“There are also other important issues which should be addressed. For example, how can anyone justify the fact that even after ten years of being created, the Council doesn’t even have a document outlining its strategy on a national level? Council members should really start taking the issue more seriously and become aware of their institutional position,” Camilleri said.

Minister Evarist Bartolo with National Book Council chairman Mark Camilleri (at left)
Minister Evarist Bartolo with National Book Council chairman Mark Camilleri (at left)

But can we extricate some nitty-gritty out of all this politics-with-a-small-p wrangling? 

Speaking to MaltaToday, Prof. Henry Frendo, historian and director of the Institute for Maltese Studies at the University of Malta, and a member of the ‘Insalvaw il-Malti’ front, believes that “a moderating advisory ministerial buffer” is necessary for this debate to continue in a healthy manner, since “theories and ideologies in the hands of zealots, fanatics or opportunists have caused great harm in human history”. 

Asked about the use of loan words in particular, Frendo said that unless a Maltese equivalent or near-equivalent already exists (as in the case of ‘shears’) or a word or expression has been internalised over time (e.g. kitla/ktieli; skond iz-zokk il-fergha etc), loan words should retain their original spelling. This, according to Frendo, would be the preferable option to “lazily loaning everything from the English or American-English language in neocolonial fashion, and then phoneticising its spelling to pretend it is a Maltese word”. 

Prof. Henry Frendo
Prof. Henry Frendo

“A highly respected executive member of the Akkademja tal-Malti told me that 80% of people did not agree with this,” Frendo added.

But for people labouring through the Maltese language in a more concrete way, these ongoing controversies and alternations can actually have a ‘real’ – read: economic – impact. Chris Gruppetta, who through Merlin releases a number of Maltese-language textbooks, made an impassioned appeal for the issue “to be resolved, urgently and with a degree of finality”.

“We cannot have Maltese spelling rules changing every few years – this is madness, it engenders uncertainty in the public (no wonder people prefer English) and from our vantage point causes us huge losses because each time regulations are changed we have to destroy thousands of books and reprint them. That is, quite literally, investments up in smoke. And for an industry that is already in a very precarious position for other reasons, this is sheer madness and needs to stop. So change whatever you need to change, but please do not touch the spelling rules again for a good number of decades,” Gruppetta said.