Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 06:33
by Roderick Bovingdon
As a seed germinates through the surface of the soil, its seedling in time matures into the plant its genome is programmed to become. In similar autochthonous behaviour language sprouts through the fertile soil of sound, intonation, tonality, ideation, visualisation and notional, thence onto its eventual realisation of ‘meaning’ following a complex progression of mental abstractions.
This cognitive language process continues progressively into late adulthood onto ever more complex usages as we witness its application in literary texts, in idiomatic expressions at its most basic usages, thence onto increased complexities, technical jargon, etc. In this sense language, in similar manner to the vegetative world of the seedling, knows its earliest beginnings always and initially from the primeval, right through to an ever increasing sophistry.
This basic premise is the only departure point wherefrom ‘language’ knows its origins. As such it is not the grammarian, the linguistician (my terminology), the lexicographer who ‘create’ language. The role of the language academic is that of observer, compiler, collator and analyst who, out of his labour produce sets of rules (grammars), make linguistic observations and compile dictionaries.
As language is in a continuous state of change conditioned by and synchronising with its overall environment, and considering its autochthonous nature, the academic’s work should only ever serve as ‘guidelines’; never as sine qua non.
Through its peculiar characteristic structural nature language acquires fresh meanings and new modes of application. It expands and contracts, drops the use of old terms and assumes new ones. It sometimes recoups old terminology, it borrows from other languages, it moulds new terms from old roots and so forth. The language scholar follows, analyses and explores this language behaviour according to its utility by its users.
According to this layout, no self-respecting individual or group, should ever assume the initiative by dictating rigid rules, or worse, by legislating to the native speaker on the use of their own language. Such behaviour is tantamount to assuming control of an individual’s thought processes.
I implore the reader to reflect, in all conscience upon the absurdity, if not the travesty, of imposing draconian decrees upon the sovereign sole owners of their own language. This is precisely what ‘the absolute authority to change by law’ section of the Kunsill Act does to the ‘sole owners’, the indigenous Maltese people.
This rigid approach to our unique Maltese speech community is unflatteringly symptomatic of psychological and intellectual insecurity; not exactly a desirable stance for academe.
The spoken word always precedes the written expression. The resulting graphic form of language is no more than humanity’s marvellous albeit imperfective way of realising meaningful sounds through written representation.
With reference to Maltese, it is a pity that Aquilina, in his wisdom, chose to refer to our language as ‘mixed’. For which living language on this planet has never been influenced by other tongues? Even the seemingly isolated aboriginal languages of Australia have strong traces within their structures, of linguistic inroads from neighbouring peoples.
This rigid approach to our unique Maltese speech community is unflatteringly symptomatic of psychological and intellectual insecurity
Closer to home, on the European continent, which language is more ‘mixed’ than English? For if one were to extract the Latin, Italian, German, Greek and French content of English you are left with a smattering of unintelligible jumble of word sounds.
Even Malta’s closest language neighbour, Italian. How conscious are those among us who have a working knowledge of Italian, of the significant Latin, Greek and Arabic content this language has adopted? Look at the Slavic languages.
I once witnessed a former neighbour of mine in Sydney, a Croat, in a lively discussion with two other men – a Czech and a Pole. He later informed me that each of them had been speaking their own language to one another with the minimum of interference to their mutual comprehension. My point is the multiple interfluidity of human language in all its spoken variations without excluding widespread cross-cultural blendings throughout history.
It is unfortunate that Aquilina’s ubiquitous reference has inadvertently opened the gates to superficial and at times supercilious argumentation, usually emanating from the ‘uninitiated’ purportedly ‘in defence of’ Maltese. This unintentional consequence has all too often led to irritating amateurish, irrelevant and unsubstantiated claims about Maltese, causing irrelevant deviations in a supposedly rational discussion.
Ever since the coming of the Normans circa 1090 right through to the early mid-16th century with the coming of the Knights in 1530, continental language inroads into our Maltese idiom had been mostly confined to official documentations. Such linguistic influence had not yet impacted to any significant degree upon the spoken word.
The local indigenous Maltese had largely carried on with their day-to-day living without much social interaction with their occupying powers, except for a minimalist section of the local population, the landed gentry. Hence for centuries, ever since the final Arab settlement from 870 onwards, whatever was the local spoken idiom at that moment soon became overwhelmed by the language of Islam.
Following the cessation of the Crusades, the Knights’ raison d’être had diminished into ‘containing’ the spread of Islam and corsairing. The formal expulsion of the Moslems from Malta in 1224 (by this time many descendants of the original invading Arabs had intermarried with local Maltese folk and converted to Christianity, while some secretly remained faithful to their Islamic beliefs), the dominance of the Knights’ presence in such large numbers, together with their wealth and high culture, quickly began to influence the traditional local way of life, in every aspect and not least the local idiom.
The fact that large numbers of Maltese were employed in the Knights’ corsairing, the widescale linguistic exposure of these large numbers of Maltese to the various language forms throughout Mediterranean shores, began making inroads into the local spoken Maltese idiom of the time.
This direct social interaction over the entire two-and-a-half centuries of the Order’s stay until 1798, Maltese as a vibrant national language marked its point of departure along a more intellectually oriented future and a more sophisticated form of delivery.
Our treasured Cantilena (circa 1450) is a good example of such language development while simultaneously verifying the yet relatively negligible influence Italian and other Latinate languages had encroached upon Maltese.
Other documents peripheral to the Cantilena such as Wettinger’s Acta Iuratorum, Fiorini’s Documentary Sources and Cassola’s Vallicelliana et al, to mention only some of the known sources, have served to enhance the scholar’s insight into the developmental state of the Maltese language prior to and during the Knights’ presence in Malta.
Our current ‘perceived’ dilemma with Maltese, though inroads from English had already been in practice from the days of Aquilina and his contemporaries, have been exacerbated by the never before action taken by the Kunsill in imposing its singular language views by legislation, in direct confrontation with all native Maltese speakers.
Furthermore, the conceited response to the genuine and widespread public outcry against such action by certain academic individuals unfortunately engendered undesirable, unwanted and unnecessary mutual distrust. So deep have these antagonistic feelings run that many of us, myself not excluded, feel that as a direct consequence to these machinations, we can no longer rely upon the experts’ (who on earth is an expert anyway) savoir faire.
Summarily, the removal from the ‘Act incorporating the Kunsill’, of the section appertaining proclamation by gazettal in the Government Gazette of all matters relevant to the usage of Maltese, should remain a non-negotiable factor in appeasing broad spectrum public anxiety and in correcting an indubitable wrong.
Hence the reinvigoration of true scholarship of Maltese, through the discontinuance of capricious legal interference in a national affair that is and should remain, the sole ownership of the indigenous Maltese speaker is paramount.
Finally, bearing in mind all the aforesaid and having due regard to our supposed liberation from our past colonial history, we must now not succumb anew to pseudo-colonial demands of the EU, namely in matters of our treasured tongue through preposterous and insidiously contrived justification of words like Netherlandjani.
I say to those responsible for this attempted interference into a nation’s sovereign language, especially from sources outside Malta’s jurisdiction: “Hands off. We shed our colonial rule in 1964 and reinforced it in 1979!”
Roderick Bovingdon is a professional linguist, specialised in Maltese at the University of Malta.
----------------Well written and well argued article indeed.
See Post no 1.
The Golden Dawn