The problem of whether English words should be spelt the English or the Maltese way when writing in Maltese has resurfaced. Most of the contributions have dwelt on aesthetic or patriotic aspects. The age-old battle between conservation and innovation is fought all over again by those who lament that “our beautiful language is being ruined” while open-minded readers retort that a language is a living thing that must change with the times or die. Other much-loved commonplace arguments are brought up, like the axiom that “the people make the language”.

One term, however, has been conspicuous by its absence: code-switching.

The National Minimum Curriculum 1999 considers bilingualism as the basis of the educational system and aims to achieve “the effective, precise and confident use of the country’s two official languages: Maltese, the national language, and English”.

It optimistically adds that this goal “must be reached by the students by the end of their entire schooling experience”.

How many students achieve this kind of bilingualism? The results and examiners’ reports of the SEC exams in both English and Maltese do not paint a rosy picture.

Are standards really going down?

In 1930, only 120 students had sat for the matriculation exam in English and Italian and in 1939 there were just 90 students who sat for Maltese when 170 sat for English and Italian. In 1963, about 600 students sat for each exam. In 2010, over 6,000 sat for English and Maltese.

It seems that quantity has been achieved at the expense of quality but one may argue that the number of grade 1 students is superior to the total passes of the 1960s. On the other hand, one expects that, at the end of form V, all students should have achieved a good standard in all subjects, languages included.

Census statistics for 1995 and 2005 are not only positive but show a marked improvement in 10 years, with 97.87 per cent of respondents claiming that they know Maltese well, average or a little, 87.85 per cent said they know English and 56.67 per cent know Italian.

Admittedly, these figures are due to self-evaluation, however, the fact that respondents are so confident is indicative and the percentages are proof of the positive effects of compulsory primary education since 1946 and compulsory secondary education since 1970.

But self-evaluation may also, subconsciously, be based on passive skills (listening, reading and understanding) rather than on speaking and writing Maltese, English and Italian. In fact, one may ask: who writes today?

Despite the fact that publications in Maltese are numerous and of high quality, the public reads Maltese mostly in newspapers, with the result that, today, the language is being crafted by journalists, not by poets and novelists. Obviously, journalists need a much wider vocabulary than poets as they have to write about topics that were formerly only discussed in English. The question is: how far can they approach the spoken register?

Joe Friggieri has pointed out that writing and speaking are two different registers. The builders of Maltese, from the 18th to the 20th centuries did not write the way they spoke, in their regional dialect, but formed a standard language.

The truth is that a ‘language’ is made by writers; the people make ‘dialects’ and, yes, all the great languages were once a dialect, which became standardised over a number of centuries.

Standard Maltese, like correct English, should be treated carefully

The examples singled out by contributors to the ongoing debate on this issue are almost all taken from newspapers.

Should journalists write as we speak? First of all, most of us only write e-mails and SMS and prefer writing in English. And when we speak, knowing that the listener understands both Maltese and English, we tend to pronounce the first word that comes to mind, be it Maltese or English.

Very few people are aware of how much we code-switch these days. Just listen to people talking informally on a bus, especially if they use a mobile phone. Or try transcribing the dialogue we hear on television or radio, which is more serious, where the language should be formal or almost, especially during interviews of experts, and programmes about fashion and cookery, teleshopping or phone-ins.

Writing in books and newspapers is a completely different matter because it needs a degree of formality and one cannot assume a free-for-all attitude. It is also dangerous to generalise, black or white: everything in the original spelling or the Maltese way. One needs tact here.

In fact, there is a criterion: distinguish between modified and unmodified words.

Modified words conform to Maltese patterns. All the Sicilian and Italian words that have been adopted into Maltese (over 21,500; 53 pr cent of the total words in Aquilina’s MED and 62 per cent of its Concise edition) conform to its vowel patterns -e > -i and -o > -u (veru, komuni), and the doubling of consonants (probabbli, attiv, nazzjon, edizzjoni), even the latest additions like globaliżżazzjoni and vertikaliżżazzjoni.

Most of the English words that are of Latin origin also conform to these patterns, even when they don’t exist in Italian: evalwazzjoni, assessjat, allegazzjoni, relatat.

The problem arises when English words are not modified. These are mainly words of Germanic origin. Some have been modified not only phonetically but also grammatically: kitla, briksa, ċipsa, simenta have become feminine.

Adaptation of some words is not easy. Rather than writing them the Maltese way, these should be written in English. There is nothing wrong, irrational or unpatriotic in writing unadapted English words the English way. The English dictionary has thousands of entries written the French way, in Latin or in the Italian way. They are recognised as French, Latin or Italian words and therefore need no camouflage, not even italics or inverted commas.

In Italian dictionaries there are 5,000 unadapted words from English and they are written in their original spelling for the same reason.

This principle distinguishes between code-switching and the use of adopted and adapted foreign words. Television, budget, chairman, washing machine will belong to code-switching; televiżjoni, stima, president (ta’ kumitat), magna tal-ħasil (a calque) will be Maltese.

Televixin and baġit are not only unsightly, they violate Maltese spelling rules because they would sound like ‘televisheen’ and ‘bajeet’ (compare the patterns of baħrin, karrozzin and ħadid, tapit).

Literal translation can be ambiguous, too, like deputat mexxej, which was coined to avoid (why?) the time-honoured viċi kap for deputy leader. Deputat is a noun, someone whose place is in the Kamra tad-Deputati. Mexxej is a leader but next to a noun it is an adjective meaning fast or fluent. What is a ‘fast MP’?

The fact that code-switching is rife in Malta does not mean that we should throw the standard language overboard. Standard Maltese, like correct English, should be treated carefully. It is true that in everyday speech code-switching is rife.

Lydia Sciriha has shown that in the schools 36.2 per cent of students speak English to their teachers, 32.2 per cent speak Maltese and 30.8 per cent mix.

Antoinette Camilleri recorded lessons where phrases like these are the norm: “id-diameter, le, mhux radius”; “ħa nagħtikom clue... din ftit tricky”; “l-istructure tal-leaf”. And, of course, this also goes on in the homes. Most of the objects in the kitchen and the bathroom have unadapted English terms and many of our children are learning the basic vocabulary in English, which may affect the Maltese core vocabulary in the long run.

In code-switching, every English word is possible (over 600,000) but this does not make them Maltese (Aquilina records 2,511, the Concise has 1,248), whichever way we choose to spell them.

Given that speech is free and personal, writing for the public needs care and sensitivity. The standard language must be respected and protected, especially by teachers and journalists.

Joseph Brincat teaches Italian linguistics and the linguistic history of Malta at the University.

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