Do you say manoċċa, ħamiema, fjamma or tajra to refer to a kite? And is it żajba, żajbona, sebbellika, semperlina, barbazjola or nannakola for ladybird?

The versions you use indicate the locality or region you were brought up in.

So, while most people say ħabel tal-inxir (clothes line), some in Gozo say perċa while others in Siġġiewi and Mosta say manxar or manxra.

These and other lexical curiosities are being documented by a team of lecturers and researchers at the University of Malta and will feature in an online portal that should go live in the first quarter of this year.

This “one-stop-shop website” will also map dialects sourced from various localities in Malta and Gozo, some of which were recorded 50 years ago by a team led by professor Ġużè Aquilina and University of Leeds scholar Benedikt Isserlin.

Website users will be able to listen to a digitised version of these recordings and follow a transcription in Maltese that lecturers, researchers and students have been working on for several years.

The work to preserve, digitise and transcribe these recordings has been going on for nearly a decade.

The project is being led by the head of the Maltese Language Department Michael Spagnol and professors Alexandra Vella and Ray Fabri from the Institute of Linguistics and Language Technology.

Dialect recordings found on 90 reel-to-reels

The recordings were found on 90 reel-to-reels, discovered by Vella in Fr Edward Fenech’s office following his demise.

The former head of the Department of Arabic had, together with poet Daniel Massa (then a student), been a member of the original team of researchers involved in collecting the dialect data in the 1960s and 1970s.

Various researchers have been transcribing these conversations, captured on tape 50 years ago

“They were in a deteriorating condition, and it took hundreds of nail-biting hours to digitise them when we found them 10 years ago. They were then adapted to other audio formats and it took John Paul Grima, a member of the team, a further three years to catalogue them,” she told Times of Malta.

“Since then, various researchers have been transcribing these conversations, captured on tape 50 years ago, and we have selected some that stood out for their clarity and culturally rich information for our new website.”

The clips will be mapped out according to their origin.

The recordings show how some dialects are particular to small hamlets. They remained ‘contained’ as the people speaking them, such as a female shepherd from Bubaqra (limits of Żurrieq), did not travel far from their hometown.

Spagnol hopes that the mapping out of the various dialects will inspire other researchers to look into geographical patterns of the spoken word.

In the meantime, university researchers are also recording people who still speak in dialect or use varying pronunciation and lexicon, such as wadab, fajjara or steringa to refer to vleġġa, or slingshot. Others are also documenting varying sentence structure across various localities.

For this reason, the researchers are appealing for funds and human resources to help with the recording of new conversations and the transcribing of existing audio. The necessary training will be provided.

“Ours is the only department of Maltese in the world, so we need to ensure that the growing and future generations can access basic information about their language before it is too late,” Spagnol urged.

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Listen to an Għasri woman and Siġġiewi man interviewed 50 years ago

Woman from Għasri

Il-ġurnata ta’ Sant’Anna meta kunna nġiżżu n-nagħaġ kunna nerfgħu s-suf imbagħad kinna mmurru nisimgħu l-quddiesa u nagħmlu l-faċendi li jkullna u mbagħad nitilqu lejn il-baħar. U mbagħad ken ikullna l-ħmara, inxiddulha l-karrettun u nitilqu lejn id-Dwejra. U mbagħad xħin kunna naslu d-Dwejra kunna in…insumma nneħħuh minn fuq il-karrettun u nurbtu ġebla ma’ xkura biex ma tmurx ’il ġewwa u nwaddbuha ġel-ilma. Imbagħad xħin jixxarrab kunna noqogħdu nnaddfuh.

56-year-old man from Siġġiewi

Aħna mrawmin nagħmlu pastard, patota insomma, u basal, tadom, insomma u eċċetra hekk, silla, żara’, it-tadum u l-pastard tal-bikri, u l-pastard ee u fil-ħamri, jikber il-pastard tal-imwaħħar ngħidu aħna, ta’ Jannur, ta’ Frur, ta’ Marzu, u hekk insomma.

Transcripts are in standard spelling/orthography, except for most vowels which are intended to represent the dialect pronunciation used.

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