If we time-travelled a few centuries in Malta, we would all be shocked at the offensive blasphemy uttered as people went about their daily life. According to a leading linguist, today’s blasphemies “pale” next to what was uttered in the 18th century.
“It is said that the British referred to us as ‘Ulla men’,” linguist Olvin Vella, who lectures Maltese at the University of Malta, said.
However, even before Malta became a British colony, blasphemy was rife "and more shocking than ever,” Mr Vella said.
In the 17th and 18th century, people used to report their neighbours to the Inquisitor for any behaviour they deemed went against the Catholic religion. Blasphemy was among them. Witnesses would describe in detail any blasphemy they would have heard.
“It looks like back then blasphemies were not a mere short utterance but rather complex short stories. Even reading them today can make you wince, as they were really harsh,” he noted.
In 1797, there are records of a priest uttering: “laħrac ruħ il Caddis ta’ Liscof li ordnani” (may the soul of the saint of the bishop who ordained me burn in hell).
Blasphemies commonly featured the devil, the Catholic faith – including the Pope, saints, the Virgin Mary and God - as well as parents and relatives.
There are also examples of how people used to resort to euphemisms over the years instead of the actual word to avoid the tribunal. Sagrament (sacrament) became legremew; osjta (host) became ostra; qaddis (saint) became qattus; imniefaħ instead of imniegħel.
Despite clear instructions from Rome to punish blasphemers severely, profanity proved difficult to control in Malta.
Uttering obscene or blasphemous words words in public is still a crime and the offender may be jailed for up to three months, although a fine of not less than €11.65 may be levied instead. 269 fines were issued last year between January and August.
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