When George Orwell was exasperated with the dead, mindless English he saw used in the media and by bureaucrats, he issued his famous six rules for writing English. Two of them – prefer shorter words and avoid foreign loan words – suggest he tended to prefer words of Anglo-Saxon origin where possible. Except he didn’t say so.

And no wonder. It would have been a rule as artificial as the language he was lambasting. Orwell wanted to keep language vibrant. His war was on clichés, waffle, bureaucratese, conceptual confusion and thinking against the grain of the English language.

He was after linguistic energy. To chase after an artificial “Anglo-Saxon” purity would have sucked the life out of English prose. Winston Churchill’s English, for example, is unthinkable without its balance of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate expressions and rhetoric.

Orwell was so concerned with vigour and clarity that his final rule advises readers to prefer to break all the preceding rules rather than say “anything outright barbarous”.

Now consider President George Vella’s new campaign to promote the proper use of Maltese, especially in the media and on formal occasions. Had he stuck to that point, he’d have had the immediate sympathy of virtually everyone who has ever witnessed the outright barbarisms committed by sportscasters, the news media, politicians, advertisers and Air Malta announcements.

But Vella went further. He advised us to choose the word of Semitic origin, if we have one, over words of European origin. He evidently believes that words of Semitic origin are more authentically Maltese and lively.

This thinking is misguided on several counts. First, Semitic words are not necessarily older than other words. Masġar (wooded area) and maqdes (holy place) don’t appear in the earliest dictionaries by G.P.F. Agius de Soldanis and M.A. Vassalli. They were coined as part of a modern, 19th-century language ideology that privileged Semitic terms.

Second, sometimes the Semitic words, poorly used, promote obfuscation and suppress authenticity. In my childhood, the TVM news bulletin acquired a taste for referring to Luqa Airport as mitjar rather than ajruport. Yet, mitjar means any place used to set off in flight. It can include a place where pigeons take off. Ajruport is specific for a civil airport. There is no better word. Meaning was sacrificed on the altar of ideology.

Third, Vella told his listeners that they should use the Semitic tagħrif rather than the Romance informazzjoni. But, even if the Semitic were more desirable, the two words are not completely interchangeable. In Il-Miklem Malti, Erin Serracino-Inglott glosses informazzjoni as including the special sense of broadcast information, which tagħrif is not credited with.

Our ancestors had a far richer sense of the possibilities of Maltese when they grafted European words onto Semitic verb forms- Ranier Fsadni

Not so incidentally, Il-Miklem notes that the lexicographer Reinhart Dozy claimed the origin of the European word “tariff” was Arabic (tagħrif was also used to refer to information on levies) but we have yet to hear of European presidents urging their compatriots to shirk it for more native words. Tariff has gone native in Europe, like a multitude of Arabic words (apricot, divan, nadir, zenith…). There are no cultural tariffs on “tariff”.

Vella said something puzzling. While asking listeners to use Semitic words, like għajnuna, instead of assistenza, he also urged them to use karozza (car) instead of vettura (vehicle). But both words are of Romance origin and the two words are not synonyms. All cars are vehicles; not all vehicles are cars.

That slip, however, points to what a campaign for better Maltese usage should be focused on. In the first place, clarity of thought, irrespective of the language.

Vella’s reported examples were all nouns. But some of the routine violence is on the verb forms. Instead of using the richness of our verbal forms, the media have invented a passive by directly translating from English: “he was killed” becomes ġie maqtul instead of inqatel. The prescription to use Semitic words doesn’t solve the widespread problem of thinking in English while writing in Maltese.

Our ancestors had a far richer sense of the possibilities of Maltese when they grafted European words onto Semitic verb forms. From the Italian pipa (pipe) we got pejjep (to smoke); from the English “fire” we got fajjar (to discharge or fire). We shouldn’t be “preserving” Maltese but recharging it, learning from (say) the Tunisians, who have coined ingenious verbs like, if transliterated into Maltese, jitnerveż (to be on edge).

Are those Semitic or European words? Who cares? It’s the wrong question. The linguist and historian of the Maltese language, Joseph M. Brincat, has spent a career showing why. The quest for linguistic purity and authenticity was a 19th-century project rooted in unsavoury biological ideology.

In the Maltese case, it was pushed as part of the colonial project. It is unfortunate that the president should, in the name of national authenticity, unwittingly subscribe to an idea of identity that was once pushed with imperial designs.

Brincat and his students have shown how, in the name of a “pure Maltese”, 19th-century Maltese translations of Italian novels often used a more restricted vocabulary than they had to. Perversely, the result is not a more authentic Maltese. It’s a language that seems artificial and removed from readers’ lived experience.

It’s such ideological constructions of identity – where complex reality is denied to fit simplistic ideology – that lead so many Maltese to say they “don’t feel very Maltese”. Feeling “not very Maltese” must be one of the most authentic Maltese feelings to have when officialdom keeps saying you’re wrong to be and feel the way you do.

Brincat’s advice – enunciated politely before the president at last year’s State of the Nation conference – combines good sense and the insights of contemporary linguistics. To speak a language is to find your way around a cultural world. So how you write and speak should be governed by the occasion and context. Each has its norms.

A little less misinformed love, and a lot more clear-eyed respect for the multifaceted nature of Maltese, would go a long way to fulfilling what is, after all, a project worthy of the president’s office.

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