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Maltese Or English? The History Behind The Debate That Drove Our Island Insane For Decades

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Lately, we have been seeing a steady rise of Maltese people shaming others for not being 100% comfortable speaking in Maltese (hey Emma). People have been increasingly ticked off by the fact that some locals choose English… you know, Malta’s other, just-as-official language.

Sadly, this issue is not a new one, and it’s been going on for decades. So we thought we’d run you through the history behind Malta’s ongoing language question.

But before we start delving into the history of this never-ending issue, it’s vital to understand how the Maltese language came about.

‘Mhux semitiku u rumanz?’

Maltese as a language is defined by its mixture of Arabic, Sicilian Arabic, Ifriqiyan Arab, French, Italian, Sicilian and English with a dash of Phoenician dialect thrown in. Talk about melting pot.

Needless to say, our language is a bastardised mixture which was inherited from our vast hullabaloo of past rulers and influencers, ending up in a Semitic-Romance hybrid.

Our tongue is a morphed language which combines basics inherited from Arabic and Punic tongues, clearly heard from our harsh pronunciation of our Q’s and K’s. These sounds have been in turn amalgamated with dialects and verbs use from Sicilian and Italian.

The Maltese language can be split into two categories; the old one which was developed way back in the 9th Century (taking us back to Phoenicians times), and the newer, flashier version which dates back to the 19th Century… the one which is still used today. At least, sort of.

Whenever new conquerers made their way to our islands, our language changed and evolved along with our cultural customs and traditions.

When the Knights made their way to our island, we spoke mainly in Maltese, however the local nobles quickly adopted the Italian tongue. It became the only written language on our island, apart from Latin in churches of course.

Keep in mind that the Knights stayed here for a very long time (more than two and a half centuries, in fact), so it’s no wonder that their common language was adopted by our forefathers.

The Knights weren’t all Italian, but in order to avoid confusion when discussing matters between themselves, they used Italian as their common tongue.

When the French made their way here, some of their words were adapted by the Maltese folk, eventually to be brutalised by the common people — bonġu and trabixu are a clear example of this.

However, the French did not stay here long enough to completely swipe the Italian lingual roots away, as within two years, they were replaced by the British overlords.

The British influenced many things on the island, from education to economic structure. However, one thing which really gave trouble to our overlords was the language war, generally known as the Language Question.

The Language Question

The British Empire came over in 1813 and was totally established in Malta by 1824. Now keep in mind that the British were not meant to stay here permanently. We only asked for their help to kick out the French, and many people complained that they had overstayed their welcome.

When the unification of Italy took place between 1815 and 1871 (Italy was just a bunch of separate Kingdoms before that), some Maltese people showed interest in us being united with the country. Among these were local political father/son duo Fortunato and Enrico Mizzi.

This was a quest which was taken quite seriously by the nobles of the land, as they felt like they had more in common with the Italians than the British.

The Italians didn’t really care for us; they were the Titus Andromedon of Europe at this point with the whole Garibaldi and the Red Shirts business going on.

Eventually, the British (who thought they were here to stay) suggested the replacement of Italian language lessons in schools with English.

When the British came to Malta, they found a disastrous education system. The curriculum was almost non-existent and school was not as mandatory as you might think it was. The French had tried to improve the situation, but they had clearly failed.

This got many Maltese panties in a giant knot of anger and disagreement. This proposal caused so much hassle for the British government, that they had to get outside help to solve this matter.

In comes Sir Gerald Strickland and his broom-y moustache to the rescue.

Screen Shot 2018 07 24 At 13 08 43

Photo from Agence de presse Meurisse – Bibliothèque Nationale de France

An even more accurate representation of Sir Gerald Strickland

Eventually, everyone calmed down when Strickland decided to put this proposal on hold (it was simply too much for the locals to take).

If you feel like this is difficult to relate to, watching Kevin Bacon’s Footloose might help. Or maybe not. Just watch it, it’s a really good film.

The panic and mass hysteria started again when Strickland decided that court hearings should be held in English instead of Italian. You know, if British people had court cases, they couldn’t understand a word of what the judge was saying. The nobles of the land couldn’t accept this as they saw Italian as some sort of supreme language.

Strickland was tired of this whole debate, so he thought it would be best if people had a choice. There was voting, fighting, arguing and presumably crying too. Maltese people always had a flair for the dramatic.

The language question morphed into a political one by the turn of the 19th century, but more on that later.

In 1901, Strickland decided to give parents the option to choose which language their children could learn in school; English or Italian.

All hell broke loose. It was like someone opened ten Pandora’s boxes all at the same time, we kid you not.

Pictured: Hell breaking loose, Footloose-style

People were driving Strickland insane — the nobles seriously did not care for English, and the church felt threatened by the language as they thought this might mean the eradication of Catholicism in Malta. So that’s two anti-English groups.

Technically, you cannot really blame them. The church vehemently objected to this because of the whole lingua franca BS they subjected everyone to — mass was told either in Latin or Italian.

The Church felt threatened, as this could mean the eventual replacement of Catholicism by Protestantism.

In 1917, Mizzi was getting his freak on with this whole debate so much that he was unfairly thrown in jail for fear that he would cause conflicts of interest during the war (read: spying on the British for the Italians). Around a year later, though, he was out and totally forgiven when the war died down.

The only question that remained, however, was whether the precious children would be learning Italian or English. By now, it was clear that the British government had had enough of this whole debate.

Fast-forward to 1932, and Strickland successfully(ish) removed the Italian language from local schools by telling everyone that nobody would be hired to work with the government unless they spoke English. Which was technically totally reasonable since the government was British.

People started seeing this as the only way for their children to have a stable future, għax mall-gvern jaqbillek. As usual, working with the government meant having a stable job and a fixed income. So middle-class parents were choosing English over Italian.

The common people did not give two hoots about what language their kids learnt, as they simply fought for survival. At the time, surviving meant depending on the British when it came to having a decent wage and enough food on their table to feed their swarm of children.

This never-ending story dragged on for at least 60 years. Yes, 60 years.

It dominated our constitutional history, political dominance and social factors. The language question is to Malta what Voldemort is to Harry Potter. Seriously. It also paved the way for today’s political parties, by the way.

But why was it so hard?

The two political parties we know today originated as the Riformisti (led by Sigismondo Savona) and the Anti-Riformisti (led by Fortunato Mizzi).

The latter was sponsored by Canons and priests, even having priests as their candidates at some point. These guys, as we’ve already seen, felt really threatened by the English language. So they had a go at some politics to really drive that point home.

This whole debate led to a hotbed of animosity which heavily divided the Maltese people at the time. The mishandling of this question turned a lot of the island’s citizens into a Maltese version of Maximus from Gladiator. A lingual Maximus.

One needs to understand that this was one of the first proper debates we had a say in since forever. The public was never trusted to make any decisions about the country prior to this. Every single decision or law was taken by our rulers. Hence why people were taking this a bit more seriously than we would nowadays.

We also have to understand those who preferred speaking in Italian. It was almost as if part of their identity — which they honed for centuries, was being ripped away from them and destroyed by these disliked newcomers.

We all know how touchy people are over culture and identity, we shudder to think about how many variations of ‘go back to your country’ slurs the British were subjected to, honest.

There was a general feeling that the Maltese culture and morality would be destroyed if the English language became a popular choice, but on the other hand people wanted their children to have a stable future.

Eventually, it was decided that English will be taught at schools. People then started bickering over the fact that Italian should still be taught.

Since the British were totally over this, they debated with the locals that Maltese should be taught in schools too, since it was totally our mother tongue. But then came the argument that Maltese was kind of confusing to write due to all the silent squiggly letters. There really is no shutting us up.

In 1934, the British government put an end to this foreverquestion once and for all by issuing a legal notice in the Government Gazatte stating that the official spelling of the Maltese language should follow the Għaqda Kittieba tal-Malti regulations.

Finally, the Maltese language was declared our official one together with the English language. This BS went on up until the end of the Second World War, when Maltese language became compulsory in local schools in 1946.

In 1964, we totally got our independence from the Imperialist overlords, and both English and Maltese were made our official languages. It’s written right there in the document, which you’d think would be the final nail in this debate’s coffin. You’d think.

What do you make of Malta’s language debate? Let us know in the comments below!

READ NEXT: Emma Muscat Is Teaching Malta An Important Lesson About Language. Let’s Learn From It.


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