Kbir, Kelb, gvern, Gazzetta, ċans, a few examples of words in modern Maltese with foreign origins. This mixed and fascinating language stems from Arabic, Sicilian, Italian, and English.
Professor Brincat, you live and teach at the University of Malta and your research activity ranges from Italian linguistics to aspects of multilingualism in Malta and to English influences in European languages.
Could you help us retrace the historical and cultural steps of the Maltese language?
I prefer the word “blended” instead of “mixed”. I have identified the bases of Maltese as being the Arabic dialect spoken by the invaders that may have come over from Sicily. This is very intriguing for scholars because the language was frozen around the year 1000. There was later a “re-romanisation” both in Sicily and in Spain, but Malta had a series of governors, from the Normans, to the Suebians, to the Angiovins, to the Aragonese and the Castillians, up to the time of the Knights in 1530. Neither of these rulers applied a linguistic policy, and that is why Maltese has survived.
And what about the language spoken before Arabic?
On top of Arabic we don’t have a substrate because the Arabs took over the island in a violent way, destroying the Bizantine civilisation that there was before. This Arabic dialect survived and it has been grafted by Sicilian and Italian. The first person that launched a linguistic policy was Napoleon, that would have frenchified Malta as he did in Corsica. However, the Maltese rebelled and after a blockage that lasted 2 years, Admiral Nelson, that was outside Naples, intervened and ousted the French, taking over the island.
Maltese's contact with English is still very intense. In the XIXth century, Italy began exerting influence on the island too. How did the relationship of Maltese people with English and Italian change through time?
English has been used since the 1800’s but the population rejected Anglicisation for a very long time: this was due to the attempt of introducing their measurement system and Protestantism. With the unification of Italy, the British got worried of a possible attack, so they started a battle against the Italian language, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal. This would have given a unique advantage to Italy, able to block the access to the Eastern Mediterranean. They continued with the attack when Mussolini took power.
In Albania, the Italian tv is very famous and a lot of people speak italian thanks to this. Is it more or less the same thing in Malta with Arabic and Italian?
This is a bit tricky because before WW2 the school was taught in Italian. After the war, people generally grew up in a more British environment. Italian however, resisted and was revived when Sicilians got TVs until the year 2000’s. The sad thing is that with the younger generation not watching the TV, Italian is losing grip and exposure.
Do you believe “scientifically-created” languages like Esperanto might have a future?
I’m rather skeptical about it, the range of Esperanto is very limited. However, English itself is a kind of “living” Esperanto because most of the words used in English are of French and Latin origins, and it is spoken not only in Great Britain, but also all over the world, and it is in constant change.