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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Jekk jogħġbok ikteb il-kelma.* 

The Kamra tad-Deputati of the Maltese parliament is considering a bill [PDF, English follows Maltese] that would establish a Kunsill Nazzjonali ta' l-Ilsien Malti (National Council for the Maltese Language) to "promote the national language and to provide the necessary means to achieve this aim."

In the debate during the second reading of the bill today, Partit Laburista MP Joe Brincat suggested that one of the goals of the new council could be to "modernize" Maltese orthography, according to an artilcle in The Malta Independent.
He [Brincat] explained that this unique way of writing the Maltese language, the Maltese orthography, was the result of an effort earlier last century, to distinguish the Maltese language from the Italian language. The dots over the g, for instance, were introduced to distinguish the soft g from the hard ġ and to use only one letter where our forefathers used to write gi- or gie-. And as for the għajn, għ, the corresponding Arab sound is translated as kh. [diacritical marks added to original]
Brincat goes on to say that Maltese orthography makes it difficult to use "modern means of communication," such as e-mail and that "no Maltese fonts [are] available." That complaint is mostly a case of legacy usage ISO 8859-3 ASCII fonts, such as Tornado (which replace some punctuation marks and accented letters in the standard Latin ASCII range in favor of the Maltese Ċ, ċ, Ġ, ġ, Ħ, ħ, Ż, and ż) or of people simply giving up and dropping the diacritical marks altogether, as the quoted Independent story does. Unicode provides full support for Maltese and drivers for Maltese keyboards are available, too.

Brincat went on to argue that the council could help promote the language and to "defend the best use of Maltese especially in broadcasting." Which raises the question of The Independent's description of .

It's always been my understanding that is, for the most purposes effectively silent, serving primarily to lengthen the vowel when it appears with an a, e, or o. For example, the name of the letter ( is treated as a single letter), għajn is pronounced a:yn. At the end of a word, on the other hand, and h (which otherwise is silent severing only to lengthen a preceding or following vowel) are both pronounced like the h in hot. ħ is always pronounced that way. Based on The Independent's description, I'm guessing that h should be more guttural than I'd realized, more like the Arabic ح (ḥá’, h) or خ (khá’, kh).

Even if the orthography is a bit obtuse in places, I'm not sure getting rid of and ż will really address the other concerns in the debate, such as hybridizing Maltese with English (á la Denglish or Spanglish) or slang expressions:
Dr. Brincat also complained on the kind of language used by young people especially when they use expression which mean the opposite of their literal meaning, such as tal-genn!.
Tal-genn! literally means "madness" or "insanity," but it has been appropriated by Maltese youth to mean "cool" or "whazzup!" Of course, "mental," "insane," “crazy," “wild," and a number of other words act as synonyms for “cool" or "neat" in various segments of English youth culture, so I'm guessing this is a personal bugaboo for Brincat.

*Maltese for "Please write the word down."

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