Monday, August 04, 2008


In an effort to promote and protect the Maltese language and establish an unified linguistic policy, in 2005, the government and parliament of Malta have adopted the Att dwar l-Ilsien Malti (Maltese Language Act, Chapter 470). The Act establishes Il-Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Malti (National Council for the Maltese Language) as the main body charged with "adopting and promoting a suitable language policy and strategy" (Part II, 4(1)). Aside from the general task of promoting Maltese Language both in Malta and abroad (Part II, 5(1)), the Council has also been specifically charged with updating "the orthography of the Maltese Language as necessary" and establishing "the correct manner of writing words and phrases which enter the Maltese Language from other tongues" (Part II, 5(2)). Having been formed in 2005, the Council, headed by prof. Manwel Mifsud, immediately began working on an orthography reform and three years of research, public debate and expert discussion resulted in the publication of Government notice no. 642 in the Government Gazette of July 25th which amends the official orthography of Maltese. This amendment, also known as Deċiżjonijiet 1, is the third official update of Maltese orthography established by the Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija written by Ninu Cremona and Ġanni Vassallo and published in 1924 by Akkademja tal-Malti. Unlike the previous ones, Żieda mat-Tagħrif of 1984 and Aġġornament tat-Tagħrif fuq il-Kitba Maltija of 1992, this reform will consist of three parts.

As outlined by the guide to the decision-making process published by the Council under the title "It-Triq lejn id-Deċiżjonijiet 1" (8 MB PowerPoint presentation), the Council identified three problematic areas:

1. Orthographic variants
2. English loans
3. Phonetic variants

A decision was made to deal with these issues one by one in this particular order. In the first phase, over 300 orthographic variants were collected, after which the Council issued a general call for opinions to the public and a specific one to a selected group of professionals (authors, translators, teachers and journalists). It is interesting to note that the latter call was answered by only 35 people, fortunately including some of the biggest names in Maltese literature. The reactions were published in a separate volume of 195 pages titled Innaqqsu l-inċertezzi. The public debate was concluded by a workshop on orthographic variants with over 180 participants and Innaqqsu l-inċertezzi as the main subject of discussion. The final decision was entrusted to a committee chaired by Albert Borg consisting of 11 experts. After 30 meetings, the committee issued a final recommendation which was unanimously approved by the Council and finally published as Government notice no. 642, a document with the legal force of a law entering into effect on July 25th, 2008.

Government notice no. 642 / Deċiżjonijiet 1 consists of five main sections:

1. Grave accent and circumflex
Only grave accent is now used in Maltese (e.g. kafè, però), circumflex is abolished.

2. Capitalization
Deċiżjonijiet 1 establishes comprehensive rules for capitalization and lack thereof. Most notably, names of religions, religious orders, sects, art movements, styles and epochs as well as adjectives derived from them and names of their members are now capitalized throughout, e.g. l-Iżlam, ir-Rinaxximent, l-Impresijonisti, stil Sikulo-Normann, id-Dumnikani and in-Nazzjonalisti.

3. Word combinations
This section deals with various phrases, fixed expressions and idioms where there's been significant confusion. Subsection 3.1 covers expresions and idioms where the constituent parts are written separately, such as the reduplicative constructions of the type ftit ftit (little by little, gradually), numerals except 11-19, adverb nett and preposition a la and għala.
Subsection 3.2 contains rules for writing phrases and expressions written together, separately or hyphenated. 3.2.1 covers (mostly prepositional) phrases which can be written together or joined by a hyphen, such as fil-waqt (at the time of) as opposed to filwaqt (while). Appendix A provides a comprehensive list of such multiword expressions that are now written as one word, appendix B contains those that are still written separately or hyphenated.
3.2.2. deals with prefixes such as awto-, ko-, anti- and post- which are now written without a hyphen except where the stem is capitalized, e.g. antiinflammatorju (or antiflammatorju, both are acceptable), but anti-Iżlamiku.
The rest of subsection 3.2 covers prepositions ġo, ma', sa' and ta' (actually the Genitive exponent), the negative particle ma and the preposition kontra. New rules provide a choice between writing ma, ma', sa' and ta' in both full and short form (sa issa / s'issa "until now") when followed by a vowel, or ħ. Subsection 3.2 also significantly simplifies the spelling of ġo, ma', sa' and ta' + definite article il-. Forms ġol, mal, sal and tal are now used regardless of what follows (consonant, vowel, or ħ), removing one major headache for all speakers of Maltese.

4. Roots and stems
This short section establishes different rules for writing words of Semitic origin and Romance words. For Semitic roots, the rules confirm the practice of using the same set of letters for one root even though the pronunciation may differ (e.g. ktibna "we wrote" is pronounced [ktibna], but kitbu "they wrote" is pronounced [kidbu]). The obvious exceptions with some roots, such as verbae tertiae , still apply (e.g. the verb sema' with the root smgħ and first person singular perfect smajt). Non-Semitic stems are written the way they occur in words adopted into Maltese and no effort is made to establish a single correct spelling.

5. Other
This final section attempts to simplify and unify the orthography of a small number of words. Subsection 5.1 deals with consonants with the same pronunciation, but non-phonetic spelling or two different spellings, where in both cases the phonetic spelling is chosen as the preferred variant. Examples include dvalja which replaces tvalja "tablecloth", risq instead of riżq "profit, benefit" and skont instead of skond "according to" which was even before the reform written with t before enclictic pronouns. Subsection 5.2 also adapts the spelling of some words to match their most common current pronunciation, such as the title of this post Awwissu instead of Awissu "August", dettall instead of dettal, Iżlam instead of Islam and prefers karozza over of karrozza "car". The rest of the section covers a number of words designed to bring their spelling in line with their etymology (Magreb instead of Maghreb, since the word was borrowed from Italian or English) and three spelling changes based on reinterpretation of roots.

Having been published in the Government Gazette, the new rules of Maltese Orthography are now binding for all government institutions including schools, textbooks and examinations. The Government notice no. 642, however, provides for a three-year transitional period during which both variants will be acceptable. On July 25th, 2011, the new forms will finally become the only correct and acceptable ones. It will remain to be seen how speakers of Maltese will get used to it. We'll see if the first reactions were an indicator and if, what will that mean for the second phase which deals with borrowings from English and which is well underway. Should be interesting to watch.

UPDATE: Albert Borg comments on the process and the motivations in an interview for Times of Malta published today.


ian llorens said...

At least, Maltese is a respected language with first class citizen rights in the European community.
My mother tongue (Catalan), spoken by many more people, is a pariah.

Panu said...

That might be, but Catalan is at least respected and revered by its speakers. The Maltese seem to be ashamed of their native language.

Anonymous said...

You may be interested in more articles about Maltese and its similarity with Arabic here:

# Arab heritage in Malta.
# Il-Cantilena of Malta, how much can a modern day Arab decipher from the older Maltese literature.
# Wardija: Arabic translation of a modern Maltese poem.

Hope you find them interesting.

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