Logotip de la revista Noves SL





A view of the linguistic situation in Malta, by Ignasi Badia i Capdevila


5. The legal standing of Maltese and the current language policy in Malta

According to the Maltese Constitution, (9) the national language of Malta is Maltese, and the latter together with English are the official languages of the country. Local government can use either of these two languages. In the same way, anyone can address local government in Maltese or in English and receive an answer in the same language. The constitution also says, nonetheless, that the language of the courts is Maltese (except for exceptions to this that might be established by parliament) and that the house of representatives can decide which language or languages it uses. Lastly, the Constitution lays down that the Maltese text of a law will prevail over the English one in the case of conflict between the two (all laws have to be framed in the two languages except where Parliament decides otherwise).

With Malta's entry into the European Union, Maltese is now one of the official languages of the Union. This means that all laws and official documents of the Union have to be translated into Maltese; that Maltese citizens can address the institutions of the Union in Maltese and, if they do so, any reply they receive should be in the same language, and lastly that the Maltese representatives the institutions of the Union may use Maltese.

The acceptance of Maltese as an official language of the European Union has been interpreted by an expert in administrative law as an instance of the non-application of the criterion, never made explicit, that denies official European status to languages which are co-official throughout the whole of their national territory with another language which is already official in the Union, being the official language of another member state. (10) In virtue of this criterion, lrish is not an official language of the European Union, despite being official throughout the Republic of Ireland, but sharing that status with English; and Luxembourguish is similarly placed, being official throughout Luxembourg, but together with French and German. We do not think that Maltese is an exception to this so-called criterion - rather, we feel that precisely the case of Irish and Luxembourgish are the exceptions to the more general principle that official languages of the Union are those which are official throughout the state in question (a condition which Maltese meets, as do all the other official languages). The exception of Irish and Luxembourguish arises, in the first case, out of the advanced state of language shift to English, and in the second, out of the fact that Luxembourguish, despite its vitality, is not a normalised language in Luxembourg. Maltese, unlike Irish, is the first language of practically all the inhabitants of Malta and, in comparison with Luxembourguish, is much more normalised.

Turning now to the current language policy in Malta, in November 2003 a motion (draft version of a law) was published relating to the Maltese language, and this motion was debated in the Maltese parliament in spring 2004. The motion states that the Maltese language is a fundamental element in the national identity of the Maltese people which the State has to protect from "deterioration and perdition”. The primary aim of the motion is the creation of a National Council of the Maltese Language (Kunsill Nazzjonali ta' l-Ilsien Malti), to promote the national language by means of the adoption of a language policy which will promote its use in education, the media, the courts and the political, administrative, economic, social and cultural life of the country. The Council will also have the responsibility of bringing up-to-date the spelling of the language, if necessary, and of establishing the writing of borrowings. It should be added, incidentally, that there is already a Maltese Language Board, an organisation which answers to the Ministry of Education and encourages the study and development of Maltese. There is also the Maltese Academy (Akkademja tal-Malti), which for the last eighty years has been concerned with matters of orthography and grammar.

6. Patterns of language use in Maltese society

According to a study carried out in 2001, (11) Maltese is the first language of 98.6% of the population and English that of 1.2%. Of these speakers however, there are some who claim both languages to be their first language (1.2% of the population)- Despite this, as many as 14% state they use English in the family and 29%, at work. In the case of Maltese, these figures are, respectively, 90% and 70% (there are, then, those who use both languages in the family). Other figures recently published by the National Statistics Office of Malta indicate that 86.23% "prefer" to speak in Maltese, 11.76% in English, and 1.84% in Italian. The very small number of people who have English as their first language who are in any case mostly British ex-patriots resident in Malta, is hardly the reason for the erosion of the position of Maltese in two vital areas, the workplace and above all family life, indicative as it is of the greater prestige of English compared to Maltese in Maltese society.

Also interesting are the figures (which we have rounded up or down) taken from the 1995 census: in that year Malta had 372.000 habitants. Of these, some 246,000 (76% of the adult population) said they knew English, while 118,000 (36% of the adult population) knew Italian. There were many people, obviously, who know both languages. Thus, despite former British domination, the co-official status of English at the present time and the considerable weight carried by that language in the Maltese society of today, there were still in 1995 more than 70,000 people, mostly rural, who did not know English. In any case, not all those who stated they knew English were fluent to the same degree. With respect to knowledge of languages other than Maltese, we have information from 1931 -when Italian as well as English was an official language of the islands (while Maltese was not) . According to this report, of the approximately 225,000 inhabitants of Malta there were around 55,000 who knew English, and around 32,000 who knew Italian. Comparing these data from 1931 with those from 1995 it can be deduced, on the one hand, that the gap between English and Italian has widened and, on the other, that the number of monolinguals in Maltese has decreased, and done so quite markedly in relative terms.

The use of the Maltese language in Parliament, government and the legal world is quite considerable, just as it is in administration both national and municipal. The work of the political parties, too, is carried on mainly in Maltese. It is also important to note that the Catholic church, whose influence is very great in this country, mainly conducts its activities in Maltese.

Primary school education has been compulsory in Malta since 1946, and secondary education until sixteen became compulsory in 1971. The position of Maltese in education is weaker than in other areas. Both Maltese and English are used as the medium for teaching at primary level and secondary level, and both languages are also compulsory school subjects. A balance between Maltese and English is maintained much more successfully in the state schools than in the private ones, since some of the latter prefer to use mainly English. English is also the language of choice in most departments of the University of Malta, a circumstance which limits the full development of the Maltese language. (12)

There are other languages in use in Maltese education: to the third language traditionally taught in the country, Italian, there has been added French, German, Russian and Spanish, studied at secondary level. This is a result of increased economic relations with the outside world and the increasing importance of the holiday industry. The teaching of Arabic deserves a special mention, since from 1975 to 1987, during one of the periods when there was a Labour government, this subject was compulsory at secondary level.

Turning now to the mass media, there is the same number of newspapers in Maltese as in English (two dailies and three Sunday papers). In terms of radio, we find the Maltese language predominating here, although there are also programmes in English, and the Italian radio stations are also picked up in Malta. Maltese television puts out programmes in both Maltese and English, and additionally a large number of English or North American channels (in English) and Italian channels (in Italian) are available. The Italian channels enjoy considerable popularity.

On the level of culture and cultural habits, Maltese people fall into two categories, those who make more use of Maltese, and those who make more use of English. In the 2001 study mentioned above, 43.2% of the sample stated they read in English, and 48% stated they watched television and cinema in English. The figures for Maltese were higher (48% and 59.2% respectively). Naturally there would be some overlap here, with some of the respondents at least able or likely to use both languages for the same activity. The figures published by the National Statistics Office of Malta, on the other hand, are somewhat different. According to their sample, the "preferred language" for reading is English for 61.13% (books) and 70.89% (magazines) while the corresponding figures regarding Maltese are respectively 35.75% and 22.65%. The reverse situation is reported for television, 25.41% reporting that they watch TV in English and 44.96% in Maltese; in the case of radio, 14.69% listened to broadcasts in English and 82.41% in Maltese. A not insignificant number of people opted for Italian, especially for television (29.63%, higher than English). Some 3.12% read books in Italian and 6.46% read magazines in that language; lastly, 2.91% tune into radio programmes in Italian.

7. The state of the Maltese Language

There are a series of symptoms suggesting that the vitality of Maltese is under threat. We have already seen that English is competing with Maltese in many ambits of Maltese life, an outcome of the low esteem or prestige enjoyed by Maltese among the inhabitants of the islands. The language is seen as local in its scope and much less suited for certain functions than English (the increasing importance of the holiday industry only confirms this view). English is a language of great prestige and utility which, furthermore, they may start to learn at home (it is the second language of the middle and upper classes) leading to considerable switching with different proportions of the two languages -as often happened previously with Italian and Maltese among the well-off. This mixing is often satirised, for example in popular television programmes, for its obvious overtones of ostentation, all the more ridiculous in those lacking sufficient knowledge to indulge in it but does so all the same, in an attempt to promote themselves socially. This is considered typically female behaviour in Malta: for example, there are mothers who learn English with their children to ensure their academic success. And there are some well-to-do families in certain neighbourhoods who have even ceased to use Maltese. By the same token, English is the language that the well-educated prefer to read and write in; it is the language that strangers tend to be addressed in, where it is not clear they want to talk in Maltese, and the language in which children are christened in the majority of cases.

It is clear that in a situation like this we obviously find a high degree of interference from English in Maltese; so for example Maltese words of Romance origin are often replaced by English words (nurse, for instance, tends to replace infermiera), or Maltese words change or extend their meaning as a result of the influx of English (for instance librerija (book shop) is replacing bibljoteka (library) under the influence of the English word library). On the phonological level, it has been observed that the English pronunciation of the /r/ phoneme is penetrating Maltese at the present time. In general, the segment of society which most show interference from English are upper class young women in certain areas around the capital.

Despite of the little language domain, Maltese exhibits considerable dialectal variation. There are two main groups of dialects: the prestigious varieties of the educated classes of Valleta and adjoining neighbourhoods, and those of the agricultural villages and the industrial areas around the ports. The first is more Italianised, and is expanding; it retains fewer phonological features and vocabulary from Arabic. The second group, on the other hand, is receding and is less likely to contain switching into English. Compulsory education, modern mass media and the ever increasing mobility of the population favours the extension of the standard form of Maltese (malti pulit) at the expense of the other dialects.

8. Conclusion

Malta's linguistic situation differs from that of other countries in Europe, in that the position of the Maltese language is not comparable to that of dominant languages such as Swedish, Polish, or indeed any of the other official languages of the states of Europe. Nor is its position comparable to a language like Friesian, Romansch, or any of the other minorised languages of Europe.

Given that Malta was for long integrated into the political and cultural orbit of Italy, Maltese played a similar role, with respect to Italian (the traditional language of administration and higher culture) as that of  Napolitano, Lombardo, Friulian or Sardinian. The fact that the first two continue to be regarded as dialects of Italian and the other two as independent languages makes little or no difference to their social position).

British rule, established in the islands from the beginning of the 19th century onwards, has to a large extent brought about the removal of Italian from Maltese daily life. The vacuum left by Italian has largely been filled by English, rather than Maltese. The latter, despite its widespread and well-established oral use, was not seen as the new language and vehicle of the country's culture since it had never occupied that role and since the presence of English loomed large.

Malta's autonomy during the early decades of the 20th century and her independence from Britain in 1964 led to an advance in the use and acceptance of the Maltese language, both in terms of its legal status and in the domains and areas in which it was used. Nonetheless, the linguistic situation of the country continues to be colonial, that is, we continue to find a state of affairs more typical of Asiatic or African states that were formerly colonies of a European country or of the United States, countries such as India, or the Philippines, with their indigenous languages playing a subordinate role to that of the former metropolitan language.

As a consequence of all this, bilingualism has continued to increase among the Maltese population throughout the 20th century, and a process of language shift toward English has begun in certain (comparatively few) social circles, and the grammatical structure and lexis of the national language is being affected by the superstrate language, even though the majority of the population may not speak the latter (English) fluently.

This is not to say that Maltese does not have a future, and is destined to disappear, it simply means that its survival is not assured if there is not a profound change in attitudes among the population of Malta, and the overcoming of these attitudes will be necessary before genuine normalisation of the language of the country is achieved.

2 de 3