MALTESE AND HEBREW

TWO CASES OF CULTURAL SURVIVAL

By Lawrence Attard Bezzina


Maltese presents a fascinating case of a cultural survival recalling the days of Hannibal as well as demonstrating the dangers of rival foreign political and cultural influences on one of the smallest states in Europe to have its own language (only Iceland with its less than 300,000 speakers can be compared to Malta). These influences have already profoundly shaped the spoken vernacular and the written language. Maltese, like Hebrew, is a small insular remnant language spoken only in the homeland and a far flung diaspora. Both languages are living testimony to the pre-Christian and pre-Roman identity of the ancient world.

In both Malta and the State of Israel, independence was recreated along with a cultural revival in the face of great odds and massive doubts as to the viability of both states and languages. In both cases, a strongly based 'nativist, ethnic-linguistic nationalism evolved based on the pre-Roman Phoenician-Hebrew and Canaanite speaking city states and colonies that extended to Carthage and the Western Mediterranean civilisation of the ancient world.

Both Maltese and modern Israeli Hebrew face the danger of being swamped by 'high status' rivals, most notably English. Devotees of the Hebrew and Maltese revivals are afraid that their languages may eventually be reduced to the status of low-caste languages resigned to the home or workshop while a 'high-caste' language such as English will be used for all public functions, education, science, the arts, the press, parliament, etc. Something like this exists in Luxembourg today (a dialect known as Letzeburgish is spoken at home, while German and French are used for all official purposes) and is known as 'diglossia' .

This danger is much more apparent in the case of Maltese which had reached this level of diglossia vis-a-vis Italian by the beginning of the 20th century. The influence of Italian was manifest for centuries and is still very apparent in both the spoken vernacular and in the role it has played in the development of the arts, law and education in Malta.

Maltese is also the only Semitic language to have made the transition to full fledged use of a Romanized script with vowels. Guttural sounds are represented by individual superscript letters. This feature of the language is of particular interest to Semitic scholars who have debated the pros and cons of Romanization for Hebrew and Arabic.

The Maltese people are renowned for their continued devotion to the Catholic church, yet they share a linguistic kinship with the Arab world and feel no conflict in calling God the Father, 'Allah', an example which substantiates the old saying that the Maltese vernacular is 'Semitic material in a Roman mouth'.

Malta, like Ireland, is allowed to use English lyrics for the songs entered in the Eurovision contest -- an indication and admission that the 'native' languages are hardly more than a legal fiction or that anyone abroad could possibly find any lyrics worthy of recognition. Like the Irish, almost the entire Maltese population understands and is capable of using English for everyday purposes.

Even an introductory phrase book in Maltese for English residents, written by the wife of a former prime minister of Malta, admits that 'English people can literally spend a lifetime in Malta without finding it necessary to speak in the language of the people to whom God has given this tiny group of islands'.

It has been estimated that the proportion of Semitic to Romance entries in a Maltese dictionary is 65 per cent to 35 per cent but the Romance/ English proportion rises considerably and exceeds 80 per cent of the concepts relating to modern technology, abstractions, legal terms and parliamentary affairs.

Arabic speakers who have some knowledge of Italian or French are able to understand some Maltese but the average Maltese speaker is disadvantaged by inability to read Arabic or recognize common Semitic equivalents for many words which have been replaced by wholesale borrowing from Italian and English. The vocabulary of Maltese is riddled with loan formations that derive from Italian.

The origins of Maltese were supposed to be of Phoenician derivation and then superseded by a North African Arabic dialect brought by the Moslem invaders in the Middle Ages. This Arab conquest of the island lasted until 1090. The last Moslems were expelled in 1249. The vernacular then became subject to Sicilian influences and later to the standard literary Tuscan/Florentine Italian as a result of its official use by the ruling Crusader Order, the Knights of Saint John who held sway until 1798.

Unlike in other areas of Italy and Sicily, educated Maltese did not evolve a specific regional dialect but spoke the standard 'National' language of Italy which had been learned by instruction in private classes. These linguistic influences have been variously interpreted by rival social forces who used them to advance arguments on behalf of cultural and political orientations. These assumed major dimensions in the late 19th century and culminated in the replacement of Italian by both English and Maltese as official languages in 1936 as a direct rebuff to fascist claims.

A complex three way struggle emerged between supporters of Maltese as a viable national language, and those who looked to English, or to Italian as the most suitable vehicle for national life and a continuation of the Catholic-Latin-Mediterranean heritage. Ironically, the 'Nationalist' political movement embraced Italian as the 'authentic' expression of Maltese history and culture and viewed the vernacular aS an embarrassing poor relative of Arabic -- tainted with the stain of Black Africa and Islam. One nationalist spokesman went so far as to label Maltese as 'the curse of the country'.

This is particularly ironic since Christianity evolved in the Near East. The Aramic language of Christ and the apostles was brought to Malta where it was immediately understood without the necessity of translation into Greek and Latin, stamping Malta as one of the first Christian strongholds outside the Levant (L'vant itself is the Maltese term for East).

The other great political movement in Malta is the Labour/Socialist party which took a negative stance towards Italian as the language of the upper classes who had traditionally been linked to the church hierarchy and the high regard for Latin and Italian.

British rule, dating from the end of a brief Napoleonic rule initially looked with favour on maintaining the stability of the Catholic church and the ruling establishment with its alliance to the Italian language as the vehicle of instruction, the law and administration.

Malta's strategic importance to Britain increased following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and led to a gradual reduction in the privileged position of Italian. The English language came to be seen by many anti-establishment Maltese as a passport to fuller economic, social and cultural participation in local affairs and in the power of the far flung British Empire.

The growing rejection of Italian and the ascendancy of English were promoted hand in hand with a movement on behalf of Maltese which the Nationalists had so slighted. At the turn of the century, the Italian government was at pains to distance itself from a tiny but disruptive minority of Maltese who looked towards incorporation into a united Italy. 'The Maltese want the religion of Rome, the language of Dante and the English pound' was one cynical way of expressing the political, cultural and economic dilemma. After Italy's aggression against Abyssinia in 1936, British-Italian relations were placed under great strain and Malta was added to the list of Mussolini's irredentist demands.

An entire ideological justification (known as 'The Punic Build-up' ) of a glorious Phoenician/Punic past harkening back to Hannibal was utilised to introduce Maltese as the language of instruction at all levels. Appeals to the mass of ordinary people were met by counter attacks to preserve Italian and continental ties which the upper classes considered synonymous with Latin-Catholic-Mediterranean civilization.

The movements for an independent Malta and Israel both drew in part upon a 'radical' cultural-historical-linguistic thesis linking the Phoenician-Punic-Hebrew heritage that was crushed by Rome. 'In Israel, an extreme form of Hebrew nationalism which ultimately rejects Zionism and the 2,000 year history of Jewish existence in the 'Golah' (Place of Exile) bears a startling resemblance to the 'Punic Build-up'. The modern renaissance of Hebrew carried out in the face of ultra-orthodox religious opposition is well known and the term 'Hebrew' used as an adjective for song, dance, literature and other elements of popular culture still bears a certain iconoclastic radical secular and nationalist overtone.

At its height, a vast overseas civilization was established by the Phoenician states of Tyre and Sidon in alliance with ancient Israel. All the petty states mentioned in the Bible -- the Canaanite tribes, Tyre and Sidon (the Phoenician homeland), Moab, Edom, Ammon, Israel and Judea shared a common language and related alphabets that were later borrowed by the Greeks and Romans.

In this radical 'Canaanite-Hebrew nationalist view, the ancient prophets of Israel were simply a traditional-agrarian reaction to the maritime and imperialist orientation of Phoenician-Canaanite Hebrew speaking civilization (which included the alliance mentioned in the Bible between King Hiram of Tyre and King Solomon).

Had Hannibal succeeded, all of the Mediterranean would have inherited a Semitic tradition having nothing to do with the Arabs, the desert, Greece or Rome. Of course, subsequent historiography with its Hellenic and Roman biases, as well as traditional Jewish and Christian theology sought to minimize the achievements of this earlier Hebrew speaking (later to include the closely related Punic of Carthage and Aramaic) diaspora around the shores of the Mediterranean extending to Carthage, Malta, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands as far west as Cadiz in southern Spain.

The old debate on the origin of Maltese has largely been decided by modern scholarship against the theory of a strong Punic-Phoenician clement (although supporters of the Punic Build-up maintain that Malta was ruled from Carthage at its height in the 3rd century B.C. and Punic must have been in use for many centuries before being superseded by Arabic). Modern scholarship affirms that Maltese derives primarily from a North African Arabic dialect introduced sometime during the period of Arab rule 870-1090 A.D. These scholarly investigations and political disputes are however, of little consequence in today's language debate.

The Labour Party which returned to power in 1970 favoured close relations with the Eastern Bloc and especially with Libya that included making Arabic a compulsory subject in state secondary schools. The end result, however, was a colossal failure due to the unfamiliarity with the Arabic alphabet and the cultural incompatibility between the devoutly Catholic Maltese and Qadaffi's radical Islamic Libya.

Malta's heroic stand against the prolonged Axis blockade and bombing in World War II and the bestowal by King George VI of the George Cross for bravery to the entire islands' population totally obscured a small number of pro-Italian collaborators and continued tensions over cultural, linguistic and political orientation which re-emerged when hostilities ceased. The post war period has greatly strengthened the position of English over Italian and threatens to reduce the vernacular to a position of permanent inferiority.

Universal literacy in Malta is an achievement due in large measure to a phonetic alphabet and instruction in the native vernacular in the primary grades. The use of a romanized script and the enormous impact of two Indo-European languages on Maltese are of interest to students of the other two Semitic languages, Hebrew and Arabic. Problems of literacy and printing have led to many reform proposals for both Hebrew and Arabic which have all been essentially rejected on the basis of practical grounds and religious sentiment.

Almost all Maltese speakers now switch to English to count, use common everyday greetings and interjections (okay, thank you, sorry), and give their children English names.

The massive intrusion of English with its real and supposed importance in world trade, diplomacy, science and technology, higher education, tourism, and as a 'passport to a wider cultural world' beyond the tiny areas of the Maltese and Hebrew speaking states, is a cause for concern. The dangers of a descent into permanent diglossia and loss of a very important historical cultural link are very real. Sensitive, proud and concerned Maltese are aware that they are particularly vulnerable to the partial denationalization that occurred in Ireland with the loss of ancestral Gaelic. Both 'Hebrew' and Maltese nationalists are convinced that the heritage of Solomon and Hannibal and the ancient Hebrew/Punic speaking civilization deserve to be cultivated and cherished in the face of much later antagonistic historiography and religious traditions.

E-mail to Lawrence Attard Bezzina.

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