Ian, hands of “fajjara”

Research by Australian National University (ANU) has found that of the world’s 7,000 recognised languages, around half are currently endangered ─ with 1,500 particularly at risk. Co-author Professor Lindell Bromham says that without immediate intervention, language loss could triple in the next 40 years.

So, what’s putting mother tongues under pressure? The study identified as many as 51 new stressors on endangered languages.

One surprising finding was that more years of schooling increased the level of language endangerment in some countries. The researchers say it shows we need to build curriculums that support bilingual education, fostering both local language proficiency as well as the use of regionally-dominant languages. Bilingual education in Malta has been the case for donkey’s years.

“Across the 51 factors or predictors we investigated, we also found some really unexpected pressure points. This included road density,” Professor Bromham says. We found that the more roads there are, connecting country to city, and villages to towns, the higher the risk of languages being endangered. It’s as if roads are helping dominant languages ‘steam roll’ over other smaller languages.”

Damn. Here’s another opportunity for some to condemn the Government’s €700 million road-building programme. Apart from cutting down trees, building rubble walls, and covering country lanes with concrete, the Minister now risks being accused of making it easier for the 3,700 Dinglin to lose their wadabfajjara or steringa. Once the tunnel to Gozo is built, hordes of Maltese speaking the President’s or the Queen’s languages could even sink Gozo’s xirek, peni ta’ Spanja, or fettul. LOL.

On a serious note, though, contact  by a language with other languages does not seem to be a problem or render them endangered, according to the Australian study.

So, perhaps it may not be a problem that a recent study conducted by researcher and linguist Lara Ann Vella published in the Malta Review of Educational Research, has shown that students who attend private schools speak primarily in English at home, whereas those who attend state or church schools tend to speak Maltese.

Students who attend private schools speak primarily in English at home, whereas those who attend state or church schools tend to speak Maltese.

According to a UNESCO study of endangered languages, areas with a particularly large number of languages that are nearing extinction include Africa with its 2,000 different languages, Siberia, Central America and the Northwest Pacific Plateau, not to mention other hotspots such as Oklahoma and the Southern Cone of South America. More than 300 languages have less than 10,000 speakers, a fact that renders them, according to the UN, as endangered.

The European Union has 24 official languages. These include languages that are endangered due to the extremely low number of native speakers, while some dialects, though they are spoken by a number of people, are not officially recognised. For example, Irish, though it is the first state language in Ireland, is spoken only by an estimated 1.2% – 3.0% of the population, and is endangered.

As for indigenous languages, the situation is even more precarious. The Australian study revealed that, prior to colonisation, more than 250 First Nations languages were spoken, and multilingualism was the norm. Now, only 40 languages are still spoken and just 12 are being learnt by children. “Australia has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of language loss worldwide,” says Professor Felicity Meakins, from the University of Queensland and one of the study’s co-authors.

On the other hand, new languages, such as Kenya’s “sheng” ─ a mixture of English, Swahili and mother-tongues ─ are emerging. This is not to mention many con-languages that have been created as part of an imaginary world, such as the Klingon language developed for Star Trek, and Elvish, one of the many languages created by J. R. R. Tolkien. These languages differ from natural languages which develop organically over centuries from the interactions between a great many speakers.

When a language is lost or is ‘sleeping’, as we say for languages that are no longer spoken, we lose so much of our human cultural diversity. Language is a crucial instrument for creating the ties without which unified social action is impossible. It can therefore be said to be at the core of humanity. In fact, Aristotle says a what sets man apart, what raises him above the animals, is that he has the ability to motive with language. The Egyptologist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith has rightly remarked that the invention of speech marked the beginning of man. 

Stephen Pit Cordor, a well-known British linguist says – “The first way we can approach language is as an experience of the individual person. It is concerned with describing and explaining language as a matter of human deeds. People speak and write; they also obviously read and understand what they hear.”

Talk to any qualified speaker or dialogue writer and they will tell you that language plays a vital role in our life. You don’t have to be a president or a famous speaker to use language efficiently. As a matter of fact, few presidents wrote the famous lines for which they are remembered.

The legend of the Babel’s tower tells that at the very commencement of the world, human beings had only one and unique language. Now there are seven thousand. So, what is making some languages disappear? According to the French political scientist Jean Antoine Lap, “When the protection costs of languages do not have any more adequate compensation in the form of social and emotional earnings, then languages disappear.”

So, is the Maltese language in danger?

Our own Award-winning author Trevor Zahra has already sounded a warning about the slow deterioration in the standards of spoken Maltese, especially among children. But he also warns that some of those children have now grown up, and may have carried those linguistic deficiencies into television and literature.

In a recent interview with Malta Today, Zahra said that today, many children are being exposed far more to English – because of social media, because of all the aps on Smartphones, tablets, etc. – than to Maltese. And unfortunately, some parents only talk to their children in English, too.

According to Zahra, “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, in itself: except that it is happening at the expense of Maltese, instead of in conjunction with it. All linguists agree that the ideal situation would be one parent speaking to their children in English, and the other in Maltese. That way, children would be brought up speaking both languages fluently.”

All linguists agree that the ideal situation would be one parent speaking to their children in English, and the other in Maltese.

So, could Maltese go the way of Gaelic? The risk is there. We have already irretrievably lost several thousand words which have fallen in disuse, to be replaced by foreign words. 

Many people’s grammatical and spelling skills are abysmal. In both my lecturing and working with graduates in government employment, I have often despaired at the standard of written Maltese.  

All too often, many people will tell you that good and elegant writing is superfluous, as long as they are understood. But that is the problem. They aren’t. Their shoddy writing leads to all sorts of misunderstandings, and nuances of speech are lost, such that what remains are the blunt instruments of language disorder and miscommunication.

Despite the challenges to it, Maltese is not yet on the list of endangered languages. I would venture to predict that it will survive. After all, how would many Maltese communicate if they couldn’t swear in Maltese? Cognitive psychologists will tell you that the main purpose of swearing is to express emotions, especially anger and frustration. Being Mediterranean, we are an emotional people. Being islanders on a tiny rock, we are angry and frustrated by our limitations. That’s a powerful recipe for swearing.

Read any discussion thread on fb and you will notice that most of it is highly emotional, confrontational, rude, or aggressive. Leslie Beebe, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Education at Columbia University, has described how people are intentionally rude in order to obtain power or vent negative feelings.

I don’t blame it all on the circumstances of our existence. The frequency of swearing depends on the integrity of brain areas implicated in cognitive control processes (e. g., the ventral prefrontal cortex). Damage to this cortex is associated with an increase in socially inappropriate behaviours and speech, including swearing. Yet again, damage to primary language areas (e. g., Broca’s area) also result in aphasia, which commonly produces increased swearing and exaggerated emotional reactions.

Not to mention that the use of potent emotional quality of taboo language is associated with enhanced amygdala activity, a neurophysiological marker of arousal. I am sure that a good percentage of Maltese men, but not only, have recourse to taboo language to show their virility. This often takes the form of associating the taboo words with elements of the spiritual, the more colourful and sexually provocative the better.

It would be interesting for somebody at the University of Malta to do some research and establish how many Maltese have damage to the ventral prefrontal cortex or Broca’s area, or are subject to enhanced amygdala activity. 

We could have some fun.

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G.Sciberras
G.Sciberras
6 months ago

As always, an excellent read(with a touch of humour too).

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