A national language debate stifled by righteousness

The first thing we learn as undergraduate students at university is that you are never 100% right. No matter how well constructed and well written your argument is, no matter how much proof and evidence you have to sustain it, there will always be someone who might improve your argument with additional data, alteration and counter-argumentation. Alas, some of our country’s linguists and academics don’t seem to subscribe to this idea.

Now, let me be absolutely clear. I am not a linguist, and I do not feel qualified to enter into linguistic arguments, however I am rather irked at the way in which some members of the National Council for the Maltese Language and some university lecturers reacted at the beginning of the consultation process on the Maltese language by the Ministry of Education.

Instead of reading debates on the actual nature of the new rules, and the politics and remit behind the council, we have witnessed attacks, some of them even ad hominem, by some linguists and council members alike, against anyone who might have had doubts and questions on the recent council’s decisions on new orthographic rules on country names. So, where has the academic spirit gone?

A small group of lecturers even went so far as to write an open letter saying that they are giving the utmost support to the council without even justifying their position with coherent and academic, let alone, logical arguments. If one were to read the statement out of context, one would think that the council members were in actual fact a football team.

As far as I know, there is a wide consensus among academics and politicians that linguistic decisions should be taken by linguists and no one is disputing this, however linguistic decisions are academic in nature and thus should be taken via a transparent process where any available academic checks and balances can be made.

Also, the council has, as it appears, fulfilled its obligations by law and there is currently no outside interference in its decision process. The council is currently free to act autonomously. No one is disputing the integrity and skills of council members, but surely something is amiss if the council’s decision process is structured on a closed-doors system.

Methodology of process is crucial here, and methodology is also political. The semantics behind the words of the vitriolic arguments were also inaccurate. It is not the right of the Minister of Education to issue a public call for consultation on the Maltese language, but his duty, and the current government was elected to do so according to its manifesto.

Here, one should also consider that the question at hand may not necessarily be exclusively linguistic in nature but also political, meaning that we may have to discuss, in light of recent developments pertaining to the decisions taken on the Maltese language, the institutional process in which linguistic decisions are taken.

Now, this is an argument which may fairly and legitimately be contested by those who would like to retain the status quo, yet until now, no such well articulated arguments have been presented. In fact, currently, an academic debate on the linguistic situation of the Maltese language is not taking place other than that of the council in question – a closed-doors policy council made up of a very small number of technical people. Surely, such a debate of national importance should not be exclusive.

To be fair, the council did in fact hold a public consultation session for which around 100 people attended, but this was a one-off public attempt. Other consultation processes made were done selectively and no public debate was set in motion. For example, a very important sector of people who have been completely ostracized from the decision-making process are Maltese translators working within EU institutions, whose encounter with major linguistic problems is business-as-usual and routine.

Some authors and publishers also feel ostracized from the process since no constructive effort was made by the council to check and understand what the people in the local book scene really think. Words are the tools of writers, editors and translators, and if these people are not being consulted in the council’s decisions process then I cannot help drawing a parallel with an equally disastrous and unfortunate case scenario of say, an industrial company which manufactures tools on a mass scale without first getting its mechanics to test them on the ground.

No CEO in his right mind would ever recommend such an approach. As expected, the council has now been dealt a huge public relations conundrum because many are legitimately complaining about the end product.

Releasing a public explanation on decisions taken only after the decisions published were received with scepticism, does not really help your public relations either. If the council expects to release communiques in the form of diktats without even trying to explain how it, as a council, has arrived at said conclusions, this will not help it win the respect of the public, no matter how hard linguists would have worked.

Everyone who is directly or indirectly involved in the language sector subscribes to the idea that linguistic decisions should be taken by linguists, but the issue at hand is much more complex than this. One fails to see what the problem is with some council members like Albert Borg who recently even went so far as to embellish his public statement with a typical Maltese phrase used mostly to pick up fist-fights; that classic phrase best left to die a natural death down at the shady, hillbilly-ridden night clubs of Marsaskala, which goes something like (here loosely translated into English) “if you’ve got a problem, say it to my face”. If these are the kind of people who are actually taking seminal decisions on our language then I really do have a problem with the National Council for the Maltese Language.

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