Monday 19 March 2018


Welcome to gobbledygook Maltese

If something drastic is not done to stop this nonsense of writing English words in a phonetic way to turn them into Maltese, I think it will really spell the end of our native language.

I’m not being melodramatic here: lately someone old me that on a news portal they saw the word “fire extinguisher” written “‘fajerextingwixer”  and I almost went into cardiac arrest. In a Facebook advert, the phrase “they don’t acknowledge (your letter)” was translated into “ma jaknoligjawkx”.

Someone kill me, now.

This is gibberish; a gobbledygook invented language which is massacring both English and Maltese.

I think my patience finally snapped when I saw uffixjal fenpejg (official fan page) used on Facebook by the people who produce the Bla Kondixin satirical show…no, sorry this is not satire unless you think it’s funny to ruin the language on the pretext of mocking those who have a rough accent in English. All this “funny’ spelling is just plain puerile. First of all if we are going to mock (in print) those whose English is not exactly as it should be spoken, let’s go all the way and mock all the weird pseudo British accents and bungled syntax which pain my ears every day, “You went to the beach? oh ajma, as if, there were xeba’ people, maaa! ”

The thing is, when the FB page called “Sliema girls say” tried to make fun of the tal-pepè accent it was amusing for a while but it soon fizzled out.  Sure we joke around with these accents verbally all the time, code-switching to our heart’s content, but verbal mockery is quite different to the written form, unless we are writing a novel or short story where we are deliberately depicting specific characters who speak in a certain way.

I realize some find it “funnier” to put down those whose grasp of English is not that strong, but the problem with mocking bad pronunciation in print is that by translating it into a written form you are taking the risk of it becoming mainstream.  Let’s face it, accents and pronunciations are all over the place on this island depending where you’re from, where you went to school and your family background, but this bright idea to invent words like the horribly offensive mowbajl  (mobile) is only serving to mangle correct standard Maltese. And no, this is not the natural evolution of a living language because from what I am told, this spelling is even being imposed on kids at school as it is being imposed on our TV programmes by the  Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti. There are even Maltese language books for children with the word bejbi – yes, that is meant to be “baby” (what happened to tarbija?) and ticer (“teacher” instead of the perfectly good word ghalliema).

My only reaction to these words is: ugh.

Just because we borrow words from English all the time during daily conversations, texting and FB usage does not mean it should become the way we write. Similarly, I would not write “‘coz” instead of “because” in an essay, just because I use it on FB or in an SMS.

When it comes to writing we need to be more attentive if we want our real language to survive, rather than leaving behind a convoluted mess which is neither here nor there.

On Facebook , something like “uffixjal fenpejg” (hilarious as it might be to some) is simply contributing to the further appalling standard of our two official languages as the recent ‘O’ level results have shown.  Because while we are busy holding our sides and howling with laughter, our students are understandably confused as to how exactly they should be spelling words in the two languages, and have ended up writing both, very, very badly.



  • Anna Maria Bartolo

    These newfangled words have already entered the Maltese language in the most official way – via the Aquilina dictionary. Here’s an eg from p. 105 of the concise Aquilina dictionary published in 2006: fajber, fajberglas, fajerenġin, fajermen (sing. & pl.), fajter, fajver. I don’t agree with choosing the easy way out and resorting to English if a Maltese word exists already. However, when all else fails and one runs out of options, there’s not much else one can do. If it’s of any consolation, we are not alone in this “mess”. Other languages have to battle with the creation of new words every day. A significant portion of English vocabulary is a bastardised version of French. Possibly at the time the adoption of these strange words must have caused a huge uproar but nowadays of course they are generally accepted. Now the reverse is happening in the French language which is taking on more and more words from the English language. The French say “footing” to mean “jogging”, “le foot” to mean “football”, “le week” to mean “weekend”, “shampooing” (pronounced xampwan) to mean “shampoo” and “people” to mean “celebrity”. Interesting links on the relation between the two languages here:,9,HCB.html
    I guess that what I’m trying to say is this: the Maltese language is going through some major changes. Not all of them are viewed in a positive light. But it’s not all negative either. Considering our size, and the fact that the Maltese language has been an official language only since 1964, I don’t think we’re doing all that badly.

    • Anna Maria, what I don’t get is how do we expect children to know that fire engine is “spelled” fajerengin, and then also expect them to know that the actual word for fire in Maltese is nar? I say leave the English words in English as we used to do before: I distinctly remember doing my O and A levels and leaving certain words in their original form so why all this insistence now? As for the French language examples you gave, the point is that their original spelling has not been artificially changed into French spelling has it?

  • bulbul

    There are two issues here, related, but ultimately distinct. The first is the use of English borrowings instead of native words (e.g. baby instead of tarbija). There I share your opinion, though perhaps not your outrage. The second issue is whether these borrowings should be adapted to Maltese spelling. I understand you find the idea abhorrent, but I don’t understand why. First, adapting foreign words to native spelling is something Maltese has been doing at least since Vassalli – we don’t write ciavetta, giurnata or viaggi, do we? – and many languages have done since forever without any adverse effects. Second, even if we were to kerp the original spelling, what do we do with borrowings adapted to the morphological structure of Maltese? Do we write jishootja, jilikeja, jacknowledgeja? Yuckety yuck. I know the best solution would be not to use such borrowings at all, but, tough luck, too late.

    • In Malta we speak very casually and code switch all the time so yes I know that in the vernacular we do speak in that way, but surely standard written Maltese doesn’t have to become so clumsy (and ugly) just because we are too lazy to search for the already existing correct Maltese word? about simply writing “jirrisponduk” or “iwiegbuk”?
      Yuckety yuck is right.

  • bulbul

    I fully agree that “jirrisponduk” or “iwieġbuk” would be better. But that only addresses the first issue (purism). What about the second one when there is no native word, like, say mowbajl.

    • why not leave it as is: “mobile”…would it be so tragic? That’s what was done in the past and we survived and so did the language.

  • Victor Laiviera

    Let’s make one point clear; the REAL language is the spoken language not the written one, like the real person is the flesh and blood version, not the photo or portrait. Saying that controversial spelling is going to “destroy” our language is like saying that if your photo turns put badly, you will be ‘ruined”.

    So the problem – if there is one, which I am not convinced – is simply one of orthography rather than language. The people – who own the language – will go on using the words and phrases that suit their needs (as they have done ever since language was invented) no matter how they are spelled or written.

    If there is one thing in the world that is in a continuous state of flux, it is language. It changes almost from day to day – words are created, lost, borrowed from other languaged. They change their meaning, register and acceptability (for example, poppycock, now a prim word, was originally quite vulgar). Some people se this as a corruption of the language. What they are really saying is that bthey want to freeze the language as it was whrn they firts learnt it, ignoring the fact that what they leant was probably very different freom what their parents learnt which in turn was different form what thei grandparents learnt …

    The idea that we should have two languages – the written and the spoken – is the worst possible thing we could do to our students. If you force people who (to take the classic example) are used to saying “bejbi” to say “tarbija”, they will quickly get the notion that what they are learning is not really relevant to their real lives and switch off.

    • but that is what happens in English Victor..we speak one way (very casually and full of contractions like ‘dunno’ for ‘don’t know’) and then when it comes to the formal, written form we have schooled ourselves to write it properly. It’s not two languages, it’s just an awareness that the written language should not be made phonetic because it’s easier…just look what is happening with even pure Maltese words..people write “aliex” instead of “ghaliex” and ada instead of “ghada”..because the “gh” is silent so why bother? So with your argument they are right and we should just drop the “gh” and the silent ‘h’ and write words the way they sound. People who drawl their words (eg. dialects in certain villages), pronounce ‘ghalija’ as ‘ghalijja’…so are you advocating that every dialect in Malta should just write according to their accent? Come on, there has to be a standard written Maltese.

  • Victor Laiviera

    Excused typos – I clicked ‘send’ before I had time to proofread.

  • bulbul

    /It’s not two languages, it’s just an awareness that the written language should not be made phonetic because it’s easier/
    But it really is about two languages or rather two systems of orthography – Maltese and English. Those who are in favor of transcribing English borrowings into Maltese orthography would argue that the word in question is a part of Maltese now and should be written according to the rules of Maltese orthography and not according to the rules of the original language. “il-mowbajl” in “Illum ħafna anzjani jużaw il-mowbajl” is a Maltese word now and a such it should be written the Maltese way. The issue gets a little bit more difficult with borrowings which have perfectly cromulant native equivalents (as with “acknowledge” or perhaps “fire engine”), but the principle at work is perfectly clear.
    Simplification of orthography (what you refer to as “making the written language phonetic”) is another issue entirely and so is the question of orthographic variation by dialect. As for the former, there may be good practical arguments for the move from the current etymologically-based system, though I imagine other practical concerns would outweigh this. As for the latter, I need only to bring up the orthographic differences in US and UK English as a counterargument. But, to reiterate, these issues have little to do with the question of whether borrowings should be adapted to native orthography.

    /people write “aliex” instead of “ghaliex” and ada instead of “ghada”/
    It should be għaliex and għada, shouldn’t it? Not that I care, but I find it rather surprising how people who complain about other people’s language use often fail to adhere to the basic standards of what they are advocating…

    • Touche’, you are right, I should install Maltese fonts, but I haven’t got round to it.

  • Marie Benoit

    If I had a say I would stick to the original language whenever possible if there is no adequate word in Maltese: ‘Mobile,’ ‘television’and so on.’
    I’d like to remark that class, school, town/city are no longer that relevant as qualifiers when it comes to speaking English. Let me take the most obvious example that comes to mind. When someone tells me that they attended the Sacred Heart Convent (generally with some pride) I no longer expect them to have a very good English accent – a sine qua non in my time. Then it simply came with the school. We were taught and spent years as boarders with very well educated, mostly English nuns and teachers who were native speakers. We learnt the language by osmosis as it were. This is no longer so. Children pick up accents and intonation very quickly. There are hardly any foreign teachers left I believe at the convent, indeed in most convents.
    On the other hand I know several who went to government schools but who are articulate in English and don’t make you wince when they speak it and who, moreover, do not come from Sliema at all.
    There is also the fact that some have a better ear for languages than others. So happily, you really can no longer place people in a pigeon hole when it comes to speaking English.

    • Marie, the days when a private (or Church school) education meant you emerged with grammatically correct English (never mind the pronunciation!) are long gone. It really pains me to hear English spoken without any idea of syntax or grammar by people who call themselves “English-speaking”, and yes, the fact that in your day you had native speakers teaching you was definitely a bonus!
      I feel the best way to solve this is to start teaching English as a TEFL course…it is now a foreign language in Malta just as much as Italian and French are, and I think children would benefit more from the TEFL syllabus. Above all, however, education authorities must ensure that teachers of English speak (and write it) properly themselves. That should be obvious, but I somehow don’t think it is.

  • Anna Maria Bartolo

    Dear Josanne

    Sorry for the late reply, I’m only reading the rest of these threads now…

    True, the examples I gave in my previous comment do not contain orthographical changes as such. They illustrate a more annoying situation – original English words are being given entirely new, different meanings by a foreign country. To me, this is mere mockery of the English language, but that’s just my personal opinion.

    Since you ask, here are a few examples of loan words borrowed from English and Frenchified accordingly:
    stariser – to transform someone into a star
    starisation – the process behind stariser, of course
    le fioul – fuel
    le gazole – gas-oil (American En for diesel)
    le choc – shock

    In Lithuanian, we find loads of loan words with Lithuanian spelling:
    tyneidžeris – teenager, skinhedai – skinheads, šou –show, vykendai – weekends, čysburgeris –cheeseburger, čipsai – chips, kornfleiksai – cornflakes, hotdogai – hotdogs, popkornai – popcorn

    And the Italians do their share of borrowing too, with or without the English spelling, or with parts of it only:

    And we Maltese are no different, especially as the Maltese language lends itself naturally to the process of assimilation, as my Maltese teacher had told us way back during my sixth form days (which are far, far behind me unfortunately :-))

    If we had to leave all loan words in English, it would be all too easy now, wouldn’t it? Hey we might end up on the Guinness Book of Records as the only country which managed to dissociate itself completely from graphic and morphological assimilation in its native language. Another “Only in Malta”. Because of course, we Maltese have to be different. :-)

    To all you people out there who are constantly moaning about the decline of the Maltese language, please do take a chill pill and conduct a bit of research on the Net to see for yourselves how loan words, assimilation and Anglicisms are linguistic phenomena which are happening globally. You might feel a bit better afterwards.

  • claire

    I’ve noticed that Jaqq and maa x’nies are becoming very much diffused among the Maltese snobs to ridiculate the people coming from a lower cultural class.

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