The above satirical video which has gone viral was the result of a bit of fun by a few people who have given a wickedly accurate portrayal of what is known as “tal-pepe’ English”.
This is a kind of patois found in Malta where people from a certain background code-switch between the two national languages, English and Maltese. They mostly use English as their spoken language, but revert to Maltese for certain expressions. Author Alex Vella Gera has coined a very apt expression for this, “kitsch cool”.
If you listen out to everyday conversation, what have become known as Maltese-isms abound: “there were xeba people” (lots of people), “Maa, how shy” (how embarrassing”) are just a few examples. And of course, the obligatory “U ajma, as if!” There is also this dogged refusal to use that operative word “Do”, so you often hear people say “You have the time?” which a native English speaker would find quite perplexing.
This casual insertion of certain Maltese words to be “cool” is also found in the way some people revert to the colloquial language when they wish to be vulgar, as if to imply that nothing but a crude Maltese word will do (or is it perhaps to signify that the Maltese language, deemed to be second-class in their eyes, is only really useful for vulgarity?)
I find the video to be very funny because it’s so cleverly done and because the people who created the video are themselves English-speaking or are fluent in both languages, so it’s a brilliant bit of self-parody. Somehow when purely Maltese speakers try to mock this kind of patois, it doesn’t work because it’s over-exaggerated and they don’t get the rounded vowels quite right.
Here though, the send-up is perfect. It’s not only the pronunciation but also the undertones of the dialogue which indicates a certain specific social class, which capture this existing sub-culture to a T.
Not everyone is amused by this video, however, which is understandable. If you really do talk like this, you cannot see what’s so funny and you will probably find it offensive that your way of speaking is the butt of a running joke.
Perhaps it’s because I am fascinated by different accents, and by the various “types” which one can find on this tiny island, but I’m finding that the reactions to this video are even more of an eye-opener.
For example, some people who have lived a long time away from the island, or who have one parent who is not Maltese, or who are ex-pats, or who (like me) were brought up somewhere else, can look at it from a detached distance, and laugh at the message it is sending without becoming too emotionally involved.
Others feel affronted by it, because it strikes a chord which is very personal. Those who hate the accent with a passion are not finding it funny at all. They claim that this accent and all its connotations (there is the perception that people who speak like this feel that they are superior to those who speak purely in Maltese) makes their skin crawl.
The fact is that there is still a lot of prejudice in Malta depending on which language you speak and how you pronounce your vowels – all indicators of your social background and where you went to school. The socio-political implications are never too far away from the surface either.
Sometimes it is much easier (and more acceptable) to poke fun at a rough, guttural Maltese accent, personified in that TV character stereotype called Johnny il-kajboj – complete with the atrocious Maltese “spelling”.
But when a group of 20-somethings turn the camera on their own crowd, a lot of people shift uneasily and uncomfortably in their seats. Let’s fact it, it is not easy to laugh at yourself, but those who can do so, deserve a pat on the back.