Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 1(1953)2(113-114)

[p.113] JACQUES GODECHOT: Histoire de Malte. (Collection “Que sais-je?,” No. 509) Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1952, pp. 128. Price 120 Frs.

We have already published a review of this interesting book on the History of Malta in Scientia, XVIII (1952), pp. 46-48. Though we have praised it we did so not without some criticisms. The Rt. Hon. Count H.C. de Zeininger, Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, has also published a review of the same work in Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique suisse, 1952, pp. 149-150, in which he says of the author of the book: “L’auteur, professeur à la Faculté des lettres de Toulouse, est avant tout un specialiste de l’histoire de la Révolution française et, comme beaucoup de ses compatriotes, trop enclin à regarder tous les évenements et toutes les institutions sous l’angle révolutionnaire et français.”

We have stated that in this book “history is not merely narrated for its own sake: the writer sees in the various historical facts problems created by historical circumstances and out of these problems he builds a doctrine. This is seen particularly in Chap. XI in which he speaks of the economic problem, the demographic problem, the language problem, the political problem.” We summarise hereunder one of these problems, namely the language question.

The language question is fully, though concisely, explained in a special paragraph (pp. 100-103) up to 1903, when it was turned into a political argument. The language question strictly speaking is concerned with the usage and the legal status of Maltese, English and Italian in the Maltese Islands. What does the writer of this book think of the Maltese Language?

On page 11 he simply says: “Ajoutons-y la langue; d’origine sémitique dont les consonnances rauques évoquent l’Afrique du Nord.” On p. 16 the question of the Maltese Language is taken up more directly: “Peut-on penser que l’actuelle langue maltaise, qui est, nous l’avons dit une langue sémitique, dérive du phenicien?” The answer to this question is simply political: the English in order to suppress the Italian feelings of the Maltese try to persuade them that the Maltese language is of Phoenician origin: and the Italians who, particularly during the epoch of Fascism, developed an active propaganda in favour of Malta being Italian, deny the Phoenician origin of Maltese which is merely Arabic: at the beginning there was one single race in Malta and in Italy and it was only in the IXth and Xth centuries that the Arabic language was imposed on the Maltese. The writer, on p. 27, deplores the fact that a scientific question has been thus misconstrued on mere political grounds. Leaving this aspect of the problem he discusses the problem not of course from a philological point of view, but from the historical angle. It is astonishing, he remarks, that the Arabic occupation of Malta, which does not exceed four hundred years, has left such a profound trace in the toponomy and language, when over one thousand years of preponderant Roman domination hardly left any vestiges of the domain!

He is, therefore, definite!y inclined to the doctrine of the Phoenician origin and brings forth other arguments to prove his contention. In the first place he quotes the Acts of the Apostles where St. Luke calls the Maltese “barbarians,” namely people who did not speak either Latin or Greek. At that time there could be no question of Arabic, but only of Punic or Phoenician. The appearance of Arabic in the Maltese can easily be explained by the fact that the Maltese people being very few in number, the Arabic-Berber immigration could easily make itself felt soon after the Islamic domination of the Island. The Italians who later chose to live in Malta were easily assimilated by the Maltese.

On p. 33 the writer mentions again but very briefly the language question: “L’italien est devenu la langue du commerce; bientôt il remplace le latin dans l’administration et la justice. Les classes cultivées se piquent de parler italien tandis que le maltais est relégué à l’etat de patois.”

As we have already stated, the language question is treated at certain length on pp 100-103: the people of Malta speak a dialect of Semitic origin, but the more cultured classes employ Italian, a language which since the middle ages has substituted Latin in the administration and justice. In the XVIII century French (of which some expressions are still current in the Maltese dialect) became wide-spread in the island. When in 1800, the English established themselves in Malta, they did not change the situation: their official journal, substituting the Journal de Malte, the first printed journal of the island, published by the French in 1798, was entirely in Italian, and it remained so up to 1816, when it became bilingual: its title became Gazzetta del Governo. In 1838 the Statute of the University acknowledges Italian as the cultural language of the Maltese and it was considered as essential for admission to Secondary and higher education. English being required for corresponding with the British authorities, civil servants had to know it and it was the official language for the Forces, and, since 1840, even if composed exclusively of Maltese. But the language question did not really arise before 1860.

[p.114] The language question in Malta is similar to that of many other countries, like Belgium, Catalogna and others. It is strictly bound up with the progress of democracy and primary education. In 1860 primary education was being given liberally to all classes; the difficulty was which language was going to be selected as the medium of instruction. At that time many Maltese were of the opinion that the medium should be Maltese. And which other language was going to be taught besides? “Il faut reconnaître, que dans les classes populaires, l’étude de l’italien ne semblait pas très utile. Les Maltais en général étaient appelés à fréquenter des fonctionnaires, des militaires, des commercants anglais, combien au contraire auraient affaire à des italiens?” Casolani in 1867 opined that the Italian language should be replaced by English, and Maltese should be the medium of instruction in the primary schools. These same views were included in the Keenan report. But those who favoured Italian fought stenuously for the preservation of that language. Between 1850 and 1860 Malta was flooded with Italian refugees who founded literary and political circles and published papers of their own and contributed to Maltese papers such as the Mediterraneo, and the Corriere Maltese: these events had great bearing on the language question and strengthened the knowledge of Italian among the Maltese. After the unification of Italy many of the foreign refugees went back to Italy; but others came, expelled by the new rulers, who like their predecessors sustained the cause of Italian in Malta. In 1880 Fortunato Mizzi founded his political party which introduced in its programme the retention of Italian. The language question became a political matter.

The Professor of Toulouse does not go any further. Though the Maltese language, in a History of Malta, is not the principal object of the historian, it has been given in this work an important place, though never treated from the angle of philology. One may not agree with the writer, whose conclusions are logically drawn from the historical point he had in view.

Professor S.M. Zarb, O.P.