At the birth of the written language

Joe Zammit Ciantar

Il-Priedki bil-Malti ta’ Ignazio Saverio Mifsud

Reviewed by Noel Grima

This book derives from a doctoral thesis by the author about a small part of a collection of manuscripts left by their author at the National Library.

Ignazio Saverio Mifsud, 1722 – 1773, was born in Valletta to a rather well-to-do family with some connections, studied and became a lawyer then a priest and ended up as a consultant of the Inquisition in Malta. He died at a rather early age after a life marked by sickness and disability.

He was a great lover of books – this is shown not just by the erudite references in his sermons but also by a book he published, a descriptive list of authors born in Malta, which he had published by the only printing press in Malta at that time, the one in the Palace of the Grandmasters.

From another book (William Zammit: Printing in Malta) we learn not only about this monumental publication which was the biggest job in the history of the still-new printing press, but also of a monumental tiff between the priest, the printer and the printing supervisor – and all this because of a mix-up in the two copies that were to be printed on special paper, one of which was for the Grandmaster.

That Ignazio Saverio Mifsud was a rather difficult customer emerges from this book as well: twice he was meant to deliver a sermon and had to forego it because of some dispute that arose. And he even had to get ordained outside Rome because of a tiff he had with a monsignor.

This is not a biography of the priest, however. This takes, as I said earlier, the sermons in Maltese composed by Mifsud and minutely explains each.

The sermons were written by Mifsud at a very early age – the first was delivered by him when he was not even a deacon. Only one sermon in the collection was delivered by him as an ordained priest.

But just as the main focus of the book is not the personality of Mifsud himself, so too the author of this book examines only accidentally the theology that underlines the sermons. His main interest, and the main interest of the book, is in the Maltese that is used.

For Mifsud’s manuscripted sermons are the very first complete text of Maltese prose we know of. Dating from previous times we have some collections of Maltese words as they sounded at that time, and of course we also have the Cantilena by Pietro Caxaro (1410 – 1485) but nothing like this collection of 22 sermons.

Mifsud delivered these sermons in Maltese between 1739 and 1746. The book shows that was the time when Maltese started to be written. That was also the time when a primitive but significant standardisation of Maltese orthography began – in fact it is roughly around midway through the sermons that we find the gradual introduction of the aspirated h instead of the Italianate sc.

That was also the time when the pure Maltese language started to see gradual infiltrations of Italian words, usually contrabanded as Sicilian dialect words and inflections.

The first half of the 18th century was a time of growth for Malta: the terror of Turkish attacks was a thing of the past, the Knights were firmly in power and Malta was seeing the baroque culture in full flourish not just in Valletta and the cities but also in the previously Maghrebin villages with the pulling down of churches of a rather simple design and the construction of the baroque masterpieces we now enjoy.

The population, especially that of Valletta and the Three Cities, was experiencing a cultural awakening due to trade and passage of visitors, especially people from Sicily who seem to have made Malta their home.

As a result, the former pure mainly Semitic language of the Maltese started to have a considerable influx of new words, mainly Sicilian.

One may object that Mifsud’s sermons are not exactly representative of how the Maltese of those times, even the Maltese of the towns, spoke, for he seems to have been very much at ease reading Italian books and derivations would naturally make their way into his sermons.

One of the very interesting quirks of Mifsud is that he sometimes uses first a Semitic word and this is immediately followed by its Italian/Sicilian counterpart, such as “Imma pero”. Today both form part of the Maltese language and are used at will. In those times he seemed to feel he had to use both for better clarity.

Those were the birth years, if we can say so, of the Maltese language as we know it today. Zammit Ciantar’s explanations also help to solve a riddle that many times stumps blog-writers or people in general who discuss what, according to them should be the proper way of writing a word in Maltese. Is it Denfil or is it Ricotta or Irkotta?

There are many instances, from Mifsud’s written words, where we notice that the Maltese speaker upsets the order of a word in Italian and inverts the consonants. The most known case is artal from altare but there are others such as ninkorla from collera, purcissjoni from processione.

There are other cases, for example, where the original (Italian/Sicilian) p becomes b – pendolo: bandla; piccone: baqqun; palla: balla; piccione: beccun; pallone: balloon.

In other cases, the Maltese version added article l- to a word that already included the article. Such happened for example in l-elemozina = l-l-emosina; il-lizar = il-l-izar (from Arabic), il-laringa = il-l-arancia (from Italian/Sicilian). On the other hand, in the case of l-ittra, the letter l deriving from Italian lettera was removed since they must have thought it was the article l.

There was no Bible in Maltese at that time but Mifsud supplemented it by providing the quotation from the Vulgate and preceding or following it by the Maltese version.

Zammit Ciantar’s notes are a pleasure in themselves: they explain all kinds of contexts in the text, even providing in some cases references to quotations he lifted from Aquinas, as well as linguistic elucidations as summarised above.

The subject matter of the book is the flexibility and adaptability that mark the Maltese language, how it absorbed foreign words, both from Arabic and from Sicilian and Maltecised them. It was not an adaptation ordained from above but from ground level upwards, which maybe explains the inconsistencies but also how the transformed words developed deep roots in the language.

The language used by Mifsud is highly artificial – it is a series of rhetorical sermons, in which the orator is out to impress his audience. At the same time, however, there are two very down-to-earth and earthy quotations that would be completely politically incorrect in any church today. In one case he speaks about the bsiesel imcaddsa of the Blessed Virgin and in another case, the last sermon recorded, at the Salvatur feast in Lija, he completely invents that Laban had two daughters – one was ugly and called Lia, and one was ishen = iktar shuna and beautiful and was called Rachel. Go figure.

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