What is Purism? Myths and Facts – Joseph M. Brincat
Purism and purist are beautiful words with positive connotations: transparency, clarity, cleanliness and, in a world beset by air and water pollution and corruption in business and politics, the idea of purity is also nostalgic.
Unfortunately, it comes up again when individuals speak their own language and patriots and politicians like to associate their language with national identity. But language is much more than that. It is above all a tool and, like any tool, it is assessed by its effectiveness.
Many people boast about the beauty of their language and refer to famous poets but, ironically, poetry book sales are the lowest of all publications and they are rarely read outside of school.
Maltese survived not because Caxaro wrote the Cantilena in the 1470s and Buonamico his quatrains in 1675, but because it was considered useful by the people. It has survived thanks to its flexibility of expression: the Maghrebian dialect brought to the islands by the Arabic-speaking community settled here in 1048 has absorbed words from Sicilian, Italian and English to follow social and material progress since during. Otherwise, it would have died out as in Andalusia and Sicily.
This is proved by the number of words in the Maltese-English dictionary of Joseph Aquilina (1987-1990) whose 41,016 words include 13,293 words of Arabic origin, 21,519 words from Sicilian and Italian and 2,511 words from ‘English. About 3,500 words are of unknown origin or hybrid formations (such as fenkata and sakranazz).
In its Concise version (2006), the Arabic element drops to 22.4%, the novel goes up to 61.6% and English to 8.4%, reflecting the actual state of the language. And yet, Arabic words are more frequently used because they include grammatical terms (article, pronouns, prepositions) and a fundamental vocabulary. Consequently, our language is described as of Arabic origin but “it has deviated far too far from the standards of spoken Arabic to be considered as anything other than a language in its own right” (Alexander Borg).
The population increase from 1526 (16,000) to 1797 (100,006) to 1934 (242,000) explains the strong language contact with foreign settlers through work and intermarriage in the upper and lower strata. Its doubling to more than 500,000 today explains the predominance of English, with the bilingual school and the international media, in daily discourse (thanks to foreign workers everywhere) and in the alternation between us.
Literature and everyday use
Purism is an essentially literary phenomenon. In normal conversation, speakers do not care about the origin of the words they use. They pronounce the first words that come to mind, Sicilian, Italian or English, when they know that the listener understands them.
On the other hand, writers have time to reflect and make choices, often removing and replacing words for aesthetic and expressive reasons, especially poets.
In Malta, purism started with Caxaro, who only used one Sicilian word, vintura, but the Cantilena is not proof that Maltese was still ‘pure’ at that time. Vassalli could write poems without a single Romance word but his Lexicon contains a fair number of Romance terms, as does De Soldanis’ Damma, with 2,000 out of 12,000 in 1750.
Incidentally, AE Caruana’s purist dictionary reduced Vassalli’s 18,000 entries to 9,947 in 1903.
Dun Karm’s poems, Erin Serracino-Inglott’s Ir-Raħeb and Aquilina’s Taħt Tliet Saltniet were purist because they talked about very basic notions but their private correspondence and their dictionaries were not.
Among scholars, purism was a trend favored by the pre-Romantics, especially Condillac and Herder, who sought to reconstruct the languages to their older, presumably pure state, as they saw continued decline.
It reached its peak in the genealogical tree of Indo-European languages devised by August Schleicher in 1860, on the model of Linnaeus and Darwin, in the belief that language is a living organism, born in the speaker. This did not allow contact and, unfortunately, the term “loanword” is a vestige of this theory.
On the other hand, dialects were seen as corrupt forms of “the” language, and not worth writing down or studying, but fieldwork soon revealed that the major European languages were originally dialects that are standardized in a long process of codification (grammars and dictionaries), institutional use (administration, law, religion), teaching in schools and prestige through literature.
Purism is an essentially literary phenomenon. In normal conversation, speakers do not care about the origin of the words they use.-Joseph M. Brincat
The crowning achievement was official recognition by the state. The Maltese went through these stages from around 1700 to 1934.
Purism also had political implications. In the Italian Risorgimento, it was a reaction against the cultural and military domination of France, paving the way for unification. In Malta, it is favored by the British authorities who feel uncomfortable governing an island whose official language is Italian.
In 1838, GP Badger, adhering to the naturalistic theory of language, suggested that Arabic, not Italian, should be taught in schools alongside English because Maltese was too corrupt.
In the 1870s, Keenan proposed that ‘the Maltese language… should be purified by coming closer to the vocabulary and grammar of its mother tongue, Arabic’.
Lord Strickland revived the myth of the Punic origins of Maltese because he read of the Phoenician origins of the British, Scots and Anglo-Saxons of LA Waddle and concluded that “the majority of Maltese are of Phoenician origin and closer of the British than of the English”. Latins by Race”. This impressionistic theory had been introduced when the Punic script had not even been deciphered, but genetic studies have now settled this problem (Capelli, Felice et al 2005).
In Malta, it would be anachronistic to base the choice of vocabulary on etymology. Since every writer is entitled to their own personal style, the best use of Maltese should be guided by attention to the precise meaning of words.
Our language is unique because it mixes elements from three families: Semitic, Romance and Germanic. Thus, Sicilian, Italian and English words are as much a part of our heritage as the walls of Laparelli, paintings by Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray, Baroque churches and Art Nouveau architecture.
But they must be used with pragmatism, respecting their place in the lexical structure because perfect synonyms are rare.
Many speak of the roots, but we must not lose sight of the tree which has a trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers and fruits.
Professor Brincat has published Maltese and other languages. A Linguistic History of Malta (Midsea Books 2011, 2021) and co-edited Purism in minor languages with T. Stolz and W. Boeder (Brockmeyer 2003), where the matter is treated in more detail.
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