malti case

A case of language shaming?

I had a conversation recently that left me wondering how easy it is for some people to reproduce linguistic stereotypes and misperceptions labelling languages as ‘complex’, ’useless’ or ‘not-so-popular’.

I am learning Maltese (or Malti). It is not a language spoken by millions of people and there are not many resources online thus it is rather difficult for someone to learn it. Those two features were enough for someone to suggest that I should learn a ‘useful’ and ‘popular’ language instead, like French or Italian, since Maltese is ‘dead’ and ‘primitive’.

Although I went a bit mental, I did try to explain to them what the terms ‘dead’ and ‘primitive’ actually mean as well as why they cannot mark languages as ‘useless’ or ‘unpopular’.

‘A language dies when nobody speaks it anymore’ (Crystal D., 2000: 1)

In other words, a language is dead when there is no native speaker alive, like Latin. Imagine the last native speaker of an unknown language. If we consider that language is a communication tool, then this very last speaker’s mother tongue is already dead.

With over 500.000 *living* native speakers, I would not classify Maltese as a dead language :)

Primitive or not?

I am a native speaker of Greek. People often comment on how ‘complex’ the greek language is compared to English, assuming that grammatical or structural complexity and a large lexicon (i.e. vocabulary) indicates linguistic superiority.

People who categorise languages as ‘primitive’ or less ‘complex’ usually argue that, since some concepts can only be expressed in a particular language, then this language must be ‘better’ than the others.

Put simply, the native speakers of any language can effectively communicate any notion, idea or message using just the resources their native tongue provides. If their needs change, then the language expands through word-creating and borrowing mechanisms.

The Maltese example

Unlike most languages, there is no verb ‘to be’ in Maltese, which may sound a bit odd to some people. How can Maltese understand each other without the very first verb one memorises when learning a new language? Therefore, is Maltese a ‘primitive’ language?

Well, the personal pronouns work as the verb ‘to be’ in Maltese and that’s the problem sorted out!

  • English: I am 
  • Maltese: Jien/jiena

The verbal function of the personal pronoun in Maltese would seemingly indicate a ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ grammar, but trust me, this is not the case with Malti (I do get languages well, but Maltese is a proper challenge for many reasons). It could possibly be explained as word economy, yet this is a far too scientific linguistic topic to discuss in a Tumblr post.

Did you ever have to defend your mother tongue or target language? Have you encountered people who do language shaming?