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Science

Maltese-English dictionary enters the modern age

Maltese was once a language considered at risk of being buried under mountains of English, but since Malta joined the EU, its mother tongue has been given a new lease on life.

Skyline of Valletta harbor

Maltese only has hundreds of thousands of speakers worldwide

Given that Malta is home to little more than 400,000 inhabitants and almost all of them grow up speaking both Maltese and English, there might appear to be a limited need for two-way dictionaries. But back in the mid-nineties, the Maltese linguist Joseph Aquilina compiled just that, and his Maltese-English dictionary has been the standard reference book ever since.

What it has not been, however, is updated regularly enough to reflect the evolution of Maltese in particular. To rectify that, Adam Ussishkin, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona in the United States, set out to bring the resource into the 21st century, both in terms of content and platform.

The all-new version of the six-volume dictionary contains the latest Maltese vocabulary and spelling, and will soon be made available online.

That is important for such a small language, particularly one which is relatively poorly documented compared to its other European counterparts.

"Their language is unique in many ways, but the country lacks the resources and infrastructure to carry out language documentation efforts like this," Ussishkin told Deutsche Welle. "My main goal is to benefit the Maltese people so they have a more up-to-date resource about their language."

Maltese is different from its neighbors as it is a Semitic language - linguistically related to Arabic - but is written in the Latin alphabet and has a lot words influenced by its regional and colonial history, mostly Italian and English.

The idea for the update and digitization project came about when Usshishkin was using the existing dictionary for his own research purposes. However, he kept coming across words which were no longer in popular use and others which were a part of the vernacular, and yet were not included in the reference book.

Many Maltese flags on a busy street

National sentiment is not lost on the Maltese

Going online

One thing led to another and Ussishkin ultimately joined forces with Maltese publishing house Midsea Books to overhaul the six-volume 80,000 entry dictionary, which said that it would be going online "imminently."

Beth Hume, a Maltese expert and the chair of the Linguistics department at Ohio State University in the United States, told Deutsche Welle that this kind of electronic tool is ideal for researchers looking to deepen their undersanding of the language.

"It is a wonderful resource because it allows users to run searches on relevant aspects of the language," she said. "It allows us to search for patterns of language, and it is patterns that linguists try to explain and build theories around."

A school girl looks through microscope

Schooling is generally conducted in English and Maltese

Maltese vs. English

Other experts agree that with more updated resources like this online dictionary, it may help to stem the tide of English against Maltese.

According to Sandra Vella, a linguistics professor at the University of Malta, as much of modern Maltese is peppered with increasing amounts of English, there had been fear that the language was dying out. However, when Malta joined the European Union in 2004, and it became an official language of Europe, it was a huge boost for the language.

Still, Vella noted that though it the country is offically bilingual, there is an imbalance in language use.

"If I go to the shops to buy something to read, there will be much more in English," she told Deutsche Welle, adding that it applies as much to magazines as to children's books and literary translations. "Producing something for a market as small as Malta is just not lucrative."

While translating popular literature in Maltese may not be as profitable as English, an online dictionary such as this could become invaluable to the dozens of Maltese translators currently employed by the European Commission in Luxembourg, as all European documents must also now be translated into Maltese.

Since Malta's acession to the EU in 2004, European authorities have said numerous times that they still do not have not enough qualified Maltese translators.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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