ON BEING PEPE

I’m pepe, apparently. I don’t agree with this, but the general consensus is that I am. I’ve been called worse.

For a few years, I studied languages at school, because that’s what you do when you can’t study drama as a subject in Malta, and also because I sound fabulous when I speak French and German. I tried Italian, but the overload of German vocabulary fried my cognitive capacity to comprehend the vastness of Italian tenses. Oh well, I still enjoy Paperissima.

Amongst the European tongues that I explored (no, that’s not an innuendo) was Maltese, and the seed of my fondness for it was planted by my old Maltese teacher, who’s still a close friend to this day, and in my eyes, one of the finest examples of womanhood. Analogous to her nature, she unveiled the baroque temperament of Maltese, the grandiloquence of its phonology, its Semitic exoticism draped in Romanic aspirations, and its lexical aggression. Maltese is devilishly saucy. Well, that’s what my boyfriend thinks, although he does say I sound like a terrorist when I swear at him. For any linguist and grammar geek, Maltese is a goldmine, and this is reason enough to keep it alive.

But, a pity as it may be, I’m not as eloquent as I’d like to be in Maltese. X’tagħmel? And thanks to postcolonial class tensions, this often puts me in a bit of pickle. In Malta, you’ll get judged for speaking English (#firstworldproblems), and some people will make their sentiments known to you. This is not to say that those who speak Maltese don’t suffer prejudice, but from my personal experience, the Mediterranean fire burns brightest within those who are very protective of their island vernacular. So here are a few tricky scenarios I frequently encounter as an English speaker with a Maltese passport:

You’re introduced to or overheard by a Maltese speaker, and their face is instantly etched with dislike and distrust. You’ve grown accustomed to smelling out their fear, and you don’t want any trouble, so you put your best diplomacy foot forward.

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You’ve gotten used to handling this by now, but you know it’s still volatile territory, so you keep your guard up to see how this is going to unfold.

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That’s a pepe person being cornered by the Akkademja tal-Malti.

You try to be as warm and gracious as you can, but every now and then, your offering of friendship is not reciprocated.

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Moving swiftly on, you try your best not to cause any provocation, and if you’re lucky, they’ll let you be. Sometimes though, their white glove across the cheek catches you off-guard: ‘Allura int għalfejn ma titkellimx bil-Malti?’ And for the sake of public decency, and potentially your kneecaps, you restrain a bubbling surge of rudeness and just feign a lack of understanding.

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Sometimes, you have to casually slip into conversation the fact that your daddy’s from il-qiegħ tal-Marsa. There, that should help me blend in. Look, I’m one of you.

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This also happens within the Facebook context, where you’re occasionally hounded by absolute strangers for commenting in English. They come out of nowhere, it’s like an ambush.

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The irony of it all is that their retorts often contain spellings such as ‘et‘, ‘jajdli‘, ‘al‘, ‘alfejn‘ and ‘u kol‘. Mikiel Anton Vassalli would be proud.
So, with L-Innu Tal-Ħelsien and Tema 79 playing in the background, I respond by retyping their comment in perfectly written Maltese, with ‘akkas’ and ‘ajns’ in all the right places and ‘c’s and ‘h’s dotted and slashed. This one’s for you, Ms Galea, in honour of the Ortografija u Grammatika pack.

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This will then be followed by a snide reply involving my most archaic collection of Maltese words, with my trusty English-Maltese-English dictionary close at hand for consultation.

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This is then pursued by their stunned and vacant silence. Boom, I just got high-fived by Manwel Dimech’s ghost.

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PS. If this wasn’t bad enough, I’ve still got uber-pepes telling me, “But you’re Labour? But you speak English…”

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God help me.

 

What other prejudices have you suffered as an English or a Maltese speaker?

Let us know in the comment section below.