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Definition: Albanian from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

People of Albanian culture from Albania and the surrounding area.

The Albanian language belongs to a separate group within the Indo-European family and has an estimated 3–4 million speakers. There are both Christian and Muslim Albanians, the latter having been converted by the Ottoman Turks. Albanians comprise the majority of the Kosovo region in Serbia and have been in conflict with the Serbs, for whom the province is historically and culturally significant.

Summary Article: ALBANIAN
From Dictionary of Languages
5,000,000 SPEAKERS

Albania, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece

Albanian forms a separate branch of the INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES, quite distinct in its development from Greek and its other modern neighbours. It is the official language of Albania, also spoken by the majority in the Kosovo Metohija province of Serbia and by long-established minorities in Italy and Greece.

The local name of Albania is Shqipëria and of the language Shqip. An ancient term for a tribe from this region, classical Latin Albani, still survives in the name that the Albanian speakers of Italy give to themselves, Arbëresh; in the Greek name, Arvanítis; and in the Balkan names, such as Romanian Arnǎut. As Albania it has become the English and international name for the country and its language.

Where, exactly, were the speakers of Albanian during the thousands of years that have passed since the proto-Indo-European dialects began to grow apart? Names and a few other words from languages of the ancient Balkans had been noted down by Latin and Greek authors. Some of these languages, such as Illyrian, are reminiscent of Albanian, but none has been identified as the exact precursor of the modern language.

Albanian itself was not recorded in writing until early modern times. Apart from single words, the first certain record of the language is a formula for baptism, written down in 1462 for occasions when no priest was available. One line of Albanian is given to the hero of a Latin play published in Venice in 1483, Thomas Medius's Epirota ‘The Man from Albania’. In 1555 a prayer book in Albanian was printed. Composed by Gjon Buzuku, bishop of Shkodra, this is the oldest known book from Albania itself. The first Albanian publication from Sicily, also a religious text, appeared in 1592.

The greatest Albanian literature is poetry. There are oral epics, comparable to those in SERBIAN from neighbouring Bosnia. These and shorter folk poems were the inspiration for the poetry that was printed in Albania and Italy in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A national renaissance (Relind-ja) in the late 19th century saw political independence, and the development of a unified literary language and of a new alphabet.

A Latin-Albanian dictionary, by Blanchus (Bardhi), appeared in 1635. J. H. Xylander, who published a grammar in 1835, showed that Albanian was an Indo-European language. He noticed regular patterns such as the correspondence of Albanian gj-, Latin s-, Ancient Greek h-. An example is the word for ‘snake’: Albanian gjarpër, Latin serpens, cf. Greek hérpyllos ‘creeping thyme’.

The basic vocabulary of Albanian is Indo-European: ne, Latin nos, ‘we’; krimb, Old Irish cruim, ‘worm’; ëndër, Greek óneiros, ‘dream’; darkë, Greek dórpon, ‘supper’; i parë, Sanskrit pūvah, ‘first’. With Albania belonging first to the Roman Empire, then to Byzantium, and then for five hundred years to the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire, the Albanian language has borrowed many words from Latin, Greek and Turkish: djallë, Greek diábolos, ‘devil’; këndoj, Latin canto, ‘sing’. The majority of Albanian speakers are Muslims; numerous words and names are borrowed from Arabic, language of the Qur'ān.

A striking feature of Albanian is the use of periphrastic expressions to avoid a tabu word: thus for ‘wolf’ one says mbyllizogojën (from mbylli Zot gojën ‘may God close his mouth!’) and for ‘fairy’ shtozovalle (from shtoju Zot vallet ‘may God increase their round-dances!’).

The Balkans: language convergence? language substrate?

Albanian has striking similarities with other Balkan languages, BULGARIAN, SERBIAN, GREEK and ROMANIAN: Albanian treg, Serbian trg Romanian tîrg, ‘market’; Albanian shtrungë, Romanian strungǎ, Bulgarian strǎga, ‘milking-place at entrance to a sheep-fold’; Albanian i shtrëmbër, Romanian strîmb, ‘crooked’, Greek strabós ‘cross-eyed’; Albanian mëz, Romanian mînz, ‘foal’. Often the same Latin word is used in these languages with the same special meaning: Latin paludem ‘marsh’, Rumanian pǎdure ‘woodland’, Albanian pyll ‘woodland’. Some features are shared more widely, with TURKISH, HUNGARIAN or ROMANI.

Languages which share a culture, and are often used side by side, do grow together in the course of time. This is why English, since the Norman conquest, came to have many more similarities to French than its relative German has.

Like English and French, Balkan languages are only distantly related in the usual linguistic sense of the word. Yet the resemblances among them are so striking as to demand some special explanation. They are seen not only in individual words but in basic features such as the definite article – this has different forms in the different languages, but in all of them it forms a suffix to the noun: Romanian zi ‘day’, ziua ‘the day’; Bulgarian tsaritsa ‘queen’, tsaritsata ‘the queen’.

Many linguists consider that a linguistic ‘substrate’ is at work – an older language, once spoken all over the region, which, before it died, influenced all the surviving languages in the same ways. Some consider the main substrate language of the Balkans to be Latin, which in the last centuries of the Roman Empire, and until the Slavonic invasions, was certainly spoken widely all over the Balkans.

Others would argue that travel, migration, seasonal transhumance and bilingualism among Balkan peoples,lasting over a very long period (at least from the Roman Empire to the present day), brought all the languages closer to one another. Romanians (especially Aromunians), Albanians and Romani, in particular, were forever on the move.

Albanian alphabets

The only surviving copy of Buzuku's 1555 prayer book, with some missing pages, is in the Vatican Library. ‘This is the first book in our language, and was very difficult to make.’ Buzuku and some other pre-19th-century Geg writers used the Roman alphabet with extra characters for some unfamiliar sounds. Early texts in Tosk are sometimes in the Greek alphabet. But literature from both north and south was often written and printed in the same Arabic alphabet that was used for Turkish, the ruling language of pre-20th-century Albania.

The modern alphabet, adopted in 1908 at the Monastir (Bitolj) Congress after fierce debate, counts 36 letters. The Turkish government fiercely opposed its introduction. The dispute contributed to Albania's declaration of independence from Turkey on 28 December 1912.

The Albanian alphabet

a b c ç d dh e ë f g gj h i j k l ll m n nj o p q r rr s sh t th u v x xh y z zh

The map of Albanian

The two big dialect groups, Geg and Tosk, are quite different from each other, so different that some consider them separate languages. Geg has many more vowel sounds than Tosk: not only the seven that are recorded directly in the Albanian alphabet, but also five nasals, which can be written â, ê, î, ô, ŷ, and in Geg all twelve of these vowels may be either long or short. Geg (specifically the South Geg of Elbasan) was the literary standard of the early 20th century, but since 1945 Tosk has taken its place.

Geg is the language of northern Albania and the 1,750,000 Albanian speakers of Kosovo Metohija in Serbia. Tosk is spoken in southern

Counting down in Albanian

Dymbdhet muj na i ka vjeti,

Twelve months has the year,

Njimbdhet muj pela mazin,

Eleven months the mare a foal,

Dhet muej lopa viqin

Ten months the cow a calf,

Nand muej gruej djalin,

Nine months the woman a boy,

Tet cica na i ka dosa,

Eight teats has the sow,

Shtat sy na i ka naleti,

Seven eyes has the devil,

Cjasht muej bajn gjys vjeti,

Six months make half a year,

Pes gishta na i ka dora,

Five fingers has the hand,

Kater kamb' na i ka dhija,

Four legs has the goat,

Tri kamb' terezija,

Three legs has the scale,

Dy lula na i ka vasha,

Two flowers has the girl,

Vasha ka bylbylin-o,

The girl's taken by the nightingale,

Vasha po këndon malit-o,

The girl sings on the mountain

Saill per hater djalit-o!

Naked beside her lover!

This counting song is recorded in several versions from different villages. Some say ‘The tenth month the army takes’ and some say ‘Two apples has the girl’.

AfterMaxLambertz, Lehrgangdes Albanischenpart 3 (Halle: Niemeyer, 1959)pp.219–25; Eric P. Hamp, ‘Albanian’ in Indo-European numerals ed. jadranka Gvozdanovic (Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 1992) pp. 835–927

Albania, in parts of central Greece, and in scattered districts in Italy. The Tosk dialects of Sicily and southern Italy are known as Arbëresh, those of Greece as Arvanitika. There are Tosk-speaking villages in Bulgaria and in Ukraine (near Melitopol), and a Geg-speaking community, Arbanasi, near Zadar on the Dalmatian coast.

Albanian communities in Greece and southern Italy have been there for many centuries, their numbers regularly refreshed by continuing migration.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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