The Albanian language in Kosovo

One of the great pleasures of this recent trip to Kosovo is that now equipped with a decent reading knowledge of Albanian, I could make sense of all the signage around me. But for one wanting to turn a fairly passive knowledge of the Albanian language into an active one, Kosovo is a frustrating place. I didn’t have a chance to buy the earlier edition of Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian written by Isa Zymberi that is based on Kosovo speech, so I have been using a mixture of more general resources for the artificial standard created in Socialist Albania a few decades ago. Kosovars understand that perfectly fine, and when speaking to me they kindly adapt their speech to a more standard variety, but I cannot understand Kosovars talking among each other and that makes for an awkward experience, especially when being able to follow many YouTube videos from Albania before the trip had so lifted my spirits.

Even bringing along a reference with details on Geg Albanian wasn’t as helpful as I expected: Martin Camaj’s Albanian Grammar with Exercises privileges Geg forms in the vocabulary, with Tosk/Standard Albanian forms following in parentheses. However, many of these Geg forms are not actually usable in Kosovo. Some are said by Kosovars to either be foreign to Kosovo (with the person vaguely pointing west towards northern Albania or Montenegro). Others are dismissed as from the village – indeed, residents of Prishtina and Gjakova seem to have a haughty attitude to rural speech and take pains to speak in a different way, though one that is not necessarily any easier for a foreign learner.

(From where I write this now in northeastern Albania, the accent remains much the same, but lexically things are closer to what I would expect from my learning materials, and it’s a lot easier to get language immersion than among the more cosmopolitan Kosovars who are quick to show off their knowledge of German or English.)

Spelling quirks

It’s curious indeed that after Hoxha’s Albania choose Tosk as the basis for the standard language, the Albanian minorities in Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia – Geg speakers all – so readily adopted this rather perverse standard. Virtually all texts are created in the standard language, showing invariably the Tosk rhotacism though it’s utterly foreign to these parts. Still, occasionally one sees mistakes made in the writing of Standard Albanian ë. In final position it is no longer pronounced in either colloquial Geg or Tosk, and therefore one sees it left out on some signs associated with rural contexts, e.g. blejm hekur for blejmë hekur ‘we buy scrap metal’.

The other misspelling comes from Geg’s preservation of nasal vowels when the standard language has reduced these to ë. Consider the storefront windows shown here, only a couple of hundred meters from each other in Gjakova. A cafe advertises ëmbëlsira ‘sweets’ but writes the initial-syllable vowel with a instead of the standard ë, while another, perhaps more upscale establishment shows the word spelled according to the standard orthography which is indeed the norm even in Kosovo. A storefront reading “Ambelsira, espresso, kapuqino, makiato”Shop window reading “Punëtoria e ëmbëlsirave ‘Dor’ Pasticeri. Punojmë me porosi bakllava, torte dhe ëmbëlsira sipas kërkesave tuaja”

An unexpected corpus: Russian version

Over at his blog Panchronica, Guillaume Jacques expresses his delight about The Jesus Film, that product of some American Protestant sect that has now been translated into an enormous amount of languages, even ones for which written material is extremely scanty. It has certainly been of great help to me as I’ve learned Ossetian, and the existence of separate Albanian translations for Kosovo and the Republic of Albania will help foreign learners feel comfortable with both the Gheg and Tosk variants of that language.

While there is probably no other film so widely translated as The Jesus Film, for my own particular purposes I’ve been pleased to find something else, and where the story is less likely to be familiar to the viewer: the Soviet cartoon Трое из Простоквашино (“The Trio from Prostokvashino”) has been dubbed into a number of languages, mainly from Southern Russia and the Caucasus, for example:

  • Ossetian
  • Ingush
  • Lezgian
  • Karachay-Balkar (I was very surprised by how difficult this language is to understand, I thought I would be able to follow it pretty easily after learning Kipchak languages from further east);
  • Lak
  • Kumyk
  • Tatar (under the translated title Простоквашинодан өчәү)

Clicking the links in the sidebar, one can find one’s way to other cartoons in various languages of the former USSR. There’s even an entire playlist of Ossetian-dubbed cartoons.

More adventures in Latin American Spanish

Argentina was a rather surprising experience. In Spain, where I had learned Spanish, the stereotype of the Argentine in television and films must be based on people from Buenos Aires: one hears the same invariable accent with no hint of the immense variety that one would actually encounter in Argentina. As I cycled west across the country, I found the regional accents clearly changing every 300 km or so.

Once I reached the provinces of La Rioja and Santa Fe, I was shocked to discover that the dialect here had not experienced the shift of *y (and *ʎ > *y) to /ʒ/ like Rioplatense Spanish and the Argentinian stereotype. Instead, it was *r that had shifted to /ʒ/, while *y remained /y/. My first inkling of this was when rápido ‘fast’ was increasingly heard as [ʒapiðo], but it happened to instances of word-medial *r as well and took some getting used to in fast speech. A child came up to my wife and I at a campground and asked if we had seen a man in a [ɣoʒaroxa], and only after a minute of thought did I realize he was looking for someone wearing a gorra roja ‘red hat’. Weeks later, in Chile, while I was cycling on the motorway, another tourist stopped his car to ask me if he had missed the turnoff to [βiyaʒika], i.e. Villarrica. I laughed, thinking that he was lucky to have come across a non-local who could understand his question.

I have seen it claimed in several popular sources that the dialects of western Argentina are transitional to Chilean Spanish, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Not only does the shift of *r to /ʒ/ stop at the Andes, but the intonation of Chilean Spanish is vastly different. The Andes serve as a mighty wall. For the first week or so in Chile, I had to concentrate very hard to understand what people were saying, and I could sympathize with the many Spanish speakers who point to Chilean Spanish as the most difficult to understand of all the Latin American varieties. Fortunately, after that first week, my difficulties vanished and the local speech came to feel entirely normal.

I’m not quite able to determine what phonetic quirks set Chilean Spanish apart, and I’m not sure that if I hear this accent qua accent again in some other part of the world, I would be able to trace it to Chile. However, the Chilean colloquial lexicon is very sui generis, and I’m sure I’ll be able to immediately identify Chileans by the presence of certain words. People are very fond of the item ueyá/ueyón, which is not only a generic word for ‘thing’ rather like Philadelphian English jawn, but apparently even works as a exclamation and more. Chileans also tend to end sentences with po’h, a reduction of pues and a particle which has an exotic, non-Spanish air about it, as if something from an East Asian language.

Curiously, while Argentines accepted my use of vosotros without batting an eye, Chileans have been much more ready to make fun of me for it. They complain that the mere existence of such a form is silly, because Spain is the only place in the world where people say that. (Clearly Chileans never get to talk to a Spanish speaker from Western Sahara or Equatorial Guinea.) Once when having dinner with several upper-class and well-educated Chileans, I found tiresome the company of a writer-who-should-know-better who kept claiming that vosotros, and not the word itself as much as the grammatical form in general with its verb marking, was an innovation that appeared in Spain after the colonization of the New World; my appeal to Latin *‑atis etc. was dismissed because, as a foreigner, I surely cannot have any understanding of the history of the Spanish language.

Hopefully, after making my way through Uruguay, Argentina and especially Chile and finding it entirely possible to communicate with the locals (with perhaps a few days of acclimatization), I can now travel in the remaining countries of Latin America without fear. Still, it is always the variety of the language in the place where you first learn it that sounds the sweetest, and I am very much looking forward to passing through Madrid next month.

Adventures in Uruguayan and Argentinian Spanish

Except for a few very brief orders made at Mexican restaurants in North America, these last few days in Uruguay and the Entre Ríos province of Argentina was the first time I had ever spoken Spanish outside of Spain. All in all, what surprised me is how easy it was to communicate on both sides, in Uruguay at least. I could imagine someone who learned some particular regional variety of UK English having some problems in the American South, for example. Even when I used more recently-coined colloquialisms common to Spain, rural Uruguayans understood me. I do find that a bit puzzling, since the Uruguayans to whom I spoke claimed to have virtually no contact with Spanish of Spain: no music or films or television, and Latin America is a large enough market to sustain its own publishing without having to import any books from Spain. In Argentina, however, I’ve been forced to start adapting to their way of talking in certain contexts.

Over the years, other foreigners who learned Spanish in Spain have told me that going to Latin America would require avoiding vosotros and the verb coger ‘take’, but I find that an exaggeration. No one I met seems to mind the use of vosotros as the second person plural, and the indicative endings are so close to the vos forms used here that nobody would be confused by the morphology. While the verb coger has become an obscenity here, no one batted an eye when I used it in its Spanish meaning ‘to take’. Speaking with ceceo provoked no jokes at our expense.

The main aspects of pronunciation which required a brief moment of adaptation was the seseo and the pronunciation of *y/λ as [ʒ]. Once I crossed the border into the Entre Ríos province of Argentina, I started to hear people dropping final /s/, a common development in varieties across Latin America. Otherwise, it feels like everyone here speaks “clearly”. The major differences found were naturally lexical ones:

  • For ‘tap, faucet’, grifo is understood, but apparently only canilla is used here.
  • For ‘tent’, carpa is used here, though tienda has generally been understood.
  • Uruguayans understand los aseos/los servicios for ‘toilet’, but they say el baño, and I’ve found that I have to use the latter in Argentina to be understood.
  • For ‘peanuts’, people here say maní instead of cacahuete, and Argentinians don’t even understand the latter (if the word is explained to them, they tend to laugh at it).
  • For the simple small-town eateries in Entre Ríos, everyone says comedor, which elsewhere means ‘dining room’. I wonder if my asking Hay un restaurante por aquí? suggested that I wanted something posher than these little communities could boast.

Mapleland and Thornybank

My Romania–Finland hitchhiking commute and a memorable cycle tour have often brought me through extreme southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. I have been struck by constantly encountering the same toponym, e.g.:

  • Jawornik in Poland, on the 892 road south of Sanok;
  • Yavoriv, in Ukraine just across the border from Poland, south of the Ukrainian town of Turka;
  • Yavor, also in that same part of Ukraine, but just north of Turka.

For a long time I would half-consciously mull over this word and think about derivations (e.g. some weird creation from *voriti), but I should have just searched for the term on the web: Common Slavic *(j)avor means ‘maple’. And the reason why I found no headword in Derksen’s Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon is because, according to Pronk-Tiethoff’s The Germanic Loanwords in Proto-Slavic, the term was borrowed after the Proto-Slavic period. I wonder if that makes a case for the Slavic Urheimat, which was supposed to be in this general area, not reaching down to the Carpathians, as why would the Slavs borrow a name for a tree that evidently was so distinguishing a feature of their landscape?

Another riddle from the same part of Europe remains slightly unsolved for me. For a long time, on the basis of the Romanian town of Târnaveni and the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo, I again, without thinking too deeply about the matter, thought it might be some contraction of *trgŭ novŭ ‘new market’, a sensible name for a place acting as a commercial centre. However, in the Romanian case, the town was actually named after the Târnava River, and one doesn’t often name rivers after markets. Plus, the Bulgarian town should be seen as containing the adjectival ending *‑ovo. Then, at some point I passed through the Polish town of Tarnobrzeg and realized that the common element here is Common Slavic *trŭnŭ ‘thorn’. So, these are areas with thorny banks, which the Polish toponym would seem to express clearly.

But my knowledge of Polish dialectology is scanty. The word ‘thorn’ in standard Polish is cierń. With a place-name like Tarnobrzeg, does this mean that the southeastern Polish dialects had a different development of early Slavic syllabic *r (or sequences of *r and a yer), one that led to a non-front vowel that wasn’t affected by the shift *t > c before front vowels? Interestingly, the Polish Wikipedia article for Tarnobrzeg speaks of a relationship to śliwa tarnina ‘blackthorn, sloe, Prunus spinosa’, and here we have a Poland-wide term with the unchanged consonant.

PIE roots as a mnemonic device in Farsi spelling

Persian roots in which a silent vāv must be written after an initial khe are often considered the bane of foreign learners of Farsi. I myself felt some discontent at having to learn this silly spelling rule after initially encountering Persian in the wonderfully clear Cyrillic script used by Tajiki. However, one of those little eureka moments one encounters in historical linguistics was that these words can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European roots with intial *sw-, e.g.:

  • خواهار ‘sister’ < PIE *swésōr;
  • خوابیدن ‘to sleep’ < PIE *swep‑;
  • خویش ‘himself’ < PIE *swe‑ (I guess, but even if I guess wrong, it still helps to remember).

Thus, a little knowledge of PIE can instantly serve as a mnemonic device in some tricky aspect of a language that arose millennia later.

Increasing age may make it more challenging to learn a language to real conversational proficiency and lose that accent, but I’ve been so encouraged lately by how a decade-plus of sometimes focused and deliberate, but just as often casual and absentminded, learning provides remarkable benefits in reaching a middling level effort-free. Another example is when I recently picked up an intermediate-level reference for Japanese grammar (a language I’ve never formally studied) and realized that I know most of the words used in the example sentences purely through some kind of osmosis over the years. It is wonderful how everything out there ties together somehow. Now if I could just have these fruits of a decade’s experience and have that decade itself back…

Linguistic pseudoscience in the breakup of Serbo-Croatian

I’m all too familiar with Romania and its dacomania, and I’ve read a great deal about Albania’s insistence on a glorious Illyrian past in order to present itself as a proud and stately nation today. But reading Greenberg’s Language and Identity in the Balkans showed me that there’s similar nuttery in the land in between, that is, the former Yugoslavia:

In an interview posted on the Montenet website entitled “Does a Montenegrin Language Exist?” (“Da li postoji crnogorski jezik”) [Montenegrin nationalist Vojislav] Nikčević made the highly dubious claim that the prototype for the Montenegrin language is the Polabian language, having based these unfounded assertions on hun­dreds of Montenegrin place names. Even more unlikely is his assertion that the ancestors of the Serbs came from an ekavian-speaking area of southeastern Poland, and that their ekavian reflexes of jat’ are somehow linked to those found in Byelorussian. For him, the Montenegrins are the sole authentic ijekavian speakers in the Balkans, and other peoples in the area (Serbs, Croats, Bosniacs) had acquired ijekavian speech secondarily. There is no credible evidence to justify any of these claims. The Montenegrins would be as connected to the Polabians as any other Southern Slavic people, and toponyms in the Southwestern Balkans can usually be traced to substratum languages or to South Slavic influ­ences, rather than West Slavic ones.

You’d think that any academic passionate about the distinctions between the languages of Yugoslavia as well as other Slavic languages would know better. And then there’s this:

[Bosnian language advocate Senahid] Halilović considered the term Bosna to be pre-Slavic and possibly even pre-Indo-European. Such statements on the ancient origin of a name bring to mind Fishman’s notion (1972: 7) of stressed authenticity, whereby ancient terms provide the necessary trappings of legitimacy to a linguistic revival.

That Joshua Fishman citation is Language and Nationalism (Rowley: Newbury House, 1972), which seems to have captured an especially common sort of woo-woo around smaller languages and peoples on the defensive, going well beyond the Balkans.

Four levels of politeness in 17th-century Spanish

One of the more interesting books that I’ve read lately is Christopher J. Pountain’s A History of the Spanish Language Through Texts (London: Routledge, 2001). For the so-called Golden Age of Spanish literature, Pountain especially chooses texts by standardization-minded authors who inadvertently offer many details of the popular speech of their time. The following passage from Gonzalo de Correas’s Arte de la lengua española castellana (1625) suggests a much more complex system than the one found in Peninsular Spanish today, which is down to just tu and usted (and when I moved to Spain in the early millennium, I was urged to use usted much more sparingly than foreigners – on the basis of learning materials from Latin America – usually feel they should).

Devese tanbien mucho notar la desorden, i discordante concordia, que á introduzido el uso, ora por modestia, ora por onrra, ò adulazion. Para lo qual es menester primero advertir, que se usan quatro diferenzias de hablar para quatro calidades de personas, que son: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu… De merzed usamos llamar à las personas à quien rrespetamos, i debemos ò queremos dar onrra, como son: xuezes, cavalleros, eclesiasticos, damas, i xente de capa negra, i es lo mas despues de señoria. Él usan los maiores con el que no quieren darle merzed, ni tratarle de vos, que es mas baxo, i propio de amos à criados, i la xente vulgar i de aldea, que no tiene uso de hablar con merzed, llama de él al que quiere onrrar de los de su xaez. De vos tratamos à los criados i mozos grandes, i à los labradores, i à personas semexantes; i entre amigos adonde no ai gravedad, ni cunplimiento se tratan de vos, i ansien rrazonamientos delante de rreies i dirixidos à ellos se habla de vos con devido rrespeto i uso antiguo. De tu se trata à los muchachos i menores de la familia, i à los que se quisieren bien: i quando nos enoxamos i rreñimos con alguno le tratamos de él, i de vos por desdén. Supuesto lo dicho, en las tres diferenzias primeras de hablar de merzed, él, vos, se comete solezismo en la gramatica i concordanzias contra la orden natural de las tres personas, xeneros i numeros.

The disorder and disconcordant concord which usage has introduced, whether through modesty, respect or adulation, should also be noted. For this it is necessary, first, to state that four different ways of speech are used for four qualities of person, namely: vuestra merzed, él, vos, tu … We usually call people we respect by merzed, such as judges, gentry, clergy, ladies and black cape people, and it is the highest after señoría. Él is used by older people for someone they do not wish either to call merzed or address as vos, which is lower, and typical of masters to servants; and common and village people, who are not accustomed to using merzed in their speech, address as él people to whom they want to show respect from their class. We call servants and grown up boys vos, and labourers, and such like people; and among friends where there is no gravity nor ceremony vos is used, and so in speeches made in front of kings and addressed to them vos is used with due respect and old usage. Children, younger members of the family and loved ones are called ; and when we get angry and quarrel with someone we call them él, and vos to disparage them. Bearing in mind the foregoing, in the first three of speaking (merzed, él, vos) there are violations of grammar and agreement against the natural order of three persons, gender and number.

One wonders how much this system was really agreed upon by all, and how much it was an idealization of shifting norms across time and space. The Hungarian I learned from Zsuzsa Pontifex’s Teach Yourself Hungarian back in the 1990s seemed to present a straightforward four-level system too: te, maga, Ön, tetszik. However, foreign learners are told very quickly that maga has been on the way out for decades, and if used today is just as likely to be pejorative as it is to tend towards showing respect. In other descriptions, the tetszik address is either replaced by another form of address, or a fifth level is added to the system.

Similarly, of the four-level system I’ve often heard proposed for Romanian – tu, dumneata, dumneavoastră, domnul/doamna – the second is rarely heard in Transylvania and the last is only heard from waiters at high-class restaurants who are clearly aping the French experience.

Жгонский язык

While trawling back issues of the journal Sovetskoye Finno-Ugrovidenija for interesting reading on Mari, I came across a Russian dialect I had never heard of before, and which seems virtually unknown on the English-speaking web. As S. M. Strel’nikov writes in his 1978 article “Марийские элементы в жгонском языке” (Mari elements in zhgonsky jazyk):

Жгонским языком (от жгон ’шерстобит’) называют свой условный язык русские ремесленники Костромской области (пимокаты и портные), в недалеком прошлом занимавшиеся отхожим промыслом во многих губерниях России. Хотя численность носителей жгонского языка сокращается, его и сейчас помнят лица пожилого возраста во многих насееленных пунктах Нейского, Мантуровского, Макарьевского районов Костромской области, Варнавинского и Ветлужского районов Горьковской области.

Zhgonsky jazyk (from zhgon “woolspinner”) is the name by which Russian craftsmen in the Kostroma district (bootmakers and tailors) refer to their language; these craftsmen in the not-so-distant past were engaged in seasonal labor in many parts of Russia. Although the number of speakers of zhgonsky jazyk has declined, it is still remembered by elderly people in many settlements in the Ney, Manturov, and Makaryev regions of the Kostroma district, and in the Barnavin and Vetluga regions of the Gorsky district.

This language was an argot, meant to allow these craftsmen to communicate in secret when traveling about. Certainly the examples provided in this article are completely incomprehensible without glosses, e.g. Ши́до в плеха́нку пови́титься сохля́ть ‘I’ve got to head to the steam bath to wash’, Декни́ приты́лить ‘Give me a smoke’.

While zhgonsky jazyk drew on other languages such as Udmurt, German, Greek and Turkish, the Mari stock is prominent and Strel’nikov suggests that this argot arose on the basis of interaction between Russians and speakers of Northwestern Mari. Some zhgonsky jazyk words of Mari origin concern the numbers (e.g. ны́лик ‘4’ < MariNW nəl, канда́йша ‘8’ < MariNW kändäŋš) and weather (уре́ж ‘rain’ < MariNW jur, ю́кша ‘cold, winter’ < MariNW jükšem). Strel’nikov identifies altogether 44 items as derived from Mari, and some of them have gone amusing shifts in meaning as is common in these sorts of secret languages.