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.

Romanian–Albanian parallels and the location of the Proto-Albanian Urheimat

Ranko Matasović has written a freely available grammatical sketch of Albanian for students of Indo-European. This is a useful resource alongside the University of Texas Indo-Europeanists’ Albanian lessons, and it’s nice that what has always been an obscure language is now easier to make an acquaintance with. (And if you really want to learn to speak the language, not just track its historical development, there’s the helpful new edition of Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian).

Matasović lists some developments in Albanian that are readily familiar to Romanian speakers. Lexically there is, for example, the borrowing of Latin paludem ‘swamp’ with metathesis and shift to the meaning ‘forest’: Albanian pyll < *padule, Romanian pădure. Romanian and Albanian both shift the velar in velar–stop clusters to a labial, e.g. Lat. luctāre ‘to fight’ > Alb. luftoj, Ro. a lupta.

Such Romanian–Albanian lexical parallels and some shared sound changes, which have been documented for at least a century now, suggest that these people were in fairly close contact as the Roman period came to an end. Romanian nationalist hysteria aside, I think the evidence overwhelmingly points to a Romanian origin west/south of the Danube. The area around Niš in modern Serbia is sometimes suggested as the Vlach homeland, from which the Romanians went north and the Aromanians south.

That the Albanians migrated to modern Albania from somewhere else has also been proposed, mainly based on the fact that words describing the sea and seafaring are Latin loanwords. If the claim that the Proto-Albanian lexicon also doesn’t reflect a mountainous homeland is true, then it would be hard to see southern Serbia, where Albanian–Romanian contact would have supposedly occurred, as the Proto-Albanian Urheimat. That region is not at all flat. One would have to go up further north in the Balkans to avoid mountains. Should the Proto-Albanian Urheimat be located in Vojvodina or Slavonia instead, with southern Serbia as only a later point of Albanian expansion?

Proto-Albanian had undergone some drastic sound changes in a comparative Indo-European context before contact with the Romans, the sort one would expect from an isolated population, not one on the plains open to contact (and convergence) with neighbouring language families. (Slavonia has marshes, but I wonder how much of a barrier they could have presented.) Perhaps Albanian only seems so weird because a larger IE branch in Pannonia and surrounding areas, with the same innovations, was gradually reduced by the Celtic, Roman, Germanic, Slavic migrations of the last centuries BC/early centuries AD.

Down the Romanian cocoaz/Albanian kokëzë etymological rabbit hole

Curious about the etymology of Romanian coacăz ‘redcurrant (bush) (Ribes rubrum)’ I turned to Dexonline, and the entry for this word sees it as a back-formation from coacăză ‘redcurrant (fruit)’.

Things get more complicated with the etymology of coacăză. According to the entry for this word, the 2009 edition of DEX compares it to Albanian kokëzë. So, presumably another one of those several dozen words in Romanian drawn from a Balkan substrate.

However, the Dicționarul etimologic român from 1958–66 writes, In general one prefers to start from Albanian kokjë ‘boabă’, which is the same as the Latin [coccum], but this hypothesis is not useful, as a form *kokëzë does not appear in Albanian. So is the 2009 DEX giving us a ghost word with *kokëzë, an Albanian form that does not really exist and was simply unquestioningly repeated by editors personally unfamiliar with the Albanian language?

Luckily we live in the time of the internet search engine and can easily check this for ourselves. A Google search for kokëzë gives 347 results and mainly brings up hits from similar Romanian–Albanian comparative wordlists. This is understandable when one considers that there is a much smaller internet corpus of Albanian to draw on than Romanian or English. However, an online Albanian dictionary gives kokëzë for English ‘bulb’. So, it seems like this is perfectly cromulent Albanian and the old Dicționarul etimologic român was wrong.

But look here, Albanian kokëzë has been used in this translation into Albanian of Pablo Neruda’s poem “Juegas todos los días con la luz del universo” (number 14 from his collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada). Neruda’s blanca cabecita is rendered in Albanian as kokëzë e bardhë. Neruda’s Spanish diminutive cabecita ‘head’, which clearly refers to the head of the poet’s lover, is translated into Albanian with a word that apparently means ‘bulb’. What is going on here? Did the translator perhaps misunderstand Neruda’s use of cabecita, which in faraway Mexico does refer to a bulb of garlic? No, for it turns out that kokë is the normal Albanian word for ‘head’, and kokëzë is a regularly formed diminutive (see here for this and many other Albanian diminutives in -(ë)z(ë)).

Yet Albanian kokë ‘head’ is, according to Orel’s Albanian Etymological Dictionary likely borrowed from Latin coccum ‘berry’, so the same botanical meaning as coacăz is primary. A semantic shift ‘bean, bulb’ > ‘head’ is understandable, I guess.

New edition of Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian

The cover of Routledge’s Colloquial AlbanianOne of the things that always made Albanian seem so mysterious to me in the 1990s and early millennium was the dearth of quality learning materials, a strange state of affairs considering that Albanian is the official language of a decent-sized European country. For a long time, the only introduction easy to purchase was Isa Zymberi’s entry in Routledge’s Colloquial series. However, its presentation of this rather daunting language was opaque, and it was based entirely on the dialect of Kosovo (presumably because it was the only place learners of Albanian could freely travel during the Communist era).

Happily, Routledge remedied this last year by publishing a new version of Colloquial Albanian by Linda Mëniku and Héctor Campos. This is based on the standard language established in Albania proper after the war, treating the Gheg and Tosk dialects only in the last chapter. From my initial impressions after buying a copy in a Helsinki bookshop and flipping through it, this new version lays out more clearly the complex (often irregular) morphology of Albanian. There is no English-Albanian glossary and the amount of vocabulary presented is fairly small, but it seems a fine start and I look forward to working through it before a trip to the Western Balkans this summer.

The curious dearth of Albanian language resources

EDIT: While there still aren’t a lot of Albanian resources to choose from, the new edition of Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian has filled the gap and is a great way to get started with the language.

Stuck in a Vienna airport waiting for a flight back to Helsinki, with hours to wait, I went to sit in the airport restaurant. It turned out the proprietor is from Albania. As it was four in the morning and things weren’t exactly busy for him, we chatted a bit about differences among Albanian dialects.

In spite of the many years gone by since the fall of Communism, and the existence of Albanian communities in other European countries and in the U.S., from a language-practise standpoint Albania still seems like an isolated little country and the Albanian language remains little known. Routledge’s Colloquial Albanian, written by Isa Zymberi, has been widely criticized for teaching language specific to Kosovo instead of to the Republic of Albania. Cezar Kurti‘s Mesoni Shqip, now in its third edition, has garnered much praise, but good luck finding it in a bookshop.

If print resources in English are so rare, free and quality Internet resources are understandably pretty much nonexistent, as far as I can tell. At least Kurti has put up several lessons from his book at his website Albanian World. There’s also a phrase guide at a gimmicky site that has the benefit of being printable and easily folded. Albanian does look very Balkan Sprachbund-ish and, except for the unfamiliar lexicon, I think I could pick it up fairly easily, were there only resources available.