Albanian language in the light of linguistic studies - Albanian History & Culture

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Albanian language in the light of linguistic studies

Albanian language in the light of linguistic studies

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ne: 15-10-2011, 23:43:53
The Albanian language has been variously attached to Illyrian and Messapian, both of which were probably related. Only the latter, to a small extent, has left any evidence that may in any way liken it to Albanian. Consider the Messapic words bilia (Alb bijë “daughter”), brendon “deer” (Alb bri, brî “horn”, pl. brirë, brinë), hazavathi ‘he pours out’ (Alb deh “to make drunk”), klaohi ‘listen!’ (Alb quaj, quej “to call, give a name”), kos (Alb kush “who”), veinan (Alb vehte “self”), venas (Alb uri, û “hunger”), etc. Messapian settlements are known to have existed along the Adriatic in both Italy and Illyria, especially around Durrës.

Indeed, Messapian has left several words in Italian or in neighboring Italo-Roman languages, including manzo “ox” (cf. Alb mëz, mâz “poney”), northern bagola, bagula (cf. Alb bajgë “dung”), dialectal musso “ass” (cf. Alb mushk “mule”).

Even the name Albanian is of some dispute. Appearing in the 9th c. in Greek as the Arvanoi, and thereafter under similar names, including obsolete Albanian arbër or arbën, it had been presumed to stem from Vulgar Latin Albanus, from the southern Illyrian tribal name Albanoí. However, others like Orel attach it instead to a slight corruption of Labëri “Laberia”, from South Slavic labanĭja, from olbanĭja. The name Tosk, Alb toskë, was borrowed from Venetian tosko “rough, crude”, literally “Tuscan”.

The trouble of a homeland for the Albanians becomes all the more problematic. Despite Albanian nationalist claims to the contrary, the Albanians almost certainly came from farther north and inland than would suggest the present borders of Albania. First, Albanian has few early Greek borrowings, most of which are from the Northwest, e.g. WGk (Doric) mākhaná gave Alb mokër “mill” and WGk drápanon gave Alb drapër “sickle”. Indeed, the very word for Greek, gërk, was borrowed from South Slavic; cf. Bulg. grŭk, Serb-Croat gr”k. Similarly, the Illyrian coast is not a likely source since Albanian has no inherited nautical or indigenous sea-faring terminology, and has instead supplemented this absence with subsequent borrowing from Latin or Greek or recent metaphorical lexical creations.

Third, toponyms along the coast, in contrast with native penultimate accent (ex: mbësë “niece” < PA nepô’tia), often show substratal antepenultimate accent (ex: Durrës < Dúrrhachium; Pojanë < Apóllonia), though there are some exceptions (Vlorë < Aulónâ vs. Greek Aúlon). Also, Albanian is believed to be the source for a number of grammatical and lexical similarities shared by otherwise dissimilar languages including Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, and to some extent Greek. Also, there is a lack of Proto-Albanian place names in Illyria. Likewise, the word shqa, from Lat Sclavus “Slav” refers only to Bulgarians.

Instead, given the overwhelming amount of shepherding and mountaineering vocabulary as well as the extensive influence of Latin, it is more likely the Albanians come from north of the Jireček line, on the Latin-speaking side, perhaps from the late Roman province of Dardania from the western Balkans. The Northern Albanian Alps are referred to as Bjeshkët e Namena, and this region’s name is believed by some to come from Proto-Albanian beškai tâi, giving Alb bjeshkë “mountain”, borrowed ultimately from Vulgar Latin pastica “pasture”.

Yet, one area in the late Roman province of Praevitana (modern northern Albania) seems to show an area where a primarily shepherding, transhumance population of Illyrians retained their culture. This area was based in the Mat district and the region of high mountains in Northern Albania, as well as in Dukagjin, Mirditë, and the mountains of Drin, from where the population would descend in the summer to the lowlands of western Albania, the Black Drin (Drin i zi) river valley, and into parts of Old Serbia. Indeed, the region’s complete lack of Latin place names seems to imply little latinization of any kind and a more likely spot for the origin of Albanian.

The period in which Proto-Albanian and Latin interacted was protracted and drawn out over six centuries, 1st c. AD to 6th or 7th c. AD. This is born out into roughly three layers of borrowings, the largest number belonging to the second or middle layer. The first, with the fewest borrowings, was a time of less important interaction. The final period, probably preceding the Slavic or Germanic invasions, also has a notably smaller amount of borrowings. Each layer is characterized by a different treatment of most vowels, the first layer having several that follow the evolution of Early Proto-Albanian into Albanian; later layers reflect vowel changes indemic to Late Latin and presumably Proto-Romance. Other formative changes include the syncretism of several noun case endings, especially in the plural, as well as the largescale palatalization.
After this period followed a period, 7th c. AD to 9th c. AD, in which Slavic borrowings were most common, some of which predate the o-a shift in Southern Slavic, though evidently not as much as Romanian had made.

Following this period was a stage of protracted contact with the Proto-Romanians, though the borrowing seems to have been mostly one sided – from Albanian into Romanian. This indicates the Romanians interacted longer with the Slavs and then moved into an area with a majority of Albanian speakers, since presumably this would explain the one-way borrowing. This places the Albanians in the Western or Central Balkans, probably in the center and the Romanians further to the East, close perhaps to the Bulgarians. Indeed, the best match for the Slavic cognates borrowed into Romanian is Middle Bulgarian.
Combined with archaeology and history, it seems likely that the core of Albanian territory lay in a quadrilateral with vertices at Bar, Prizren, Ohrid, and Vlorë during the Middle Ages. Indeed, the center of the Albanians remained the river Mat, and in 1079 AD they are recorded in the territory between Ohrid and Thessalonika as well as in Epirus; Albanian place names from a large portion of Macedonia and parts of Serbia indicate former Albanian territories.

Furthermore, the major Tosk-Gheg dialect division is based on the course of the Shkumbin River, a seasonal stream that lay near the old Via Egnatia. Since rhotacism postdates the dialect division, it is reasonable that the major dialect division occurred after the christianization of the Roman Empire (4th c. AD) and before the eclipse of the East-West land-based trade route by Venetian seapower (10th c. AD). The oldest surviving document written in Albanian is “Formula e Pagëzimit” (Baptismal formula), written in 1462 in the Gheg dialect, and some New Testament verses from that period. The oldest known Albanian printed book, Meshari or missal, was written by Gjon Buzuku, a Roman Catholic cleric, in 1555. The first Albanian school is believed to have been opened by Franciscans in1638 in Pdhanë. In 1635, Frang Bardhi wrote the first Latin-Albanian dictionary.


Encyclopædia Britannica, edition 15 (1985). Article: Albanian language
Huld, Martin E. Basic Albanian Etymologies. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1984.
Martin Camaj, Albanian Grammar, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden
Orel, Vladimir. A Concise Historical Grammar of the Albanian Language: Reconstruction of Proto-Albanian. Leiden: Brill, 2000.


(…) It is important to mention that Albanians do not refer to themselves as ”Albanians.” Like “Illyria” or “Illyricum,” “Albania” was a name used by foreigners for obscure reasons. In the second century, Ptolemy mentions a tribe called “Albanoi” and their town “Albanopolis”. That tribe was later used to denominate the whole region. However, by that time this name, which has deep Indo-European roots, was already widely used within the Adriatic region.

All over South and Southeastern Europe, there are areas, cities, mountains, etc., whose names are based on the root “alba” (“white; dawn”). The best-known examples are the Alps and the city of Albani in Italy. The name of the Albanians (Shqiptar) emerged for the first time only in the eleventh century, in a 1043 historical record “when Albanian troops appear fighting alongside Greeks in the army of a rebellious Byzantine general” (Malcolm, 1998: 28). The same name appears in texts from 1078 and 1081 ”when they joined the Byzantine forces resisting an invasion there [Durrës] by the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard” (Malcolm, 1998: 28).  Scholars have suggested that there is a link between the medieval Albanians and the tribe “Albanoi.”

By the end of the 19th century, it has already been established that Albanians originated from the ancient Illyrians. Some historians, believe that Albanians of Kosova are of Thracian origin. This interpretation goes back to 19th century history, as well as to interpretation of Greek sources of the period and archeological findings from the early 20th century. The fact that Albanians are descendents of the Illyrians, it can be inferred that they are among the most ancient people in the Balkans. There is continuity between the Illyrians and the Albanians, the latter must have received Christianity  before all other people in the Balkans. That type of Christianity had oriental origins. This means that the original faith of the Albanians was Christian. This too is supported by historiography, which goes on to say that Albanians were all Catholic Christians and Islam was introduced much later, in order to divide the population.

The Romans used the name “Illyricum” for a large territory spreading all over the East Adriatic coast.  This was the reason why all people from that region were called Illyrians, without any distinction. The name Illyrians Greeks had used it in the 5th-4th century B.C. to name a group of people living on their northwestern border. These people were divided into tribes, of which at least three are known: the Taulantian, the Enkhelai, and the Piraei. Roman authors also mention the existence of an Illyrian kingdom in the same region. Greek sources use the names “Illyrians” and “Albanoi”. The question about the relationship between these people, as well as about the similarity of their languages is very clear.

The Illyrian language has been preserved only in a few patronymes (Sergent, 1995: 102). The existence of an Illyrian language, to which modern Albanian as well as a number of other languages (e.g. Venetian and Messapian) . Linguists such as Bonfante, Borgeaud, Pokorny, and Schwyzer used the “Illyrian” to explain the large number of Greek words that are not of Hellenic origin.

Pisani made the first refutation of the theory in 1937 and Wharmough followed in 1950. Well known linguist Hans Krahe has upheld such theories well into the twentieth century and extended the territory of the Illyrian language to Sicily, Southern Italy, and the Alps. Today there are serious linguists who still believe in the Illyrian (Sergent, 1995: 103). Contemporary works (Radulescu, 1984, 1987, 1994; Katicic, 1966: 145-168) have established beyond doubt the origin of the Albanian language.

Illyrian is related indirectly to Albanian and was close to Messapian (spoken in southwestern Italy). Illyrian a proto-Albanian, and Messapian are the languages that may have the same origin (Radulescu, 1994: 335-339). The Thracian, Dardanian, and Phrygian languages were also related (Sergent, 1995: 97).

Originally taken from:

 The Albanian language
History. First Albanian texts date back to the 15th century, though the people of Albania had lived there for quite a long time. Albanian is a descendant of ancient Paleo-Balkan languages, Illyrian, Messapic and Thracian. Historically two main dialectal groups exist: Gheg and Tosk, both understand each other.

Close Contacts. Albanian is genetically connected with Illyrian and Messapic languages, there are also Thracian elements in it. In the Middle Ages Albanian was situated within the Balkan language unity and generated significant features characteristic for all tongues of the peninsula. Most contacts took place with Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish, Romanian.

Originally taken from:

 Indo-European languages  Balkan Group: Albanian, Austin Simmons & Jonathan Slocum
The exclusive surviving member of the “Balkan” clade is Albanian, a linguistic isolate among Indo-European languages. Three different Paleo-Balkan languages (Illyrian, Thracian, and Dacian) have each been proposed as the ancestor of modern Albanian, hence these four at least might be argued to constitute a “Balkan” family. Exactly how these and other old Balkan languages including Macedonian and perhaps Paionian might be related to Albanian, to each other, and to the Indo-European language family more generally is a much debated topic supported by too little objective evidence (i.e., ancient texts). Yet because these and certain other ancient languages of the Balkans are generally if not provably considered to be Indo-European and somehow related to one another, and because they were geographically clustered, they are grouped for convenient reference.

Originally taken from:


Origin of Albanian (Xhevat LLOSHI)
Among Albanian language scholars there is practically no dispute over the thesis that Albanian is related to Illyrian: Albanian is a direct descendant of a south-west group of Illyrian dialects. However, there have been other hypotheses proposed, among which the following merit to be mentioned.
a. The Pelasgian hypothesis. Albanian is the continuation of the language of an ancient people called Pelasgians, a hypothesis rather diffused in the 19th century. J.G. von HAHN (1854) formulated in a strict manner the hypothesis that the Albanians are direct descendants of the Illyrians, Macedonians, and Epirotes, and that in the remotest times they formed a united race together with the Latins and the Hellenes called Pelasgians, with their language, the Pelasgian. A. SCHLEICHER gave full authority to this theory of Pelasgian origin with his family tree of languages. Today this is considered a groundless idea.
b. The Thracian (Dacian) hypothesis. Albanian is the continuation of the
Thracian language. This thesis, implying an Albanian-Rumanian symbiosis, is supported by students of Rumanian: H. HIRT, K. PAUL, G. WEIGAND, H. BARIC, I. POPOVIC, and I. I. RUSSU. Only scant remains of Thracian exist, but HIRT saw Albanians as descendants of the Thracians. This means that in the early Middle Ages the Albanians moved westward from the central part of the Balkans, but there are no historical records of such a massive migration. To BARIC Albanian is an Illyricized Thracian dialect.
c. The Illyrian-Thracian hypothesis. Albanian is derived from a mixture of Illyrian and Thracian. N. JOKL supported the idea of an intermediate position between Illyrian and Thracian. However, Thracian is not better known than Illyrian, and it is difficult to distinguish their specific elements, or to trace a dividing line between Illyrian and Thracian. For JOKL the Albanians are probably the descendants of the Illyrian tribe of Dardanians, living in the interior of the Balkan peninsula, who migrated westward some time in the late
Roman period.
d. The Daco-Moesian hypothesis is sustained by the Bulgarian academician V. GEORGIEV.
e. The independent hypothesis. H. KRAHE affirms that Albanian presents an independent Indo-European language. The vast work of Prof. E. ÇABEJ on Albanian etymology (1976), an unrivaled synthesis of everything known in this field, refers to remote periods of Albanian as an Indo-European language, without considering the Illyrian language. Following a strict method, the Albanian etymologies would go back to Illyrian forms, which in turn would be traced back to Indo-European roots, like the Italian etymologies going back to Latin forms. E. HAMP (1972) states: “Albanian shows no obvious close affinity to any other Indo-European language; it is plainly the sole modern survivor of its own subgroup”. The whole question of origin is closely connected to the question of the area where the Albanian was formed, and of the place where its transformation ocurred. It is not by chance that the Illyrian origin of Albanian was suggested on a historical base by H.E. THUNMANN in 1774. Archeological finds of our days substantiate the theory of the autochthony of the Albanians, and the supporters of the Illyrian origin theory comprise many historians. The continuity of the same material culture on the same territory is a proven fact,
but the linguistic argumentation is not very substantial. The Illyrian language is only known from certain words reported by ancient writers, from a few rare inscriptions and, to a gretaer extent, from surviving names of persons and
places. Despite remarkable studies by H. KRAHE, A. RIBEZZO, A. MAYER, and others, the question of the place that the Illyrian occupies in the Indo-European family is still debatable. Most German, Austrian and Italian historians and linguists, such as: G. MEYER, F. MIKLOSISCH, H. PEDERSEN, P. KRETSCHMER, V. PISANI, W. CIMOCHOWSKI, and others have supported the Illyrian kinship of the Albanian. Albanian linguists in general – E. ÇABEJ, S. RIZA, M. CAMAJ, SH. DEMIRAJ, M. DOMI, A. KOSTALLARI – advocate the Albanians’ autochthony and the Illyrian filiation of the Albanian language. Albanian was formed through the gradual evolution of a group of south-western Illyrian dialects during the period between the final stage of the intensive influence of Latin upon Illyrian and the arrival of the Slavs. This rather long and
complicated process occurred in the first centuries A.D. The linguistic arguments put forward by the opposers of the Illyrian origin of Albanian cannot resist criticism. SH. DEMIRAJ (1988): “The Albanian language was formed precisely in the regions of the eastern Adriatic and Ionian seas inhabited in ancient times mostly by Illyrian tribes”.
An excerpt taken from a long study of Xhevat Lloshi:
Robert Elsie: The Albanian language
Albanian is a language of the extensive Indo-European family and is thus related to a certain degree to almost all other languages of Europe. The Indo-European character of the language was first recognized in 1854 by the German linguist Franz Bopp (1791-1867). At the same time, Albanian shows no particularly close historical affinity to any other language or language group within the Indo-European family, i.e. it forms a language group of its own.

Despite Albania’s geographical proximity to Greece, linguistic contacts with ancient Greek seem to have been sporadic. Roman trading settlements on the Illyrian coast and Albania’s absorption into the Roman Empire, however, left noticeable traces in the language. Borrowings from Latin, which took place over a period of several centuries, were so massive as to threaten the very structure of the language. Cultural contacts with the Slavs (Bulgarians and Serbs), Turks and Italians have also left substantial strata of vocabulary in Albanian.

Not only in its vocabulary, but also in its morphology and syntax, Albanian shows many traits in common with other Balkan languages, due both to extinct substrata languages (Illyrian, Thracian, Dacian) and to centuries of parallel development. Among these traits are: a postpositive definite article; the fusion of the genitive and dative case endings; the formation of the numbers 11-19 by “one on ten”; the absence of a grammatical infinitive; and the formation of the future tense with the verb “to want.”

Whether or not Albanian is a direct successor of the language of the ancient Illyrians, as is broadly assumed nowadays, is difficult to determine since very few records of the Illyrian language have been preserved.

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