Languages and Dialects
The Albanian language is spoken by nearly all inhabitants of Albania, as well as by the vast majority of the population of neighboring Kosovo. Greeks, Macedonians, and other ethnic groups in Albania used their ancestral languages, in addition to Albanian, to the extent that this right could be exercised. Ethnic minorities, according to the testimony of many émigrés, were in the past forbidden to speak their own languages in public.
A member of the Indo-European family of languages, modern Albanian is derived from ancient Illyrian and Thracian. Additions and modifications were made as a result of foreign contacts, beginning in the pre-Christian era. The most significant of these changes were the result of Latin influence during the centuries of Roman domination, and Italian influences resulting from trade with Venice during the Renaissance and from Italian hegemony over Albania in more recent times. Contributions also were made by the Greeks, Turks, and Slavs. Because the first written documents in Albanian did not appear until the fifteenth century, tracing the early development of the language is difficult.
Beginning in the fifteenth century and continuing over a period of some 450 years, the repressive policies of the Ottoman Empire rulers retarded language development. Writing in Albanian was forbidden, and only the Turkish or Greek languages could be used in schools. Émigré Albanians, particularly those living in Italy, helped keep the written forms of language alive. Until the nineteenth century, the language was sustained in Turkishdominated areas largely by verbal communication, including ballads and folk tales.
By the early twentieth century, more than a dozen different alphabets were being used by Albanians. Some were predominantly Latin, Greek, or Turko-Arabic. Many were a mixture of several forms. It was not until 1908 that a standardized orthography was adopted. The Latin-based alphabet of twenty-six letters, approved at that time by a linguistic congress at Monastir (now Bitola, in Macedonia), was made official by a government directive in 1924 and continued to be in use in the early 1990s.
The two principal Albanian dialects are Geg, spoken by about two-thirds of the people, including almost all Albanians in Kosovo, and Tosk, used by the remaining third. Within each dialect, there are subdialects. Despite the variations that have developed in the many isolated communities, Albanians generally communicate well with each other.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the government attempted to establish the dialect of the Elbasan area, which was a mixture of Geg and Tosk, as the official language. The local dialects persisted, however, and writers and even officials continued to use the dialect of their association. After Hoxha acceded to power, the Tosk dialect became the official language of the country. Some scholars saw the imposition of "standard" Albanian as a political scheme to denigrate the Geg dialect and culture.
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