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The Albanian Language

The Albanian language is considered special, and some would say deserving of special protection, by reason of the fact that it is unrelated to any other language currently in existence. It is the only surviving Indo-European language and is spoken by approximately 6 million people. These people are mainly found in Albania and Kosovo but there are also minority Albanian populations in other areas of the Balkans such as Macedonia, Montenegro and Southern Serbia. Albanian is also spoken by communities in Greece, along the eastern coast of Italy, and on the island of Sicily. Additionally, speakers of Albanian can be found elsewhere throughout world, for example in places such as Scandinavia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Low Countries, Australia, Turkey and the United States. Albanian was proven to be an Indo-European language in 1854 by the German philologist Franz Bopp. The Albanian language comprises its own branch of the Indo-European language family, next closely related to Armenian and Greek.

The earliest traces of written Albanian date from religious fragments found in the fifteenth century. There is a short Catholic baptismal formula from 1462 and some New Testament verses from the same period. The first dictionary was the 1635 Latin-Albanian dictionary of Frang-Bardhi. Since 1908 Albanian has been based on the Latin alphabet, but before that the same language could be - and was! - written in 4 different alphabets: Latin, Greek, Turkish Arabic and Cyrillic.

Although as a language, Albanian stands totally on its own, it does form some links to other language groups. Through tracing the histories of different language groups back through time, Albanian is often compared to Balto-Slavic on the one hand and Germanic on the other, both of which share a number of isoglosses with Albanian. Moreover, Albanian has undergone a vowel shift in which stressed, long o has fallen to a, much like in the former (Balto-Slavic) and opposite the latter (Germanic). Likewise, Albanian has taken the old relative jos and innovatively used it exclusively to qualify adjectives, much in the way Balto-Slavic has used this word to provide the definite ending of adjectives. The links therefore seem stronger with Balto-Slavic than Germanic languages, which given the geographical location of most of the native speakers of the language is perhaps unsurprising. What is not clear however, is whether the Balto-Slavic influences on the language are a fairly new development, or whether they have been entrenched in the language through time. Indeed, purists would still argue that the language is not influenced by any other tongue.

Albanian, in a revised form of the Tosk dialect, is the official language of the Republic of Albania. It is also one of the official languages of Kosovo and in the municipalities where there are more than 20% ethnic Albanian inhabitants in Republic of Macedonia. There are two main Albanian dialects: Tosk and Gheg and the Shkumbin river is roughly the dividing line, with Gheg spoken north of the river and Tosk to the south. The Gheg literary language has been traced back to 1462 and until the Communists took power in Albania, the standard version of the tongue was based on Gheg. It is important to note that although the literary versions of Tosk and Gheg are mutually understandable, many of the regional dialects are not. Tosk is divided into many sub-dialects. The main groups are Northern Tosk (Berat, Pojan, Vlor ë, Struga) and Labërisht Labëria. In Greece, the Çam and the Arvanites speak different Tosk sub-dialects. The sub-dialect of the Arvanites is only partially intelligible with other Tosk sub-dialects, such that it can be regarded as a separate language, known as Arvanitika. In terms of where Albanian dialects have been preserved in other countries, a distinct Tosk sub-dialect has been preserved in the Albanian-founded village of Mandritsa in southern Bulgaria. Perhaps even more surprising is the continued existence of the tongue in countries such as Italy - Tosk sub-dialects related to Arvanitika and called Arbërisht are spoken by the Arbëreshë, descendants of 15th and 16th century immigrants in southeastern Italy. This dialect is also spoken in small communities in the regions of Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, Campania, Molise, Abruzzi, and Puglia. Tosk sub-dialects are spoken by most members of the large Albanian immigrant communities of Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt, and the United States.

Gheg is spoken in Northern Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, and in parts of Montenegro. Each area of Northern Albania has its own sub-dialect: Tiranë, Durrës, Elbasan and Kavaja; Kruja and Laçi; Mati, Dibra and Mirdita; Lezhë, Shkodër, Krajë, Ulqin; etc. Malësia e Madhe, Rugova, and villages scattered alongside the Adriatic Coast form the northmost sub-dialect of Albania today. There are many other sub-dialects in the region of Kosovo and in parts of southern Montenegro, and in Republic of Macedonia. The sub-dialects of Malsia e Madhe and Dukagjini near Shkodra are being lost because the younger generations prefer to speak the sub-dialect of Shkodra.

The language, unsurprisingly, is a symbol of huge political significance to Albanian speakers today. The question of language recognition goes to the heart of the Albanian demands for more equal rights, and to the heart of the Macedonians' objection to granting them. Language, for the Albanians of Macedonia, is more important as a symbol of a human rights and cultural struggle than as a tool for communication. It is believed around 90% of them speak Macedonian, while only around 2% of Macedonians speak Albanian. According to a recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, language represents the essential validation of equal status for the Albanians. The Albanians argue that if countries like Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, which have equal status for minority languages, can make the idea work, so should Macedonia. The Albanians form up to a third of the population. They want equal language status enshrined in the constitution, in Parliament, and in dealings with central and local government. Passports, birth, and marriage, certificates would have to be issued in two languages. The question is also an important part of the Albanians' vision of a multi-ethnic civic society. Macedonians though, are fiercely proud of their own language, and have always been reluctant to give recognition to any other tongue – a stance which is understandable given the political history of the country. Affording equal status to the Albanian language is something the Macedonians will always be reluctant to do.

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