Viennese researchers upset traditionally minded Albanians by pouring cold water on the theory that the Albanian language has its roots in Ancient Illyria. 25 MAR 11.
Tirana and Vienna
Joachim Matzinger and Stefan Schumacher | Photo by : Besar Likmeta
Deep in the bowels of Vienna University, two Austrian academics are poring over the ancient texts of a far-away people in the Balkans.
Like a couple of detectives searching for clues, Stefan Schumacher and Joachim Matzinger are out to reconstruct the origins of Albanian - a language whose history and development has received remarkably little attention outside the world of Albanian scholars.
“The way that languages change can be traced,” Schumacher declares, with certainty.
Although the two men are simply studying 17th and 18th-century Albanian texts in order to compile a lexicon of verbs, their innocent-sounding work has stirred hot debate among Albanian linguists.
The root of the controversy is their hypothesis that Albanian does not originate from the language of the Ancient Illyrians, the people or peoples who inhabited the Balkans in the Greek and Roman era.
According to Classical writers, the Illyrians were a collection of tribes who lived in much of today’s Western Balkans, roughly corresponding to part of former Yugoslavia and modern Albania.
Although Albanian and Illyrian have little or nothing in common, judging from the handful of Illyrian words that archeologists have retrieved, the Albanian link has long been cherished by Albanian nationalists.
The theory is still taught to all Albanians, from primary school through to university.
It is popular because it suggests that Albanians descend from an ancient people who populated the Balkans long before the Slavs and whose territory was unfairly stolen by these later incomers. “You’ll find the doctrine about the Illyrian origin of Albanians everywhere,” Matzinger muses, “from popular to scientific literature and schoolbooks. “There is no discussion about this, it’s a fact. They say, ‘We are Illyrians’ and that’s that,” he adds.
What’s in a name?
The names of many Albanians bear witness to the historic drive to prove the Illyrian link.
Pandeli Pani | Photo by : Idem Institute
Not Pandei Pani. When he was born in Tirana in 1966, midway through the long dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, his father told the local registry office that he wished to name him after his grandfather. Pani recalls his father’s hard-fought battle not to have to give his son an Illyrian name. Staff at the civil registry office apparently said that naming the future linguistics professor after his grandfather was not a good idea, as he was dead. They suggested an approved Illyrian name instead.
“But the Illyrians aren’t alive either,” Pani recalls his father as quipping.
Many members of Pani’s generation born in the Sixties did not have such stubborn fathers. Their parents subscribed to the government policy of naming children after names drawn from ancient tombs.
In the eyes of the world, they aimed to cement the linkage between modern Albania and its supposedly ancient past.
“While I was named after my grandfather, keeping up a family tradition, other parents gave their children Illyrian names that I doubt they knew the meaning of,” says Pani, who today teaches at Jena university in Germany.
“But I doubt many parents today would want to name their children ‘Bledar’ or ‘Agron,’ when the first means ‘dead’ and the second ‘arcadian,” he adds.
Pani says that despite the Hoxha regime’s efforts to burn the doctrine of the Albanians’ Illyrian origins into the nation’s consciousness, the theory has become increasingly anachronistic.
“The political pressure in which Albania’s scientific community worked after the communist took over, made it difficult to deal with flaws with the doctrine of the Illyrian origin,” he said.
But while the Illyrian theory no longer commands universal support, it hasn’t lost all its supporters in Albanian academia. Take Mimoza Kore, linguistics professor at the University of Tirana.
Mimoza Kore | Photo by : Photo by : Albaneological Institute
Speaking during a conference in November organised by the Hanns Seidel Foundation, where Pani presented Schumacher’s and Matzinger’s findings, she defended the linkage of Albanian and Illyrian, saying it was not based only on linguistic theory.
“Scholars base this hypothesis also on archeology,” Kore said. Renowned scholars who did not “subscribe blindly to the ideology of the [Hoxha] regime” still supported the idea, she insisted.
One of the key problems in working out the linguistic descendants of the Illyrians is a chronic shortage of sources.
The Illyrians appears to have been unlettered, so information on their language and culture is highly fragmentary and mostly derived from external sources, Greek or Roman. Matzinger points put that when the few surviving fragments of Illyrian and Albanian are compared, they have almost nothing in common.
“The two are opposites and cannot fit together,” he says. “Albanian is not as the same as Illyrian from a linguistic point of view.”
Schumacher and Matzinger believe Albanian came into existence separately from Illyrian, orginating from the Indo-European family tree during the second millennium BC, somewhere in the northern Balkans. The language’s broad shape resembles Greek. It appears to have developed lineally until the 15th century, when the first extant text comes to light.
“One thing we know for sure is that a language which, with some justification, we can call Albanian has been around for at least 3,000 years,” Schumacher says. “Even though it was not written down for millennia, Albanian existed as a separate entity,” he added.
Linguists say different languages spoken in the same geographical area often reveal similarities, despite a lack of evidence of a common origin. This phenomenon of linguistic “areas” is also evident in the Balkans, where such different languages as Albanian, Greek, Bulgarian and Romanian all share words and structures.
First written words in Albanian
The first written record of Albanian is a baptismal formula written in 1462 by the Archbishop of Durres, Pal Engjelli. The first book in Albanian, a missal, was written in 1554 by Gjon Buzuku, a Catholic priest from the Shkodra region.
Pjeter Budi, Archbishop of Sape, also translated and adapted several Italian texts to Albanian in the same period.
Schumacher and Matzinger are concentrating their scholarship mostly on the work of Pjeter Bogdani, Archbishop of Prizren, who wrote half-a-century later. He is considered the most interesting Albanian early writer and the “father” of Albanian prose.
Bogdani’s most famous work, The Story of Adam and Eve, his account of the first part of the Bible, is written in both Albanian and Italian. Matzinger says that when Bogdani published the book he was under some pressure from the Inquisition. As the Inquisition did not know Albanian, and were not sure what he wrote, they forced him to make an Italian translation, which is published in the left column of the book.
“That is most useful because it means that no sentence in the book [in Albanian] is incomprehensible,” Matzinger says.
Although numerous texts by Bogdani, Budi and some others survive, the variety of authors, mainly Catholic clerics, is small. “It would be interesting if we had a bigger variety of authors, though we’re grateful enough for what we do have,” Schumacher says.Accoding to Schumacher, from the Middle Ages onwards, languages throughout the Balkans tended to become more similar to one another, suggesting a high level of linguistic “exchange” between populations in the region.
“A lot of people used a number of languages every day, and this is one way in which languages influence each other,” Schumacher says. “The difficult thing is that this runs counter to nationalist theories,” he adds.
Drawing on genetic terminology, linguists term this process of language exchange language “bastardization”.
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the phenomenon of language bastardization has taken a new twist, moving in the opposite direction, as each newly formed state acts to shore up its own unique linguistic identity.
Before the common state collapsed, four of the six constituent republics, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro, shared a common language known as Serbo-Croat.
But since declaring independence in 1991, Croatia has consciously highlighted the distinct character of its language, now called “Croatian”.
Bosnian Muslims have made similar efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, promoting official use of a codified “Bosniak” language.
Montenegro, which remained in a loose state union with Serbia until 2006, then appeared content not to have its own separate language. But after independence, a new constitution adopted on October 2007 named the official language as Montenegrin.
Similar calls to foster a separate national language have been heard in Kosovo, drawing on the northern Albanian “Gegh” dialect, though none of these initiatives has received official encouragement.
Out of language, an identity:
The study of Balkan languages came of age in the later 19th century as the Ottoman Empire began disintegrating and as intellectuals tasked with creating new nations out of its rubble turned to language to help forge national identities.
Cover of Adam and Eve, from Pjeter Bogdani | Photo by : Stefan Schumacher
According Schumacher, each country in the Balkans forged its own national myth, just as Germany or the US had done earlier, with a view to creating foundations for a shared identity.
“In the late 19th century, language was the only element that everyone could identify with,” says Schumacher.
He described the use of linguistics in national mythology as understandable, considering the context and the time when these countries gained independence.
“It’s not easy to create an identity for Albanians if you just say that they descend from mountains tribes about whom the historians of antiquity wrote nothing,” he notes.
The friction between ideological myth and reality, when it comes to forging national identity, and laying claim to territory, is not unique to Albania.
Schumacher points out that Romanian history books teach that Romanians descend from the Roman legionnaires who guarded the Roman province of Dacia – a questionable theory to which few non-Romanians lend much credence, but which shores up Romania’s claim to Transylvania, a land to which Hungarians historically also lay claim.
“The Romanian language developed somewhere south of the Danube, but Romanians don’t want to admit that because the Hungarians can claim that they have been there before,” notes Schumacher.
“None of them is older or younger,” says Schumacher. “Languages are like a bacterium that splits up in two and than splits up in two again and when you have 32 bacteria in the end, they are all the same,” he added.
The two Austrian linguists say that within European academia, Albanian is one of the most neglected languages, which provides an opportunity to conduct pioneering work.
Although the extant texts have been known for a long time, “they hardly ever been looked at properly”, Schumacher says. “They were mostly read by scholars of Albanian in order to find, whatever they wanted to find,” he adds.
This article was produced as part of a journalistic exchange programme between BIRN and Austrian daily Der Standard.