As the only surviving member of its type in the Indo-European family of languages, the Albanian language is of extreme interest to linguists.
Thanks to a mix of Indo-European, archaic and Baltic characteristics combined with foreign influences, the Albanian language’s classification and relationship to other languages has been a point of dispute for many years.
Classification and Early History of the Albanian Language
As a descendent of the now-extinct Illyrian language, the Albanian language is part of a distinct branch of the Indo-European family of languages and is the only living representative of this unique branch. Due to its obscure history, there has been some dispute as to its classification and its place in the Indo-European family.
Albanian’s relationship to the Indo-European language family is apparent in many aspects of the language; however, Albanian also shows archaic traits and traits of the Baltic language family. Albanian’s verb system and its use of active and middle personal endings are archaic features. The fact that the stem vowel “e” is changed to an “o” in the present to past tense conjugation is a Baltic trait.
Due to these unique characteristics and the influence of outside cultures and languages, Albanian’s Indo-European heritage has often been underestimated. The fact that Albanian has no obvious close relation to any other Indo-European language has also contributed to misunderstandings regarding its heritage.
Origins of the Term “Albanian”
There is some dispute among scholars concerning the origins of the term “Albanian.” In the traditional sense, the term “Albanian” referred to a specific area in central Albania. The origins of the modern official name of the language in Albanian, “Shqip” or “Syqiperi,” have also been disputed. Variations of the term Albanian can be found in many languages; the modern Greek name for Albanian is “Arvanitis” while the modern Turkish term for Albanian is “Arnaut.”
Many linguists believe that the name has been passed down in variations from the early Greek. In any case, the term “Albanian” or some variation of it has been in existence for centuries – the term can be found in ancient records since the time of the Greek scholar Ptolemy.
Dialects of the Albanian Language
Two main dialects can be found in the Albanian language: the northern Gheg dialect and more archaic southern Tosk dialect. Approximately separated by Albania’s Shkumbin River, these dialects correspond to the two subgroups of the Albanian people, the Gegs (or Ghegs) and Tosks.
The Gheg and Tosk dialects have been developing differences and diverging from one another for a millennium; however, these dialects largely remain mutually intelligible. A variety of forms exist within the Gheg and Tosk dialects.
A greater number of distinct sub-varieties can be found in the Gheg dialect. One notable example is found in the isolated village of Arbanasi on the Croatian coast. Founded by refugees in the early 18th century, there are an estimated 2,000 speakers of the Arbanasi dialect left today.
Early Development of the Written Albanian Language
The earliest records of a written Albanian language date from the 15th century and consist of religious texts such as a 1462 baptismal formula. A small number of books appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries, most of them produced by Roman Catholic missionaries and religious in nature.
Throughout the 19th century, a small amount of literary Albanian language works can be identified, most of it written by Albanian exiles. One of the earliest known examples of a purely literary Albanian text can be found in the 18th century poetry of Gjul Variboba, a small enclave in Calabria. Throughout the 19th century, additional literary works originated in the Albanian-speaking villages of east Italy.
Development of an Official Written Albanian Language
It took centuries for a standardized Albanian script to develop. One reason for the delay was the fact that while Albanian was used as the everyday spoken language, Latin and Greek were the language of business and the church.
It was not until 1909 that a standard Albanian language orthography modeled after a Latin script was officially introduced. Literature preserved from before this time was written in any number of makeshift orthographies, which included elements of Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, and Turko-Arabic alphabets.
A Modern Albanian Language
The modern Albanian language is spoken in Albania, where it serves as the national language. The official Albanian language introduced in the early 20th century was based on the southern Gheg dialect. A written form of the Tosk dialect, however, was used in all written materials.
After World War II, a shift occurred and the official Albanian language was modified to include more Tosk influences. This evolution was solidified with the 1972 Congress of Orthography in Tirana, when a standard Albanian language based on the Tosk dialect was established.
Albanian Language Today
Albanian is also spoken in a number of ethnic Albanian communities in other areas throughout the Balkans, eastern Italy and Sicily, Germany, Sweden, Greece, Ukraine and Belgium.
Immigrant communities can also be found in North America, notably in the United States. Albanian dialects also once existed in Istria and Syrmia, or Srem; however, these have become extinct.
Foreign Influence on the Albanian Language
Albanian has been subject to centuries of foreign rule and influence, so it’s no surprise that the modern Albanian language has many words adopted from other cultures. The modern Albanian language includes loanwords from Latin, Greek, Turkish, Italian, and Slavic languages.
Albanian Language in Italy and Greece
Dialects of the Albanian language can be found in eastern Italy and southern Greece. They most closely resemble the dialect of Cameria in southern Albania. Approximately 50 villages of Albanian speakers are scattered throughout the eastern coast of Italy.
It is not completely understood how the Albanian language came to migrate to these areas. Most linguists believe that they are the result of population movements in the 13th and 15th centuries, but the exact reason for this migration has not been determined.
Albanian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Tosk, Arnaut, Shkip, Shqip, Skchip, Shqipere, Zhgabe
Language Family: Indo-European, Tosk
Official Language of: Albania
Spoken by Approximately 5,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
Learn About Other Languages
Spanish (Latin America)