The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, January 23, 2006

Albanian origins

The Indo-European family of languages includes a number of Eurasian languages, ranging from living (German) to dead (Tocharian) to isolated (Armenian). One such isolated language is Albanian.

Albanian counts, in some ways, as a rediscovered language like the aforementioned Tocharian and also Hittite. No-one recorded anything Albanianish in writing, nor did they speak any Albanian to someone who could, until several years after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It was only in the 1800s that it was even shown to be Indo-European.

Since it's not Slavic or Greek, presumably the language must be ancient. Given its current location - two juxtaposed dialects, of which the southern one is opposite the heel of Italy and adjacent to the very literate nation of Greece - it is a real puzzle to figure out how the Albanians managed to hide their language from everyone for so long.

We have record of Slavs from the early Middle Ages. Germans? All over the Balkans during Late Antiquity. We know pretty much exactly when the Magyars showed up. Even Basque, a non-Indo-European language in a more distant backwater, is known from Roman inscriptions and histories as "Aquitanian", the non-Gaulish third of Gaul.

I did some Wiki research to find out what I could.

It turns out that, during the late Roman Empire there was a border: between those regions where Greek was the literary language, and north of it where people spoke Latin (from the army). This border is called the Jirecek Line. North of that line, the Byzantine Emperor Justin I was an Illyrian Latinophone, and the modern state of Romania speaks the "Roman" language to this day. South of that line is, of course, Greece today.

Albanian today, like all languages, has loanwords in it. Many of these loanwords are classical Latin (pre-Romance). Some are Greek - but not classical Greek. Since Martin Hurd's 1986 article "Accentual Stratification of Ancient Greek Loanwords in Albanian", we've known that Albanian has Macedonian-Greek intrusions, and also Doric-Greek. It's likely that the Albanians did share a border with Old Macedonia. The Doric is different - it is restricted to trade. The Doric probably filtered in from an intermediary to the west.

The Wiki authors have as of 2006 deduced from all this that the Tosk dialect of Albanian - south of this line - should have a lot more Greek in it than does Gheg to its north. It doesn't; both dialects have the same pre-Romance Latin, and more: the same amount of that Balkan variant of Latin which bequeathed to us Romanian.

From that, we have to conclude that the Romans after invading Macedonia imposed the Jirecek Line upon the Balkans, cutting the Albanians off from "Magna Graecia" and (partially) Latinising them. Then one must assume that on some mediaeval date, Albanians from the Gheg sector migrated south into the Tosk sector-to-be before contact was lost again between the two tribes. If there was ever a proto-Albanian in the Tosk sector, one with more Greek in it, it was overrun well after the fall of the Empire by the Latinising ancestor to Albanian as we know it now, and overrun almost completely.

It's even harder to argue for Albanians south of this line when one considers that for all the Doric in Albanian, there's no backwash of Albanian into Doric. Occam would say it were best to assume that the peoples in the Tosk sector under the Empire weren't Albanians at all.

So the Albanians have no claim to Epirus south of Tirane. By contrast they have every claim to the Albanian-speaking lands north of that. I'd say that Albania has a better claim to Kosovo than it does to its own modern territory.

But before the 1400s, other questions come up. So the Greeks didn't know any Albanians; Macedon and Thrace didn't produce a literature extensive enough during the Hellenistic age and the Greeks were subjugated during the Roman Age. I can live with that.

  • The Romans owned the Adriatic from top to bottom, and had troops all over Dacia and Pannonia. Why didn't one of them record some Albanian, even obliquely like they recorded Aquitanian Basque, Raetic, and dozens of other obscure languages?
  • Why didn't the Byzantines or Serbs pay attention while the Tosk Albanians were moving south?
  • No Gothic German, Magyar, or old Turkic loans in Albanian... seems strange to me.

It sounds almost like the Albanian homeland is in what is Hungary today. If they were that far away, and managed to hide from the Germans, Slavs, and Huns, they might have ducked everyone's notice and moved into north modern Albania around 1000 CE or so. From there, into the Tosk sector.

UPDATE 1/26: Mihai Ciocarlie has a good article, much better researched, which independently arrives at the same conclusion: that the Albanians came from further north than the average Greek or Roman could track. His essay goes a bit further; he tries the tracking himself. To which I can only say, good luck.

UPDATE 3/23/2013: Updated based on Huld's 1986 article.

posted by Zimri on 16:53 | link | 0 comments

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