The Albanian language (shqip) is spoken by over six million people in the
southwestern Balkans, primarily in the Republic of Albania and in the
neighbouring countries which once formed part of the Yugoslav federation
(Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). In Albania itself, the language
is spoken by the entire population of 3,087,159 inhabitants (census of April
2001), including some bilingual ethnic minorities.
In Kosovo, where there are as yet no reliable population statistics, Albanian is
spoken by almost the entire population of about two million individuals,
including some bilingual minorities: Bosniaks, Turks, Croats and Roma.
Ethnic Serbs in Kosova (now about five percent of the population) have
traditionally refused to learn or speak Albanian, but attitudes may change once
traditional hostilities and ethnic tensions subside.
The Republic of Macedonia is estimated to have at least half a million
Albanian speakers, equaling about twenty-five percent of the total population
of the republic, although there are no reliable statistics. The Albanian
population is to be found in and around Skopje (Alb. Shkup), where it
constitutes a substantial minority, Kumanova (Maced. Kumanovo) and, in
particular, in western Macedonia from Tetova (Maced. Tetovo), Gostivar and
Dibra (Maced. Debar) down to Struga, where it forms the majority.
A minority of about 50,000 Albanian speakers is also to be found in
Montenegro, mostly along the Albanian border (Ulqin-Ulcinj, Tuz and
Gucia/Gusinje). There are also at least 70,000 to 100,000 Albanian speakers
scattered throughout southern Serbia, primarily in the Presheva Valley near the
borders of Macedonia and Kosova.
To the south of Albania, in Greece, there are traditional settlements of
Çamërian dialect speakers, in particular around Parga and Igoumenitsa in
Epirus. Despite border changes and deportations to Albania, the Albanian
population here may be as high as 100,000, although they are highly
assimilated. In central Greece, the Albanian language, known in Albanian as
Arbërisht and in Greek as Arvanitika, languishes in about 320 villages,
primarily those of Boeotia (especially around Levadhia), southern Euboea,
Attica, Corinth and northern Andros. These speakers are the descendants of
large-scale Albanian emigration to Greece during the late Middle Ages. No
official statistics exist as to their numbers. This exceptionally archaic form of
Albanian is dying out rapidly.
In southern Italy, there is a small but well-established Albanian-speaking
minority, the so-called Arbëresh, or Italo-Albanians. These are the descendants
of refugees who fled Albania after the death of Scanderbeg in 1468. As a
linguistic group, the Arbëresh now consist of about 90,000 speakers, most of
whom live in the mountain villages of Cosenza in Calabria and in the vicinity
of Palermo in Sicily. The Arbëresh speak an archaic dialect of Albanian, which
differs substantially from the Albanian now spoken in the Balkans, to the
extent that communication is difficult if Arbëresh speakers are not familiar
with standard literary Albanian.
Traditional Albanian settlements can be encountered sporadically elsewhere in
the Balkans: in Arbanasi, a suburb of Zadar on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia;
in some villages in the Sandjak in Serbia and in the Bulgarian-Greek-Turkish
border region, notably in the Bulgarian village of Mandrica. A few Albanian
speakers are also to be found in the Ukraine, notably in villages in the regions
of Melitopol’ and Odessa.
Little remains of the once extensive colonies of Albanians scattered throughout
the Ottoman Empire. The Albanian minority in Egypt has now dissipated,
though Albanian communities still exist in large numbers in Turkey (Istanbul,
Bursa and elsewhere) and to an extent in Syria, notably in Damascus.
Since the late 1980s in Kosova and since the opening of Albania in 1990-1991,
there has been a substantial emigration of Albanian speakers from their
traditional areas of settlement to other countries, in particular to Greece and
Italy. There are also large numbers of Albanian emigrants to be found in
western Europe (esp. Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia and London) and in
North America (New York, Boston, Detroit, Toronto).
Origin and development of Albanian
Albanian is a language of the extensive Indo-European family and is thus
related to a certain degree to almost all other languages of Europe. The Indo-
European character of the language was first recognized in 1854 by the
German linguist Franz Bopp (1791-1867). At the same time, Albanian shows
no particularly close historical affinity to any other language or language group
within the Indo-European family, i.e. it forms a language group of its own.
Despite Albania’s geographical proximity to Greece, linguistic contacts with
ancient Greek seem to have been sporadic. Roman trading settlements on the
Illyrian coast and Albania’s absorption into the Roman Empire, however, left
noticeable traces in the language. Borrowings from Latin, which took place
over a period of several centuries, were so massive as to threaten the very
structure of the language. Cultural contacts with the Slavs (Bulgarians and
Serbs), Turks and Italians have also left substantial strata of vocabulary in
Not only in its vocabulary, but also in its morphology and syntax, Albanian
shows many traits in common with other Balkan languages, due both to extinct
substrata languages (Illyrian, Thracian, Dacian) and to centuries of parallel
development. Among these traits are: a postpositive definite article; the fusion
of the genitive and dative case endings; the formation of the numbers 11-19 by
“one on ten”; the absence of a grammatical infinitive; and the formation of the
future tense with the verb “to want.”
Whether or not Albanian is a direct successor of the language of the ancient
Illyrians, as is broadly assumed nowadays, is difficult to determine since very
few records of the Illyrian language have been preserved.
Synchronic description of Albanian
The Albanian language is divided into two basic dialect groups: Gheg in the
north of the country and Tosk in the south. The Shkumbin River in central
Albania, flowing past Elbasan into the Adriatic, forms the approximate
boundary between the two dialect regions. Here, in a zone ten to twenty
kilometers wide, intermediate dialects are also found.
The Gheg dialect group, characterized by the presence of nasal vowels, by the
retention of the older n for Tosk r (e.g., venë “wine” for Tosk verë; Shqypnia
“Albania” for Tosk Shqipëria) and by several distinct morphological features,
can be further classified into a northwestern (Shkodra and surrounding region),
a northeastern (northeastern Albania and Kosova), a central (between the
Ishëm and Mat Rivers and eastwards into Macedonia, including Dibra and
Tetova) and a southern (Durrës, Tirana) Gheg dialect.
The Tosk dialect group is in general more homogenous, though it can be
subdivided into a northern (from Fier to Vlora on the coast and all of inland
southern Albania north of the Vjosa River), a Labërian or Lab (south of the
Vjosa to Saranda), and a Çamërian or Çam (the southern tip of Albania and
into Greece) dialect.
The modern literary language (gjuha letrare), agreed upon at the Orthography
Congress of 20 to 25 November 1972, is a combination of the two dialect
groups, though based about eighty percent on Tosk. It is now a widely
accepted standard both in Albania and elsewhere, though there have been
increasing tendencies in recent years to revive literary Gheg.
In its structure, Albanian is a synthetic language similar to most other Indo-
European languages. Nouns are marked for gender, number, case and also have
definite and indefinite forms. The vast majority of nouns are masculine or
feminine, though there are rare examples of neuter nouns, which now function
increasingly as masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. As to
number, nouns appear in the singular and plural, as in most other European
languages. There are approximately 100 plural formations, including suffixes,
umlauts, final consonant changes, and combinations thereof.
The nominal system distinguishes five cases: nominative, genitive, dative,
accusative and ablative. The genitive and dative endings are always the same.
Attributive genitives are in addition linked to the nouns that they qualify by a
complicated system of connective particles: i, e, të and së, often reflecting the
ending of the preceding word, e.g., bulevardi i qytetit “the city boulevard,”
bukuria e bulevardit të qytetit “the beauty of the city boulevard.” The definite
and indefinite forms of the noun are shown by the presence or absence of a
postpositive definite article. The noun declension thus shows two sets of
endings: definite and indefinite. Most adjectives follow the noun either directly
or are preceded by a connective particle, e.g., djali nervoz “the irritable boy,”
djali i vogël “the little boy.”
The Albanian verb system has the following categories: three persons, two
numbers, ten tenses, two voices and six moods. Unusual among the moods is
the admirative, which is used to express astonishment on the part of the
speaker, e.g. bie shi “it’s raining,” rënka shi “why, it’s raining!”