Albania’s Competing Alphabets, 1908.

Joel of Far Outliers is quoting passages from Edith Durham’s 1909 travel book High Albania, and I thought this one was so striking I couldn’t resist quoting most of it myself:

In early days an alphabet was made by Bishop Bogdan, and used by the Jesuits for all Albanian printed matter required by the church. Briefly, it is the Latin alphabet with four additional fancy letters. The spelling used is otherwise as in Italian. Help from without had enabled Greek, Serb, and Bulgar under Turkish rule to have schools in their own tongues. The natural result has been that each in turn has revolted, and, so far as possible, won freedom from Turkish rule. And those that have not yet done so look forward, in spite of the Young Turk, to ultimate union with their kin.

Albania awoke late to the value of education as a means of obtaining national freedom, and demanded national schools. But the Turks, too, had then learnt by experience. They replied, “We have had quite enough of schools in national languages. No, you don’t!” and prohibited, under heavy penalty, not only schools, but the printing of the language.

The only possible schools were those founded by Austria and Italy, ostensibly to give religious instruction. These used the Jesuits’ alphabet. Ten years ago some patriotic Albanians, headed by the Abbot of the Mirdites, decided that the simple Latin alphabet was far more practical. They reconstructed the orthography of the language, using only Latin letters, and offered their simple and practical system to the Austrian schools, volunteering to translate and prepare the necessary books if Austria would print them – neither side to be paid. A whole set of books was made ready and put in use. Education was at last firmly started; it remained only to go forward. But a united and educated Albania was the last thing Austria wished to see. Faced with a patriotic native clergy and a committee striving for national development, Austria recoiled. Three years ago the simple Latin alphabet was thrown out of the Austrian schools and a brand new system adopted, swarming with accents, with several fancy letters, and with innumerable mute “ee’s” printed upside down – a startling effect, as of pages of uncorrected proofs!

It was invented by an influential priest. Its adoption enabled Austria to split the native priesthood into two rival camps, and – as it was not adopted by the Italian schools – to emphasise the difference between the pro-Italian and pro-Austrian parties; and that it was expressly introduced for these purposes no one who has heard all sides can doubt.

Nor can Albanian education make any progress till it has schools in which no foreign Power is allowed to intrigue. Such are now being started.

I read High Albania years ago (and probably still have it around somewhere) and highly recommend it; she was observant, intelligent, and a good writer.


  1. This inevitably simplifies the immensely complicated situation given in great detail at Wikipedia. Albanian has at various times and places been regularly written in the Greek, Cyrillic, and Arabic scripts in addition to Latin script (sometimes enhanced with Greek letters). At least six Latin orthographies have been in regular use, with many more used sporadically. And there exist works, most notably the 19C Elbasan Gospel, that have been written in unique scripts unrelated, or only vaguely related, to any of the above.

  2. Sure, but Durham’s focus was on alphabet-related political skulduggery, not the complete history of Albanian orthographies.

  3. This would go towards explaining why the alphabet with the longest pre-standardisation usage was not adopted by the Congress of Monastir (Bitola) in 1910. The alphabet I am referring to is the one used by the Franciscans who maintained a tradition of printing religious works in Albanian. They used a well-designed font with a few additional letters designed for specific Albanian sounds. See for example the “Cuneus prophetarum de Christo salvatore mundi” by Bogdani from 1685.

  4. Hello LH

    My comment is still awaiting moderation is it because of the link to Google Books? Here is the comment without the link to Google Books:

    This would go towards explaining why the alphabet with the longest pre-standardisation usage was not adopted by the Congress of Monastir (Bitola) in 1910. The alphabet I am referring to is the one used by the Franciscans who maintained a tradition of printing religious works in Albanian. They used a well-designed font with a few additional letters designed for specific Albanian sounds. See for example the “Cuneus prophetarum de Christo salvatore mundi” by Bogdani from 1685.

  5. There’s nothing in moderation, so you must have accidentally deleted it — I don’t know how these things work. You can add the Google Books link as a separate comment, or e-mail it to me and I’ll post it. Sorry about the trouble!

    My mistake; I’ve freed it from moderation.

  6. Norman Douglas has a chapter on one of the Italo-Albanian colleges in his Old Calabria (1915). He ends with a discussion of the language itself:

    The Albanians, so says one of their writers, are “the oldest people upon earth,” and their language is the “divine Pelasgic mother-tongue.” I grew interested awhile in Stanislao Marchiano’s plausibly entrancing study on this language, as well as in a pamphlet of de Rada’s on the same subject ; but my ardour has cooled since learning, from another native grammarian, that these writers are hopelessly in the wrong on nearly every point. So much is certain, that the Albanian language already possesses more than thirty different alphabets (each of them with nearly fifty letters). Nevertheless they have not yet, in these last four (or forty) thousand years, made up their minds which of them to adopt, or whether it would not be wisest, after all, to elaborate yet another one — a thirty-first. And so difficult is their language with any of these alphabets that even after a five days’ residence on the spot I still find myself puzzled by such simple passages as this :

    . . . ZUji,
    mosse vet, ce asso mbremie
    te ngtriret me ilji{“, praa
    gji^ e miegculem, mhi ^iaarr
    rriij i sgjuat. Nje voogh e keljbur
    ^orrevet te Ijosta
    ndjej se i oxtenej
    e pisseroghej. Zuu shiu
    menes ; ne mee se Ijinaar
    chish Ijeen pa-shuatur
    / SKiotta, e i ducheje per moon.

    I will only add that the translation of such a passage — it contains twenty-eight accents which I have omitted — is mere child’s play to its pronunciation.

    (Page 187 of the archived edition gives a cleaner version of the Albanian text than cut and paste will allow. )

    Douglas too, was observant, intelligent, and a good writer, if more than somewhat of a crank.

    You will excuse me now as I am off now to find High Albania.

  7. David Marjanović says

    mosse vet, ce asso mbremie
    te ngcriret me iljiζ, praa
    gjiθ e miegculem, mhi ζiaarr
    rriij i sgjuat. Nje voogh e keljbur
    ζorrevet te ljosta
    ndjej se i oχtenej
    e pisseroghej. Zuu shiu
    menes; ne mee se ljinaar
    chish ljeen pa-shuatur
    sκiotta, e i ducheje per moon.

    That looks almost legible.

  8. Which google translate reads as:

    Move on its own, there aces of the night
    To cling to ilji, then
    It is the miegculem, mhi ζiaarr
    Shake and shave. It’s a bad thing
    Ζorrevet ti šosta
    I feel that I owed it
    It was pissering. Zuu rain
    menes; Not with me
    Chish ljeen pa-shuatur
    Skiiotta, and ducheje for moon”

    Child’s play!

  9. And quite pithy. I plan to adopt “Shake and shave. It’s a bad thing” and “It was pissering” for my own use.

  10. Greg Pandatshang says

    If the old shake-and-shove starts seeming like a bad thing, you might be doing it wrong.

  11. Shave, not shove! The old shake-and-shove is great. But shaking while you’re shaving… well, try it and see for yourself.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Shaving is supposed to be the last step in the canonical sequence (to which shaking would be incidental at best to the prior two steps).

  13. ‘Twas pissering, and the slithy toves
    Did shake and shave upon the wabe…

    It isn’t quite so hopeless. Many words incomprehensible to Google Translate are nevertheless easy to recognise, e.g. mjegullë ‘fog, mist’, zjarr ‘fire’, qelbur ‘stinking’, etc. It looks decipherable, with a little patience.

    The text, however, is terribly mangled, so rather than trying to emend and reconstruct it I have located the Arbëresh original (Skanderbeku i pafān, Canto V, 132–142, by Girolamo de Rada). I have to copy it with all the diactitics omitted by Douglas, which is going to take a little time, so it must wait till tomorrow.

  14. Oops, it’s Book II, Canto V. Skanderbeg the Misfortunate is a very long epic poem. The orthography below follows the conventions used in modern critical editions for de Rada’s native Sandemetresi dialect of Arbëresh.

    … Cili,
    mose vet, çë aso mbrëmje
    të ngrîret me iliz, prā
    gjíth e mjègullëm, mbî zjārr’
    rrīj i zgjùat. Njė vōgh e qélbur
    zorrėvet tė lòsta
    ndjejᵢ se i àhjtėnej
    e pisėróghej. Zū shîu
    mėnès, ne më̄ se linār’
    kish lë̄n pâshúatur
    sqota, e i dukej-ë për mō’n.

    Now it’s really child’s play 😉

  15. Sorry, it’s still all Albanian to me.

  16. Standard Albanian would be of limited help, as there are lots of differences between this dialect and mainstream Tosk. But an Italian translation (by Vincento Delmonte, the editor of de Rada’s Opera omnia) is available:

    … Costui,
    sempre solo, da quando la sera,
    prima fredda, stellata,
    di nebbia si avvolse,
    al fuoco vegliava. Dal ventre corrotto
    un alito fetido
    sentiva esalare e pativa
    tristezza mortale. Sul tardi
    era scesa la pioggia. La sola lucerna
    in turbine accesa
    aveva lasciato, e pareva
    dovesse durare per sempre.

  17. Splendid work on the Albanian!

  18. One would think Google Translate should have no major problems with Standard Italian, and yet:

    … The only light-bulb
    in the switched turbine
    had left, and it seemed
    to last forever.

  19. SFReader says

    ReGoogleTranslated back into Albanian

    … Ai,
    gjithmonë i vetëm, pasi në mbrëmje,
    para ftohtë, starry,
    e mjegullës e mbështolli,
    Ai shikuar zjarrin. Nga barku i korruptuar
    një frymë qelbur
    Ai ndjeu dhe vuajti për të nxjerr
    trishtim vdekshëm. më vonë
    shi kishte rënë. E vetmja llambë
    në turbinë mundësuar
    Ai kishte lënë, dhe u duk
    Ajo do të zgjasë përgjithmonë.

    Quite different from the original version, I’d say.

    Especially worrying is “oχtenej e pisseroghej” which I assume means “tristezza mortale”

    Why it’s so different?

  20. in the switched turbine

    ‘Turbine’ isn’t even turbine in Italian, it’s turbina!

  21. SFReader says

    Just for the fun of it here is…. I need a scheme here…

    Original dialect Albanian-> Literary translation into Italian-> Google Translation back into standard Albanian -> Google Translation into English.

    … He,
    Always alone, after the evening,
    Cold front, starry,
    The mist he wrapped,
    He looked at the fire. From the corrupt womb
    A stinging breath
    He felt and suffered to show off
    Mortal sadness. Later
    The rain had fallen. The only lamp
    In powered turbine
    He had left, and it seemed
    It will last forever.

  22. Not bad!

  23. I mean, as poetry, not as translation.

  24. Quite different from the original version, I’d say.

    See here for the scale of phonetic, lexical and morphosyntactic divergence between Standard Albanian and Italo-Albanian, and here for a brief characterisation of Vaccarizzo Albanian, closely related to the dialect used by de Rada (born in San Demetrio Corone, Calabria).

  25. Never heard of de Rada, or his epic poem, so that’s good to know. One of Skanderbeg’s collateral descendants (we’re in Italy by now) was Costantino Castriota, a very hard boiled Knight of St John (an ace of the knights, as it were) and, under the pen name Filonico Alicarnasseo, a writer of some rather delicate Italian belle lettres.

    But let’s not go down that rabbit hole.

  26. Why not? The landscape of Languagehat is all about enticing rabbit holes with Alices at the bottom.

  27. Yes indeed. We wuv wabbitses!

  28. Seconded. It’s a warren.

  29. Indeed, the Owsla here is very welcoming of esoteric tangents.

  30. I am reading my way through High Albania. It occurred to me to wonder if the law of the blood feud is still practiced. Alas, yes. Indeed, it has gotten far worse since 1989, when civil order broke down and military weapons came into the hands of civilians, and the old prohibitions against shooting women and small children in revenge were discarded. Now the EU is thinking of putting Albania on the list of “safe countries”, meaning that however well-founded their fear of death at the hands of their fellow-countrymen, Albanians will not even be able to become refugees.

  31. David Marjanović says

    The list of Safe Third Countries to which refugees can be deported is staggeringly evil.

  32. Well, it’s because governments tend to think that only government violence counts. No country would accept an Italian as a refugee just because he was wanted by the Mafia or ‘Ndrangheta.

  33. Lloyd Jones’ Biografi is a fictional journalistic travelogue, in which the author, in the first years after the fall of communism, seraches Albania for a man who had been coerced to be Enver Hoxha’s body double for many years. The subject of the book, Petar Shapallo, is acknowledged to have been made up; the descriptions of the country are accurate in many details. Beyond that, I have never gotten a satisfying explanation as to what in the book is fictional and what is not. It’s eerily convincing, and for a while I didn’t know it was anything but straight reporting.

  34. David Marjanović says

    it’s because governments tend to think that only government violence counts

    Nah, it’s because governments tend to be driven like sheep by extreme-right populists. Some of the ignored violence does come from governments.

  35. Here‘s a remarkably interesting excerpt from High Albania.

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