The Albanian Linguistic Journey from Ancient Illyricum to EU “Lexical Borrowings”

Lexical borrowings are responsible for as much as ninety percent of the Albanian vocabulary and due to globalization, this percentage is about to grow even more. With a great history of three thousand years behind it and being neighbor to the two great civilizations of the then known world, Ancient Greece and Rome, Albanian has borrowed more words than any other European language.
Belonging to the family of the Indo-European languages, Albanian has primarily
borrowed from languages within this family of languages, but even from other languages such as Turkish.
Lexical borrowings are tightly connected to the history and culture of this nation.
Depending on the presence of which foreign power ruled in the Albanian territories at which time, these borrowings have had as a primary source either Greek (Ancient, Middle or New),Latin or Turkish with a few minor interferences from Gothic and Slavic languages. Other sources have been: Italian due to its presence under WWI and WWII and of course English due to its status as an international language, although this last one has not enjoyed the same success of integrating into the Albanian vocabulary as one would expect.
Every language has its own reasons for borrowing from another language. There are two
main reasons: prestige and need. Albanian is not an exception. Albanian has borrowed from Greek and Latin both on the basis of need and on the basis of prestige. On the basis of need,Albanian has borrowed those words related to a new product, intellectual concept or new words referring to the advancements in technology. On the basis of prestige Albanian fulfills the criteria as a neighbor to not only one, but two major cultural languages such as Greek and Latin.

1.1 Problem description
Being amazed by the lack of research regarding the Albanian language in general but even lexical borrowings in specific, the interesting questions that are brought up in the background description spiked my curiosity: Where does a language come from? Every language has its own history and during the course of that history, it might change, evolve or even die. Why do languages borrow from each other? Borrowing seems to be true for every language that has contact with another, even for major cultural languages such as Greek. Every case though is unique in itself. From which languages can a language borrow? Speakers of a certain language borrow from the people that they come in contact with, face-to-face or otherwise. How do languages incorporate those borrowings? There are different ways a language can incorporate lexical borrowings in its vocabulary with the main categories being: loanwords, loan translations,
semantic loans, foreign words and loan blends.
After answering those questions, the following step would be to apply the same principles to the Albanian language and answer them in specific regarding this language: Where does the Albanian language come from and from which languages has it borrowed? The next logical step would be to answer the questions: why has the Albanian language borrowed so extensively from those languages and how has it incorporated those loans in its vocabulary?

1.2 Aim
The primary objective for this master thesis is the identification of the vast numbers of lexical borrowings in the Albanian language, which languages they primarily come from, why the Albanian language has borrowed so many words during the course of its history and how those borrowings are incorporated in the Albanian language.
A secondary objective is the brief introduction of the Albanian history, to provide a clear
picture of where the Albanian language comes from, and supporting this with archeological,cultural and linguistic findings.

2 Historical background
History is the most powerful weapon in the service of linguistics. Therefore, in order to
understand the Albanian language, one must first understand this country’s history. Being one of  the oldest peoples in the Balkans, Albanians have a formidable history dating back to the time of Alexander the Great but even further back via the history of their ancestors, the Illyrians.
According to Wilkes (1992), the Illyrians lived east of the Adriatic and occupied a territory which stretched out from central modern-Albania in the south, up to and including almost all of the Yougoslavian lands in the north (3).
One of the first to mention the Illyrians was Thucydides in 423 B.C, after a Macedonian
campaign between two rival Macedonian tribes. Thucydides’ reference to the Illyrians was very precise, and he regarded them as hostile troops to Macedonia (Katičić, 1976: 155). Thucydides refers to the Illyrians as military troops for hire, although not reliable (2007:198).
Another reference to the Illyrians comes from the Roman historian Appianus of
Alexandria1 . He refers to the Illyrians as a people that inhabit a region above Macedonia and Thrace, from Thesprotia in the south to the river Danube in the North. Appianus (1703) gives an in detail description of the region where Illyria laid, measuring the length and breadth of Illyria in days-traveled. He even refers to a legend regarding the origin of the name of Illyria:
They say that the country received its name from Illyrius, the son of Polyphemus; for the cyclops Polyphemus and his wife, Galatea, had three sons, Celtus, Illyrius, and Galas, all of whom migrated from Sicily; and the nations called Celts, Illyrians, and Galatians took their origin from them. Among the many myths prevailing among many peoples this seems to me the most plausible (176).
The Illyrians are an important part of the ancient history of the Balkans, even if there is little known about them. They are thought to have settled in the Balkans probably during the early Bronze Age2 and founded kingdoms which later came under the influence of Greece. Greece left  its marks during the colonization of the area, one of the oldest cities of Albania, Epidamnus3 (Durrës in the modern-day Albania).
Epidamnus was later known as Dyrrhachium by the Romans which colonized Illyria after the Greeks, making it a Roman province. Even if the Illyrians played an important role in the Roman army, they were never Romanized but kept their language, Illyrian (Fortson, 2010:464-65).

It is to all researchers’ great disappointment that almost nothing written has survived
from the Illyrian times. According to Wilkes (1992) the only references remaining are those of  Greek or Roman scholars, referring to names of places and persons. Some of those Illyrians words that have been left behind such as: ‘illy. rhinos eng.fog’, ‘illy.sabaius/sabaia eng.local variety of beer’ have also survived due to the writings of the Greek and Roman scholars (69). In Ammianus Marcelinus 26.8.2 referring to the
ancient Illyrian drink, we read: “est autem sabaia ex ordeo vel frumento in liquorem conversis paupertinus in Illyrico potus” 4
Most of those words the Illyrians left behind, are found in tombs or monuments, using either Latin or Greek letters. This does not by any means indicate the Hellenization or Romanization of the local population, rather using these major cultural languages as trade languages.
In an attempt to really understand the origins of Albania, different theories have appeared in different periods in time: origins in Dacia and Thrace have been sought in order to establish whether the Albanians have moved to their autochthonous homeland from one of the previous regions. There are two main categories though, that the historians have been trying to place the origin of the Albanians: Illyrian or Thracian. Linguists have tried to place the origins of their language focusing mainly on these two categories (Huld, 1984: 8).

The fact, that Albanians claim to be direct descendants of the Illyrians, has often been
contested by other researchers but there are more than enough findings and logical reasoning to convince scholars that the Illyrians are the predecessors of the Albanians. Thus the Albanian language is a direct descendant of the Illyrian language. The two basic arguments supporting this, are: that those words surviving from Illyrian, such as place names and personal names (see 3.2 The origin controversy), can only be explained through the Albanian language and that the modern-day Albanians live in the same geographical region as the Illyrians did. The place names that survive even in modern-day Albania and nowhere else have been known since antiquity and have been places of great interest both archeologically and linguistically: city of Dyrrchachium >Durrës, river Drinus > Drin, city of Lissus > Lezha, city of Mathis > Mat (Jacques, 1995: 36-38).

The evolution of the Albanian language has passed through different stages: IndoEuropean => Proto-Albanian=> Old Albanian => Albanian. Proto-Albanian’s contact with Latin extended over a period of six centuries, from the 1st century AD – the 6th century AD, when the  Slavic influences on the language began (Orel, 2000:xi-xii).
Proto-Albanian’s contact with Greece and the Greek influences had already taken place eight centuries earlier, in 7755 B.C.,when the first Greek merchants established trading colonies on the shores of Adriatic. One of the most significant findings regarding that period, was the discovery of silver coins6 which were called “Illyrian drachmas”:
“Illyrian” because they bear the names of Illyrian kings and “drachmas” because of the people  who introduced them to the monetary system around 450 B.C., the Greeks (Jacques, 1995:94-96).

Figure 2: “Illyrian drachmas”: silver coin excavated in Albania in 1998ALB COINS

In the course of history there have been many other influences, such as Gothic (see 4.9
Borrowings during the Byzantine period) for a brief period of time as well as Italian (see 4.11 Borrowings from Italian) during the modern days, in both the Albanian language and the Albanian culture.

3 Albanian as an Indo-European language
‘While many have maintained that the search for the PIE homeland is a waste of intellectual effort, or beyond the competence of the methodologies involved, the many scholars who have tackled the problem have ably evinced why they consider it important. The location of the homeland and the description of how the Indo-European languages spread is central to any explanation of how Europe became European. In a
larger sense it is a search for the origins of western civilization.’
(Mallory, Journal of indo-European Studies 1,1973:21)
Albanian (Gjuha Shqipe pronounced [´ɟuha ´ʃcipɛ]) is an Indo-European language but with no other close relatives, it occupies a separate branch in the Indo-European language family (see Appendix B-Indo-European family of languages). Although its exact origin is not known, it is considered by many to be the sole survivor of Illyrian. Different assumptions would suggest that Albanian originates from Thracian7 or even Daco-Mysian8. Although not officially recognized as an Indo-European language until the 19th century, it contains all the distinctive characters of an Indo-European language (Fortson, 2010:446-47).
The study of the Albanian language and its origins has proven though to be a challenge
for most researchers, both historians and linguists, as there is little written information about this small country on the shores of Adriatic Sea. Documentation is almost non-existent in Albanian until the 15th century, with the first known document being a baptism formula in 1462 (Fortson,2010:447). This ancient civilization was rescued by the fact that Albania is geographically situated between the two greatest civilizations known: the Greeks and the Romans. References by scholars from these two civilizations have made it possible for researchers to understand the customs, legends, myths and language of Albania (Jacques, 1995: xvii-xviii).

The earliest references to the Albanian people date back to 150 A.D when the great
geographer Ptolemy9 mentioned an Illyrian tribe, in the heart of the modern-day Albania, called the Albanoi ‘grk. Αλβανοί’. Depending on the fact that Albanian is spoken in the same region that Illyrian was spoken and the fact that those few elements of Illyrian known can only be explained through the Albanian language, has made the researchers believe that Albanian is a direct descendant of Illyrian and appeared as a separate language sometime between 400– 600 A.D (Jacques, 1995: 37).

It was the work of Franz Bopp (1854) which made it possible for the Albanian language to be recognized as an Indo-European language. Comparing a word in different languages, in order to derive a common root and then comparing that root to the base language, constitutes its origin from the Indo-European base language. Being true for every other Indo-European language, this is true even for the Albanian language. Undeniably the following words in Albanian have common roots with the parent language and thus allowed Franz Bopp (1854) to refer to Albanian as an Indo-European language:


In Albanian there are nearly two thousand such simple words derived from the Indo-European base language, but there are also other compound words formed on the basis of those directly inherited from the Indo-European parent language: from ‘alb. pi drink’ ‘PIE.*peh₃i- “to drink”(Jacques,1995:44) the words pijetore ‘’, pijeshitës ‘eng.seller of alcoholic beverages’ have emerged (Newmark, 2000: 665-66).


1 Appianus (c. 95 – c. 165), of Alexandria was a Roman historian (of Greek ethnicity)

2 Bronze Age in the Balkans (2100–1200 BC)(Jacques,1995:11).

3 The city founded as Epidamnos by the Greek colonists from Corinth and Corcyra (modern-day Corfu) sometime during 627 BC.
4 “Now Sabaia is a drink made of barley or other grain, and is used only by poor people in Illyricum.”

5 The Greek domination ended by the subjugation of the Illyrian kingdoms by Rome (323-168 B.C.) following the death of Alexander the Great (Jacques, 1995:110).

6 Illyrian drachmas were excavated at a small village called Lleshan, near Elbasan, in 1998. The archeological findings consisted of 2,758 silver and bronze coins of the ancient Illyria.

7 Thracian is the language spoken in the region of Thrace, located in the eastern Balkans, in the classical times (Fortson, 2010: 463).

8 Daco-Mysian or simply Dacian is the language spoken in the Roman province of Dacia, neighboring Thrace (Fortson, 2010: 465).

9 Ptolemy of Alexandria c. AD 90 – c. 168: He was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer and a poet of a single epigram in the Greek Anthology

Ariola Kulla
Language and Culture in Europe
Spring Term, 2010
Supervisor: Richard Hirsch

Department of Culture and Communication
Master’s Program in Language and Culture in Europe


(to be continued)


About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
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