Confused Balkan Languages
It seems that Europe has pushed all its merits and demerits to its southeastern corner. Languages, my prime interest at this moment, have become one of the main points of tension in the many nationalist discourses that dominate regional politics. Instead of being social constructs, ethno-linguistic identities are primarily political constructs. Some Balkan nations deny the right of others to have their own language and some claim that others have usurped their language. The 1990s wars, aggressions and ethnic cleansings have also affected the languages. We Balkanians can somehow orient ourselves but I imagine how a traveler to our region might be amazed listening to people from four countries who claim to speak different languages, but understand each other completely. One can say that the Biblical confusion of tongues is being repeated in the Balkans. That widely known story of confusion, when the original language became several languages, has roots in ancient Babylon, but today it seems as if the Balkans are echoing the Lord’s words from Genesis 11:7, “Let us go down and confuse their language.”
There are 10 major languages spoken today in the Balkans by around 65 million people, if we exclude 10 million Turks who live in the peninsula. Going from the Aegean to the Black Sea, there is Greek, Bulgarian and Romanian, all three belonging to various linguistic groups and written with different alphabets. Further west, there is Albanian and Macedonian. The majority of Albanians speak two dialects of Arvanitika, the only tongue inherited from the ancient Illyrian people. That gave them an advantage over Serbs in regional conflicts and wars, because almost no one understood their language. The Macedonians have problems with their eastern and western neighbors alike regarding their language. Bulgarians recognize neither their nation nor their language. Greeks are more polite; they do not recognize only the name of their state but also their language. Bulgarians are a Slavic people and so is their language, but it is believed — especially by Turkish nationalists — that their name was adopted from a Turkic tribe that invaded the Balkans in the seventh century and was later absorbed by Slavs. Romanians proudly speak a language similar to Latin, French and Italian, although it is fairly distant from its Romance relatives.