Learning to speak the wrong way right – A Course in Modern G(h)eg Albanian

In early 2002, as conflict continued to rage in the southern Balkans, I was asked to design and teach a Kosovo Albanian dialect conversion course for recently graduated students of Albanian.  These students were excellent linguists with a proven track record in learning languages to a high level, but the only downside for them was that the standard Albanian (known in Albanian as gjuha letrare or ‘literary language’) that they had learned so well bore only a passing resemblance to the spoken Albanian of Kosovo, where their jobs were to take them.  I know that native Albanian speakers generally dispute the idea that there is such a chasm between the literary language (based heavily on the southern, ‘Tosk’ dialect) and the northern, Gheg (or Geg) dialect spoken in Kosovo, but my experience with non-native students of the language tells a different story.  I will always remember the first day for one of my students.  He had passed his end of course exam with flying colours and was very confident.  He then started my assessment, listened to two minutes of spoken Kosovo Gheg Albanian and asked dejectedly, “is this even Albanian?”

So there was the challenge that faced me – and him.  Unfortunately, to assert that there was a dearth of English-language teaching material available for Kosovo Albanian at the time would be an overstatement.  I had to source and prepare my own materials, sometimes ‘translating’ standard Albanian into Gheg Albanian, but soon putting together original resources, many of which were often intricately imagined conversations weaving together the many elements of Gheg grammar, idiom and vocabulary that differ markedly from the standard language.  I taught the course with these home-made materials for the rest of 2002, but it soon became clear that more and more students were to follow and all would need to be ‘indoctrinated’ into the many wonders of Gheg Albanian.  So, in the absence of any off-the-shelf solution, I started writing a book of my own to bring together all the resources that I had found to be effective and to grade the material from absolute beginner to competent practitioner, as required by the job.  Given the fact that many native Gheg Albanian speakers do not speak altogether grammatically and tend to reduce words in the standard language to barely recognisable monosyllables, I was effectively teaching students of Albanian how to speak the wrong way right and understand a language that was not spoken in the way that they had learned.

To give you a taste of what resulted from all this, I am publishing below the first lesson (or ‘Mësimi i Parë’) of my 2006 course, Gegnishtja e sotme – a Course in Modern Geg Albanian.  I hope it sparks an interest in a little-known language that has interested and fascinated me for years!

MËSIMI I PARË

1. Bisedë (Conversation)

Hysniu: Tung Xhev!

Xhevdeti: Tung shoqi!  Qysh je vëlla?  A je mirë?

Hysniu: Krejt rahat, shëndosh jam.  Falemnderit.  A je lodh ti?

Xhevdeti: Nga pak, vëlla.  A ka najsen të re?

Hysniu: Jo.  Njiherë jo.  Hajt pra.  Shëndet.  Mirupafshim!

Xhevdeti: Po, mirupafshim.  Shifemi prapë.

Fjalorth (Vocabulary)

All the vocabulary presented in these lessons is listed in an Albanian to English glossary at the end of the book for ease of reference.

2. Sqarime (Explanations)

a) The standard Albanian word for ‘hello’, tungjatjeta, literally translating as ‘may your life be lengthened’, is regularly abbreviated in conversation to either tungat or the more colloquial tung, as in the conversation above.

b) To address a close friend in a similar way to how one might say ‘mate’ in English, Albanians tend to use the word shok (literally ‘friend, comrade’) or the word vëlla, which literally means ‘brother’, although it is more often than not simply used to refer to a close friend.

c) Kosovar and Macedonian Albanians particularly use a myriad of expressions for saying ‘how are you?’ or ‘how’s it going?’  As well as the literal qysh je?, a popular expression is a je lodh?, literally meaning ‘are you tired?’, two variations on which are: a je mërzitë? (literally ‘are you upset?’) and a po plakesh? (literally ‘are you getting old?)  The standard response to all three is nga pak, i.e. ‘a little’, whether one is tired/upset/getting old, or not!

d) The word shëndet literally means ‘health’, but it is used as an expression on its own to mean either ‘(I wish you) good health’, or ‘bless you’, in response to somebody sneezing.

e) Just as the Albanian word for ‘hello’ (tungjatjeta) is actually made up of a number of words sandwiched together, the word for ‘goodbye’ (mirupafshim) is also made up of several words, literally meaning ‘may we see each other in good times’.

3. Gramatikë (Grammar)

a) The verbs ‘to be’: me qenë, me konë and ‘to have’: me pasë

Although there is a pattern to most verbs in Albanian, the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, as in many other languages, are irregular, and their present tense forms in Geg Albanian are given below.  A point to note is that, also as in many other languages, Albanian does not normally need to use subject pronouns (‘I, you, he, we etc.’), as verbs have specific endings to mark which person is doing the action/in the state concerned.  The present tense forms of jam and kam are as follows: 

Geg Albanian pronunciation tends to differ from region to region, and the forms jam and kam above can be pronounced in the three possible ways shown.  Jemi and jena and kemi and kena are virtually interchangeable alternatives, although the jena and kena forms tend to be used in less formal registers.

b) Expressing ‘you’ in Geg Albanian

Albanian has two forms for the English ‘you’.  Ti, used in the conversation above, is a familiar form, used to address family, friends, subordinates etc, and its form in the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ is (ti) jeJu and the verb form jeni are used to address more than one ‘you’, regardless of how friendly or not the speaker may be with those people, OR as a polite form used when addressing strangers, superiors or anyone to whom the speaker wishes to show respect.  A note of caution, however – in practice, Albanians will quite freely swap between the two, often in the same sentence, and even the closest of friends can find themselves being addressed as ju one minute, and ti  the next.

c) ‘There is, there are’

The word ka, used in the conversation above, literally means ‘he, she, it has’, but it is also the translation of the English ‘there is’ or ‘there are’, as in a ka najsen të re?, ‘is there any news?’  The plural verb form kanë can also be used to express the equivalent of ‘there are’.

d) Expressing a question

Questions in Albanian can either be formed by changing one’s intonation, as in English, or by prefixing the sentence with the question marker a, hence a je mirë?, ‘are you okay?’ versus je mirë, ‘you are okay’, and a je lodh?, literally ‘are you tired?’, as opposed to je lodh, ‘you are tired’.

4. Ushtrime (Practise)

a) How would you say, ‘hello!  How are you?’

b) Reply that you are fine, and ask ‘how are you?’ using a different expression.

c) Ask whether there is any news.

d) Reply that, just at the minute, there’s nothing new.

e) End the conversation by saying ‘goodbye, we’ll see each other again’.

f) Translate into English:

Jena mirë, falemnderit.

A jeni rahat, shëndosh?

Xhevdeti âsht mirë njiherë.

Po, jem lodh nga pak.

5. Zakone dhe histori (Customs and history)

a) A point to remember when face to face with an Albanian is that Albanians shake their heads to indicate ‘yes’, and nod their heads for ‘no’!

b) Geg Albanian is the national dialect of the UN-administered province of Kosovo, the northern and western regions of Macedonia, bordering on Kosovo and eastern Albania, Montenegro, northern Albania as far south as the Shkumbin river (including Tirana and Elbasan) and most of the Albanian diaspora in Europe and the USA.  Geg is characterised by nasal vowels, monosyllabic words, little standardisation and a large number of words of Turkish origin, mainly absent from the Tosk and Arbëresh dialects of southern Albania, Greece and parts of Italy.  The first recorded sentence ever found in Albanian, dating from a 1462 translation of the Latin baptism service, was in Geg, and Geg formed the basis of the original standard Albanian language in the 1920s.  A standardised spelling for written Geg Albanian was also established at Pristina University in 1964, although it has never been widely applied.

c) All ethnic Albanians, wherever they live, and whatever their official statehood, consider the Albanian National Anthem, Himni i Flamurit (‘The Hymn of the Flag’), to be their own.  The Himni i Flamurit, written by Aleksandër “Asdren” Drenova in the late 19th century,was adopted as the national anthem of independent Albania in November 1912, but is now sung at all solemn occasions by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia especially, as a further affirmation of their separate identity.

d) The Albanian national flag, consisting of the double-headed black eagle (shqiponja or shkaba dykrenore) on a red background, derives from the banner of the Albanian national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti-Skënderbeu, known in English as Skanderbeg, who held the invading Ottomans at bay from the northern Albanian mountains in the first half of the fifteenth century, until his death in 1468.

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