The article below was first published in New Albania, No 4, 1977. It addresses the somewhat complex issue of the origin of the Albanian people and the roots of the Albanian language – a language very different from all others in the surrounding area. It is included here to give some background to the obelisk to this topic in Gjirokastra, which was posted some time ago. That post looked at the images and what they signified, this article puts more flesh on the bones of that explanation and answers some of the questions that might arise from the particular images.
The problem of the origin of the Albanian People and their language
by Professor Eqrem Çabej
When the problem of the origin of a people is raised, it will be examined and solved more readily from the aspect of the perseveration and continuity of its language than from the ethnic viewpoint, because language, more than other elements, is the characteristic which distinguishes one people from the others. However for any people of any country or period, such a problem is complex and in the Albanian conditions it is especially complicated. It is complex because, as we know, in the formation of a people as an independent entity with its individual features which distinguish it from other peoples, various circumstances of a geographic nature and multiple historical, ethnical, economical, cultural and linguistic processes, play a part. It is complicated because in this field of Albanian Studies the lack of historical sources and documents is keenly felt. However, despite this poverty of sources, with the constant care of the Party of Labour of Albania and comrade Enver Hoxha, the new Albanian science is striving to get to the solution of this problem with the means at its disposal. And in this field it has achieved lasting results which have taken their place in the field of international science. Because of the complex nature of the problem the method to be applied must also be complex. A number of scientific disciplines must collaborate on it. In particular historical geography, history, linguistics, ethnography and prehistoric archaeology are involved in this. The results in any one of these fields should be taken into account and duly appreciated by the other disciplines, should be combined with their results so that wide range of facts can be gathered together into a few general principles, into a few more reliable facts, in order to arrive at some sort of synthesis.
The Albanians are autochthonous or native to the Balkan Peninsula since they have been living there since early prehistoric times. Together with the Greeks, they are the most ancient people in this region; they are heirs to the ethnical situation of the period of antiquity in this part of South-eastern Europe. Under these circumstances, the question as to where the Albanian people originated can be put in other words: Under what name were the forefathers of the Albanians, that people which has spoken the language from which the present Albanian is derived, known in the Balkans in ancient times? Hence, from which ancient people of this Peninsula do the present Albanians descend?
During the last century the hypothesis was very widespread that the Albanians were the descendants of the Pellasgians. This hypothesis or theory, founded by foreign scholars, was re-echoed far and wide among the Albanian poets and writers in Albania and Italy. It found fertile soil in the ideas of romanticism which spread later in South-eastern Europe, at a time when other literary trends had emerged in the West. Subsequently the Pellasgian theory was refuted. In Greek and Roman documents, the Pellasgians are mentioned as a pre-Greek ethnical stratum no longer in existence during the ancient period. Authors like Herodotus and Strabo speak of them as of a more ancient period and describe them as barbarians, that is, not Greeks, and having a language different from the Greek language. They place them in the zone of the Aegean Sea, principally in Thessaly spreading on one side towards Epirus and on the other side towards Asia Minor, towards Crete and other islands of the Aegean zone. Meanwhile, they are presented everywhere as a legendary people, shrouded in the mists of mythology, a people without concrete historical consistency. Although in later periods there has been some acceptance of their connection with the Illyrians and Thracians, it must be said that such ethnic and linguistic element as may, with considerable reserve, be called Pellasgian, for many reasons, including those of a geographical character, is in no way sufficient to provide any scientific basis for accepting a Pellasgian origin of the Albanian people.
Proceeding from a more realistic basis, in order to clear up the problem of the origin of the Albanians, we shall turn, first of all, to history as the continuation of the prehistoric situation in the Balkan Peninsula. In the period of antiquity, this part of Southern Europe was inhabited by a number of peoples, different from the present ones and differing from one another. It is known that the western regions of the Peninsula were inhabited by the Illyrians, the eastern regions by the Thracians, the southern regions by the Greeks, and the centre by the Macedonians, who were different from the Greeks and spoke a language of their own, according to Herodotus a ‘barbarian language’, that is, not Greek. Leaving aside some minor populations, like the Iranic tribes in the eastern part of the Peninsula and certain Celtic tribes in the north-western and central regions, this was the ethnic situation during the Greco-Roman epoch. Hence the question arises: from which of these peoples do the Albanians descend, from which of these languages does the Albanian language descend? In this problem, the Greeks, or the Hellenes as they were called at that time, are automatically excluded as a different people from the Albanians. Likewise excluded are the ancient Macedonians, as a relatively small people and geographically more remote from the Albanian language region, although, because of the territorial affinity, some links cannot be completely denied. Under these circumstances, there are two peoples, the Illyrians and Thracians, who can be considered as the ancestors of the Albanians.
The Illyrians were one of the major peoples of ancient Europe. Leaving aside their distribution in prehistoric times, during the historical period they extended from Istria near Triest in the north-west and from the regions near the banks of the Danube in the north, to the Gulf of Arta in Gameria in the south to a city which at that time, was called Ambria. Thus, the Illyrian tribes inhabited the present regions of Albania together with Qameria, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dalmatia and Croatia, hence, all the eastern seaboard of the Adriatic with its respective hinterland. The Messapians and Iapygians of Apulia in Southern Italy are, by all indications, Illyrian tribes as well. In the east the Illyrian tribes extended up to the banks of the Vardar and Morava rivers in Northern Macedonia, to Kosova, a region which in ancient times was called Dardania, and to a part of present Serbia. In those regions the Illyrians bordered the Thracian tribes and here and there were mixed with them. The Thracians, too, were one of the major peoples of ancient Europe. Herodotus calls them the greatest people next to the Indes. They extended from the borders of the Illyrians in the west up to the shores of the Black Sea in the east, from the Aegean in the south to the Carpathian mountains in the north. Thus they included part of present-day Greece and European Turkey, Bulgaria, Rumania and part of Hungary and Poland. Because of the lack of source material, mentioned above, we are able to discover very little about the fate of these peoples and their component tribes, and the further back we probe into antiquity the more this obscurity deepens. We know, for instance that the concept and name Illyrian came and was spread only after some time, emerging from a population of this name and including tribes with ethnic and linguistic affinity. In Homer’s epics this name does not appear. The names of individual peoples, like those of the Dardanians and the Peonians, who in historical times lived to the north of the Macedonians, appear on the historical scene much earlier than the general name, Illyrians. It is known, also, that under the influence of the Greco-Roman civilization and, especially, during the long period of the domination of the Roman Empire, these ancient peoples of the Balkans were eventually partly hellenized and many of them romanized. In other words, without being wiped out as peoples, they were assimilated, gave up their own language and in some regions adopted the Greek language and even more of them, the Latin language. This took place especially in cities, in administrative and military centres where the Romans had established their garrisons. However in mountain regions this assimilation was not carried out completely. The local population preserved its ethnic character and mother tongue for a longer time. Some of these peoples entirely escaped romanization. Living evidence of this is the Albanian people, who must be the descendant of one of these unromanized peoples or tribes.
The question of the paternity or line of descent of a present-day people from an ancient people, of a known modern language from an extinct ancient language, is quite simple when we have relatively accurate knowledge of the ancient people and their language. But, as we have said, in connection with the Albanians and the Albanian language this problem remains specially difficult. Because of the lack of written documents, the ancient languages of the Balkans are little known or entirely unknown. From the language of the Thracians there are a few inscriptions, from the language of the Illyrians of the Balkans up till now not a single inscription has been found. The inscriptions of the Messapians of Southern Italy can be read but up till now the interpretation of them remains uncertain. From both these languages, Illyrian and Thracian, certain so-called glossa remain, that is, few words quoted by Greek and Roman authors, together with their meanings, given in Greek and Latin. There are also quite a large number of names of places and persons engraved on stone or quoted in texts by classical authors, the majority of them of unclear linguistic significance and meaning, among which modern scholars have found a free field for what are often arbitrary judgements. Thus the two languages in question remain almost unknown by us. We do not know their linguistic structure, grammatical system, or their vocabulary. Under these circumstances the means for comparison are missing. We lack the key to compare the material of the Albanian language with that of the two languages in question.
This being the case, the criterion of the language must be considered together with the geographical and historical situation. From the standpoint of historical geography it is known that the present Albanians inhabit those regions where the Illyrian tribes used to live in ancient times. From the historical point of view, it has been rightly pointed out. as far back as two centuries ago, that there is no fact, no historical reference, to show that the Albanians come from somewhere else, that they settled on this territory at a given historical period, for instance, towards the end of antiquity or during the early mediaeval period. Under these circumstances, common sense urges acceptance of the idea that the Albanian people is native, autochthonous, in these regions, if not as far back as the dawn of prehistoric times, at least since the period of antiquity. These two reasons, that of their inhabiting the former Illyrian territory and that of autochthony, automatically give rise to the idea that the present Albanians are the descendants of the Illyrian tribes of the south and that the Albanian language is the continuation of one of the ancient Illyrian dialects. Indeed it can be said that the burden of the argument falls more heavily on those who deny the Illyrian origin of the Albanians and of their language rather than on those who accept it. In this connection, it cannot be accidental that the name of the Illyrian tribe, the Albanoi, which the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria in Egypt, mentions during the second century of our era in the region between Durres and the Candavia mountains in Central Albania continues to exist in the form of Arbër, Arbën, Arbëresh, Arbënesh, the name by which Albania and the Albanians were known in the Middle Ages, is alive to this day. From the linguistic viewpoint, to these circumstances must be added the fact that the continuity of the names of cities, mountains and rivers of the Albanian territory of the ancient days in their present forms has developed in conformity with the phonetic rules of the Albanian language. These include such comparisons as Scardus – Shar, Scodra – Shkodra, Drivastum – Drisht, Pirustae – Qafa e Prushit, Lissu – Lesh, Isammus – Ishëm, Ishm, Dyrrachium – Durrës, Aulon – Vlonë, Vlorë, Thyamis – Çam and others. This also is evidence of the Illyrian autochthony of the Albanian people, because this development from the ancient forms of these names to the present forms cannot be explained except by means of the Albanian language. It cannot be explained either by means of the Roman or Slav languages or by any other language of the Balkan region. There are also other data from the field of linguistics of the Illyrian continuity, such as the identity between a number of names of early Illyrians and present-day Albanians. Apart from this, those few words which are known from the Illyrian language can be clearly explained by the Albanian language. And many words in Messapian inscriptions can be explained by our language. In this way the date of historical geography and of the language supplement each other. There are also a number of parallels of an ethnographic character which we shall not go into here. From the field of archaeology it is worth mentioning that in certain prehistoric settlements on the Albanian territory a continuity of the material culture can be seen, a continuity from ancient epochs to the early mediaeval period. This fact adds weight to the geographical, historical and linguistic arguments already mentioned.
As regards the Thracians and their language, on the evidence of certain historical and linguistic data (place names with Thracian features), the presence of Thracian elements in the north-western part of the Balkan Peninsula and especially along the southern Adriatic coastal regions was pointed out long ago. They must have long been mixed with Illyrian elements, but we are unable to tell from the Illyrians and the Thracians who were natives and who newcomers. In conclusion, for historical reasons also, one can say that the Illyrian element lies at the basis of the formation of the Albanian ethnos, although there may have been a Thracian component also, but certainly of smaller dimensions. At the present stage of knowledge it is difficult to determine how the process of this ethnic and linguistic formation took place and in what territorial and historical circumstances it took place. The result of the process, which is the Albanian people and their language, can be seen more clearly than the course of development which was traversed until the present situation was brought about.
Eqrem Çabej (1908-1980) was a linguist and academic specialising in the origin of the Albanian language. His name was given to the University of Gjirokastra when it was declared as such at the end of 1991.