top of page

Justin Elliott - Pursuing the Albanian Dream: Language and Nation in Kosovo

In April 1968, the historian Ali Hadri attended a large meeting of intellectuals to discuss the form of the Albanian language in Yugoslavia called the Linguistic Consultation of Prishtina. Given the rapid changes Albanian society in Yugoslavia was undergoing, Hadri said it was imperative that the intellectuals attending the meeting immediately adopt the standard language of the motherland - that is, Albania. “One nation - one literary language” should be their watchword.

How did it happen that a meeting in Yugoslavia adopted a form of Albanian quite different from their own, created for the domestic purposes of another country?

Ali Hadri, Albanian historian and academic, died 1987

About half the population of Albania speaks Tosk and half Gheg, while in the former Yugoslavia almost all Albanians are speakers of Gheg. The main features of the two dialects are quite different, notably that Gheg uses an infinitive where Tosk usually uses the subjunctive. The first moves to standardize Albanian came during World War I and favoured the dialect of Elbasan, a southern form of Gheg, as being a suitable bridge between the written forms of Gheg and Tosk.

At the end of World War II, the victorious Communist Party of Albania was strongest in the south of Albania, from where it overcame nationalist and local forces in the centre and the north. The Party saw itself as sweeping away traditional society. What this meant in practice was much of the northern intelligentsia centred around the Catholic church was purged and much Gheg literature was banned. Tosk, by contrast, being closer than literary Gheg to the language spoken by the ordinary people, was identified with a united, patriotic and progressive tradition, which fitted in with Party ideals.

By the mid-1950s the Party was impatient for progress and reorganized the body responsible for unifying the literary language under Androkli Kostallari, a Soviet-trained linguist. Kostallari said that the period after the reorganization had shown Gheg and Tosk had quickly converged into a unified literary language as socialist development had overcome contradictions in society and language. From now on, only the supradialectal standard, historically created along a path of uninterrupted progress by the objective laws of development of Albanian society, would develop further as the dialects would wither away.

Standard Albanian, then, reflected the desire of the Party to remould society in Albania speedily on the basis of Marxist-Leninist thought. For those watching the development of Standard Albanian in Yugoslavia, however, the question was not so much one of linguistics but of political, social, and cultural changes in Albanian society in Yugoslavia since 1945. Chief among those changes was the development of national identity as Albanians separated from Albania.

Albanian society in Kosovo had been deeply traditional. The traditional elite of non-Slav society in Kosovo were landowners and clergy who defended local interests against Slav encroachment until 1941. But World War II brought major changes to Kosovo, promoting change in language and society. Before the war, the use of Albanian in education was forbidden and most parents feared their children’s assimilation as Orthodox Slavs. After the destruction of Yugoslavia, much of its Albanian lands were incorporated into fascist-controlled Albania which sent nationalist intellectuals as teachers and administrators to Kosovo. These intellectuals, many of whom had been born in Kosovo, encouraged parents to send their children to school, where they were educated to venerate the national symbols of Albania.

The end of World War II allowed the victorious communists to re-establish Yugoslav rule and start a programme of mass education in Albanian to create socialist citizens. Although many Albanians had fought against the Partisans and were considered backward and untrustworthy, they were still members of a national minority and therefore, in Communist eyes, had certain rights. In order to accomplish the transformation they wanted, the Communists had to work with those in Albanian society they did not consider to be class enemies. So it was to intellectuals, mostly teachers, that the Party reached out as authority figures.

When it came to language, however, the difference between the Yugoslav authorities’ declared intent and practice was stark. Although the Party had enshrined full equality of languages in Kosovo as its guiding principle in 1945, by 1950 examples of bilingual state administration had virtually disappeared. One linguistic factor that rankled most with Albanians in Yugoslavia was their official designation in Serbo-Croatian as Šiptari, to be distinguished from the Albanci of Albania. The Yugoslav constitution viewed Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Slovenes, as peoples constituting the Yugoslav Federation with the right to their own federal republic; Albanians and other ethnic minorities were denied this right on the grounds that they had a homeland outside Yugoslavia. However, by designating the Albanians of Yugoslavia as Šiptari - and no other group in Yugoslavia was in this position - the Albanians were not even accorded the status of a foreign people.

Although written Albanian in Yugoslavia remained relatively close to the dialect of Elbasan, there were some attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to push towards convergence with developments in Albania, but these only took off after the fall of Tito’s deputy, Aleksandar Ranković, in 1966. Ranković’s fall created a new climate throughout Yugoslavia in which it was easier to express national feelings. In Kosovo, a new group of politicians came to the fore who openly acknowledged admitted that Albanian national rights had taken a second place to those of Serbs and Montenegrins. This was a situation they intended to rectify.

Aleksandar Ranković. 1909-1983

As a result, Albanians felt much more ease in expressing Albanian national culture and feeling than ever before. Signs of change included the republication of classic and contemporary works from Albania by the local ‘Rilindja Press’. Kosovo Albanians, both intellectuals and the general public, had a sense of inferiority to Albania and a romanticized vision of it. So keen were Kosovo Albanians to follow where Tirana led that articles appeared by Kosovo Albanian intellectuals decrying features of their own speech that departed from the Tirana standard.

At the same time, Kosovo Albanians were granted the right to use their own flag (identical to the flag of Albania), forbidden since 1946. The province would no longer be subordinate to the Republic of Serbia but have its own direct representation as part of the Federation. There was a campaign against the use in Serbo-Croatian of the word šiptar (denoting Albanians in Yugoslavia only) and for its replacement with the word albanac (denoting Albanians wherever they lived).

In April 1968, the ‘Prishtina Linguistic Consultation’, under the patronage of institutions directly run by Albanians, decided to adopt literary Albanian as developed in Tirana. The Kosovo Albanian intelligentsia had seized their opportunity almost as soon as the political wind had changed in their favour. This decision was the first tangible sign of the unity of all Albanians. The Stalinist ideological base of the Tirana rules was of no importance compared to the national prize that adopting this form offered. It was symbolic of the fact that an irreversible commitment to an Albanian nationality common with the people of Albania had been made. Language was a permanent reminder that the Albanians were not a “minority” within Yugoslavia, but rather to be identified with all Albanians, wherever they lived.


bottom of page