Standing in Skënderbeg Square in the heart of Tirana, my tour guide listed what he believes to be the three things that make someone Albanian: driving a Mercedes, drinking raki, and speaking a language called shqip (pronounced “sh-cheap”). Of course, this isn’t the official definition of “Albanian”, but I found it to be pretty accurate nonetheless.
During my week in Albania, I rode in quite a few Mercedes – though I didn’t confirm how many were legally imported. Homemade raki was plentiful at every restaurant, bar, and hostel, and was probably strong enough to power said Mercedes – this is a regional phenomenon though, and not limited to Albania. The language, however, is quite unique. Albanian is spoken only in Albania and neighboring Kosovo and parts of Montenegro, and is not related to its neighboring languages. So aside from Mercedes and raki, the fact that one speaks Albanian could very well be a sign that they are in fact Albanian…
Albanian is a member of the Indo-European language family, but it is in its own separate branch (distinct from, for example, the Serbo-Croatian, Greek, and Italian languages that surround it). Having studied a few other European languages, I wanted to find out what makes Albanian so unique. So, in the weeks leading up to my trip, I took some lessons online via Skype with an Albanian language teacher whom I found using the language-learning website italki.
So What is Albanian Like?
My goal for the lessons was to get an idea of how the language works grammatically and phonetically, and also to learn some practical vocabulary to help me when I arrived in the country. It was a fun adventure, and even gave me a glimpse into the Albanian music scene so I had something to listen to while on the road!
The pronunciation of the language was easier than I had expected. Despite the prevalence of the unusual letter ë, and odd letter combinations such as gj and dh, the pronunciation actually follows a pretty straightforward set of rules. Words are generally pronounced phonetically (i.e. the same way they are spelled), which makes sounding out new words pretty simple.
I was also surprised by how familiar Albanian felt, despite its relative separation from the other languages I know. This is not to say that the words look similar (though there are a good deal of cognates), but rather that the structure of the grammar bears resemblances to that of other European languages, such as French. The verbs conjugate into similar tenses and both languages have a prominent subjunctive. Some aspects of Albanian grammar are even easier than I had expected. To form the future tense, for instance, you just add do të in front of the infinitive – simple!
Not all the grammar is familiar, though. Some things, such as the mysterious “linking article” (i & e) have many confusing rules and take some getting used to. A lot of the vocabulary is also totally different from any language I have studied before. These are the things that make Albanian unique, isolated in its own separate branch of the Indo-European language family tree.
But Why Bother?
During my time in Albania, my limited knowledge of the language proved to be very valuable. Walking around the cities and villages, I noticed many words and phrases that I either had learned in the lessons or recalled from the music I had listened to. It’s amazing how just knowing a small amount of common words can make your surroundings significantly more comprehensible. Not to mention the fact that when you find yourself standing at a pizza counter and the server does not speak a word of English, being able to order a pica me proshutë e vogël (small pizza with ham) in Albanian makes things a whole lot easier.
Don’t Overpay – Learn Albanian!
One of the most useful aspects of Albanian that I learned was related to counting money. In a country where many people do not speak English, it is often helpful to be able to understand the price they tell you when you are buying something, so you don’t have to resort to number charades. However, even if you understand the price an Albanian tells you, it would be extremely generous to actually give them that amount!
In Albania, most everyday purchases are in the range of about 50 to 1,000 lekë (less than $10), but people discuss prices in the range of 500 to 10,000 lekë. So for a bus ticket costing 40 lekë, the bus attendant will ask for 400. The reason for this is that in the 1960s, when the lek had become highly inflated, it was devalued such that ten old lekë equaled one new lek. So, the numerical value of prices changed, but people continued to discuss them in terms of old lekë.
Worth the Effort
Before leaving Albania, I had the chance to meet up with my Albanian teacher Elson at a coffee shop overlooking Zogu i zi (“The black bird”), a major rrethrrotullim (roundabout) in Tirana, and we had a great conversation on a variety of topics (in English). Though I don’t have plans to continue learning Albanian to fluency, I am happy I took the time to study it for a few short weeks. It not only gave me some useful phrases to use, but also helped me to understand and appreciate the country more and have more interesting interactions with the local people.