The New European - - Language Eurofile -

PETER TRUDG­ILL on some fa­mil­iar cel­e­bra­tory Balkan phrases, and how they re­flect the re­gion’s com­plex lin­guis­tic his­tory

Mace­do­nia is a geo­graph­i­cal term which refers to an area of the south­ern Balkans. For some cen­turies, the re­gion was part of the Ot­toman Em­pire, ruled by the Turks from Con­stantino­ple. It con­tained a mixed and var­ied pop­u­la­tion of Ortho­dox Chris­tians, Mus­lims, and Jews. There were also speak­ers of many dif­fer­ent lan­guages in the re­gion: South Slavic va­ri­eties, var­i­ously re­ferred to as Serbian, Bul­gar­ian, Mace­do­nian, and Slavo-mace­do­nian; Greek; Turk­ish; Al­ba­nian; and the Ro­mani of the


There were also two groups of speak­ers of Ro­mance lan­guages, de­scended from Latin. The first group, of­ten known as Vlachs, spoke a Balkan lan­guage which lin­guists call

Aro­ma­nian. The sec­ond group, con­sist­ing of Jews who had ar­rived in the Ot­toman Em­pire af­ter be­ing ex­pelled from Spain and Por­tu­gal in 1492, used a lan­guage known as Ladino or Judeo-span­ish.

In 1912 the armies of the by-now in­de­pen­dent states neigh­bour­ing on Mace­do­nia – Greece, Bul­garia and Ser­bia – com­bined to at­tack the Ot­toman forces in Mace­do­nia, even­tu­ally forc­ing their with­drawal. There was fur­ther fight­ing, but in the end the Mace­do­nia re­gion was par­ti­tioned be­tween the vic­to­ri­ous states, with Al­ba­nia also be­com­ing an in­de­pen­dent na­tion. Bor­ders in the area were not fully drawn un­til af­ter the First World War, and these were de­cided in part mil­i­tar­ily – on the ba­sis of who had man­aged to seize and hold which ar­eas by when. Lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion was given to hu­man fac­tors, such as lan­guage back­ground.

The largest por­tion of the re­gion (about 50%), called Aegean Mace­do­nia, went to Greece; the next largest, Var­dar Mace­do­nia, was al­lot­ted to Ser­bia (and then sub­se­quently to Yu­goslavia); a smaller area, Pirin Mace­do­nia, went to Bul­garia; and a tiny por­tion was awarded to Al­ba­nia.

To­day Varda Mace­do­nia is a small in­de­pen­dent na­tion of two mil­lion known as North Mace­do­nia.

About a quar­ter of the in­hab­i­tants are na­tive Al­ba­nian speak­ers, but the ma­jor­ity, about two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion, speak the South Slavic lan­guage most of us call Mace­do­nian. Some Bul­gar­i­ans don’t like this name – they re­gard the lan­guage as a di­alect of Bul­gar­ian; and some Greeks don’t like it – for them the term Mace­do­nian means the Greek spo­ken in Aegean Mace­do­nia.

In 1912, though, fewer than half the peo­ple liv­ing in Aegean Mace­do­nia were Greek speak­ers, and most of them lived in the coastal ar­eas, while the rest of the pop­u­la­tion were mostly Slavic speak­ers.

The cap­i­tal city of Aegean Mace­do­nia is to­day called Thes­sa­loniki in Greek. It was for­merly a very im­por­tant cen­tre of Sephardic Jewish cul­ture: the largest sin­gle lin­guis­tic group in 1912 were the Ladino-speak­ing Jews, who called the city Salonika. Its name in the South Slavic lan­guages is Solun, and it was for­merly also an im­por­tant cen­tre of South Slavic cul­ture. In­deed, many other north­ern Greek towns also have Slavic as well as Greek names – Fló­rina is Lerin, Kas­toriá is Kos­tur – and Slavic speak­ers.

Some South Slavs these days have a drink­ing toast: Solun e nash! (“Salonica is ours!”) In the north­ern Balkans, the Slovenes have a sim­i­lar toast: Trst e naš (“Trieste is ours”) – in 1910 a quar­ter of that city’s pop­u­la­tion were Slovene speak­ers.

The Greeks, too, have a sim­i­lar say­ing: Kai tou chró­nou stin Póli! (“And next year in the City!” – where the City means Is­tan­bul). For very many cen­turies, there was no more im­por­tant cen­tre of Greek lan­guage and cul­ture than Con­stantino­ple; and even in 1914, around a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion were Greeks.

The Slovene toast about Trieste is one of those jokes which is not en­tirely a joke, but in the con­text of the EU, the Ital­ians are not go­ing to worry very much about it. The toasts about Salonica and Is­tan­bul have also lost much of their bite in re­cent decades, but we must hope for fur­ther progress. What would help would be a Europe which was in­creas­ingly less na­tional; and in­creas­ingly more ra­tio­nal.

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