Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Albanian-speakers in Italy number an estimated 70,000 -100,000. The ethnic Albanian community, known as the Arbëresh, live in 49 mountain towns and villages from the Abruzzi Appenines to the south of Italy and Sicily. The communities are dispersed among seven regions (Abruzzi, Molise, Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily) and nine provinces (Pescara, Campobasso, Avellino, Foggia, Taranto, Potenza, Cosenza, Catanzaro and Palermo). Some new Albanian immigrants have joined ethnic Albanians.
The ethnic Albanian (Arbëresh) dialects of Italy bear little resemblance to the standard language or dialects of Albania, as they have been cut off from the main language for around 500 years. Some dialects spoken in Italy are so dissimilar that ethnic Albanians use Italian as a lingua franca. Ethnic Albanians are bilingual.
Members of the Arbëresh community are mostly Byzantine Catholics and Latin Rite Catholics.
Albanian has been written with various alphabets since the fifteenth century. Originally the Tosk dialect was written with the Greek alphabet, while the Gheg dialect was written with the Latin alphabet. They have both also been written with the Turkish version of the Arabic alphabet. The Latin alphabet for Albanian was standardized in 1909, and a unified literary version of Albanian, based on the Tosk dialect, was established in 1972.
The main Albanian migration to Italy came from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries as the Ottomans pushed them west, although some Albanians had already settled there from the thirteenth century. From the seventeenth century, Albanians in Molise and Puglia were forced to give up their Orthodox faith in the wave of religious repression aimed at eradicating the Orthodox faith in southern Italy. There was further immigration of Christian Albanians fleeing Muslim persecution in the eighteenth century.
During the nineteenth century the dynamic Graeco-Albanian schools of Calabria and Sicily generated cultural development among the Albanian communities of southern Italy. Albanian intellectuals played an active part in the cultural renaissance of the southern regions of Italy and in the political movement of the Italian Risorgimento. Newspapers and magazines in Albanian were set up in the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1900 to 1910 there was mass emigration from the Arbëresh villages to the Americas, halving the population. Italian troops occupied Albania in 1918, withdrew in 1920 and took control again from 1939 to 1943.
The founding of the Associazione Italiana per i Rapporti Culturali Italo-Albanesi in late 1950s gave a boost to Albanian culture. The Association published the journal Rassegna di Studi Albanesi from 1961 to 1963. Two other magazines published in Albanian were Zgjimi, which disappeared in the late 1960s, and Shêjzat, which appeared from 1957 to 1974. In 1969 the Unione delle Comunità Italo-Albanesi was set up, followed by the founding of the Lega Italiana di Difesa della Minoranza Albanese in Cosenza in 1981.
In the 1970s there was a move to the cities, especially Rome, diluting the culture.
Article 6 of the 1947 Constitution accords protection to minorities but Albanian is not mentioned specifically. It is mentioned in the 1999 Italian law setting out the means of protection. The regional governments of Calabria, Basilicata and Molise give some official recognition to Albanian. Calabrian law requires the region to provide recognition of the historical culture and artistic heritage of the Albanian and Greek minorities and to promote the teaching of the two languages in the places where they are spoken. Article 5 of the autonomy statute of Basilicata stipulates that the regional authorities ‘shall promote renewed appreciation of the originality of the linguistic and cultural heritage of the local communities’. The autonomy statute of the Molise region stipulates that the region ‘shall be the guardian of the linguistic and historical heritage and of the popular traditions of the ethnic communities existing in its territory’.
Some municipal authorities support cultural and linguistic activities promoted by the ethnic Albanian communities and have set up bilingual road signs.
There are European Union funded programmes for cultural cooperation between Albania and Italy.
The Albanian language is taught in a small number of nursery, primary and secondary schools as an extracurricular subject. The language is taught at the universities of Rome, Naples, Bariums, Cosenza and Palermo. A problem for the community is the variety of Albanian dialects used in Italy (Arbërisht) and their distinct character from standard Albanian. The language taught in school and university is standard Albanian. The number of people learning to write Albanian is increasing, and the language’s survival is bolstered by the Institute of Albanian Studies in Palermo.
However, there is a marked decline in the use of Albanian (Arbërisht) for social interaction among young people, who prefer to use Italian or the Romance dialects of the various regions in which they live. Because of the differences in Arbërisht dialects, ethnic Albanians often use Italian to communicate with each other. The dispersed nature of ethnic Albanian communities has restricted the development and adaptation to the modern world of their dialects, which are isolated from each other as well as from Albania itself. The arrival of new Albanian and Kosovan immigrants using quite different dialects or standard Albanian presented a further threat to the distinct languages and culture of the established minority, although the newcomers have strengthened the presence of Albanian cultural events, Albanian media and cultural exchange with Albania. Arbërisht is of particular interest to students of modern Albanian language as it represents the sounds, grammar and vocabulary of pre-Ottoman Albania.
Updated September 2018
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