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(Speech before VATRA's Commemoration of 90th Anniversary of DIELLI, Southgate Tower Hotel, NYC, October 30, 1999)

The Long Struggle for the Albanian Alphabet

By Van Christo

Nothing ever comes easy for the Albanians. Because Albania was under Ottoman subjugation for almost 500 years, the teaching of the Albanian language or publishing any literature in that language in Albania was expressly forbidden by the Turks often under the penalty of long prison terms. Yet, the struggle for an Albanian alphabet spanned the entire 19th century and even the early part of the 20th. This evolution of the alphabet underwent hundreds of changes and revisions and the efforts of many distinguished leaders and scholars of Albania. Geographically, activities on behalf of a unified Albanian alphabet extended to the Albanian communities of Monastir in the north, Salonika in the east, and Saranda in the south with major alphabet contributions from Tirana, Elbasan, and Korçe.

The first significant movement for the construction of a common Albanian alphabet was undertaken in 1824 by Naum Veqilharxhi who was born in Vithkuq and who may be called the earliest idealogue of the Albanian Renaissance. Because he believed that the Greek, Latin, and Arabic alphabets not only did not correspond to Albanian sounds but for religious reasons would not be accepted by all Albanians, Veqilharxhi began to prepare an alphabet of his own from 1824 onward. He was also of the opinion that Albanian, as an independent language, should have its own script so that foreign scripts would not be carriers of foreign political influences. Borrowing elements from old Latin alphabets, Veqilharxhi formed a new 33-letter alphabet which he also used for a primer he published in 1844 under the title EVETOR which was received with enthusiasm and widely adopted in southern Albania.

A few years before the creation of the League of Prizren (Lidhje e Prizrenit) in June,1878, several Albanian intellectuals met to decide on the alphabet but they could not agree. The Pashas favored the Arabic script. Another party, headed by Jan Vreto, wanted the Greek alphabet because, on the basis of the prevailing Pelasgian theory, there was a close relationship between Albanian and Greek. Support for the Latin alphabet also came from Vasa Effendi and Ismail Qemal, then a prominent official in the Ottoman government.Qemal's advocacy was based not only on historical-political grounds but also on practical ones - the Latin letters were easily available for printing purposes.

An alphabet then in use by the Catholic north and by the Arbereshe (Italo-Albanians) was restricted in scope and proved to be inconvenient because it utilized the complicated "Alphabet of the Ancient Writers of the North" (Budi, Bardhi, Bogdani). It was often referred to as the "Catholic Alphabet" as only the Catholic part of the Albanian population wrote in it. Sami Frasheri then devised a new alphabet on the basis of the LATIN script, with certain Greek characters and some of his own invention for Albanian sounds which the Latin alphabet could not convey. This alphabet was founded on the principle of one letter for one sound. The Istanbul Society for the Printing of Albanian Writings adopted it, and in 1879 the first ABC - Alfabetare - was published. Known as the ISTANBUL alphabet, it spread widely in a brief time because several Albanian educational books were printed utilizing it. The reports of the Austrian consuls in Albania show that by 1905 the Istanbul alphabet was used by the majority of the Albanian population, Christian and Muslim. It had extended northward as far as Diber and the region south of Prizren.

The discussion did not end there - the question of the alphabet remained a burning issue. The writer, Anton Çajupi, aware of the political influences alphabets can exercise, participated in the controversy. In a series of articles, he appealed to his countrymen to give up all prejudices and put their mother tongue and their homeland above all. He advocated an entire Latin alphabet on the basis that it would help unify Albania, and he attacked vehemently the idea of a Greek or Turkish script by proclaiming: "Let us therefore say to the Greek or Turkish alphabets: you are too much interested in our affairs; you have often written in blood instead of ink; you have often been used to express the lie, the intrigue, and public wickedness; you are still for us a means of division and quarrel; therefore, you do not inspire any confidence in us to choose you, and you will not have the honor to be the alphabet of our language."

An Albanian literary society "Bashkimi (The Union) in Shkoder in northern Albania founded by Monsignor Preng Doçi, Abbot of Miredite, in collaboration with the Albanian Catholic clergy, particularly the Franciscan brothers, set as its first task the formation of a simpler alphabet, its composer being the abbot himself. His alphabet was totally based on Latin characters plus two letters - called diagraphs - which were pronounced as one letter, the second letter of which was always the letter "h." It was named the BASHKIMI alphabet and several textbooks for the Catholic schools were printed in it, subsidized by the Austro-Hungarian government. But in 1901, another literary society "Agimi" (The Dawn) was formed in Shkoder by another Catholic clergyman, Dom Ndre Mjeda, a philologist and a poet, who devised another script. Mjeda, too, founded it on the Latin letters, but contrary to Doçi, he followed the principle of one letter for one sound, making use of diacritical marks (¨) for sounds peculiar to Albanian.

Mjeda's alphabet, now known as the AGIMI alphabet, had found approval in the 1902 International Congress of Orientalists, held in Hamburg, Germany, and in the meetings of May, 1902 the majority of the higher Catholic clergy in Shkoder expressed themselves in favor of it. As Albanian textbooks were published in that alphabet subsidized, again, by Austro-Hungary which was inclined to abandon the Bashkimi alphabet. Therefore, a conflict arose: the Agimi alphabet or the Bashkimi alphabet. The argument continued between them but this controversy was restricted to the province of Shkoder.

The conflict over alphabets between the followers of AGIMI and those of BASHKIMI was bound to affect the two opposing foreign powers -- Austro-Hungary and Italy. The policy of Austro-Hungary was to bring about the adoption of an Albanian alphabet which would serve by its uniformity to consolidate her influence in Albania. Even before the outbreak of the alphabet argument, Austro-Hungary had raised the question of a unified alphabet for both Albanian dialects - the Ghegs of the north and the Tosks of the south - at the time when the Albanian overnment considered Mjeda's AGIMI alphabet represenative of progress and closer to the ISTANBUL alphabet than that of the BASHKIMI alphabet, with its "inherent Italian character."

Moreover, the followers of Mjeda's AGIMI alphabet and those of the ISTANBUL alphabet were inclined to make concessions to arrive at a unified alphabet. In May 1902 the Catholic higher clergy had several meetings, and a majority decided to adopt Mjeda's AGIMI alphabet. The Austrian government now transferred its favor to the AGIMI alphabet of Mjeda.

However, Monsignor Doçi maintained that the Italian schools in Shkoder would employ the BASHKIMI alphabet "in order not to bring about confusion in the language of the same country." Doçi also acknowledged that he had worked for the introduction of Albanian in the Italian schools of Shkoder and even in the Italo-Albanian communes of Italy.

Between November 14 and 22, 1908, an alphabet Congress was held in Monastir. It was organized by the Albanian club of that city and was attended by delegates from Albanian clubs and societies, towns and schools, both from Albania proper and from Albanian colonies abroad. Some of the prominent delegates were Midhat Frasheri, president of the Albanian club of Salonika; Sotir Peçi, editor of the newspaper "Kombi" (The Nation) in America; Shahin Kolonja; and Gjergj D. Kyrias.

The Congress was chaired by Midhat Frasheri. In all the speeches the union of Ghegs and Tosks was stressed as most vital for the nation. Although each delegate had come resolved to defend the alphabet of his preference, each soon became aware, in that mixed crowd, that it was important to achieve unity, no matter which alphabet was chosen. The delegate who contributed most to the creation of the atmosphere of brotherhood and understanding was Pater Gjergj Fishta who although extolling the work of the BASHKIMI alphabet, concluded: "I have not come here to defend any one of the alphabets, but I have come to unite with you and adopt that alphabet which the Congress decides upon as most useful for uplifting the people." The audience was so deeply moved by the words of this Franciscan brother that a Muslim clergyman, Hoxha Afiz Ibrahim Effendi, with tears in his eyes rushed to embrace Fishta. This scene in the presence of more than 300 persons, three-quarters of whom were Muslim, left a deep impression.

Later, Hoxha Vildan Effendi addressed himself to the Muslim Pro-Turkish element in Albania by emphasizing that it was an error to hold that the Koran forbade the writing of Albanian except with Arabic letters. He stated that Arabic was not the only language pleasing to God as there were many religious books not written in Arabic. Consequently, there was no hinderance to use Latin letters for Albanian. Hoxha Vildan Effendi's speeches also made a profound impression on all the members of the Congress.

The Congress elected an alphabet committee composed of the most cultured delegates with Fishta at the head. For three successive days the committe deliberated on the question of the common alphabet, giving the Albanian besa - pledged word - that nothing should be divulged prior to the final decision. The alphabet committee limited itself to three questions:

  1. Should one of the three alphabets be chosen: Istanbul, Bashkimi or Agimi
  2. Should parts of each alphabet be amalgamated for the formation of a new alphabet; and
  3. Should an entirely new alphabet be created.

The committee dwelt long upon the three questions, particularly because letters and telegrams arrived from Albanian colonies all around the world expressing their preferences for a particular alphabet. Two currents emerged: One favored a new alphabet on the basis of Latin letters: 25 letters were chosen, and the rest - corresponding to particular Albanian sounds - were built by digraphs, or two letters pronounced as one. The new alphabet was almost identical to that of BASHKIMI. The other current supported the adoption of the ISTANBUL alphabet. Those who were in favor of adopting the ISTANBUL alphabet were four Tosks - Midhat Frasheri, Shahin Kolonja, Bajo Topulli, Nyzhet Vrioni (member of an influential feudal family from Berat) and a Gheg, Dom Ndre Mjeda. At the end, the committee resolved that the two alphabets - the ISTANBUL and the new LATIN alphabet - would be the only ones to be used, and all Albanian schools were obliged to teach both alphabets to their pupils.

Midhat Frasheri communicated to the Congress the decision of the committee. Then, Pater Gjergj Fishta, in his capacity as president of the alphabet committee, confirmed it. He said the ISTANBUL alphabet alone would be sufficient to answer the needs of the Albanian nation, but in order to have books printed abroad and for telegrams, a purely Latin alphabet was necessary. As a final touch, he referred to the Germans who employed two alphabets, the Gothic and the Latin. The decision of the alphabet committee was accepted by the Congress, that is, it accepted two alphabets, the ISTANBUL one and a new LATIN one.

The resolution on the alphabet question at Monastir was a significant step toward the unification of education and the union of the Albanians. Although not an ideal solution which would have been a single alphabet, it was a wise one. The ISTANBUL alphabet could not have been discarded for it had a long tradition and had been widely disseminated. However, by eliminating all other alphabets, the Monastir decision rendered easier commuication among the Albanians: a paper or a book published in the south could now be read in the north, and visa versa. It also contributed to making Muslims and Christians more conscious of their common Albanian heritage.

But, then, the Young Turks who had overthrown and replaced the Turkish government of Abdul Hamid became fearful of the new Albanian nationalism and suddenly supported an ARABIC alphabet. Needles to say, this caused considerable consternation among the nationally-minded Albanians. It was disturbing for them to see the Turkish newspaper in Salonika, Yeni Asyr (New Times) publish articles against the Albanian Latin alphabet, and attempt by all means to create trouble and sow dissension among the Albanians. In March 1909, the Union and Progress Committee (composed essentially of Turks who had links to the Young Turks in Istanbul but included some Albanians) based in Salonika tried to dissipate Albanian suspicions by informing the Albanian club in that city that the Albanian language could be taught freely because this would have "good effects on the Christian Albanians who have come under the influence of the Pan-Hellenic current" and that the Albanians could choose any alphabet they liked. Nonetheless, relations between the Young Turks and the Albanians had been shaken. For example, the friendly understanding which had existed between the Albanian club of Monastir and the Young Turks was affected so deeply as to be transformed into open hostility. The Albanians were now pre-occupied with the efforts of the Young Turks to impose the Turkish or ARABIC alphabet.

Another Congress was held in Elbasan on September 2, 1909, and decided that it was the duty of the Monastir club to introduce the Albanian language in all the schools of Albania, and that meant the Latin alphabet. It was further decided to request all the Albanian publicists and journalists that they use only the dialect of Elbasan, as it was intelligible to both Ghegs and Tosks. Evidently it was thought that it would form a link between the north and the south.

On February 6, 1910, the Young Turks organized in Monastir a meeting of the partisans of the Arabic alphabet. A resolution was passed calling for the introduction of the ARABIC alphabet in the Albanian language. Afraid of attacks, a detachment of Albanian soldiers went to guard the club "Bashkimi" and the offices of the newspaper "Bashkimi i Kombit" ((Union of the Nation). In the beginning of the same month, a demonstration by the partisans of the Arabic letters against the Albanian club took place in Uskub. They condemned the use of the Latin script as being against the religious law and the interests of Islam.

But on February 19, 1910, an imposing demonstration took place in Korçe in which some 15,000 people protested against the intended introduction of the ARABIC alphabet by force. Many speeches were delivered in support of the "Albanian (or Latin) letters" and a prayer was said by Hoxha Hafiz Ali, who blessed them. Telegrams were dispatched to the Albanian deputies in the Turkish parliament in Istanbul whose answer was an encouragement for them to stick to their demands. Gjirokaster followed suit - a meeting was held there from February 20, to March 5, 1910, headed by many notables. They declared that the Albanian Latin alphabet did not do any harm - religious or political - and were resolved not to abandon it.

In Elbasan, a demonstration took place backing the ARABIC alphabet. It was led by hoxhas who tried to arouse the Muslim population by telling them that they would be "infidels" if they used the Latin letters for their language. Two days later, there was a powerful counter-demonstration favoring the Latin letters.

After eight months of oppressing the proposed new Albanian alphabets, a switch by the Young Turks finally occurred because of the furor created by the Albanians. As a result, in March, 1911, a circular from Turkey's Ministry of the Interior in Istanbul was forwarded to the various Albanian districts ordering the re-opening of Albanian schools and allowing use of the Latin alphabet. As it finally turned out, through a period of evolution that eventually eliminated all Greek characters to approximate certain Albanian sounds, a much-revised version of the BASHKIMI alphabet (which was always considered very close to the ISTANBUL alphabet) appears to be the one currently in use. The only distinction in the written Albanian language of today is that between the Gheg dialect of the north and the Tosk dialect of the south but each still uses the updated Bashkimi alphabet. To sum up, the Albanian alphabet is definitely Latin-based, and similar to that of English except that it is comprised of 36 letters including ë and ç and nine digraphs dh, gj, ll, nj, sh, th, xh, and zh which are regarded as a single character. The Albanian alphabet does not have the letter w.

The long struggle for a unified Albanian alphabet was finally over. Without exception, it helped stimulate Albania's national movement towards complete independence from the Turkish empire while bringing all Albanians closer together, northern Gheg and southern Tosk, Christian and Muslim.

Van Christo Note: Much of the above material was excerpted or otherwise derived from Stavro Skendi's excellent book "The Albanian National Awakening: 1878-1912", Princeton University Press, 1967

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