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Review of  The Romance-Speaking Balkans

Reviewer: Giustina Selvelli
Book Title: The Romance-Speaking Balkans
Book Author: Annemarie Sorescu-Marinković Mihai Dragnea Thede Kahl Blagovest Njagulov Donald Dyer Angelo Costanzo
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Romance
Issue Number: 32.3627

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The edited volume “Language and the Politics of Identity. The Romance-Speaking Balkans” is the result of the efforts of the Balkan History Association in Bucharest and aims to contribute to a better understanding of the issues related to the languages of the various Romance-speaking communities on the Balkan peninsula. The relationship between language and identity politics is explored by the authors in a number of countries in Southeastern Europe (including Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, as well as Moldova and Hungary) and in various Romance-speaking communities: Vlachs, Aromanians, Bayash, Sephardic Jews, Istro-Romanians, in a strongly comparative and interdisciplinary perspective, encompassing history, sociolinguistics, anthropology and even psychology. The sources used to examine this relationship range from oral history (collected through ethnographic fieldwork) to online Facebook pages, from literary sources to official language policies.

The short introductory chapter explores a series of fundamental issues related to the link between language and identity of the Romance communities in the Balkans, all of which (except for those in Romania) live among non-Romance-speaking majorities, where they thus do not represent the state language, in a situation of linguistic and cultural contact that poses several challenges to the preservation of their languages. Moreover, the Balkans are described as one of the key regions in Europe and beyond where exceptionally important phenomena such as “language contact, linguistic ideologies and the politics of identity of the numerous peoples and ethnolinguistic groups living there” (p. 2) can be observed. Explanations are given of the classification of the four main Balkan Romance varieties, i.e., Romanian and the endangered Aromanian, Megleno-Romanian, Istro-Romanian, as well as a clarification of the (also endangered) status of Judeo-Spanish (Judezmo or Ladino) within the Romance languages of the Balkans.

The first chapter, by Michael Studemund-Halévy, “From Rashi to Cyrillic. Bulgarian Judeo-Spanish (Judezmo) Texts in Cyrillic” examines the issue of multigraphism and script choice among Sephardic communities in Bulgaria between the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. After considering the religious and cultural factors that affected the choice of script for the various communities in the Balkans, the author focuses on the “contact character” of Judezmo, the language spoken as a mother tongue by the majority of these Sephardic Jewish communities, and on the question of the use of different writing systems for the transcription of their language in Bulgaria. Also examined is the use of the Hebrew script in its Rashi version and especially that of the Cyrillic alphabet, which was associated with attempts to “Bulgarianize” the Sephardic community from within. In the final part of the chapter, the author presents excerpts from rare texts written in Judezmo with Cyrillic script, drawn from a series of late 19th and early 20th century works published in the country, such as dictionaries, proverbs, conversation guides, and others. These texts are particularly valuable as they help to delineate a clearer picture of the multilingual and multigraphic environment in which the Sephardic Jewish communities positioned themselves at that time.

The second chapter, “Political Terror and Repressed Aromanian Core Identity: Ways to Re-assert and Develop Ethnolinguistic Identity”, by Cătălin Mamali, addresses the issue of the ethnolinguistic identity of Aromanian communities and relates it to the challenges and violence experienced by the Aromanian minorities throughout history, with particular attention to the totalitarian regime in Romania. Drawing on concepts from social psychology (C. G. Jung, E. Erikson, J. C. Turner) and philosophy, the author analyzes the external and internal mechanisms that allow the maintenance of a distinct identity and sense of self-awareness, relating them to the Aromanians, but also briefly mentioning other communities (such as the Armenians), and discussing the key concepts of “core identity” and “individuation”. Mamali also focuses on the factors that support the community’s preservation of language in conjunction with expressions of “ethnolinguistic vitality” (Landry & Bourhis 1997) and determines the assimilation risks faced by these minorities characterized by multiple identities, due to state neglect and acculturation dynamics, as well as the post-World War II geopolitical context that prevented the maintenance of transnational contacts between these communities.

The third chapter, “Sociolinguistic Relations and Return Migration: Italian in the Republic of Moldova”, by Anna-Christine Weirich, deals with the status of the Italian language in this Romance-speaking country, pointing out a number of developments over the last 30 years since independence from the Soviet Union. These have had a particular impact on the linguistic marketplace of the capital Chișinău, leading to an increased demand for Italian language skills and making this language “part of the ‘linguistic relations’ of Moldova” (p. 95). After examining the historical presence of the Italian minority in Moldova (dating back to the end of the 19th century and now consisting of only about a hundred members), the author problematizes the sociolinguistic descriptions of the country, which do not provide a complete picture of the second language or multilingual skills of its inhabitants. Using an ethnographic approach based on the linguistics of migration (Krefeld 2004) and the sociolinguistics of globalization (Blommaert 2010, 2016), the author focuses on the multilingual competencies of the employees of a call center in Chișinău. She examines their work and educational experiences in relation to the use of Italian and illustrates paradigms of Russian-Italian and Romanian-Italian language contact in the repertoires used by both returning migrants and locals, characterized by lexical and syntactic borrowing, as well as code-switching.

Chapter four, “Between Ethnicity, Regionalism and Familial Memory: Identity Dilemmas among the Eastern Romance Communities of the Balkan Peninsula”, by Ewa Nowicka, discusses in a comparative way the challenges faced and choices made by different Aromanian communities in three countries in relation to identity models: Vlachs in Greece, Aromanians in Serbia, and Istro-Romanians in Croatia. In relation to Greece, the author argues that belonging to the Greek nationality is an inalienable part of the Vlach identity, whose cultural expressions (such as language, folklore, dances) by no means assume a political connotation, but are rather rooted in the categories of the local and regional (p. 121). In relation to the Serbian context, Nowicka points to the divide between the Aromanians (“Cincari” in Serbian) and the Vlachs of the Eastern part of the country, whose identities and consciousness developed in different ways, since the former group associated itself with urban elites and the latter with the rural population, although both were equally exposed to linguistic assimilation. Finally, the case of the Istro-Romanians is illustrated. This term refers to the inhabitants of the Croatian villages of Žejane and Šušnjevica in Istria, who define their highly threatened language with different names: Zheyanski and Vlashki, and who often do not want to openly identify themselves as Istro-Romanians and even less as part of the Vlach groups in the Balkans.

In Chapter five, “Identity Constructions among the Members of the Aromanian Community in the Korçë Area”, Daniela-Carmen Stoica employs a series of oral sources collected by ethnographic methods to reconstruct paradigms of language use among the so-called Farsherot community living in the Korçë area of South-East Albania, close to the borders with both North Macedonia and Greece. Highlighting the importance of oral history narratives for linguistic and dialectal research as well as for historians and social scientists, the author presents the results of her research, which focuses mainly on the discursive practices of indexicality, local occasioning, positioning, and dialogism in contexts of interactions and strategies of self-representation. Regarding the former, aspects such as phonetic traits and styles of speaking are considered in their relation to the restricted mobility of female speakers, which led to a higher degree of preservation of the mother tongue. Local occasioning is treated as a communicative process reflected in lexical borrowings from Albanian and practices of code-switching which are indicative of the fluid and dynamic identities of the Aromanian informants. Finally, in terms of positioning and dialogism, relations with other ethnic and social groups are discussed, such as instances of opposition to the Albanian majority and to the former communist regime.

Chapter six, “Megleno-Romanians in the Serbian Banat. Colonization and Assimilation”, by Mircea Măran, deals with the little-known story of the migration of this Romance-speaking community from Yugoslav Macedonia to Gudurica and other villages of the multi-ethnic Banat region, which began in 1946 and continued until 1956. The author describes the specificity of the Serbian Banat context, previously characterized by the presence of the German population and then hosting, in addition to the Megleno-Romanian migrants, various Romance-speaking communities: an autochthonous Romanian minority, Aromanians, as well as members of the Bayash community. Măran reconstructs the fate of this minority language in the new geographical environment, identifying the absence of state protection (due to the lack of interest on the part of the communist authorities in introducing this language in education and in the media) as a fundamental element that triggered linguistic assimilation, and also discussing other important factors such as exogamous practices, the low prestige of their identity due to negative stereotypes, the erosion of family ties with relatives in the villages in Yugoslav Macedonia, and the return of part of this migrant community to their homeland. The confluence of these factors resulted in Megleno-Romanians becoming what Măran defines as a “hidden minority” (p. 183) that identifies with the local Serbian or Macedonian ethnic groups and never with the autochthonous Romanian group, thus neglecting the opportunity to benefit from Romanian-language school instruction.

In Chapter seven, “Nation-State Ideology and Identity and Language Rights of Linguistic Minorities. Prospects for the Vlashki/Zheyanski-Speaking Communities”, Zvjezdana Vrzić examines the current status of two highly endangered Istro-Romanian language varieties in the villages of Žejane and Šušnjevica in Croatian Istria, highlighting the discrepancy between the delicate self-identification dynamics of these communities based on local and regional affiliations and the one-dimensional, essentialist categories arising from nation-state concepts. After a historical and linguistic contextualization of the Istro-Romanian variants in the different political contexts (Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Yugoslav, and Croatian) of Istria, the author underlines the existence of multiple identity belongings among these communities, which remain invisible to the exclusive selection of the various population censuses of the last 70 years. In the second part of the chapter, Vrzić assesses the negative impact that both Croatian and Romanian attempts to impose an externally constructed identity affiliation have had on the self-esteem and language maintenance process of these communities, and describes the shortcomings of top-down policies, such as Romanian Law No. 299/2007, which ascribes a “Romanian” identity to them, and the ECRML (European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages), from which the Vlashki/Zheyanski populations in the Croatian state do not benefit at all, as these communities do not express any explicit form of belonging to an ethnic minority.

In Chapter eight, “‘What Language Do We Speak?’ The Bayash in the Balkans and Mother Tongue Education”, Annemarie Sorescu-Marinković considers the status of Balkan Bayash Romanian, an archaic Romanian variety spoken by the Bayash, a population considered Roma by the external majority population and whose identity is associated by the community itself with different ethnic and national communities: Roma, Romanian, and an identity independent of these two. After explaining the use of “Bayash” as an umbrella term for these heterogeneous communities, which often share the same traditional vocation of woodcraft and are referred to differently in the various countries of the region, the author discusses the importance of the process of “ideological clarification” (as overcoming a state of linguistic-ideological confusion, p. 214) and considers it a prerequisite for a minority language community to initiate any attempt at language preservation. After examining the development of this process of consciousness-raising regarding the status of the language in a series of countries, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary, Sorescu-Marinković focuses on the standardization and educational challenges faced by these communities and presents, among much information, the fascinating cases of Hungarian schools teaching the Boyash language in the city of Pécs.

The ninth and final chapter, “Performing Vlach-ness Online: The Enregisterment of Vlach Romanian on Facebook”, by Monica Huțanu, looks at the representational practices of Eastern Serbia Vlach communities on a Facebook page which is dedicated to metapragmatic paradigms of this community’s linguistic expressions. After examining the diverging views on identity held by the two main factions of the Vlach community, composed of pro-Romanian “reintegrationists” (who prefer to use the Latin script) and pro-Vlach “independentists” (who favor the Cyrillic script), The author highlights the role of new online media and websites in the revitalization and preservation of the language, focusing on the Facebook page “Vlasi na kvadrat”, whose audience consists of both factions of the Vlach community as well as the Serbian audience and the Vlach diaspora abroad. In describing the data and methodology of her research on the Facebook page, the author discusses the concept of “enregisterment”, defining it as the use of a set of linguistic repertoires of a particular community to socially identify it in the eyes of internal and external members, as part of the visible representation of the community’s identity. She provides concrete examples of such practices (which assume a highly self-ironic value) by referring to the use of the suffix -ešće and the exclusive use of the affricate ć (instead of the use of both č and ć in Serbian) by Vlach Romanian speakers on this Facebook page.


This interdisciplinary and comprehensive work represents a much-needed contribution to the field of minority/endangered languages and multilingualism/plurilingualism in the Balkans. The heterogeneity of the chapters, based on different disciplinary perspectives and covering a wide range of topics related to language and identity politics, fulfils the aim of providing a clearer picture of the patterns of linguistic and cultural diversity in the Balkan Peninsula, exemplified by the different Romance-speaking communities. The diversity of languages and approaches included does not undermine the coherence of the work, but rather helps to engage the reader’s interest and familiarize the reader with the different contexts and implications of language use.

The book’s most valuable merit is certainly the achievement of its stated aim (p. 4) of analyzing the delicate issues of language and identity through an inclusive framework that takes into account the interdependence and relationality between the cultures of the various ethnolinguistic communities on the Balkan Peninsula and the transnational character of their lives, as opposed to national or ethnic visions that favor simplistic and essentialist explanations over the complexity and diversity that characterize such phenomena. This is particularly evident in the chapters that take into account multiple geographical contexts (Chapter 4 by Nowicka, which deals with the cases of the Aromanians in Greece, Serbia, and Croatia, and Chapter 8 by Sorescu-Marinković, which addresses the different identity configurations of the Bayash in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, and elsewhere) and the diversity of the speakers of the Romance languages in question (e.g., the informants coming from both majority and minority populations displaying instances of translingual practices in Moldova, explored in Chapter 3 by Weirich); it is however, a general feature that can be seen in all contributions.

The relational perspective (already advocated, for example, in Daskalov & Marinov 2013) applied to the study of delicate minority identities in the Balkans still seems to be rather absent from the field of Balkan studies, which is due to the various “national” or sometimes even “nationalist” biases and exclusive sectorializations (in the sense of specialization in one language or language family exclusively) that affect historiographical and linguistic research and do not allow for an integral understanding of the Balkans as the language/cultural contact area par excellence in Europe.

The authors who have contributed to this volume have managed to avoid this dangerous shortcoming by adopting a truly multilingual and minority perspective that does not neglect the pluridimensional and multilayered linguistic identities of the communities concerned. They all help to delineate a clearer framework of the plurilingual competences and of the patterns of “small-scale multilingualism” (Lüpke 2016, Singer & Harris 2016) that persist in this part of Europe as a remnant of the imperial past, and that are being eroded due to urbanization processes, migration, and the changing “linguistic marketplace” of the 21st century.

In relation to this “imperial legacy”, many of the contributions have the important merit of shedding light on the adverse effects of the phenomena of multilingualism and multiple identities that have resulted from the establishment of new borders since the affirmation of nation-state entities following the demise of the multiethnic Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, as well as in the context of the policies of communism towards these minorities.

I believe that this volume will be of particular use to all scholars and students interested in issues of linguistic diversity in the Balkans, not only to experts in Romance languages, but also to those who wish to explore the fascinating issues of multilingualism and minority languages in various urban and non-urban “post-imperial” contexts, with meaningful links to other communities in the wider Eurasian space. Moreover, I think it sets an important precedent and example that can inspire other experts to work on a similar project focusing on the languages of further minority groups in the Balkans in a transnational perspective.

As a final note, I would only like to add that it would have been very useful to include an ethnolinguistic map of the Balkans indicating the areas inhabited by the Romance-speaking communities concerned, although I am aware of the challenges and difficulties of such additional work.


Blommaert, Jan. 2010. The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge, UK, New York: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan. 2016. “From mobility to complexity in sociolinguistic theory and method”. In: Nikola Coupland (ed.): Sociolinguistics. Theoretical debates. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press: 242-259.

Daskalov, Roumen & Marinov, Tchavdar (eds.). 2013. Entangled Histories of the Balkans Vol. 1. National Ideologies and Language Policies. Leiden: Brill.

Krefeld, Thomas. 2004. Einführung in die Migrationslinguistik. Von der Germania Italiana in die Romania multiple. Tübingen: Narr.

Landry, Rodrigue & Bourhis Richard Y. 1997. “Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality. An Empirical Study”. In Journal of Language and Social Psychology 16 (1): 23-49.

Lüpke, Friederike. 2016. “Uncovering Small-Scale Multilingualism.” In Critical Multilingualism Studies 4 (2): 35-74

Singer, Ruth, & Harris, Salome. 2016. “What practices and ideologies support small-scale multilingualism? A case study of Warruwi Community, northern Australia”. In International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2016 (241) 163: 208.
Giustina Selvelli is a Postdoctoral Research Grant Holder at the Department of Linguistics and Comparative Cultural Studies, University Ca’ Foscari of Venice (Italy), working on a project dealing with the patterns of “post-imperial” multilingualism in three cities of the Balkan Peninsula. She has lectured on topics related to the ethnolinguistic minorities of Southeast Europe at the University of the Aegean in Mytilene, the Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul and the University of Klagenfurt. Her research interests include script choice and biscriptality, language ideologies, language policy, language and diaspora, literature and media of ethnolinguistic minorities, language activism.