he Balkan Linguistic Union

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In Rumanian: Uniunea lingvisticã balcanicã.

A term coined by A. Rosetti to designate the close correspondences in syntax, vocabulary and phonology between the languages of the Balkan peninsula, especially Albanian, Bulgarian and Rumanian.

Historical Background

The Balkan languages belong to different groups of the Indo-European family:

Turkish (Osmanli) is the only language non-belonging to the the Indo-European family.

For the greatest part of its history since the beginning of the Christian era the Balkan peninsula and the adjacent area were politically unified under powerful empires:
  • till 600 AD:
  • 840-1018:
  • 1018-1185:
  • 1190-1261:
  • 1389-1913:
The Roman and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empires;
The First Bulgarian empire;
The Byzantine empire;
The Second Bulgarian (or Vlacho-Bulgarian) empire (see Vlachs);
The Ottoman empire.

For this reason the peoples of the Balkan peninsula had intensive contacts and influenced each other for many centuries. With the exception of the Croatians, Slovenians and the Turks, they adhered to the Orthodox Church (the majority of the Albanians adopted Islam just in the 15th-16th centuries) and continued the traditions of the Byzantine empire. They were exposed to Greek and Byzantine influences, and absorbed a large amount of Greek culture and civilizations. Some of these peoples (as Rumanians and Albanians) were predominantly shepherds and their wanderings evidently contributed to the spread of elements of civilization and popular culture. As a result, these peoples developed many features in common in all fields of human activity: architecture, costumes, foods, popular art and literature, popular beliefs and, last but not least, language.

The most ancient peoples of the Balkans are the Greeks and the Albanians (the latter are supposedly descending from the Illyrians). The ancestors of the Rumanians (of the Northern Rumanians, Istro-Rumanians, the Arumanians and the Megleno-Rumanians) also belonged to the ancient peoples of the Balkan peninsula. At present, however, the great majority of them are living north of the lower Danube and have no direct contacts with the Greeks and the Albanians. Slavs (ancestors of the Bulgarians, the Serbians, the Croatians, and the Slovenes) have been living in the Balkan peninsula since the 6th century AD. The Turks, occupying various regions all over the Balkan peninsula during the period of their domination, are at present concentrated mainly in its southeastern parts.

Linguistic Affinities

The similiarities in phraseology and syntax are most numerous between Albanian, Rumanian, and Bulgarian, these are by certain authors called Balkan languages of the first grade, they are in the core area of the Balkan languages (Solta, Einführung..., p.7). Serbo-Croatian belongs to those of the second grade, in the peripheral zone. According to K. Sandfeld (LB, p. 6):

Quite often, only vocabulary and morphology change and the manner of expression remains essentially the same throughout all the territory occupied by these languages.
Balkanisms appear equally in the speech of Northern Rumanians living in the Timok valley, south of the Danube, in Transylvania, Wallachia (Muntenia) or Moldova. Obviously, Common Rumanian contained all these elements. Later, Arumanian was exposed to a strong Greek influence as its speakers are surrounded by a Greek population to which many of them are being assimilated.

Rosetti (ILR, p. 259) presents the correspondences between Rumanian and Albanian under the heading “Balkanisms”. He states that it is not always possible to know the origin of a certain feature: they may be the effect of the substratum, or of the prolonged and close symbiosis between the different populations, influencing each other, of which most influence emanated from Greek, which is explained by the superior Greek civilization.

Out of those nine Balkan features discussed by Rosetti, five were presented above, under the heading “The relationship between Rumanian and Albanian,” p. 60, because they are characteristic of these two languages and are most probably explained by the effect of the substratum of Rumanian, i.e., by Proto-Albanian. The definite article appeared in Balkan Romance in the 7th century AD. Its postposition, also present in Albanian and Bulgarian, is probably explained by Greek influence. The change in the use of the infinitive may have the same explanation.

Origin of Studies

The Slovenian scientist Jernej Kopitar was the first author to call attention to the peculiar relationships among the Balkan languages was (Wiener Jahrbücher der Litteratur, XLVI, 1829).

Later, F. Miklosich, H. Schuchardt, G. Meyer, and G. Weigand have assembled much material in this field. A detailed, systematic presentation of the intimate relationships between Greek, Albanian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, and, to a much lesser extent, Turkish, was published in 1930 by K. Sandfeld (Linguistique Balkanique – Problèmes et résultats, Paris).


The idea of a “Balkan Linguistics” has been criticized by A. Graur (1936), who argued that this cannot exist in the same sense as, for example, “Indo-European linguistics” or “Romance linguistics”:

In linguistics to replace the notion of origin with that of “affinity,” as one wants to do now, means to attribute to phonetics and vocabulary and to syntax more importance than to morphology, and consequently, to substitute the superficial for the essential.
Graur considered that one only can talk about “relationships of borrowings, of influences, but not about Balkan linguistics”.

Later Developments

In the post-war decades there appeared scientific journals of Balkanology, particularly in the Balkan countries. The First Congress of Balkanology, organized in Sofia in 1966, was followed by other specialized forums. In André du Nay's words:

The investigation of the features shared by the Balkan languages seems quite justified. The results are valuable information about problems of interaction between languages, as well as language change, and may also contribute to the elucidation of historical problems.
G.R. Solta's survey (Einführung...) was published in 1980. A. Rosetti produced a detailed study of the relationships among the Balkan languages (ILR, pp. 225–60). His articles pertaining to this problem were published in one volume in 1985.


Written by Zdravko Batzarov for Orbis Latinus.


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