“Man, Albanian is hard!” This I realised when, in preparation for my last holiday, I did what any self-respecting linguist would do before travelling abroad: practising to produce passable versions of the most basic phrases in the language of your destination country, safe in the knowledge that you are now able to say hello, explain that you are lost, and ask for the way – only to then immediately revert back to hands-and-feet communication, as your chances of ever understanding the helpful advice you are given gravitate towards zero.
Still, we love it! And it’s usually worth the effort, if only for the small reward of getting a friendly smile, and knowing that the other person has understood what you just said AND, amazingly, is actually saying something back.
However, even just figuring out how to start off a conversation can be tricky. My knowledge of Albanian still being severely limited by the time I set off for Albania (mainly due to me totally failing to get to grips with pronunciation and, amongst others, definite and indefinite articles), I figured the best way forward would be to quiz our Albanian mountain guide about useful phrases to learn.
It soon became apparent, however, that it was not as straightforward as just saying “Hello”, for example. I was already confused about “Hello”, as there was one phrasebook which suggested that the Albanian for this was “Përshëndetje”, whereas another claimed that the correct term was “Tungjatjeta”. (I have since learned that, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s to do with formality: the former seems to be a more formal, the latter a less formal expression.) However, our young guide dismissed both of these options out of hand, claiming that no-one other than a well-meaning foreigner would ever use them. Instead, he explained that the proper thing to say on greeting an Albanian was “Are you tired?”, as in: “Are you tired from working hard all day?” I was fascinated by this and how much it told me about Albanian culture. By this point, we were hiking through a mountain range in Northern Albania called the “Accursed Mountains”, so named because of how tough life there used to be (and, in some cases, still is) for shepherds and other mountain-dwelling families. Case in point.
Throughout our hiking trip, we stayed in village guesthouses along the way and enjoyed the most sensational hospitality. By the end of it, another language quirk finally made sense to me: One of my phrasebooks claimed that the Albanian language had 27 words for “moustache” and just as many for “eyebrows”. Now, surely that’s just a tiny bit unnecessary – or so I thought. But after learning more about Albanian society (quite patriarchal), the Albanian people (tallest in the world, apparently) and their traditional dress and appearance (more facial hair equals greater authority), this seemingly excessive number of synonyms suddenly made eminent sense to me. Oh, the moustaches we saw!
So, in summary – yes, Albanian is hard. Or even, as some climbers might label it, hard very difficult. In fact, I would not shy away from describing it as difficult, difficult, lemon difficult. But this shouldn’t deter anyone from giving it a jolly good go whilst exploring an endlessly fascinating country.
Beautiful Albania, I will certainly be back – with an interpreter in tow, if I have to!