In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Languages of the Balkans

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Series
  • Encyclopedias
  • Bibliographies
  • The Balkans and Europe
  • The Balkans and the Concept of Sprachbund
  • Grammars and Descriptions of Modern Languages without Nation-States
  • Ethnolects
  • Regional Dialect Surveys
  • Linguistic Cultural Studies
  • External History

Linguistics The Languages of the Balkans
Victor A. Friedman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0108


For most of the 20th century, the geopolitical Balkans were defined as Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and European Turkey. With the exception of the territory that came to constitute the Republic of Slovenia and parts of the Republic Croatia after the breakup of Yugoslavia, this region had been ruled by Ottoman Turkey. Multilingual contact on much of this territory gave rise to the Balkan Sprachbund (“linguistic league”), the first linguistic area to be identified as such. Unlike the Caucasus or the Americas, where the indigenous/nonindigenous distinction is easily defined genealogically, the Balkans are, to some extent, an ideological construct based on political events that affected linguistic history (see The Balkan Linguistic League, “Orientalism,” and Linguistic Typology in Aronson 2007, cited under the Balkans and Europe). This article will therefore concentrate on the languages of the Balkans that constitute the Balkan Sprachbund, which share a significant number of contact-induced changes at all linguistic levels: Balkan Romance (Romanian [Rumanian, Roumanian, or Daco-Romanian], Aromanian [Arumanian, Vlah, Vlach, or Macedo-Romanian], Meglenoromanian [Megleno-Romanian]), Balkan Slavic (Bulgarian, Macedonian, and the southernmost dialects of Serbia and Kosovo [Torlak or Prizren-Timok]), and the dialects of Greek and of Albanian (Gheg/Geg and Tosk, which latter includes Lab, Çam, and Arvanitika) overlapping or contiguous to these, as well as Balkan Turkic (Rumelian Turkish and Gagauz), Balkan Judezmo (Ladino or Judeo-Spanish), and the relevant Romani dialects (Balkan and South Vlax). Moreover, because the results of language contact make the Balkans as a geographic region interesting as a linguistic area, the focus here will be on works treating the Balkan languages in their areal context. For the South Slavic dialect continuum, some are considered as participating in the Balkan Sprachbund while others are not. The Prizren-Timok or Torlak dialects of former Serbo-Croatian are defined by the absence of phonological length and tone. Within this dialect group, most dialects share various mophosyntactic developments with Macedonian and Bulgarian (and, to varying extents, the other Balkan languages) and are considered part of the Balkan Sprachbund by most scholars. Among such features are the following: (1) a particle derived from etymological “want” to mark future; (2) complete replacement of infinitive by analytic subjunctive; (3) postposed definite article; (4) replacement of synthetic comparatives by analytic; (5) replacement of conditional by anterior future; (6) so-called object reduplication (resumptive clitic pronouns); and (7) simplification of the declensional system. The isoglosses for these and other significant features are complex, for example, some villages have a distinct 1sg future-marking clitic and use the old 3sg clitic everywhere else; remnants of the infinitive survive to varying degrees; the conditional meaning of the anterior future extends into Montenegro and Bosnia; the postposed definite article is absent from some regions that have the other features; so forth. See Eric Hamp’s article “Yugoslavia—A Crossroads of Sprachbünde” (Hamp 1989, cited under the Balkans and the Concept of Sprachbund), Victor Friedman’s article “The Balkan Languages and Balkan Linguistics” on the problem of Sprachbund boundaries (Friedman 2011, cited under General Overviews), and Robert Greenberg’s “The Dialects of Macedonia and Montenegro: Random Linguistic Parallels or Evidence of a Sprachbund?” (Greenberg 2000, cited under Ancient Contact). Some Bulgarian linguists still treat Macedonian dialects (and sometimes also dialects in Serbia and Kosovo) as dialects of Bulgarian. This can confuse students who are unaware of the situation. To add to the confusion, speakers of a given Balkan Slavic dialect may identify as Bulgarian, Macedonian, or Serbian (or Goran, Torbesh, Pomak, Bosnian, Greek, Turkish, etc.) depending on “national feeling” or religion. Beginning in 1991, the former Serbo-Croatian devolved into four standards—Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin (BCSM)—and speakers of the Slavic dialects of southern Serbia and Kosovo are claimed as speaking Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian depending on religion (Islam, Catholicism, or Orthodox Christianity, respectively). Here the former Serbo-Croatian will be called BCSM unless a reference is specifically to the pre-1991 language. Some works treat all or most of the Slavic dialects spoken in the geopolitical Balkans as part of the Balkan Sprachbund, although this is not the practice among most Balkan specialists.

General Overviews

At present there are no book-length general overviews of the Balkan languages suitable for the average undergraduate, although the English summary in Asenova 2002 (cited under Handbooks) can be used for linguistics majors. Survey articles give only a general idea of the field. Joseph 2010 is a good general linguistic survey, while Friedman 2011 concentrates on those aspects of interest to anthropological linguists. Topolińska 2010 examines the Sprachbund through the lens of a Slavist. Lindstedt 2000 is a much-cited article. Van der Auwera 1998 offers a comparative approach with Meso-America that is similar in its methodology to Lindstedt’s. Tomić 2008, a checklist that misses important points, is strong on clitic data albeit weak in other respects. Joseph 1987 is a review article of Schaller 1975 (cited under Handbooks) that gives a good sense of the field. See also Encyclopedias and Mixed Topics in Balkan Language Contact Studies.

  • Friedman, Victor A. 2011. The Balkan languages and Balkan linguistics. Annual Review of Anthropology 40:275–291.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145932

    Surveys the field from the point of view of anthropological linguistics.

  • Joseph, Brian D. 1987. A fresh look at the Balkan Sprachbund: Some observations on H. W. Schaller’s Die Balkansprachen. Mediterranean Language Review 3:105–114.

    Review of Schaller 1975 (cited under Handbooks) that sums up the dozen or so other reviews and contributes salutary material of its own. Also provides an overview of most important issues.

  • Joseph, Brian D. 2010. Language contact in the Balkans. In The handbook of language contact. Edited by Raymond Hickey, 618–633. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444318159

    Summarizes the most important features relevant for Balkan linguistics.

  • Lindstedt, Jouko. 2000. Linguistic Balkanization: Contact-induced change by mutual reinforcement. In Languages in contact. Edited by Dicky Gilbers, John Nerbonne, and Jos Schaeken, 231–246. Studies in Slavic and General Linguistics 28. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

    Determines “Balkanness” of a Balkan language by counting the presence or absence of certain linguistic features. Contains a useful summary of selected features and suggestions explaining differential results of language contact.

  • Tomić, Olga Mišeska. 2008. An integrated areal-typological approach: Local convergence of morphosyntactic features in the Balkan Sprachbund. In From linguistic areas to areal linguistics. Edited by Pieter Muysken, 181–219. Studies in Language Companion Series 90. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Despite the many errors of fact and inexact or incorrect formulations, has a rich summary on clitic usage, although the sources for the examples are not given.

  • Topolińska, Zuzanna. 2010. The Balkan Sprachbund from a Slavic perspective. Zbornik Matice srpske za filologiju i lingvistiku 53.1: 33–60.

    A review of basic Balkanisms where Slavic is a donor or recipient. Attention to differentiation within the Sprachbund.

  • van der Auwera, Johan. 1998. Revisiting the Balkan and Meso-American linguistic areas. Language Sciences 20.3: 259–270.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0388-0001(98)00003-5

    Reexamines two linguistic areas by counting features and assigning numerical values, illustrated by maps of “isopleths.” Suggests that Bulgarian is “more” Balkan than Macedonian. See Friedman 2011 for critique.

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