Now I Know My ABCs: The Albanian Alphabet (Part 2 of 4)

Shqip Alpha

Here is my attempt at a (partially) illustrated introduction to the Albanian alphabet.

A (always pronounced ah) is for Abetare (ah-beh-tahr-eh), an ABC-book, which is what I am attempting to do here!

B is for Blackman Candy. See photo below, no further comment needed.

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C (pronounced ts) is for Cigare (tsee-garr-eh), which translates to cigarette. In Albanian, one uses the verb to drink with cigarette, as in “I drink cigarettes.” Officially, smoking is banned in bars, cafés and restaurants and all such establishments have No Smoking signs posted. Nonetheless, smoking is beyond ubiquitous if that’s possible. I have resigned myself to the fact that I smell like smoke all the time and I have convinced myself that second-hand smoke will not do too much damage within the limited time frame of two years.

Ç (pronounced like the ch in chuck) is for Çka-çka, which is Albanian for so-so – as in “How are you?” “So-so.”

D is for Dele (deh-leh), which means sheep. Last night was my host sister’s 21st birthday and the celebration dinner included an Albanian delicacy: baked sheep’s head (officially known as kokë qengji). The sheep head is cut down the middle and presented in such a way that there is no mistaking what’s just been put on the table. Much to my chagrin, I learned that – no matter who has the birthday – the guest (which would be me) gets first shot at the brains and anything else that looks good. All eyes – including the sheep’s – were on me and it was a very awkward moment! I took some of the brains, which look like the white mush you’d expect them to look like and then, my host dad broke off a piece of the jaw and gave me what I think was tongue. I wish I could say that the brains tasted like chicken, but they tasted like mush and that only made matters worse because I couldn’t find anything about them to like. The tongue part was so tough that I couldn’t rip it apart and they had to get me a knife (no one in my host family uses a knife) and by the time I looked up, my host father had completely finished an entire half a head.

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Dh (pronounced like the th in the) is for the, a word that does not exist in Albanian. Definite articles are added to the ends of words, which means that you don’t know if the noun is a specific case until the person has finished saying the word. Masculine nouns get either i or u added to the end to signal the and feminine nouns get either a or ja added to the end to signal the. For example, vajzë is daughter and vajza is the daughter. And just to mix things up, places names in Albanian have both an indefinite and a definite form: if I am referring to the capital city of Tirana in a specific way (“I am going to Tirana”; “I am from Tirana”) I use the definite form – Tirana, which translates to the Tirana. But, on a map or a road sign, you will see “Tiranë,” the indefinite form, because we are referring to Tirana in a more general/non-specific way. Don’t try to make sense of this, it simply is what it is!

 E (pronounced eh) is for E, an incredibly common starting-letter for male names. In my village, I know Elson, Erlind, Elkond, Edmond, Ervin, and Erion. As with place names (see previous entry), proper names also have an indefinite and definite form. Thus, Elson is just Elson – a name – unless we are referring to my host brother, in which case Elson becomes Elsoni.

Ë is one of the few Albanian letters with multiple pronunciations; when it’s at the end of a word, it is usually – but not always – silent and when it’s located in other positions it’s pronounced uh. Very few words start with this letter so there’s not much to say here.

F is for Furgon (foor-GON), the predominant mode of transportation in Albania. Under Communism, private ownership of cars was banned and many Albanians still don’t own cars or have licenses (although a lack of the second is not necessarily sufficient to prevent ownership of the first!). That leaves public buses and private furgons (minivans); don’t even ask about trains – they are considered the poor person’s alternative to buses and furgons. Furgons are a humorous topic of their own so I will write a separate post about them at some point. Until then, I will tell you about a different F word: flokut, which means hair. This week I got my first Albanian haircut and it turned out pretty well. I went to a salon recommended by a woman in Elbasan who is a top advisor to the city’s mayor; her hair is great and I knew she’d give me a good recommendation. I ended up spending the U.S. equivalent of $4 on the cut, less than 1/10th of what I pay in the U.S. Nonetheless, my host family is scandalized that I spent more than $2.50 and did a lot of eye rolling and tongue clicking when they found out how much I’d spent. (For more about tongue-clicking see the Gj entry below.)

G (always pronounced as a hard g, as in gum) is for Gomar, the favorite word of just about every Peace Corps volunteer I know, a word that is pretty much a guaranteed laugh anytime someone says it. A gomar is a donkey; they are plentiful in the villages as work animals and are cute and goofy and readily available for riding. Here is a photo of one of my friends, Kyle (aka Gomar Kyle), riding his family’s gomar.

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More of the alphabet to follow next time…

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