Now I Know My ABCs: The Albanian Alphabet (Part 3 of 4)

Shqip Alpha

Here is Part 3 of my attempt at a (partially) illustrated introduction to the Albanian alphabet.

Gj (pronounced sort of like the g in george but there is no actual English equivalent) is for Gjuhë (jew-huh) and means tongue. Gjuhë is the word used to mean language and also for the tongue that’s in your mouth. When Albanians want to indicate their disapproval or communicate no at the level of NO WAY, they waggle their forefinger back and forth (while holding the rest of their hand stationary) and make a clicking sound with their tongue. When you get a tongue click, you know that the no you got means business. For example, when my host family was upset at how much I’d spent on a haircut (see F entry in previous post), there was a lot of finger wagging and tongue clicking.

H (pronounced like the h in house; that is, with a lot of breath behind it) is for Ha (ha), which is the verb to eat. The verb to drink is pi (pee), which is an endless source of humor to native English speakers. The expression “ha bukë” (ha boock) literally means “eat bread” but is used as a catch-all way of asking “are you hungry?” or “do you want to eat?” In my village (and perhaps the rest of Albania), the question “Ha bukë?” is accompanied by a flapping hand motion in front of the mouth to signify eating. In a similar fashion, questions or statements about going to work are accompanied by a two-handed gesture that signifies working. I won’t try to describe the gestures because I can’t do them justice; perhaps I will be able to post a video at some point.

I (pronounced like the ee in week) is for i papërfunduar (pronounced ee pah-pehr-foon-doo-ar), which means unfinished. Albania is rife with unfinished buildings – houses with partially built second floors and office and apartment buildings that are mere shells. These buildings are, by American standards, complete eyesores but in Albania they make sense. Why? Because, in Albania, buildings are exempt from taxes until they are finished; families and investors can avoid taxes indefinitely simply by leaving rebar sticking out of the top floor of a building! As you might imagine the implications of this lack of tax revenue for local governments is a huge issue, but that’s a conversation for another time. IMG_1852

J (pronounced like the y in yes) is for Jo (yaw). Jo means no while po (paw) means yes. What makes this problematic is that native English speakers automatically answer with a yeh sound when they agree but yeh sounds signal no to our Albanian friends/families/co-workers. Just as confusing, but in the reverse direction: Albanians shake their heads from side to side when they want to signal yes. I had heard about this before I arrived and thought it wouldn’t be that big a deal. What I didn’t know is that “shake their heads from side to side” doesn’t really describe what happens. Here’s what does happen (and I hope to someday be able to post a video of this so that you can see it for yourself): with a completely impassive face, the Albanian person wobbles their head from one shoulder to another in a way that – in America – signals “well….I guess so….if you really want me to.” The Albanian person is full-on agreeing with the question, comment or request, but everything in my American brain interprets the wobbling motion as “I guess I agree with you but I’m really not sure you’re right” and/or “ok, I’ll do it, but I am just letting you know that it’s under protest.” This is a really disconcerting experience because the neural pathways in my brain respond to the head wobble instantaneously and I experience an uh-oh emotional response that doesn’t go away even after my conscious brain reminds me that the person is agreeing with me. I constantly have the sense that I have disappointed someone and/or incurred their disapproval.

K is for Kos (kawss), Kafe (kah-FEH), and Kripë (kreep): yogurt, coffee and salt – all of which are extremely plentiful in Albania and all of which will get their own blog entry at some point. For now I’ll mention only kafe, which means both coffee and the color brown. Albanians are the first to tell you “ours is a coffee culture.” Albanians spend tremendous amounts of time in cafés drinking incredibly strong, teeny cups of espresso with massive amounts of sugar. Pretty much nothing in Albania is accomplished except over coffee. I will at some point do an entire blog entry about coffee in Albania so I will leave further comments about coffee out of this entry, other than to say “unfortunately, coffee-to-go is not a thing in Albania.” IMG_0944

L is for Luleshtrydhe (loo-leh-shtroo-the), which means strawberry. Luleshtrydhe is one of my favorite Albanian words, simply because it’s so much fun to say and sounds so pretty when I say it. Another favorite word is the word for consonant: bashkëtingëllore (bahsh-kuh-ting-el-ore-eh), which I enjoy for the same reasons I enjoy luleshtrydhe. IMG_0637

Ll is a pretty uncommon starting letter for Albanian words. Earlier I mentioned that native English speakers have a particularly difficult time with the ll sound. To make the sound, the speaker needs to stick out his/her tongue and hold it between the teeth. Even when I go for broke with this silly-feeling motion, I am usually unsuccessful at creating the sound correctly.

M is for Mali (mah-lee), which means mountains. My exposure to “the Balkans” has been limited to the view from my little village, but so far, pretty gorgeous. Shushicë is in a bowl surrounded by mountains, which are surrounded by higher, more rugged mountains, which are surrounded by even higher even more rugged, snow-covered mountains. The appearance of the mountains changes day to day: when it’s sunny, the mountains look like Heidi-land; other days, when it’s hazy, the mountains look mysterious; and other days, almost foreboding. Most days, the sunsets are pretty gorgeous, although the trash (see third picture) is an ongoing buzz-kill throughout all of Albania. Stay tuned for more on the trash. IMG_1846


N is for Nuk kuptoj (nook koop-toy), a phrase that new Peace Corps volunteers use constantly. It means “I don’t understand.”

Nj (pronounced nyuh) is for një (also pronounced nyuh), which is the number one and also the indefinite article a. In Albanian, the number 10 is dhjetë, the number 30 is tridhjetë, which means “three tens” and the number 50 is pesëdhjetë, which is “five tens.” For some reason, 20 is njëzet (“a/one 20”) and 40 is dyzet (“two 20s”). I find this much easier to deal with than the French numbering system, which (in my opinion) gets the award for using “four 20s” for 80 and “four 20s plus 10” for 90!

More of the alphabet to follow next time…

One thought

  1. Coffee to go is most certainly catching on in Tirana – there are a number of cafés that serve coffee to go, including Starbucks style drinks.

    Frankly, I find that to be a damn shame, but welcome to globalization.


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