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

Shqip Alpha

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

O (pronounced aw) is for Oregano, which is actually rigon (ree-gone) in Albanian. It’s not a surprise to discover that, because tastes are different here, common products are sold in different flavors. Here is a bag of oregano-flavored Lays. A friend told me about tzatiki-flavored Lays, which sounds intriguing to me, but I haven’t had the opportunity to try them yet.


P is for Pallto (pahl-taw), the official word for coat, although the word xhup (djoop) is often used. Because most Albanian buildings lack central heating, they are extraordinarily cold (even well into spring) and most people wear coats inside all day long. I kept noticing that each of my language teachers owns several very dressy coats, but it took a while for me to figure out that, while we think of coats as functional outerwear, Albanian women select their coats as we would select our in-office clothing. Here is one of my instructors, Alketa, in one of her lovely indoor coats.


Q is for Qoftë (choff-tuh), small cylindrical chopped-meat sausages that aren’t really sausages and are served deep fried. Qofte are ubiquitous in Albanian fast food restaurants and not-quite-fast-food restaurants. They are pretty good, but I tired of them quickly because the only restaurant in proximity to my training site (Shushicë) has a pretty limited menu.

R (pronounced like our r but with a little more of a trill) is for Raki (rah-KEE), Albania’s official alcoholic beverage. At 40% alcohol, Raki packs quite a punch. Personally, I think it smells like rubbing alcohol but I’m not a drinker so what do I know?  It’s possible to purchase commercial, fine quality Raki, but in the villages they make their own and, more or less, it’s moonshine. I’ve been in homes where they keep it in plastic soda bottles under the kitchen sink. I don’t know how prevalent Raki drinking is in other parts of Albania, but in Shushicë, many men start their day with a shot of Raki to accompany their morning shot of espresso (or as a fellow volunteer dubbed it:  a “rakiatto”). Later in the day, one can find groups of men in cafés or restaurants doing shot after shot of Raki and eating raw scallions or leeks. In Albania it is customary to say Gezuar (cheers) and clink glasses repeatedly while drinking.

Rr (a trilled r) is for Rruge (rroo-guh), which means road. My training village, Shushicë is about seven kilometers from the city of Elbasan and the road from the outskirts of Elbasan to the village is a mass of potholes and hairpin turns. I am not sure I ever experienced a hairpin turn that is as hairpin-y as the ones we experienced in our several-times-a-week furgon rides to the city. The residents of Shushicë would like to see the road improved but  no one is aware of any plans to do so. A few weeks ago, the municipality of Elbasan (under which Shushicë falls) undertook a road improvement project to pave the road that runs from the edge of the village into the village center. While this is a nice gesture, the last kilometer of the commute from Elbasan to Shushicë is not what needs paving. Perhaps I am being cynical, but I think that the project, coming right before the June elections, may have been a goodwill gesture. As before, furgons bump and bang their way from Elbasan to the edge of the village and then, when they hit the newly paved part of the road, they drag race to the center of town. It took a bit more than a week to pave the road and the actual day-to-day progress of the project was quite a spectator sport for village residents (see picture below).


S is for Suzane (pronounced Soo-zahn-eh) and Suzi (pronounced exactly how you think it would be pronounced), which are the names I find myself called here, even though I have never introduced myself as anything other than Sue. Suzane is the Albanian pronunciation of my actual name, Suzanne. But, Suzi? I haven’t been called that since I was a kid and I am surprised to hear Albanians (and some of the American Peace Corps staff) use it almost automatically. I’ve noticed that other volunteers’ names are shortened in a similar fashion (Tom is Tomi, Will is Willi, Ron is Roni); I think that the addition of the “i” to so many names is somehow related to the definite article thing I discussed above under letters Dh and E.

Sh is for Shqiponjë (shchee-paw-nyuh), which means eagle and is the national symbol of Albania. I have already blogged about Shqiponjë but didn’t know until recently that Shqiponjë is a relatively common name for Albanian girls.

T is for Toilet Paper, of which there is very little in Albania and, when there is, is not to be flushed, but thrown in the wastebasket. T is also for Turkish Toilets, which (fortunately) have been pretty limited in number thus far. I will refrain from saying anything further about toilets because T also stands for TMI!

Th (pronounced as an aspirated th, as in thumb) is for Thashetheme (thash-eh-theh-meh) — gossip.  In Shushicë, a village of about 3,000 people, word gets around quickly.  On several occasions, members of my six-person training group (including me) arrived home only to be asked about something that had happened on the way home less than 15-30 minutes prior.  For example, the first time our group visited the Byshek (boo-shehk), a lovely local park, we ran into only one person — a man herding sheep — in either direction.  Yet, three of us, upon arriving home, were quizzed about our visit.  Another time, on a furgon from Elbasan back to Shushicë, a couple of drunk guys gave one member of our group a hard time.  Walking from the furgon stop to our homes took about 7-10 minutes, but several of us were asked about the incident as soon as we arrived home.

U (pronounced oo) is for Ujë (oo-ee), one of the few Albanian words I know that is not pronounced phonetically. Peace Corps strongly advises that we not drink the water here and, in fact, supplies each of us with a large filtering contraption. Several people I know who have drunk unfiltered water have ended up sick and so I am drinking only filtered and bottled water, avoiding ice, and rinsing my toothbrush and contacts with filtered water. In other water news: I have perfected the art of the bucket shower! The bathroom in my host family’s house in Shushicë has part of a shower (the part at the bottom with a drain), but there is no shower head, no faucet handles, and no running hot water. When it’s time to take a shower, we get two buckets of hot water from a neighbor down the street, I mix it with cold water from the sink and then I stand in the pseudo-shower and pour water over myself with a pitcher. At first, this was a pretty unpleasant situation: cold and not particularly satisfying. Now, though, I have found that there’s something enjoyable about it – almost meditative. Given the choice, I would certainly opt for a “regular” (by US standards) shower, but I am finding that I no longer dread taking a shower and that I sort of enjoy the process when I do.

V is for Vanilje (vahn-eel-yeh), which is not available anywhere in Albania and which I will have shipped to me as soon as I have a mailing address. V is also for vështire (vuhsh-teer), which means difficult and is what the Albanian language is.

W is for Tricked you, there is no W! Yep, there’s no W in the Albanian alphabet. As a result, my last name is spelled Uajs.

X (pronounced dz, as in adze) is for Xurxull (dzoor-dzool), which is what Raki will make you if you’re not careful.

Xh (pronounced like the j in joke or jet, but with a d in front of the j sound) is for Xhaxha (dja-dja,), which means Uncle. Xhaxha, however, is used only to refer to paternal uncles (i.e. your father’s brother). A maternal uncle is a dajë (die-yuh). In similar fashion, a paternal aunt is a hallë (hahl) and a maternal aunt is a teze (teh-zeh). This distinction is in contrast to the terminology used for other family members: a burrë (boohr) is both a man and a husband. A grua (groo-ah) is both a woman and a wife. A nip (neep) is both a grandson and a nephew and a mbesa (ehm-bay-sa) is both a granddaughter and a niece. I have yet to figure out why it’s important to distinguish between maternal and paternal aunts and uncles, but not nephews and grandsons, etc.

Y is a partner letter to the letter U. U is pronounced as oo, while y is pronounced as if the u had an umlaut over it. It’s a sound that really doesn’t translate into English and is hard for Americans to voice. There are relatively few letters in Shqip that start with y and most have to do with stars, celestial objects or stardom. The word yy, however, is Albanian for boo.

Z is for Zgjedhje (zejehd-hyeh), which means election and is, this year, an incredibly big deal in Albania. On June 21st, Albania will hold its mid-term (meaning local) elections. Citizens will elect municipal mayors as well as municipal council representatives. (Mayors are elected by direct vote, while council representatives are elected indirectly — meaning that citizens vote for the party of their choice and then, on a proportional basis, the party names the actual council members.)

What makes this year’s election special is “territorial reform” where the number of municipal governments in Albania will shrink from 385 to just 61. In Elbansan where much of my training took place, the municipality will grow from 126,000 residents to 220,000 and from 40 square kilometers to 748. Simply put, all across Albania, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs and a lot of power and money will be concentrated among many fewer local governments. This also means much greater efficiency in local government system and much less duplication of effort, spending and so on.  As with many of the entries above, this is a topic deserving of one or more blog entries of its own. For now, all I’ll say is this: 1) local governments all over Albania are stalled right now while people wait out the suspense of this election; 2) patronage lives in Albania and so municipalities with a party change will see nearly 100% turnover in government workers; and 3) many of my fellow volunteers in the Community and Organizational Development sector will be working in local government and so it’s likely that their ability to work on their assignments will be in a holding pattern until at least mid-summer.

Zh is for Zhurmshëm (zhoorm-shum), the adjective for noisy, which is exactly what zhurmshëm sounds like.

This past week I graduated from Pre-Service Training, was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and moved to the capital city of Tirana, where I will be working at US AID.  Updates and photos will follow soon!

4 thoughts

  1. Sue (Suzi) I loved the alphabet and this country becomes so interesting through your posts. Thank you for sharing and please continue.
    Jean Casady


  2. Sue, it is great to know that you are becoming accustom to life there in some way. The alphabet was very interesting. I enjoyed your interpretation. I have missed you here at IIT. Enjoy your time and stay safe. Rose


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