Endangered languages of Istria and Kvarner: an overview and our goals
Author: Dr Zvjezdana Vrzić
Published on 6 June 2014
The history of the Istria and Kvarner area has been marked by migrations and intermingling of populations. As a result, multilingualism has been representative of the region and its diverse populations for most of its history, remaining so today. In addition to Croatian and its regional Chakavian dialects, and Italian and its regional Istro-Venetian dialects, other, much less known languages have been part of the regional linguistic landscape for many centuries. These include two endangered, and unique, Romance languages spoken on the Istrian peninsula: Istro-Romanian, in the northeast of the peninsula, and Istriot, along Istria's southwestern coast.
Istro-Romanian or, as its speakers call it, Vlashki or Zheyanski, is a severely endangered Eastern Romance language. It is spoken in two different locations on the Istrian peninsula – in Šušnjevica and in four other nearby villages in the Čepić Valley at the foot of Učka Mountain, and in the isolated village of Žejane, located in the mountainous northern area of Istria close to Croatia's border with Slovenia. The two varieties of the language, Vlashki and Zheyanski, are mutually intelligible, but the differences are significant to their speakers who have lived largely separate lives throughout their 500-year history in the area.
Of the 406 residents of the villages where Vlashki/Zheyanski is spoken, according to a recent estimate, only a minority, around 120, are fluent and active speakers of the language. Among the speakers, the great majority are over fifty years old. There seem to be few, if any, fluent and active speakers of the language in the under-25 population, hence few if any among preschool and school-age children. While the over-50 speakers are typically fluent and balanced speakers of Vlashki/Zheyanski as well as Croatian, those who are younger are dominant in Croatian, have learned Vlashki/Zheyanski as a second language, and use it in a limited number of contexts. There are additional speakers of Vlashki/Zheyanski elsewhere in the region's urban centers and outside Croatia. In all, there are roughly 1,000 speakers of Vlashki/Zheyanski in the world.
The language was the main means of communication in families and villages until after World War II. Since then, the villages have undergone dramatic depopulation and the traditional agricultural village lifestyle has been gradually devalued and abandoned. These and other socio-historical factors have made the villages less isolated and self-sufficient, and triggered the generational language shift to Croatian in familial and village interactions.
Today, there is a growing awareness among the speakers of the loss of their language. Local folklore groups, Žejanski Zvončari and Žejanski Kntaduri, work on maintaining the language in use through music. Two local associations, the Spod Učke Association in Šušnjevica and the Žejane Association in Žejane, in cooperation with the Tragovi Association, are devoting their efforts to activities geared toward language preservation within the scope of the "Preservation of the Vlashki and Zheyanski Language" project led by linguist and Bilingualism Matters@Rijeka member Zvjezdana Vrzić.
Istriot is another endangered Romance language present on the Istrian peninsula. It is an indigenous Italic, Western Romance language spoken in several towns in the southwest of Istria – Rovigno/Rovinj, Valle/Bale, Dignano/Vodnjan, Gallesano/Galižana, and Sissano/Šišan. In the past, the language was used across a larger area of southern Istria, including, until recently, Fasana/Fažana. As in the case of Vlashki/Zheyanski, speakers' names for their language differ from the terms common in the linguistic literature, and are derived, in the case of Istriot, from the names of the towns in which the language is spoken, e.g. ruvigniʃ (the Rovigno/Rovinj dialect) or valiʃ (the Valle/Bale dialect).
The language is severely endangered and spoken mostly by middle-aged and elderly people of Italian ethnicity. According to a recent rough estimate, there are some 1,000 speakers of Istriot in Istria. However, only a minority of elderly people are fluent and active speakers, with the likely exception of Valle. All speakers are bilingual, trilingual or even quadrilingual. In addition to Istriot and Istro-Venetian, now the native and vernacular language of most Italians in Istria and Kvarner, the majority of speakers of Istriot also speak Standard Italian, as well as Croatian.
The Istriot-speaking communities are concerned with the maintenance and preservation of their language. In the past several decades, a lively literary tradition in the language has developed in the communities, and valuable dictionaries have been published. There are also literary cultural events and competitions, such as the Favelà festival of poetry, prose and translation in Dignano/Vodnjan. Since 2013, community members have been receiving training in language documentation in workshops as part of the "Documentation and Revitalization of the Six Istriot Dialects" (Documentazione e rivitalizzazione dei sei idiomi istrioti) project led by Zvjezdana Vrzić.
We plan to provide additional support to the communities facing language loss by providing know-how and organizing activities for community members and all other interested individuals in order to support language preservation efforts, as well as raise awareness about the status and importance of these endangered languages, in the region, the country, and abroad.