Speaking of the Balkans
Victor Friedman, AM’71, PhD’75, began
his first serious linguistics work as a nine-year-old living in
Hyde Park, when he became interested in foreign curses and obscenities.
“My grandfather’s brother and my father used rather
harsh Russian expressions humorously as terms of endearment,”
explains Friedman, a grandson of Russian and Romanian immigrants.
He started a collection, to which his parents’ friends cheerfully
On weekends he mined the lexicons at Harper Library.
By the time he graduated from the Lab Schools and left for Reed
College he had accumulated 2,000 words and phrases, all carefully
written down on 3 x 5 cards. Some he took from familiar languages
such as French and Italian (Va a l’inferno!), others
from more exotic languages, including Xhosa, Chinook, Assyrian,
and Ashanti (Wo’samanfo mfa ye nankasa!—“May
your ancestral spirits chew their own bones!”). Many are unprintable.
He still keeps the cards in a cluttered upstairs room in his Blackstone
Avenue house, a few blocks from where he grew up. “I don’t
use this stuff very much anymore,” he said recently, flipping
through the collection. “But I can’t bring myself to
throw it away.”
Photo by Richard Mertens
Friedman, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of humanities
and chair of the Department of Slavic Languages & Literature,
is one of the foremost experts on Balkan linguistics, best known
for his research into verb systems and the problems of creating
standardized languages. But few aspects of language and culture
do not interest Friedman, 53, who joined the University faculty
in 1993. In a recent course on Romani, the Gypsy language, he expounded
with equal authority on Romani dialectical variations; on the Romani
method of making dimija, the baggy trousers traditionally
worn by Muslim women; and on the nuances of drinking rakija,
the fiery native brandy made in backyard stills throughout the Balkans.
“You don’t gulp it in one swallow, the way the Russians
do,” he told the students. “You sip it.”
Linguists first studied the relationships among
languages by determining how they were related and tracing them
back to common sources. Balkan linguists take a different approach.
They study what happens when unrelated languages rub up against
each other over long periods of time. The modern Balkan languages,
including Albanian, Greek, and several Slavic and Romance languages,
evolved over centuries among people who spoke each others’
languages and interacted daily, sharing words and speaking manners,
so that eventually their languages began to resemble one another.
That polyglot world no longer exits: urbanization, the rise of nation
states, and ethnic wars have all hastened its demise. But under
the Byzantine and Ottoman empires the Balkans were an extraordinary
mosaic, a world that still survives in its languages. The whole
discipline of contact linguistics, as it is sometimes called, began
with the Balkans.
Like many Balkan linguists of his generation
Friedman was drawn to the region as much by its music as by its
languages. During the 1960s he regularly joined gatherings in Hyde
Park, where he danced to Israeli, country, and Balkan music. Later,
as a Chicago graduate student, he spent a month in Macedonia, the
southernmost republic of Yugoslavia, and fell in love with the place.
He liked almost everything about it: the language, the dancing,
the drinking, the food—and most of all the energetic hospitality
of the people.
At the crossroads of the Balkans, Macedonia was
a linguist’s paradise. When Friedman returned to Skopje, the
capital, in 1973–74 to research his dissertation on the Macedonian
language, he lived on a block that was a kind of miniature Balkans
itself. “The landlady was Macedonian, but she spoke fluent
Turkish,” he recalls. “The next-door neighbors were
Turks. There were Gypsies who lived upstairs, Albanians across the
hall. It was a real multiethnic, multilingual encounter. I had to
concentrate on my dissertation, but it was wonderful hearing all
these languages going on all at the same time.”
Four language groups make up what scholars call
the “Balkan linguist league”: Slavic, Romance, Albanian,
and Greek. Friedman has written on all four, as well as on Turkish
and Romani, also spoken in the the region. He specializes in verb
forms that indicate the degree of commitment a speaker invests in
the truth of what he is saying. Whereas English speakers say “supposedly”
or “allegedly” to express reserve, some Balkan languages
use distinct verb forms. Friedman’s most exciting moment in
more than three decades of research, he says, came in 1992 when
he discovered such forms in a dialect of Arumanian, a Balkan Romance
language in which they were thought not to exist. Brian Joseph,
a Balkan linguist who edits Language, the Linguistic Society
of America’s journal, says Friedman’s understanding
of such linguistic subtleties reflects his deep knowledge of the
Balkan languages and the cultures from which they spring. “He
sort of understands them from the inside, the way very few linguists
In recent years Friedman has chronicled and aided
Macedonian Roms’ efforts to create a standardized language
from their several dialects, in part so that Romani children may
study their own language in school. Few Balkan linguists know Romani
to the extent Friedman does. One of the first to study it in the
context of other Balkan languages, Friedman also has helped bring
the language into larger theoretical debates. A large minority group,
Roms lack their own state and are scattered across the region, living
at society’s margins. Rarely taught at American universities,
their language has only recently captured many linguists’
attention, as a new generation of activists and intellectuals gives
them greater access to the Romani people.
Access has never been a problem for Friedman.
While researching his dissertation he made friends in Skopje’s
Romani quarter and kept a notebook of sentences and paradigms. There
were few books on Romani at the time, but back in Chicago he found
a 19th-century dictionary and grammar at the Newberry Library. The
library forbade him to photocopy the book, so he spent weekends
copying it out by hand. He reached the Ks before he finished his
dissertation and left to work at the University of North Carolina.
The next year a Swiss publisher came out with a reprint, and he
got his own copy. Still, Friedman says, “I learned a lot of
Romani in the process.”